Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for June, 2014

Bugs Are Magic Tricks

Oldie but a goodie from Steven Frank (via September 2007 John Gruber, that archive page for some reason bookmarked on Pinboard, and presented here by the Internet Archive since Mr. Frank has changed his blogging software about ten times since 2007):

Bugs thrive on the same human brain deficiencies that earn magicians their living. We are shown something that is apparently impossible — but the reality is that we just don’t have all the information.

I was reminded of this article after I came across a truly bizarre bug today related to some sort of ill communication between the Image Capture app on OS X, the Music app on iOS, and an (the?) iOS SQL media library database. One of the golden rules in magic is to never perform the same trick twice. Sure enough, this is the second time I’ve come across this particular bug, and I finally got around to reporting it. The first time, it was wacky and unexpected; this time, it’s a puzzle in need of solving.

Friending the App Store

Great article from Andy Baio:

Apple’s sole attempt at personalized recommendations—the painfully inadequate “Genius,” which recommended clones of apps you already installed—was phased out last year for the even-worse “Near Me,” showing the same location-centric apps to everyone in your city.

This one-size-fits-all model may have worked in the first year, but as the App Store has grown, it’s created an environment where discovering under-the-radar gems is impossible.

Of the two recommendation engines Apple has created, Genius was the one that worked best for me, in the same way that contracting a whopping head cold for a couple of days is preferable to having the flu for a week.

I never use Nearby. It acts as a divider in the App Store between the four tabs I actually care about. Maybe it’s moderately more relevant if you live in a really dense city like Hong Kong or New York, or if you’re somewhere really specific, like an art gallery or a zoo. But where I live, the Nearby tab has displayed pretty much the same apps since iOS 7 launched: a couple of transit apps, the Calgary Herald’s app, an internet radio station, and a taxicab app. Snore.

Sparks to Return to Formula 1

Racer magazine:

It was revealed earlier this year that F1 teams were looking at ways to make cars more spectacular, considering ideas including sparking cars, glowing brake discs and vapor trails. Discussions about the ideas have moved forward, and teams and other representatives on the F1 Commission have given provisional approval for the sparks plan to come into force for 2015.

The current idea is for the sparks to be created by mandating titanium skid blocks within the planks of the cars. Work is now ongoing among the teams to work out where to locate the skid blocks to produce the best sparks.

In the 1980s and early ’90s, F1 cars produced sparks, and it was fucking amazing — like a fireworks show at two hundred miles per hour. These were from parts of the underside of the cars hitting the asphalt race surface.

For the last twenty years or so, though, a wooden plank has been fitted to the underside of F1 cars. Its main function is to provide a reference for race officials to govern how close a car’s underside may be able to get to the track. Specifically, it prevents engineers from designing cars that are too low to the ground — the lower a car gets, the faster it can corner, and the more dangerous the sport gets. By setting limitations as to the maximum amount of wear the plank can endure over the course of a race, cars cannot get too close to the track.

All of this means that the introduction of fakey titanium plates to the underside of the cars specifically to generate sparks is like fitting the cars with fake tobacco sponsorships: it may look a little like the 1980s, but it’s all hollow.

Apple’s HomeKit Hub

Yesterday, I noted that Mike Elgan’s October 2013 post very nearly called Apple’s HomeKit, with one small exception:

I believe the platform for Apple’s Home Automation server will be the Apple TV product everybody’s been predicting for years.

This system is likely to offer an App Store and development platform for existing home automation companies to create products for. And the consumer will probably control it with an iPhone or iPad while seeing the whole system on the TV.

Maybe there is a forthcoming Apple TV that will show the entire network at a glance. But HomeKit doesn’t require any such central server and, so far, leans towards the iPhone as its primary controller.

Well, Christopher Breen of Macworld certainly thinks that your Apple TV could be the central server of such a network:

Rather than each device sending the intimate details of your home to Nest, Honeywell, GE, and—perhaps more importantly—Google and Facebook, how about if all this information is stored on the Apple TV and hashed for security. When you need to make adjustments or receive reports, data is transmitted via the Apple TV. Your smart appliances remain dumb to any interaction other than what’s been carried on with Apple’s home hub. The devices original manufacturer is none the wiser to what youre doing with them.

Intriguing.

Adobe CC 2014

Huge news from Adobe today, best seen in video from Adobe design evangelist Terry White. Some really nice integration with Adobe’s cloud services, including (and especially) TypeKit. There are also two new apps for the iPad, and Lightroom is now on the iPhone. Wildly impressive stuff.

I’m still on Photoshop 5.1,1 but the new $10/month “Photography” subscription (which includes Photoshop and Lightroom) looks awfully tempting.


  1. Standalone, not even in a bundle. Cost me just $40. ↩︎

Amazon Fire Phone

It seems inevitable that Amazon would jump into the smartphone space, and they did just that today. As rumoured, it has four front-facing cameras to track face position to assist its parallax and 3D UI features, which is unique if not necessarily a blockbuster feature. What is? Well, probably the “Firefly” feature, which allows you to scan objects in the real world to buy them from Amazon. That, combined with a free year of Amazon Prime included in the price of the phone, could be a pretty hot feature.

Then again, Amazon’s business model is such that their phone essentially a box from which you can buy other things on Amazon. Even their famously low margins couldn’t revolutionize the pricing of the phone: the base 32 GB model is $199 on a two-year AT&T contract, or $649 without a contract (but still locked to AT&T).

Maybe this intrigues you. (It certainly intrigues me.) If you live the United States, there’s good news: they’re shipping on July 25. But if you live anywhere else, you’re out of luck. As has become par for the course for Amazon, virtually none of the great stuff they offer in the US is available internationally, including Prime, their MP3 store, and a large selection of electronics.

The always-on front-facing cameras are a little creepy, too.

Update: The unlimited free cloud photo storage is pretty spectacular, though. Makes the free 5 GB included with iCloud feel even more stingy.

Update 2: Matt Sephton has informed me that both Prime and the MP3 store are available in the UK.

Nailedish It

I was tidying up my Pinboard bookmarks today when I came across an article from Cult of Mac’s Mike Elgan, dated October 12, 2013, and titled “Why Apple Will Enter the Home Automation Market”:

Because both crowdfunded and big-brand smartphone-controlled home automation solutions favor iPhone, the Apple will have an ecosystem of hardware, software and service makers in place when it enters the market. Those iPhone-supporting customers will already have a passionate user base of consumers who have already invested in thermostats, LED light bulbs and other physical hardware. The existence of this market will cause new entrants to support Apple’s solutions because that’s where the home automation big spenders will have already congregated.

Good so far. He obliquely and very nearly called HomeKit well before it was launched at WWDC this year. But, then:

I believe the platform for Apple’s Home Automation server will be the Apple TV product everybody’s been predicting for years.

This system is likely to offer an App Store and development platform for existing home automation companies to create products for. And the consumer will probably control it with an iPhone or iPad while seeing the whole system on the TV.

Maybe there is a forthcoming Apple TV that will show the entire network at a glance. But HomeKit doesn’t require any such central server and, so far, leans towards the iPhone as its primary controller. Perhaps it won’t remain that way, though — my favourite analyst Brian “Nostradumbass” White thinks that a presumed “iWatch” device will control the home. Stack that with Mark Gurman’s speculation on how iOS 8 includes the tech required for a wearable product and — just maybe — Brian White and Mike Elgan will see their predictions vindicated.

The Uncanny Valley of Personalization

Sarah M. Watson, for the Atlantic:

Uncanny personalization occurs when the data is both too close and not quite close enough to what we know about ourselves. This is rooted in Sigmund Freud’s famous treatment of the uncanny, which he traced to the feelings associated with encountering something strangely familiar. In Freud’s original writing, the uncanny is the unheimlich—literally translated as “unhomely,” and the opposite of heimlich, which is the familiar, comfortable feeling of being at home.

[…]

A friend’s Facebook status update captures this idea well: “I am never quite sure if Facebook’s advertising algorithms know nothing about me, or more than I can admit to myself.”

YouTube to Block Indie Labels Who Don’t Sign Up to New Music Service

Stuart Dredge and Dominic Rushe, of the Guardian:

Independent artists could disappear from YouTube “in a matter of days” after the Google video service confirmed it was dropping content from independent labels that have not signed up for its upcoming subscription music service.

[…]

Artists including Adele, Arctic Monkeys and Jack White could see their videos taken down. The site has become a key promotional outlet for independent labels of all sizes in recent years.

Remember when YouTube once enabled anyone to become a broadcaster? “Don’t be evil” my aching ass.

Jonathan Ive on Apple’s Design Process

Ive has long been someone who speaks in a considered and thoughtful manner; this interview is no exception. It’s relatively short, but there are some gems, like this one about meeting with Tim Cook:

We meet on average three times a week. Sometimes those meetings are over in his space, sometimes here in the design studio. We all see the same physical object. Something happens between what we objectively see and what we perceive it to be. That’s the definition of a designer – trying to somehow articulate what contributes to the way we see the object.

Trajectory

Dr. Drang:

Let’s start with the problem. A large, two-armed ride called the Booster Maxx swings its riders around in a circle at tangential speeds of up to 145 kph. The goal is to figure out the farthest horizontal distance a rider would be flung if something went wrong.

The History of Android

Ron Amadeo of Ars Technica:

Thanks to this “cloud rot,” an Android retrospective won’t be possible in a few years. Early versions of Android will be empty, broken husks that won’t function without cloud support. While it’s easy to think of this as a ways off, it’s happening right now. While writing this piece, we ran into tons of apps that no longer function because the server support has been turned off. Early clients for Google Maps and the Android Market, for instance, are no longer able to communicate with Google. They either throw an error message and crash or display blank screens. Some apps even worked one week and died the next, because Google was actively shutting down servers during our writing!

To prevent any more of Android’s past from being lost to the annals of history, we did what needed to be done. This is 20+ versions of Android, seven devices, and lots and lots of screenshots cobbled together in one space. This is The History of Android, from the very first public builds to the newest version of KitKat.

This is the most comprehensive look at Android, as a whole, that I’ve ever seen. It’s a fascinating look at how the OS went from being a BlackBerry-esque product that worked only with hardware keyboards to a touchscreen OS, to all of the crazy places it’s used today. It’s huge — 26 pages and something like 40,000 words.

In many ways, this shows just how improved Google’s design language has become. Even after skipping past the early beta builds, there are loads of questionable decisions with regard to design as a functional product, and the visual language. The smaller tweaks beginning after the launch of Android 4.0 are particularly interesting. Well worth the time it takes to read this beast.

Breaking: Tim Cook Is Not Steve Jobs

The New York Times today published an extensive profile of Tim Cook, written by Matt Richtel and Brian X. Chen. Let’s talk about it, and let’s start with this:

Mr. Cook, who is 53, took over leadership of Apple nearly three years ago, after the death of Steve Jobs, the company’s revered founder. Like Walt Disney and Henry Ford, Mr. Jobs was intertwined with his company. Mr. Jobs was Apple and Apple was Jobs.

A bold statement. Given his entwinement, is Apple without Jobs no longer Apple? I’m not delusional — Jobs was obviously a huge figure at Apple. But, as Gruber says:

Jobs was a great CEO for leading Apple to become big. But Cook is a great CEO for leading Apple now that it is big, to allow the company to take advantage of its size and success.

Tim Cook is not Steve Jobs, but he doesn’t have to be. Jony Ive, later in the profile:

“Steve established a set of values and he established preoccupations and tones that are completely enduring,” Mr. Ive said. Chief among them is a reliance on small creative teams whose membership remains intact to this day. The philosophy that materials and products are intertwined also continues under Mr. Cook.

I suppose it’s inevitable that the profile would compare Jobs and Cook. But if you consider that as the benchmark for the profile’s imagination, you know what’s coming:

Still, some product iterations have brought mixed results. Last year, Apple for the first time introduced two new iPhones instead of just one: the high-end iPhone 5S, which sold like gangbusters, and the lower-cost, plastic-covered iPhone 5C, which disappointed.

Disappointed who? Wall Street? Yo mamma? Apple doesn’t break down their sales by model, but the available data suggests that the 5C is anything but a “flop”.

There’s more, and it’s all in the same vein. If you’ve read one profile comparing Tim Cook’s Apple to Steve Jobs’, you’ve read them all. But I’d like to point out one more thing: poor Nate Mendel. For several hours after the profile was published, a photo of Cook, Ive, Dave Grohl, and Mendel had a most unfortunate caption. It’s been fixed now, correctly identifying him as another member of the Foo Fighters, but you can’t help but feel bad for him.

Anyway, Tim Cook is not Steve Jobs, and fire is hot.

Google Fit

When Apple introduced HealthKit and its accompanying Health app, they underscored their obligation to keeping that data private. I believe them (and you probably do, too) — Apple’s primary business is not selling ads against harvested information. I do wonder what the reaction to Google Fit will be like.

Timing

Rene Ritchie, iMore:

As much as I, as a technology enthusiast, love companies that throw everything at the wall just to see what sticks, I also value those that have patience to counterbalance their audacity, that take their time and pick their shots. I value the ones that wait for the Treos and the BlackBerrys to pass the early adoption stage, the Intents and the Contracts to get hammered on, the Pebbles and the FuelBands to hit the market. I value the ones that wait and see where each product is brilliant and terrible, figure out how and where they can make something better, and then focus on the implementation and the packaging and give me something truly great.

These two processes are complementary and benefit each other. Apple didn’t invent the smartphone, but they certainly created the most polished, user-friendly experience of the time with the first iPhone. Now, pretty much every smartphone looks like an iPhone.

Companies like Apple benefit from this, too. Google, for example, has been pioneering predictive information displays with Google Now. With iOS 7, Apple added drive time predictions to Notification Centre; with Mavericks, they added commute predictions for calendar events.

The Colour Purple

Jeffrey Zeldman:

Rebecca Meyer had a favorite color. It was purple. A color that might be expressed in the hexadecimal language of web design as #663399.

As many of you know, Eric and Kat Meyer lost their daughter Rebecca to cancer on Saturday. Rebecca Alison Meyer was a ray of light. She was six years, eleven and a half hours old when she died.

I spent Saturday night reading through Eric Meyer’s heartbreaking recent tweets and blog posts. I’m 23. I don’t have children, nor do I intend to in the foreseeable future. I haven’t yet had to say goodbye to a close personal friend or family member. But, while reading through Meyer’s astonishingly transparent grieving, I felt as though I, too, lost a friend. I can’t imagine what the Meyers are going through right now, but Eric’s words paint a picture of an amazing person. Rebecca was lost far, far too soon.

Section 2.8

Ole Zorn is the developer of the highly-regarded Editorial and Pythonista apps for iOS. Both have been in the App Store for a long time, with some of the most extensible functionality ever offered by any iOS app.

Recently, Zorn had to compromise an Editorial update because Apple suddenly raised an objection to the scripting functionality that has defined the app since the day it launched. Now, they’re raising similar objections to Pythonista.

As much as Apple is “opening up” and extending the functionality available to third-party developers, this kind of rein-tightening is a huge drawback for iOS developers, for two big reasons. First, it (obviously) significantly limits what developers are able to do. The powerful scripting and automation functionality in Editorial was what separated it from being just another plain text editor, and made the iPad more friendly to people who wished to use it as their main computer more often.

But even worse is Apple’s inconsistent application of these kinds of rules. Editorial has been in the App Store since August of last year, and was once a featured app. Pythonista, meanwhile, launched in July 2012, and extended Dropbox functionality was added in November 2012. Why did Apple wait until now to raise objections?