Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for July, 2014

Standard Controls

Brent Simmons:

Here’s how I think about this to myself: the Romantic era, which started with the Delicious Generation and became dominant with the early iPhone apps, has given way to the Modernist era. Grandiosity gives way to sleekness and honesty.

Remember Disco and its stupid smoke effects?1 There was something fun about seeing particle smoke come off a disc burning app, but it’s the kind of thing that feels more like a trend than a lasting piece of good design. Put another way, does the leopard print iMac feel as lastingly beautiful as the iMac G5? Thought not.


  1. Remember burning CDs?2 ↩︎

  2. Remember CDs? ↩︎

Inspector Gadget

New York Magazine’s Kevin Roose asks “Does Anyone Outside Silicon Valley Even Want a Smartwatch?

Short answer: no.

Long answer: noooooooooooooooooooo.

Longer answer:

Despite all the buzz surrounding wearables, it isn’t clear who’s supposed to be buying them. Fewer than half of the respondents to a recent Accenture survey said they would consider buying a smartwatch, and even the most optimistic experts predict only 20 million smartwatch sales this year, a pittance compared with phone and tablet sales. The market’s skepticism might be a function of how early smartwatches fared (few lasted more than a year or two before being pulled from shelves). But more likely is that today’s smartwatches remain mysterious, somewhat redundant gadgets. Even the most sophisticated models don’t do anything a phone can’t do, except sit comfortably on your arm. And the Dick Tracy novelty factor is still high. Silicon Valley code jockeys might appreciate being able to order pizza from their wrists—which is, by the way, a real Android Wear app—but the rest of us don’t have much need for another device to lug around, keep charged, and worry about breaking.

Shorter version of the longer answer: not yet, no.

I, as much as anyone, have dismissed the current generation of wearables. They’re basically second notification screens which, for some, makes sense. But I still don’t get their utility for my own use.

But perhaps it’s still too early. Take, for example, this article by Matthew Miller in ZDNet, in August 2009:

I have tried different tablet devices in the past and I see very little benefit from them for the majority of people. The iPhone/iPod touch seem to be just about as big as you need for a productive web surfing and media consumption device and a tablet Apple really does not make much sense to me.

Or this lovely pile of something from CNet editor Michael Kanellos, in December 2006:

But the iPod looks like it may turn out to be a non-repeatable experience. Look at the historical record. When the iPod emerged in late 2001, it solved some major problems with MP3 players.

[…]

Unfortunately for Apple, problems like that don’t exist in the handset business. Cell phones aren’t clunky, inadequate devices. Instead, they are pretty good. Really good. Why do you think they call it a Crackberry? Because the lumpy design and confusing interface of the device is causing people to break into cars? No, it’s because people are addicted to it.

Or this legendary Clifford Stoll bit in a 1995 issue of Newsweek (remember “issues”?):

The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.

Or let’s go waaayyyyy back to 1977, with your host Ken Olson:

There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.

So, let’s not get too hasty, now.

I Am One of the Lucky Ones

“The Typist” shares their story of why they use a case on their iPhone, and it’s really good. It’s the main link for this post, but I can’t quote anything from it because it’ll spoil everything.

Allow me to share one of my stories, though. In summer 2012, I was walking through Century Gardens when I received an email that I just had to check. I started skimming the email on my iPhone 4S when my foot got caught on a bit of uneven brickwork and my phone was launched into space. I fumbled to catch it and didn’t get a good grip on it, so it flew out of my hand, bounced on a rock, and fell straight into the water feature in the park with the requisite cartoonish bloop. I looked in and it had fallen in screen upwards, and I could read my email through the water. I stepped in, grabbed my phone, and immediately tried to turn it off.1 For some reason, it powered itself back on — a worrying sign.

As soon as I got home, I dropped it into a bag of rice and left it overnight. The following morning, I pulled it out and checked it out. Aside from a few nicks and bumps on the antenna, there was almost no damage. The only major issue was that some sounds weren’t playing through the internal speaker. Here’s a fun test for you, reader: under what conditions would an iPhone play all system noises out of its speaker after being locked for a couple of minutes, but would only do so for a few seconds? Under what condition would the Siri noise always play through the internal speaker, but almost no other system sounds would be audible, despite the phone not being in silent mode?

(dramatic pause)

Answer: when the phone thinks it’s playing audio through the dock connector. It turns out that the dock connector’s audio out pin sits beside one of the ground pins, and these were shorting out. A quick brush with a little bit of rubbing alcohol and my phone worked as good as new for two more years, before I replaced it with a 5S. I still don’t use a case.

I’m usually fairly careful, but when I screw up, I really screw up. I have also rolled my DSLR down a very, very steep hill. Yet, like my iPhone, it emerged pretty much unscathed. I am far too lucky.


  1. In a sobering and slightly embarrassing reminder of financial access, I retrieved my expensive pocket computer in full view of a couple of panhandlers. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any cash on me at all. ↩︎

Apple’s App Review Should Test Accessibility

Marco Arment:

Poor or broken accessibility is exactly the sort of problem that Apple’s App Review team should check for: many developers forget to test it, it’s easy for Apple to quickly test when reviewing each app, and it’s easy to fix.

Instead of arbitrarily enforcing silly rules, the Review team should absolutely be testing every app for full accessibility. iOS and OS X may lead their competition in accessibility support, but a similar level of commitment is necessary from third-party developers for the platforms to be truly accessible for all.

The Stories Behind Six Film Studio Logos

Michael Cieply, New York Times:

On screen, the major studios now open almost every film with a proud, graphic statement of identity. At 20th Century Fox, the motif involves searchlights and a bold fanfare. Universal circles the planet. Disney, in a logo that was clocked by Variety at a full 30 seconds, among the longest, pans a Magic Kingdom, with its fairy tale castle, misty hills, meandering river, fireworks, shooting star and puffing locomotive.

Not to be outdone, Hollywood’s more powerful production companies and financiers have increasingly followed suit with elaborate cinematic logos of their own.

For an independent film with multiple production companies, the identifiers may come in a parade, three, four, five at a time. With studio movies, by contrast, only the very biggest players are typically allowed a logo (and not always, since a filmmaker’s plans for a picture’s opening moments may actually trump branding and vanity).

There’s something about seeing a really great studio logo — the cited 20th Century Fox one, or the early-2000s United Artists logo come to mind — that sets the tone for the film. The classic THX logo and sound is the kind of thing that makes you reach for something with which to strap yourself into your chair.

I Am the 14%

Libby Kane, Business Insider:

Some of us have more to fear than others. According to a Business Insider survey, nearly 14% of people choose to go case-less, risking the destruction of their $400 pocket computers at any moment.

Disregarding the fact that the survey’s methodology is, par for the Business Insider course, suspect, I was interested in this because I am one of those 14%. I haven’t used a case on my phone in four years. Why? Well, let’s let Kane explain:

Of the 14% of survey respondents who don’t use a case, most cited aesthetic reasons — 43% because “I like the look of my iPhone without a case,” 50% because “cases are too bulky.”

Avoiding bulkiness isn’t an aesthetic decision, it’s a practical one. I don’t wear super skinny jeans by any means,1 but adding thickness and weight is unwelcome.

Even if you can afford to have your phone fixed or replaced every time it hits the cement, it’s still going to cost you hours of your life securing the fix. And if you’re well enough off that the cost of a few iPhones a year doesn’t phase you, is loitering in the Apple store really worth your time?

I can’t afford to have my phone fixed multiple times per year, yet I have always gone case-less. It’s just nicer.


  1. Nudie’s Grim Tim fit is my favourite, if you must know. ↩︎

“Time to Scrap the iPod”

An anonymous writer at the notoriously unreliable Seeking Alpha, “Options Calling”, is unimpressed with iPod sales. And who can blame them? Apple’s certainly selling fewer iPods than they were just a few years ago. But this article is so weak. Let’s start with the title:

Time to Scrap the iPod

Why’s that weak? Well…

The reason behind the fall of the Nano and Shuffle could be the release of the iWatch, which is expected to release in October this year.

Because of the iWatch, it’s time to scrap the iPod. Geddit?

Anyway, let’s get to some bar graphs:

In a recent report, Apple Inc. presented its second quarter earnings’ “unaudited summary data”, and the picture it presented wasn’t much like what people might have expected.

The iPod, for one, posted an extremely dismal 53% drop in sequential change in revenue, and a 54% drop in units sold. Apple enthusiasts would argue that the drop in sales from the first quarter onwards is characteristic of the company…

A 54% drop in unit sales is, indeed, surprising, if this were year-over-year. But this is sequential, and Apple’s first quarter is their holiday quarter. It’s not only “Apple enthusiasts” who would argue that a sequential drop in sales between Q1 and Q2 is characteristic — anyone who looks at the numbers would also make that argument.

The author then makes the argument that the iWatch could cannibalize iPod sales, which is actually not a bad line of thought if the rumours are correct. But they’re just that: rumours. So, to then demand that Tim Cook drop the iPod lineup is absurd. And, yet:

So why not scratch a device out altogether that has been reporting declining sales for five straight years? Why not invest in better projects that would ensure better returns to the company – and its shareholders – than the iPod? Apple Inc. CEO, Tim Cook definitely needs to do some brainstorming, and soon.

Why not? Because in fiscal year 2013, Apple still sold over 26 million of the things. It’s not nearly as big of a business as the iPhone or the iPad, but it’s still really big. They’re still building the iPod Classic, too, which is hilarious to me.

It’s clearly not Apple’s primary business any more; they don’t put iPod sales figures in their quarterly financial press releases. But if they’re going to drop models from the lineup, or even drop the iPod as a brand altogether, they’re going to do so when they’re poised for one of their own products to take over.

For an anonymous blogger to advocate otherwise based on rumours, and to suggest that Cook is not doing best for the company or shareholders, is irresponsible.

Inspecting Yosemite’s Icons

Nick Keppol of MartianCraft took an in-depth look at Yosemite’s new application icons. Most intriguing? This:

Grey scale is out — warm and cool tones are in. It’s been a popular look in Hollywood blockbusters: yellow/orange highlights, blue/teal shadows. The new Yosemite icons use similar tonal shifts with their metal materials. If we consider these icons as materials, this tone represents an environment reflection — not merely a color effect.

Don’t necessarily think of Yosemite’s new iconography as a simplification or reduction of the previous OS X pseudo-photorealistic aesthetic. Think of this design language as pushing the definition of “idealized reality”.

American Intensity

Cabel Sasser’s annual roundup of ridiculous fireworks is my favourite part of the Fourth of July, because I am Canadian. Happy Independence Day, American readers.

A Second Snowden?

Maybe you read today’s edition of Fucked Up Things the NSA Does and silently thanked Edward Snowden for revealing all of this stuff. Funny story: it might not be Snowden who revealed this set of documents. Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing:

Another expert said that s/he believed that this leak may come from a second source, not Edward Snowden, as s/he had not seen this in the original Snowden docs; and had seen other revelations that also appeared independent of the Snowden materials. If that’s true, it’s big news, as Snowden was the first person to ever leak docs from the NSA. The existence of a potential second source means that Snowden may have inspired some of his former colleagues to take a long, hard look at the agency’s cavalier attitude to the law and decency.

This sentiment was echoed by Bruce Schneier:

And, since Cory said it, I do not believe that this came from the Snowden documents. I also don’t believe the TAO catalog came from the Snowden documents. I think there’s a second leaker out there.

Curious. Intriguing.

Digression: I know Schneier is a security professional, and that security professionals must be cynical — it’s kind of their job description. But this kind of stuff really gets to me:

I don’t expect this to get much coverage in the US mainstream media.

At best, the “mainstream media”1 just isn’t that interested in covering surveillance of pieces of software that fit into a pretty tight niche. At worst, Schneier is accusing broadcasters of being in league with the NSA to actively suppress this story.

Just for some rationality, this story was covered by Forbes, Wired, and the New York Fucking Times, not to mention the Associated Press, which meant it appeared in a wide variety of publications, large and small.

The advantage of Schneier’s vague cynical sentiment is that it leaves a very wide margin. The links above point to mainstream coverage, but it won’t be sufficient. It never is when the goalposts are so mobile.


  1. And just what is “mainstream” today? What is not? If you listen to the broadcasted persecution complex that is Fox, they claim to be outside of the mainstream media, yet they consistently brag about their high ratings. This phrase is meaningless. ↩︎

Goldman Says Google Has Blocked Email With Leaked Client Data

Jonathan Stempel, Reuters:

Goldman Sachs Group Inc on Wednesday said Google Inc has blocked access to an email containing confidential client data that a contractor sent to a stranger’s Gmail account by mistake, an error that the bank said threatened a “needless and massive” breach of privacy.

This is a fascinating story. I wonder what kind of precedent this will set. Stempel, continued:

Goldman did not say how many clients were affected. It has been seeking a court order compelling Google to delete the email, which it said on Wednesday had yet to occur.

“Google complied with our request that it block access to the email,” Goldman spokeswoman Andrea Raphael said. “It has also notified us that the email account had not been accessed from the time the email was sent to the time Google blocked access. No client information has been breached.” A Google spokeswoman declined to comment.

[…]

The bank said a member of Google’s “incident response team” reported on June 26 that the email could not be deleted without a court order.

If Google initially declined to block access to the email without a court order, what made them change their minds? To the best of my knowledge, this is unprecedented. What’s the threshold for Google to block access to a mistakenly-sent email? Is exposing confidential client data from one of the world’s largest banks the bare minimum?

“Homebase” May Become Reality

Craig Hockenberry in January 2012:

Let’s imagine a new feature in iOS called “Homebase”. A user would be presented with a simple UI that lets them select a location that’s a “safe” environment. After the setup is complete, your Homebase would be recognized by GPS coordinates and/or available Wi-Fi networks. The important thing here is that the user gets to define where they feel safe with their device.

[…]

The lock screen doesn’t need to display a Passcode lock at Homebase. People who use the Remote app with their Apple TV will no longer be annoyed by an unnecessary security precaution, nor will folks forget to turn their Passcode lock back on when they leave for the local bar (where they’re certain to get a Poopin’ tweet.)

No matter how convenient and simple Touch ID is, nothing feels more immediate than having no barriers to unlock your iPhone. Unfortunately, that’s also the most insecure state.

I’ve wanted this feature for a long time, but it’s languished on Hockenberry’s site as a mere idea. Now, it may become a reality, if you’re the special kind of optimist who places any faith at all in the reality of Apple’s patents.

Mikey Campbell over at AppleInsider:

[T]he invention delivers a mechanism to adjust iPhone access levels based on its location, meaning different tolerances can be applied based on the relative security of a location. For example, a user may only need a simple four-digit passcode to unlock a device while at home, but authentication via Apple’s Touch ID when in public areas like a shopping mall.

I guess I’m starting my iOS 9 wish list right now.

Windows ‘Threshold’

John Moltz, quoting Mary Jo Foley:

Windows “Threshold,” the next major version of Microsoft’s Windows operating system due to hit around the spring of 2015, is coming into focus.

And not too surprisingly, one of the Microsoft Operating Systems Group’s main goals in designing and developing the coming operating system (OS) release — which may or may not ultimately be branded as “Windows 9″ — is to try to make it more palatable to hold-out Windows 7 users.

I know we’ve been over this again and again, but in addition to the conceptual flaw of trying to make one operating system for desktop and mobile, there’s a marketing problem as well. Apple was able to make iOS palatable to its existing customers (as well as others) by detaching it from OS X.

Back in January, Paul Thurrott wrote about ‘Threshold’ in a similar way:

In some ways, the most interesting thing about Threshold is how it recasts Windows 8 as the next Vista. It’s an acknowledgment that what came before didn’t work, and didn’t resonate with customers. And though Microsoft will always be able to claim that Windows 9 wouldn’t have been possible without the important foundational work they had done first with Windows 8—just as was the case with Windows 7 and Windows Vista—there’s no way to sugarcoat this. Windows 8 has set back Microsoft, and Windows, by years, and possibly for good.

And Mary Jo Foley in December, regarding ‘Threshold’ SKUs:

With Threshold, my sources say, there could be three primary SKUs: A “modern” consumer SKU; a traditional/PC SKU; and a traditional enterprise SKU.

To which I responded, and will copy-and-paste because nothing has changed:

Separate versions for touch screens and traditional PCs? Why, that sounds almost as if there are separate requirements for those two input methods. How sensible.

Mike Rundle on Material Design

A dissenting opinion on Material Design from Mike Rundle:

Google’s new aesthetic is iOS 7 with a slightly different color palette and drop shadows. The emperor has no clothes for fuck’s sake.

Google’s Material Design

Khoi Vinh:

Google’s transition from a company that used to think about design the same way as it thought about human resources—as a cost of doing business—to a company that prioritizes design is remarkable, at least insofar as its products look and feel and work so much better today than they used to. The company is writing a fascinating case study for how to reverse engineer design into a tech giant’s DNA.

Apple Assembling More Robust Siri Team to Replace Nuance

This is great news. Siri has certainly gained capabilities since it was launched in 2011, but the accuracy of its speech recognition is still often disappointing. I use Siri fairly infrequently. I understand that its accuracy improves with more use, but how many people want to slog through weeks or months of editing poorly-dictated text messages and emails just to improve Siri’s accuracy on their phone? Siri needs to be super accurate out of the box, otherwise it becomes an exercise in frustration.

Aperture Features in Photos

Potentially good news related to Apple’s shitcanning of Aperture. Sam Machkovech, Ars Technica:

When asked about what Aperture-like features users can expect from the new Photos app, an Apple representative mentioned plans for professional-grade features such as image search, editing, effects, and most notably, third-party extensibility.

With any luck, Photos will allow me to carry over my Aperture library effectively unchanged, with lossless editing capabilities preserved. That’d be nice.