Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for January, 2015

BlackBerry Has Gone Bananas

BlackBerry CEO John Chen (emphasis, including underlines, removed, because who the hell uses underlines to emphasize words on the internet?):

Unfortunately, not all content and applications providers have embraced openness and neutrality. Unlike BlackBerry, which allows iPhone users to download and use our BBM service, Apple does not allow BlackBerry or Android users to download Apple’s iMessage messaging service. Netflix, which has forcefully advocated for carrier neutrality, has discriminated against BlackBerry customers by refusing to make its streaming movie service available to them. Many other applications providers similarly offer service only to iPhone and Android users. This dynamic has created a two-tiered wireless broadband ecosystem, in which iPhone and Android users are able to access far more content and applications than customers using devices running other operating systems. These are precisely the sort of discriminatory practices that neutrality advocates have criticized at the carrier level.

Therefore, neutrality must be mandated at the application and content layer if we truly want a free, open and non-discriminatory internet. All wireless broadband customers must have the ability to access any lawful applications and content they choose, and applications/content providers must be prohibited from discriminating based on the customer’s mobile operating system.

I mean, this is just completely insane. The difference between apps being available on all platforms and the neutrality of all internet traffic is obvious to any of you, I’m sure. Much in the same way Apple shouldn’t have to make iTunes songs with DRM playable on every device in the known universe, developers shouldn’t be forced to spend months rewriting their apps for an OS that very few people use. BlackBerry didn’t take the iPhone seriously, then they fell behind. This is just an attempt to confuse the issue.

Other Stuff From Microsoft Today

Microsoft didn’t just unveil a slightly hyperbolic version of the future today. They also unveiled a big-ass wall-mounted table. Er, a “Surface Hub”. Emil Protalinski, VentureBeat:

In fact, Surface Hub can take content from any device in the room (think of it as a projector) and then share it again to your conference call. This will be the device’s main use: A meeting mode lets users conduct presentations and send them to users that are dialed in from conference rooms or their personal computers.

“It will make your meetings productive and engaging,” Microsoft declared. This is not the first time a company has declared that, and it’s unlikely to be the last.

Nobody likes meetings. Nobody likes them even if they have a gigantic dynamic whiteboard to stare at. Seriously, why is Microsoft obsessed with whiteboards?

Bigger news than that was the pricing for Windows 10: free, in a very Microsoftian kinda way. Jordan Novet, VentureBeat:

“I’m very excited to announce that for the first year after Windows 10 is available, we will be making available a free upgrade to Windows 10 to all devices running Windows 8.1,” said Terry Myerson, executive vice president of Microsoft’s Operating Systems group, kicking off a series of news announcements at a press event.

A free Windows 10 upgrade is coming to all devices running Windows Phone 8.1. And for the first year after Windows 10 is available, Microsoft will provide a free upgrade to all customers still running Windows 7, Myerson said.

I might be incredibly stupid, but this sounds way more complicated than it needs to be. Why is it only free for a year? Why not just make it, well, free, at least as an update? Why did a gigantic metaphorical asterisk appear over Myerson’s head when he said this at the launch event?

Microsoft HoloLens

Jessi Hempel of Wired got a sneak peek back in October at what is — by a gigantic margin — the coolest and most interesting piece of technology Microsoft unveiled at their big Windows 10 event today:

[Alex] Kipman leads me into a briefing room with a drop-down screen, plush couches, and a corner bar stocked with wine and soda (we abstain). He sits beside me, then stands, paces a bit, then sits down again. His wind-up is long. He gives me an abbreviated history of computing, speaking in complete paragraphs, with bushy, expressive eyebrows and saucer eyes that expand as he talks. The next era of computing, he explains, won’t be about that original digital universe. “It’s about the analog universe,” he says. “And the analog universe has a fundamentally different rule set.”

Translation: you used to compute on a screen, entering commands on a keyboard. Cyberspace was somewhere else. Computers responded to programs that detailed explicit commands. In the very near future, you’ll compute in the physical world, using voice and gesture to summon data and layer it atop physical objects. Computer programs will be able to digest so much data that they’ll be able to handle far more complex and nuanced situations. Cyberspace will be all around you.

What will this look like? Well, holograms.

This sounds incredible, in the most literal sense — I could scarcely believe this was actually being launched. To be sure, the promo video exaggerates the quality of the holograms, but the live demo during today’s event looked impressive. And it would be, because Kipman was also responsible for the Xbox Kinect.

Of course there were some things not announced today: battery life, a price, or a launch date. I’m also skeptical of how much I’ll tolerate a speech-and-gesture-driven interface if it isn’t nearly perfect. But let’s enjoy this moment. It feels like I’m ten years from now, and that’s crazy.

You Want Me to Whine and Complain?

I’ve heard you. I’ve touched on Apple’s apparently declining quality controls, and I’ve heard your feedback. Some of you agree with me; others think Apple’s software is markedly worse these days. And you might be right. Jeffrey Zeldman:

First came software failure: Apple applications such as Safari quit on launch; the machine could not find the network. Then came kernel panics. (This is where the machine reboots into a black and white Unix screen, spitting out Matrix-like error messages. To exit, you must type the appropriate Unix commands, which implies that you know what they are.) Finally, the machine would not boot, period.

Jeez, that sounds terrible.

John Gruber adds:

[T]he fact that something went wrong for Mr. Zeldman [is not] an indication that Apple “doesn’t test” their updaters, or that they have rampant QA problems.

Bugs happen. Some will slip through even the tightest QA tests. It has always been the case, and always will be, that every upgrade of your OS ought to be preceded by a full backup.

Agreed, but this sounds pretty serious. Zeldman again:

But I wonder if Apple has lost sight of the non-Unix-oriented creative professionals whose loyalty supported the company through its hardest times. There are many of us. We admire what Apple designs, we remain committed to the platform, and we want the company to succeed. But a simple OS upgrade should not fail, should not induce panic, and should not waste three days of a user’s life.

Wait, “non-Unix-oriented creative professionals”? It’s 2015 — who writes like that?

Friday, 23 April 2004

Oh.

[Zeldman’s] report detailing the entire experience is exquisitely detailed, and well worth reading — even if you, just like me and the vast majority of Panther users, upgraded to Panther without a hitch.

Panther. Huh.

The Verge Has a Super Bowl Ad

Apparently, Vox Media decided to drop around $4.5 million to promote the Verge during the Super Bowl because the ad leaked in a since-retracted post from Nilay Patel. Google has it cached, and the video is still on YouTube, if you’re interested.

It’s an ad about the Future-with-a-capital-F in which we are living, surrounded by technology, especially our smartphones. From some angles, it’s an oddly dystopic kind of mission statement. From others, it’s just reality. I’m just amazed that Vox Media had $4.5 million to blow on a Super Bowl ad.

Update: Cute:

The Verge, a technology website owned by the online media company Vox, said on Tuesday that it would be airing a Super Bowl advertisement, before revealing that it would in fact be spending just $700 on a regional spot in Helena, Mont.

Also cute is Nilay Patel’s reaction:

Also @VergeVideo is pretty miffed that people thought that ad is up to their standards; we made it ultra silly and generic on purpose.

Here’s the thing: I don’t know whether this is an elaborate troll or rapid backpedalling. The Verge isn’t even close to being classy enough not to run something like this; it’s not like the New Yorker putting out something crappy and generic. The fact that a lot of people — myself included — could conceivably believe this says a lot more about what the Verge churns out than it does about the public’s gullibility.

John Moltz Bought a PC

He hasn’t lost it completely; it’s for his son. And it sounds like a continuation of the nightmare buying a PC has always been. Moltz:

What I don’t understand is why there’s no PC OEM that takes the user experience as seriously as Apple does. Why isn’t there one with a rationalized product lineup, aimed at a broad swath of customers (Razer’s is rationalized, but only focuses on high-end gaming), that all come with a clean Windows install? OK, I’m not a great businessman, but if I were in the PC OEM business what I’d copy about Apple is not the silver body and black keys but the giving a darn about the user experience. Yes, you’ll never get Microsoft out of the mix, but that’s no excuse for junking up everything else.

From start to finish, Moltz’s experience sounds depressing, but virtually unchanged from how it has been for the past couple of decades. Most manufacturers’ lineups are a dizzying array of letters and numbers, or meaningless names that defy categorization. Then they junk up the computer with all kinds of trial- and crapware, plaster it with stickers, and treat it like a disposable good rather than the investment that it is. I suppose the amount of trialware pays for the steep advertised discounts,1 but it shows a deep-seated disrespect for the customer to prioritize pre-installed advertisements over user experience.


  1. I question the legitimacy of these discounts. ↩︎

What the Web Said Yesterday

Jill Lepore, writing for the New Yorker:

The address of the Internet Archive is archive.org, but another way to visit is to take a plane to San Francisco and ride in a cab to the Presidio, past cypresses that look as though someone had drawn them there with a smudgy crayon. At 300 Funston Avenue, climb a set of stone steps and knock on the brass door of a Greek Revival temple. You can’t miss it: it’s painted wedding-cake white and it’s got, out front, eight Corinthian columns and six marble urns.

“We bought it because it matched our logo,” Brewster Kahle told me when I met him there, and he wasn’t kidding.

Apple Pay Enrolment Trends

Neil Cybart:

Running with a conservative estimate of the percent of Apple Pay users Bank of America (50M total banking customers) represents, Apple Pay enrollment rates in the U.S. would stand at 8%. If using aggressive metrics, Apple Pay enrollment would be 16%. I estimate 10-15% of iPhone 6 and 6 Plus owners in the U.S. have registered with Apple Pay.

It’s only been about three months since Apple Pay was released with iOS 8.1. I’m guessing some pretty gigantic usage numbers are coming with Apple’s Q1 2015 earnings release.

Something Slightly Less Terrible

Loren Brichter was interviewed by objc.io magazine. He is, as usual, chock full of insight and brilliance. On the greater goals of building stuff:

Personally, I’m tired of the trivial app stuff, and the App Store isn’t conducive to anything more interesting. I think the next big thing in software will happen outside of it.

And on the actual process:

Remember that nothing is magic. Even though it seems like you’re working at the top of a stack of impenetrable abstractions, they’re made by people (who were probably rushed, or drunk, or both). Learn how they work, then figure out how to minimize your dependence on them.

Wonderful.

The Siri Standard

Daniel Jalkut:

I don’t doubt that the groups at Apple responsible for [other] technologies are comprised of individuals striving to improve things as quickly as possible. It’s hard to say how much the impression of slow progress is due to internal challenges we don’t know about, Apple’s lack of knowledge about the breadth of defects, or the public’s perception being skewed by severity of the impact from problems that persist.

Whatever combination of luck, hard work, and pragmatism is powering the Siri team’s “year of good work,” perhaps it should serve as a model, or at least as a symbol of hope for these teams as they move forward adding features, fixing bugs, and finessing the public’s perception of the value of their work. A world in which every group at Apple somehow achieved the standard of apparent progress that Siri has achieved would be a very good world indeed.

It’s a beacon of hope for me, at least. If Siri can get from where it was to where it is now, anything can.

Nobody Likes David Cameron’s Plan to Decrypt the Internet

Not even the NSA, at least in 2009. James Ball, of the Guardian:

Part of the cache given to the Guardian by Snowden was published in 2009 and gives a five-year forecast on the “global cyber threat to the US information infrastructure”. It covers communications, commercial and financial networks, and government and critical infrastructure systems. It was shared with GCHQ and made available to the agency’s staff through its intranet.

One of the biggest issues in protecting businesses and citizens from espionage, sabotage and crime – hacking attacks are estimated to cost the global economy up to $400bn a year – was a clear imbalance between the development of offensive versus defensive capabilities, “due to the slower than expected adoption … of encryption and other technologies”, it said.

An unclassified table accompanying the report states that encryption is the “[b]est defense to protect data”, especially if made particularly strong through “multi-factor authentication” – similar to two-step verification used by Google and others for email – or biometrics.

While Cameron’s position might be politically advantageous, it’s impossible to create encryption that can only be broken by Good Guys™.

Google Glass’ Current Form Is Dead

The BBC:1

[Google] insists it is still committed to launching the smart glasses as a consumer product, but will stop producing Glass in its present form.

Instead it will focus on “future versions of Glass” with work carried out by a different division to before.

The Explorer programme, which gave software developers the chance to buy Glass for $1,500 (£990) will close.

[…]

The Glass team can at least continue its work out of the spotlight without the pressure of deadlines. Tony Fadell, the former Apple designer Google acquired with his smart thermostat firm Nest, will oversee the future of the product.

I’m not sure how this is anything but an admittance that wearing a camera and a screen on your face has a very small potential audience, at least in this form. I think Glass would be an order of magnitude less repulsive if the camera were removed.


  1. No paragraph in this article is longer than two sentences. ↩︎

Apple May Shun Intel for Custom A-Series Chips in New Macs

KGI Securities’ Ming-Chi Kuo is, like, ridiculously well-connected. Even though he’s an analyst, when he speaks, I listen a little closer, especially for intriguing reports like this one:

In a new report released Wednesday, a copy of which was obtained by AppleInsider, well-connected analyst Kuo suggests that Apple’s in-house chips will reach a level of performance somewhere between Intel’s Atom and Core i3 lines within the next 1-2 years. Removing Intel from the equation would allow Apple to better control the launch timing of the Mac line, he believes.

Kuo predicts that the iPad and Mac will share the AyX line of chips. But his report is kinda weird: he’s also predicting that the A9 SoC will use a 10nm process, but the A10 will use a 16nm process, which seems like a regression to me. It’s entirely speculative, of course, but not out of the realm of reality, especially for, say, a hypothetical low-power ultra-portable fanless MacBook Air.

Apple Maps, Revisited

While Apple’s software quality may not be degrading at the rate you might expect, it’s also not necessarily improving at the rate that it needs to. Case in point: Apple Maps.

Is it better than it was? Yeah, absolutely.

Is it good enough? Hell no.

Take my search for “wine market” as an example. I live approximately 15 minutes’ walking distance from Kensington Wine Market in Calgary. However, Apple Maps’ search results don’t reflect my current location, and suggest wine markets in Baltimore and Memphis.

I know this stuff must be hard, but taking a user’s current location into account for search results isn’t exactly stretching the imagination.

Apple’s Software Quality

I’ve been thinking about this a little more and it strikes me that many of the different reactions to Marco Arment’s “Losing the Functional High Ground” piece can be simultaneously true. I’m not certain that Apple’s software quality is universally getting worse; far from it, I think it is, in many cases, getting better. But I think the impression is much stronger because vastly more people are using it.

Consider the catastrophically stupid iTunes 2 update bug that permanently erased non-primary drives, or the general slowness of early versions of OS X. Then consider the number of Mac users that existed at the time, and the fact that upgrading Mac OS X required you to visit a physical store — bricks not bits — and exchange a hundred and twenty-nine of your hard-earned dollars for a physical disc which you must then take home, pop into your computer, and spend an hour waiting for it to install.

Apple’s been making all kinds of strides in trying to get people using the latest versions of the software they make and distribute. iOS has automatic updates for apps; OS X has automatic and free updates for everything from apps to the entire system, excluding major (x.0) OS updates.

Add that to a vastly larger install base of hundreds of millions of iPhones, iPads, iPods, and Macs, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a controversy. It’s not necessarily that the bugs are getting worse or profusely dumber; rather, that more people are experiencing those bugs. Having such a large install base requires an elevated level of diligence.

So many of these reactions are simultaneously true. Yes, there are extremely stupid bugs and regressions littered throughout Apple’s software products. Yes, there’s the impression of a downward slide in quality assurance. And, yes, there have previously been really stupid bugs and regressions. I think Apple is cognizant of the fact that their software quality needs to improve faster than they gain new users; if it’s slower, it feels significantly worse than it really is.

Radio Isn’t Dead

What I find most fascinating about this survey is just how popular radio-style music services are. Of the ten most popular services, just four allow the user to specifically select what they’d like to listen to; the remainder are largely pre-decided, with minimal user input. Even though some reports pegged iTunes Radio as a miss, this strategy seems to be working. Even though “Apple engineers involved with [iTunes] often preferred to use Spotify and Pandora”, it seems that loads of people use iTunes Radio regularly.

British Prime Minister Pledges to Ban Encrypted Messaging Services

Rich Trenholm, CNet:

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to tighten laws surrounding the encryption of electronic communication, potentially targeting services such as WhatsApp, Snapchat or Apple Messages. He asked Monday whether we should “allow safe spaces for (terrorists) to talk to each other.”

Cameron was discussing security measures in the wake of events in Paris last week, where gunmen attacked the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people. In the interest of disrupting communications between terrorists, Cameron pledged that if re-elected in this year’s general election, he intends to ban encryption that cannot be read by security services.

(Emphasis mine.) We don’t allow safe spaces for terrorists to talk to each other; we allow safe spaces for everyone and anyone to talk to each other.

What happened in Paris was absolutely tragic; there is no question about it. But it simply wasn’t the case that a lack of intelligence was what allowed these attacks to happen. There was loads of intelligence available, according to Steven Erlanger and Jim Yardley of the New York Times:

“These guys were known to be bad, and the French had tabs on them for a while,” said the American official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid complicating a delicate intelligence matter. “At some point, though, they allocated resources differently. They moved on to other targets.”

[…]

“The problem we face is that even though there are not that many radicalized Muslims in France, there are enough of them to make it difficult to physically follow everyone with a suspicious background,” said Camille Grand, a former French official and director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, an independent Paris group.

“It’s one thing to listen to the phone calls or watch their travel, but it’s another to put someone under permanent physical surveillance, or even follow all their phone conversations full time for so many people,” he added.

Then there’s the outrageousness of Cameron’s statement, flying in the face of all that we hold dear in a free and just society. Glenn Fleishman:

I just love how politicians pretend privacy is not a fundamental human right when they claw so hard to protect their own.