Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for April, 2015

Google’s Snapseed Photo App Gets Its First Major Update in Two Years

Did not see this one coming.

This is a pretty big update to an app I noted as one of my favourite photo editors on iOS. For version 2.0, Google has updated Snapseed with a totally Material-ed up UI. It’s an app that looks like it walked directly off Android, complete with Roboto and all the non-native UI conventions that come with that. It really doesn’t fit in on iOS.

But I’ve always liked Snapseed’s selective editing tool; though I use VSCOcam for nearly everything, selective editing is important enough for my workflow that it’s the primary reason I keep Snapseed on my device. The other reason I liked Snapseed was for the totally wild and weird “Grunge” filter. Unfortunately, this filter has been removed with the 2.0 update, but the all-important selective editing tool remains. I guess I’ll be keeping the app on my iPhone.

Apple Fixes Its Felony Hiring Policy

Apple PR, via Julia Love at the San Jose Mercury:

It recently came to our attention that, as part of a background check process unique to the Apple Campus 2 construction project, a few applicants were turned away because they had been convicted of a felony within the past seven years. We recognize that this may have excluded some people who deserve a second chance. We have now removed that restriction and instructed our contractors on the project to evaluate all applicants equally, on a case-by-case basis, as we would for any role at Apple.

Good.

Future Present

The past two days have seen the embargoes lift on the first reviews of the Apple Watch and new MacBook. If anything has emerged from the narrative so far, it’s that both products appear cut from the same cloth. Yes, the Watch appears the most high-tech of the two, effectively establishing the precedent for its market, while the MacBook is a take on the decades-old concept of a laptop, albeit an innovative interpretation. But they’re extraordinarily similar in a conceptual sense.

Joshua Topolsky:

So Apple has succeeded in its first big task with its watch. It made something that lives up to the company’s reputation as an innovator and raised the bar for a whole new class of devices. Its second task—making me feel that I need this thing on my wrist every day—well, I’m not quite sure it’s there yet. It’s still another screen, another distraction, another way to disconnect, as much as it is the opposite. The Apple Watch is cool, it’s beautiful, it’s powerful, and it’s easy to use. But it’s not essential. Not yet.

Nicole Phelps:

In the nine days I’ve worn it, the Apple Watch didn’t replace my iPhone, but I don’t think that’s the intention. Our wrists simply can’t support a device big enough for everything we do on screens these days. I came to think of it as a filter instead, bringing what’s essential or pleasurable to me closer to me and editing out the rest.

Geoffrey Fowler:

Still, in these early sketches of an experience, I can already imagine so much more. I’d like for the Apple Watch to be my train ticket and my office key, for starters.

For now, the Apple Watch is for pioneers. I won’t pay the $1,000 it would cost for the model I tested, only to see a significant improvement roll in before too long.

Farhad Manjoo:

The New York Times announced last week that it had created “one-sentence stories” for the Apple Watch, so let me end this review with a note that could fit on the watch’s screen: The first Apple Watch may not be for you — but someday soon, it will change your world.

The reviews of the new MacBook follow a similar pattern. Joshua Topolsky and Stephen Pulvirent:

The MacBook isn’t for everyone. The Retina display is beautiful but hogs processing power that might be better used elsewhere. And if you do a lot of photo editing or like to multitask, you’ll notice some lag and jitters. Even scrolling quickly through typical Web pages produced a noticeable lag and stutter compared with my standard MacBook Air.

Joanna Stern:

But as ahead of its time as the MacBook is, there’s a slight problem: You have to use it right now. Here in 2015, the majority of us still require two or three ports for connecting our hard drives, displays, phones and other devices to our computer—not to mention a dedicated power plug.

[…]

The new MacBook represents an exciting evolution in portable computing, but at this point it is more a proof of concept than your next computer.

Tech reporter biases of power, expandability, and all that aside, both the Watch and MacBook are seen as visions of the future. They’re not perfect or even truly great yet, but they represent what will be great.

This isn’t new for Apple. Here’s Walt Mossberg in 2007:

The iPhone is missing some features common on some competitors. There’s no instant messaging, only standard text messaging. While its two-megapixel camera took excellent pictures in our tests, it can’t record video. Its otherwise excellent Web browser can’t fully utilize some Web sites, because it doesn’t yet support Adobe’s Flash technology. Although the phone contains a complete iPod, you can’t use your songs as ringtones. There aren’t any games, nor is there any way to directly access Apple’s iTunes Music Store.

Apple says it plans to add features to the phone over time, via free downloads, and hints that some of these holes may be filled.

Here’s Ryan Block in 2008:

The [MacBook] Air is a tough call. On the one hand it proposes to be a no-compromises ultraportable, but on the other hand it compromises many (but not all) the things road warriors want. We’re all about removing unnecessary frills and drives (we rejoiced the day the original iMac bucked the floppy), but laptops are increasingly becoming many users’ primary — often only — machines, which is why the Air’s price doesn’t do it any favors, either. It’s hard to justify almost two grand for a second laptop (or a third machine) just for travel needs — and even then, that’s only easily done if all your data lives in the cloud. Given those sacrifices and that higher-end sticker, it’s more than likely not going to replace most peoples’ current workhorse laptop.

In summary: “It’s a glimpse of the future, but it’s not quite enough yet.” That’s par for the course for first generation Apple products. And that’s okay.

Apple tries to strike a balance between two extremes. The first-to-market companies don’t ever do it right — take a look at the Samsung Galaxy Gear or the scores of thin notebooks released before the MacBook Air. Apple is never the first to market, but neither are they waiting it out until they have a product that’s ideal, like the MacBook Air of 2010 or the iPhone 4.

Apple seems more interested in bringing a product to market that they’re very proud of in a way that defines both the future of the market, and establishes the roadmap for how people will use their devices in two- or three-years’ time. Apple couldn’t do the 2010 Air in 2008 or the iPhone 4 in 2007 for myriad technical and engineering reasons, but also because they didn’t know how customers would actually use these devices. The 2008 Air laid the blueprint for future thin notebooks, but the 2010 Air required everything they learned from the prior two years of customer use. It’s the same for the iPad in 2010, the iPhone in 2007, and will be for the Apple Watch of 2015.

Apple’s unique skill is in understanding the roadmap for several years into the future, and building according to that. If you use a post-2010 MacBook Air today and you enjoy type-A USB ports, it’s easy to see how the MacBook could fit into your life in a couple of years, but perhaps not now.

Today, the MacBook and the Watch are exciting glimpses as to what the future will hold. They’re ready for primetime for the early adopter set — which, by the way, seems to grow with each major new product — and those users will help Apple better understand how these products are used in the real world. And they’ll help define the future.

Point Three

iOS 8.3 and OS X 10.10.3 have both been released today.

Surprisingly and happily, the iOS update includes a gigantic list of bugs patched in the release in place of the anemic “bug fixes and performance improvements” notice affixed to pretty much all updates these days.

Not included in this list is a comprehensive fix for that annoying as shit bug where tapping in the space between the keyboard and the Quick Reply box would vaporize anything typed in the box. Now, unless the box is empty, tapping in that empty space will have no effect. If you press the home button or something, the text entered into the Quick Reply box will be there if you enter the appropriate conversation.

On the OS X side of things, I’ve seen significant improvements to the reliability of discoveryd. Both updates include a great new constantly-scrolling interface for inserting emoji, because nobody in the world knows that the “bell” section includes the saxophone, pushpin, and tofu on fire characters.

The biggest across-the-board news is the final release of iCloud Photo Library alongside the new Photos app for OS X. I had a rough start with iCloud Photo Library, but a nice person in iCloud engineering has worked with me over the past month to fix it, and I couldn’t be more delighted with it. The seamless syncing is exactly what Apple promises, and makes the 200GB iCloud plan an easy purchase. I feel vastly more confident that my entire library is backed up without intervention.

The Photos app itself is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s way faster and way better than iPhoto ever was, but if you’re like me and you’re used to Aperture, it’s a bit of a letdown right now. I think it deserves its own article, because there’s a lot to dive into.

Critically, though, both of these releases are far more stable and far better than iOS and OS X have been for months now. In an ideal world, these are the releases that the point-zero versions should have been. Assuming Apple keeps reliability at the top of their priorities for future releases, we’ll look back at the last few months as a turbulent but necessary blip in Apple’s record. They’re presenting a very ambitious view of the future, and now their delivery is catching up to their rhetoric.

Update: 10.10.3 also includes more exciting Notification Centre spam, courtesy of Apple. Awful.

Update 2: Apparently, the spammy Apple notifications are also in iOS 8.3.

Felony Convictions and Construction of Apple HQ

Wendy Lee, San Francisco Chronicle:

Several construction workers who were hired to build the exterior of Apple’s new campus in Cupertino were ordered to leave the site in January due to prior felony convictions, several union officials and workers told The Chronicle. The ban is unusual for construction work, a field in which employers typically do not perform criminal background checks.

[…]

For work on the Apple site, anyone with a felony conviction or facing felony charges “does not meet owner standards,” according to documents from construction companies acquired by The Chronicle.

Lee, again, in a follow-up piece:

Apple’s policy of not hiring construction workers with past felony convictions to help build the tech giant’s new campus has drawn the attention of a state senator.

“There are certain positions where there is some nexus between the crime committed and the position offered. Construction does not appear to be one of those,” said state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco. “In this situation, I would strongly suggest that this policy be changed.”

And:

A person familiar with the policy said construction workers with felony convictions within the past seven years are not permitted on the site, while those with earlier felony convictions could find work building the campus. People with “felony charges pending court disposition” are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, said the source.

John Gruber thought the “facing felony charges” portion of the articles was unfair, but he also questioned the uniqueness of this policy:

The “facing felony charges” prohibition is worth noting. Whatever your stance on the prohibition against those convicted of a felony within the last seven years, not hiring those merely facing charges seems blatantly contrary to our tradition of “innocent until proven guilty”.

I’m also curious whether these policies actually are “unusual for construction work” — especially for large companies. On Twitter, Greg Koenig says Intel has the same policy for its D1X chip fab in Oregon.

Regardless of what other companies are doing, this policy is discriminatory to a substantial degree, and does not represent what Apple is typically known for. Felons are people too — if they’ve served their time and are attempting to get back on their feet, any construction company and their clients, by extension, should welcome that. I’m not saying that they’ll be greeted with open arms, as it’s understandably a little foreboding to hire a felon, but they’re probably trying to put that life behind them.

Apple Watch Packaging

Looks like someone at IBM got an Apple Watch a little early. Jeremy Gan took some pictures of the packaging for the stainless steel model and the leather band. The Watch box is definitely top-notch, even for the midrange product. I’m curious to see if each model gets a different kind of packaging, though. The Sport might also be sold in this one, but it’s hard to imagine the Edition in a cardboard box. Hat tip to Abdel Ibrahim.

Update: This is more likely the Daily Mail’s review unit.

Update 2: The images have been removed. MacRumors has cached versions.

A Close Watch

Tim Bradshaw, Financial Times:

Apple has invited small groups of developers to its Silicon Valley offices to help them prepare their apps for its Watch, as it gears up for the launch at the end of this month.

Observed by security guards and instructed to cover up the cameras on their iPhones, a few dozen handpicked designers and engineers have each spent a day at Apple’s labs in Sunnyvale, California to test their apps on the device.

The Tech Block’s Abdel Ibrahim:

I see the future of Apple Watch as a product that demonstrates a masterful, seamless aptitude for authenticating our existence to corresponding terminals and locks. Sure, you may need an “app” with your login info to have some of that happen, but actually needing to expend any energy or attention interacting with it seems backwards. If the idea is to remove friction, then part of that mandates at least some removal of the need to touch the display. In fact, the way Apple Pay works on iPhone now is exactly how I’d want all my authentication to work: On iPhone 6, you don’t need to wake up your phone or open any apps. You just raise your phone to the terminal and your card shows up. Then you touch your finger to TouchID, it reads your print, and you’re done. That’s the equivalent of one tap. Much more than that, and you’re looking at more hassle than convenience.

The iPhone ushered in the age of apps; the Apple Watch looks set to usher in the age of completely seamless interaction.

Samsung Hoping to Bounce Back

Jonathan Cheng and Min-Jeong Lee, Wall Street Journal:

With the release on Friday of the Galaxy S6 and its curved-edge variant, the Galaxy S6 Edge, investors will be looking for a pickup in profit margins, which crashed late last year. After 10 straight quarters with margins of 15% or more, the figure halved to 7.1% in the third quarter of 2014 before inching up in the fourth quarter.

On a conference call with investors last year, Kim Hyun-joon, a Samsung mobile senior vice president, said that the company was aiming to push mobile margins back into the “low double-digit” percentage range.

I’m interested to see how the S6 series fares over the year or so. From the reviews I’ve read — and I’ve read a lot — it seems that Samsung took a much more careful look at what they were making.

But I’ve seen a fair shake of commentary that paints Samsung’s troubles similarly to Apple’s stock price drop through 2012 and the first half of 2013. The difference is that Apple continues to deliver viable, unique products, time and time again. “Galaxy” has been the strongest brand Samsung has been able to deliver, but it’s no “Apple”, and the products are nowhere near as special. I think this is an entirely different situation, with a far less predictable outcome.1

Cheng and Lee, continued:

Many analysts think that the S6 Edge could outsell the regular S6, assuming production isn’t interrupted by any supply-chain issues. The S6 Edge uses a highly sophisticated manufacturing process to get its curved screen effect.

What analysts, where?


  1. If you didn’t think Apple would bounce back after bottoming out at sub-$400 prices, pre-split, sub-$60 prices, you were betting with trends, not your head. ↩︎

Artist Exclusivity Means That Tidal Might Have a Chance

Walt Hickey, FiveThirtyEight:

There is an argument in Tidal’s favor. We’ve seen with Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO and other video streaming services that exclusivity is a very good way to gain and keep subscribers. Just like there are people who subscribe to HBO just for “Game of Thrones,” there’s an argument to be made that people could subscribe to Tidal just for, say, new Rihanna releases.

Look at the people who were on stage with Jay Z on Monday: Alicia Keys, Arcade Fire, Beyonce, Calvin Harris, Chris Martin, Daft Punk, Deadmau5, Jack White, Jason Aldean, J. Cole, Kanye West, Madonna, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna and Usher, according to Music Business Worldwide. Do you like any one of those artists?

A major difference between Netflix, et. al. and Tidal is that the video streaming services first built up a core audience in markets nobody else had a stake in. HBO was the first premium home cable channel, while Netflix wrote the book on effortless television and movie streaming.1 It was only after building a substantial subscriber base that these companies created original, exclusive programming.

Tidal isn’t really breaking any new ground with their streaming music service, and plenty of music stores had exclusive content during the iTunes Store’s heyday. None of these alternative stores did very well; most didn’t even survive.

Besides, the music industry seems to have largely given up the fight against file sharing. Record labels will still send automated takedown requests to the bigger sites and distributors, but if you can’t still find free music on the web, I don’t know what to tell you. For how long will a track “exclusive” to Tidal remain that way? My bet is somewhere between one week before the track even debuts, to ten minutes after it’s live.

I’m not writing it off entirely, but I haven’t heard a convincing argument as to why Tidal will garner a respectable market share alongside the already-dominating Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody, Beats, Xbox Music, and iTunes Radio services, let alone Apple’s upcoming streaming service.


  1. After they re-wrote the book on DVD distribution, that is. ↩︎

Google Glass Is Literally on Life Support

That is, it’s being used a lot in the medical industry. Stephanie Lee, Buzzfeed:

Glass was one of the most talked about trends in wearable computing in 2014, and Google pushed it hard in the hopes of gaining mainstream traction. It instead became a symbol of tech elitism and conspicuous consumption, its users derided and even attacked. Earlier this year, Google stopped selling the first version of Glass and moved the project out of its Google(x) lab into a stand-alone unit.

But while Glass failed to set the consumer space on fire, some clinicians and other medical professionals have embraced it as a hands-free means of sharing and accessing information quickly. As cases like Phelan’s demonstrate, Glass still has promise in enterprise markets like health care. That lends credence to the company’s claims that Glass remains viable, despite its unpropitious beginnings.

Glass was pitched as a product to make everyone’s daily lives easier. In Google’s utopia, you’d wear it just after waking up to see what the weather forecast was like, or to catch up on the news while making breakfast. You’d use it to chat with your friends and be alerted with relevant, location-based notifications. None of that really happened because walking everywhere with a screen and a camera strapped to your face is socially unacceptable, at least so far.

Perhaps Glass’ near-future destiny is in specialized industries: medical, factory workers, pharmacy technicians, and the like. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But it demonstrates the extent to which we’ve rejected Google’s plans for putting a computer on our faces, because every other major player is gambling that putting it on the wrist is less obtrusive.

EU Regulators to Look Into iTunes Streaming Agreements

Matthew Garraham and Tim Bradshaw, Financial Times:

The commission, which also has contacted Apple’s music-streaming rivals, is said to be concerned that the company will use its size, relationships and influence to persuade labels to abandon free, ad-supported services such as Spotify, which depend on licenses with music companies for their catalogues.

I wouldn’t suggest that the commission is wrong or misguided, but Apple doesn’t exactly have the negotiating power it once did:

According to several music executives, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks are private, Apple recently tried but failed to persuade record labels to agree to lower licensing costs that would have let Apple sell subscriptions to its streaming service for $8 a month — a discount from the $10 that has become standard for services like Spotify, Rhapsody and Rdio.

Maybe the EU commission will find evidence of wrongdoing. But most people I know don’t really use iTunes any more; it was “tired” in 2012, out-cooled by streaming services. I’m not sure this is akin to Microsoft bundling Internet Explorer with Windows, but who knows?

The History of the Apple Watch

Apple is giving a lot of behind-the-scenes interviews and sneak peeks these days; far more than I remember them doing in the post-iCEO era. First, it was an unprecedented look into Jony Ive’s process, granted to the New Yorker. Now, David Pierce at Wired scored an exclusive scoop with a few Apple executives:

Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels famously encourages his staff to work crazy hours because, he maintains, people tend to be most creative and most fearless when they’re deliriously tired. So it went in the Apple design studio: As the team worked away on app-launch animations and the new iOS 7 Control Center, daytime conversations about smartphone software led to late-night discussions about other devices. Questions started coalescing around the idea of a watch: What could it add to people’s lives? What new things could you do with a device that you wear? Around this time, Ive began a deep investigation of horology, studying how reading the position of the sun evolved into clocks, which evolved into watches. Horology became an obsession. That obsession became a product.

Along the way, the Apple team landed upon the Watch’s raison d’être. It came down to this: Your phone is ruining your life.

Intriguing stuff. Included in this feature is a particularly fascinating gallery that gives a taste of the UI design process; you should definitely check it out.

Unintended Consequences

Matt Henderson (via Michael Tsai):

When I switch my Jeep off, its headlights remain on for about 30 seconds. Presumably this was done under the assumption that you’d appreciate the lights in a dark garage, as you make your way to the door.

[…]

I’m never quite sure myself whether I actually turned the lights off or not. And so, inevitably, I end up delaying my departure from the vehicle for the 30 seconds or so it takes to confirm that the lights are actually off. (And you can imagine that bystanders find that—a guy staring at his car, with its lights on—equally odd.)

How would you know if this system were to malfunction?

China’s Man-on-the-Side Attack on GitHub

Netresec’s Erik Hjelmvik:

In short, this is how this Man-on-the-Side attack is carried out:

  1. An innocent user is browsing the internet from outside China.
  2. One website the user visits loads a javascript from a server in China, for example the Badiu Analytics script that often is used by web admins to track visitor statistics (much like Google Analytics).
  3. The web browser’s request for the Baidu javascript is detected by the Chinese passive infrastructure.
  4. A fake response is sent out from within China instead of the actual Baidu Analytics script. This fake response is a malicious javascript that tells the user’s browser to continuously reload two specific pages on GitHub.com.

However, not all users loading javascripts from inside China are attacked in this way. Our analysis shows that only about 1% of the requests for the Baidu Analytics script are receiving the malicious javascript as response. So in 99% of the cases everything behaves just like normal.

The attack has ended, for now, but that doesn’t make this any less frightening. If you’re a big-ish website that hosts views contrary to the Chinese government’s liking, your website could get torpedoed. Or you could get caught in the crossfire.

By the way, the two targeted repos were greatfire and cn-nytimes. Both are very clever workarounds for the Great Firewall.