Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for May, 2015

Diversity and Visibility at Google I/O

Selena Larson, the Daily Dot:

Google’s event demonstrated the stark difference between Google I/O and Apple’s Worldwide Developers conference, which will take place in a couple weeks. Apple rarely, if ever, features women or people of color onstage to represent its company, as I’ve written about time and time and time again.

I’m tired of writing that same story. It shouldn’t need to be written. It should be obvious to companies that representing diversity onstage at major tech events is important, as it not only reflects upon the company but also the people who use its products. Google, for its part, regularly features women as prominent speakers at events. Apple just hasn’t caught up yet.

The kicker here is that Apple, according to their self-reported stats, is actually more diverse in both gender and ethnicity than Google, even in executive positions. Yet Apple’s keynotes remain solidly male and white, with the (refreshing) exception of Christy Turlington Burns at the Watch launch keynote this spring (white, not male), and the occasional appearance by Eddy Cue (male, but of Cuban descent).

Why not get Angela Ahrendts onstage to talk about retail progress, or Lisa Jackson to talk about environmental initiatives? Both of those are often covered instead by Tim Cook anyway, so it’s a great opportunity to show off the diversity at Apple.

Readdle’s Spark

I’ve been using Spark for a couple of weeks and it’s absolutely magical. It includes a lot of my favourite things from other apps; it has snooze filters and the ability to pin messages, well-formatted conversation chains, Share sheet availability within the app, and a Share sheet extension for when you want to email something using Spark from another app. It also has some very nice ideas of its own: an integrated heuristics engine that figures out how relevant a message is to you, and places it in the appropriate category for you to check later. You can even set up your preferences to only notify you when you get an email that’s more personal or important.

But because all of this processing — including notifications — is done on-device, it means the app needs to be running in the background for these features to work. Unfortunately, on my iPhone 5S, I often found Spark getting kicked out of the background processes, which meant I stopped receiving email notifications until I opened it again. While iOS is, ultimately, to blame for this, it tempers Readdle’s vision for the app. If there were a way for iOS apps to spawn daemon processes or elevate their importance, this vision would be unimpeded.

Most impressive, I think, is that Readdle has managed to innovate in a really interoperable way. Email is a decades-old technology that hasn’t really changed at the server level. Because Spark is only available on the iPhone (with a Watch extension), it means that actions it takes on a message cannot change the way that message displays in your desktop email app. They’ve been very clever with this. Pinned messages — probably my favourite thing in Spark — are just flagged messages with a different context and a different way of displaying in the app. It’s a subtle but powerful contextual shift that more precisely defines how you’ll use that feature.

I’ve linked to Federico Viticci’s review because I think it explains very well why you should try Spark. A taster:

When Apple introduced Mail for iPhone in 2007, they bragged about its desktop-class approach to email on a portable device. Today, being “desktop-class” is almost a liability for apps.

Our smartphones and tablets have a much deeper understanding of our schedule, files, location, contacts, and most used apps than they did eight years ago – a knowledge certainly superior to any desktop computer. To truly reimagine email – for many, still an essential component of a daily workflow – a mobile client would have to bring the intelligence and versatility of a mobile-first world to the stale nature of email protocols.

It’s a well-written review for an app that I really like, and want to use more often. It feels much closer to a replacement for Mail, especially with its Share sheet extension, but iOS’ limitations prevent it from fully getting there. Which is a shame, really, because it’s good. You should really give it a try.

Apple Operations Chief Jeff Williams at Code Conference

Jeff Williams sat opposite Walt Mossberg in the big red chair at Code Conference yesterday. Dawn Chmielewski of Recode recaps:

Williams seemed to hint at Apple’s interest in the automotive market in his response to one question about what the company plans to dow [sic] with its huge cash hoard.

“The car is the ultimate mobile device,” Williams said, quickly adding. “We’re exploring a lot of different markets.”

Williams said that the deciding factor in choosing new businesses is not the opportunity for revenue growth, but rather “which ones are ones [in which] we think we can make a huge amount of difference.”

Watching the video from the event makes this look, indeed, as unprompted and off-the-cuff as it’s been written here. Someone in the audience asked if there are any industries or product categories Apple was interested in exploring, and Williams just blurted out “well, the car is the ultimate mobile device”. That’s not a hint; that’s a statement.

Google Photos

Lots of big news from today’s big Google I/O kickoff presentation. Their new photos product called, uh, Photos is a mix of impressive and a little creepy. It is, therefore, very Google-y, as Steven Levy’s interview with Bradley Horowitz makes clear:

We heard from our Google Plus photo users that we had great technology, but they didn’t want their life’s archive brought into a social product, any social product. It’s more akin to Gmail — there’s no button on Gmail that says “publish on the Internet.” “Broadcast” and “archive” are really different and so part of Google photos is to create a safe space for your photos and remove any stigma associated with saving everything. For instance, I use my phone to take pictures of receipts, and pictures of signs that I want to remember and things like that. These can potentially pollute my photo stream. We make it so that things like that recede into the background, so there’s no cognitive burden to actually saving everything.

This is similar to the way I’ve been using iCloud Photo Library. I take a crapload of pictures, and they’re all stored off-device in a private library. One big difference between iCPL and Google Photos is that the latter allows unlimited storage for free, with some caveats: photos must be less than 16 megapixels apiece and video is limited to 1080p. Also, all of the stuff you upload with the free plan is compressed; this is in addition to whatever compression your phone or camera already applies. That’s worrying, but Google’s examples make it look okay.1

And then there’s the obvious cost of the free version: your privacy. If you’re fully on board with Google’s services, you already supply them with every email you send and receive, everything you search for, every location you look up, and — soon — the purchases you make. In accordance with Google’s privacy policy, much of this information is blended together, attached to your profile, and served back to you as ads.

Levy asked Horowitz about that in his interview:

Is that information in photos siloed, or is that going to be available to enhance my Google experience in other products?

The information gleaned from analyzing these photos does not travel outside of this product — not today. But if I thought we could return immense value to the users based on this data I’m sure we would consider doing that. For instance, if it were possible for Google Photos to figure out that I have a Tesla, and Tesla wanted to alert me to a recall, that would be a service that we would consider offering, with appropriate controls and disclosure to the user.

If they can offer product information based on detecting the contents of your photos, they can serve you ads based on that too. It’s as simple as that.

As we’ve learned from Aran Khanna’s exploration of Facebook Messenger or any of the Snowden leaks, a few disparate points of data gleaned about a person can be associated with one another to build a much more powerful, more comprehensive look at their life.

Serenity Caldwell, iMore:

All of that said, I’m not advising people against signing up for Google Photos. Google has a lot of admirable technical goals, and it genuinely believes this kind of mass data-gathering will help achieve those goals. But that comes at a cost: The company may not be able to get the vast userbase numbers it needs to make its search services best in class without making those services free. And if they’re free, Google has to pay for them in another way. Right now, that way is advertising.

I would love to see this kind of innovation from a company that charges for it with money, not data. But this kind of innovation really only works with the kind of accelerated user and data growth that comes with a free offering and a looser sense of what crosses the creepy line. That’s okay — it’s a choice that people can make. But, though this innovation is tempting, I’m not sure it’s for me. I can’t entrust all my data to a company that is trying to use that information to advertise to me. That feels wrong to me.


  1. Google has a paid tier that allows you to store original-quality files. Despite it being a paid product, Google is still using gleaned information for advertising purposes. ↩︎

Proactive

Mark Gurman has been strategically drip-feeding all sorts of juicy iOS 9 rumours over the past couple of weeks, but this is the first one that’s really caught my attention:

After several years of quiet development, Apple is readying a major new iOS initiative codenamed “Proactive,” which will leverage Siri, Contacts, Calendar, Passbook, and third-party apps to create a viable competitor to Google Now for Android devices. Like Google Now, Proactive will automatically provide timely information based on the user’s data and device usage patterns, but will respect the user’s privacy preferences, according to sources familiar with Apple’s plans.

As an evolution of iOS’s Spotlight search feature, Proactive is the fruit of a long-term initiative that involved the acquisition of small app developers, and integration of core iOS apps. It will also work with Apple’s Maps application to display personally relevant points of interest using an augmented reality interface, and integrate with a third-party Siri API codenamed “Breadcrumbs”.

Google Now is perhaps the most impressive feature of Android. Its ability to weave together disparate pieces of data in an attempt to predict what information a user needs immediately is, so far, unparalleled on any platform. It’s a feature I’ve wanted on iOS, and it looks like my wishes might come true this year.

This is another in a series of improvements to iOS that indicates that Apple is becoming more comfortable with a more personalized iOS. Apple may have reduced the amount of character of the visual interface with iOS 7, and they may have issues with jailbreakers trying to customize their devices, but they’re increasing the amount of personalization that can be generated with deep data integration.

Judging by this rumour — and Gurman’s others — and the heavily-redacted schedule, this is going to be a very impressive WWDC.

Un-discoveryd

Benjamin Mayo, 9to5Mac:

After many complaints from the developer community about poor networking performance on Yosemite, the latest beta of OS X 10.10.4 has dropped discoveryd in favor of the old process used by previous versions of the Mac operating system. This should address many of the network stability issues introduced with Yosemite and its new networking stack.

The discoveryd process has been subject to much criticism in recent months as it causes users to regularly drop WiFi access and causes network shares to list many times over, due to bugs.

There are two weeks until WWDC, where Apple will probably introduce OS X 10.11. While that won’t be released to the public until, most likely, autumn, 10.10.4 isn’t publicly available yet either. That means that developers, at least, have been using and complaining about discoveryd for about a year, and it’s still busted for consumers.

Furthermore, I haven’t heard a compelling reason for discoveryd’s existence. It must be “better”, in some way, because I can’t think of another reason why Apple would task their engineers with rewriting the networking stack. I always assumed it was to unify iOS and OS X and to enable Continuity features, but those seem to work just fine under mDNSresponder.

Given the importance of WiFi to Apple’s computer strategy, particularly since the consumerisation of the MacBook Air in 2010, I am surprised discoveryd shipped at all.

Vox Media Acquiring Recode

It’s disappointing that benchmark journalists like Mossberg and Swisher needed a buyer like Vox to gain a decent audience. I am not looking forward to the Chorus-fication of Recode, or the slow infusion of Vox’s particular brand of retelling other publications’ stories.

“Let’s Get the Calories as Quickly as We Can”

Brian X. Chen reports for the New York Times on the rise of meal replacement powders in Silicon Valley:

At the office, Mr. Melocik stashes one Schmoylent jar in the refrigerator and takes the other to his desk. From 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., he sips from the first jar for breakfast, and the second for lunch. He consumes about 14 fluid ounces of Schmoylent each day so he can focus on coding instead of grabbing a bite to eat

“It just removes food completely from my morning equation up until about 7 p.m.,” said Mr. Melocik, 34, who has been following his techie diet since February.

Boom times in Silicon Valley call for hard work, and hard work — at least in technology land — means that coders, engineers and venture capitalists are turning to liquid meals with names like Schmoylent, Soylent, Schmilk and People Chow. The protein-packed products that come in powder form are inexpensive and quick and easy to make — just shake with water, or in the case of Schmilk, milk. While athletes and dieters have been drinking their dinner for years, Silicon Valley’s workers are now increasingly chugging their meals, too, so they can more quickly get back to their computer work.

I’m not sure about you, but I cringed while reading this article. Nothing about this lifestyle appeals to me, from the vastly extended workdays to the avoidance of having to eat at all costs. Don’t get me wrong: I like my job and I want to be successful in my field. But this rapidly-expanding “hustle” culture is an abhorrent characteristic of Silicon Valley, Calgary, and plenty of other regions. Nothing you do at work is important enough to replace taking basic care of yourself, which includes taking leisure time away from work. The amount of overtime hours one accrues should not be a source of pride. There are other, better things to do.

When Stephen Fry Met Jony Ive

Stephen Fry copped an exclusive interview1 with Jony Ive for the Telegraph, first announcing his brand new job title:

When I catch up with Ive alone, I ask him why he has seemingly relinquished the two departments that had been so successfully under his control. “Well, I’m still in charge of both,” he says, “I am called Chief Design Officer. Having Alan and Richard in place frees me up from some of the administrative and management work which isn’t … which isn’t …”

“Which isn’t what you were put on this planet to do?”

“Exactly. Those two are as good as it gets. Richard was lead on the iPhone from the start. He saw it all the way through from prototypes to the first model we released. Alan has a genius for human interface design. So much of the Apple Watch’s operating system came from him. With those two in place I can …”

I could feel him avoiding the phrase “blue sky thinking”… think more freely?”

“Yes!”

Jony will travel more, he told me.

This segment of the interview has been used to prop up a fresh batch of the Jony Ive “deathwatch” posts and tweets. Russell Ivanovic:

So crazy idea: a year from now Jony Ive resigns from Apple. This promotion/vice president thing could be preparing for that?

Jeffrey Grossman:

Maybe I’m just paranoid, but Jony Ive being promoted to Chief Design Officer sure feels like the start of phasing himself out of Apple.

Seth Weintraub’s interpretation post for 9to5Mac even has “jony-ives-leaving-apple” as its slug, which, I think, is a bold implication.

There’s no question that this is a big, multifaceted step for Ive. He’s both gaining more responsibility by becoming a C-level executive,2 but he’s doing fewer tasks he doesn’t want to do. Therefore, he gets to do what he does best, and have the opportunity to spend more time back in the UK, where he seemingly feels more comfortable.

Similarly, there’s also no question that Jony Ive will not be at Apple forever. That much is obvious. I don’t think this necessarily marks the beginning of a short term transition for him away from the company, but I do think it helps define what he enjoys about working there, and equally what he does not enjoy. A move like this potentially gives him more incentive to stay at Apple for longer, not less. It’s a better compromise between his desires and the company’s.


  1. I must say that these interviews feel increasingly less exclusive. Steve Jobs used to grant a rare but powerful interview to one of a choice selection of publications, playing the role of Apple spokesperson extraordinaire. He was, of course, one-of-a-kind in this role.

    These days, it feels as though there’s been a concerted effort to get Ive to replace Jobs in the vast majority of interviews as the passionate spokesperson, with Cook adding his occasional corporate-level take. I think it works pretty well. Both of them are smart people who think before they speak. It’s a different tone, absolutely, but it better reflects the Apple of today. ↩︎

  2. Whether his compensation will now have to be disclosed is a matter for Apple and, ultimately, the SEC to decide. Expect the usual raft of hot takes and thinkpieces as to whether he is earning too much or way too much. ↩︎

Google I/O 2015 Preview

Ron Amadeo of Ars Technica takes a few guesses on what Google I/O 2015 could bring. If even half of these ideas come true, I take that as a further sign that the mobile operating system landscape is slowly converging, which makes sense: everyone wants pretty much the same things out of their smartphone. The differentiator between mobile OSes is increasingly in the interpretation and execution of those expectations.

Just Smart Enough

Shawn Blanc shares his Apple Watch observations:

Apple Watch certainly could be distracting if you let it. But that’s easily avoided by not installing too many apps or allowing too many types of incoming notifications. Where Watch differs from iPhone is that the former is not very good at being a passive entertainment device.

While you can install apps such as Instagram and Twitterrific on your Watch, using them is like reading the news on a postage stamp. Doable but not delightful.

And that sounds like a good thing.

In case you’re wondering: no, I do not have an Apple Watch. I did not order one, and I don’t think I will for a while, for various reasons. I want one, but I have greater priorities. But it sounds like a more conceptually refined interpretation of the smartwatch, and the first one that actually sounds like a delight to use because of its limitations, not in spite of them. I’m looking forward to the day when I will get to experience it for myself.

Uber Gets Dirtier

Nina Strochlic, the Daily Beast:

The Americans with Disabilities Act was voted into law in 1990 to ensure equal rights and prevent discrimination of people with disabilities. Under the ADA, transportation providers are required by law to accommodate wheelchair users if the equipment can fit in their car.

But Uber has launched a war to make itself exempt from the anti-discrimination law.

In three ADA-related cases over the past eight months, in California, Texas, and Arizona, Uber has been slammed with lawsuits that allege the company discriminates against blind and wheelchair-using passengers. The suits demand Uber abide by the ADA, but Uber claims that because it’s a technology company, not a transportation service, it doesn’t fall under the ADA’s jurisdiction.

What a load of crap. Even Uber’s lawyers must have felt dirty delivering their argument.

The Best Calendar App for Mac

Chris Bowler sings the praises of Fantastical:

After reviewing the contenders, Fantastical 2 is the choice to make. I’ve long been a fan of Sunrise and came into this review with a predilection to sticking with what was working for me. And while this would likely still be true if this comparison included the original Fantastical, the changes with version 2 of Flexibits’s flagship offering have won me over.

The original Fantastical for OS X was the best option for quickly adding and reviewing calendar entries. Version 2 keeps all its advantages while adding the functionality of more robust calendar applications.

For me, $50 is a hard impulse buy for most things, but when Flexibits launched the second version of Fantastical for Mac, I bought it in a heartbeat. It’s that good. My only complaint with it (and, in fact, almost all calendar apps) is that it locks scrolling to the familiar week or month paradigm, rather than letting me see two weeks from one month, and two from the next. But that’s a small issue; both the iOS and Mac versions of Fantastical are absolutely magical.

You Do Not Have to Make a Watch App

Not that many people own an Apple Watch yet. If you’re a developer or a UI designer, you should probably buy one, or at least get one in your office that you can wear for a week straight, so you can figure out how you use it. You should perhaps consider an Apple Watch app if you have a compelling case for one. But you do not have to make one.

Times Advertisers to Pay Print-Equivalent Rates

Dominic Ponsford, PressGazette:

Times advertisers are to begin paying the same rate for display advertising in the title’s tablet edition as they do in print.

The agreement, reached with a number of key ad agencies, is being seen by insiders as a major breakthrough in terms of making money from digital journalism.

Website advertising is typically offered at a fraction the price of print. Advertising rates on page-turning tablet editions has also so far lagged behind.

But I thought that tablets were dead?

Spotify Adds Video and Pace-Matched Running Playlists

Video is kinda big; they’re taking on Netflix, and this is sort of the spiritual successor to the original Joost.

But I’m really interested in these new pace-matched playlists. Jordan Crook, TechCrunch:

The new Spotify also has a brand new “Running” feature that taps into the many sensors of your phone (accelerometer, gyroscope, etc.) to figure out the pace at which you’re running and serve you a playlist with the perfect BPMs in each song. Plus, the playlist is still centered around your established tastes.

But going beyond timing out the music so that it matches the beat of your feet against the ground, Spotify is also creating a new format of music, wherein the composition actually changes and rearranges based on your pace.

Apparently, an Apple engineer prototyped this last year. This would be a great Watch feature.

From Switzerland to San Francisco

Me, a month ago:

What’s the over/under on iOS 9 and OS X getting San Fransisco as a universal system font?

(The one thorn in this theory is OS X: it just changed to Helvetica Neue. Would Apple do two system font changes in two years? I don’t necessarily think they’d be dissuaded from it; I suspect the main reason OS X doesn’t use San Fransisco today is because it wasn’t finished in time, or they wanted to debut it on the Watch.)

Mark Gurman, with a brand new rumour:

Apple is currently planning to use the new system font developed for the Apple Watch to refresh the looks of iPads, iPhones, and Macs running iOS 9 “Monarch” and OS X 10.11 “Gala,” according to sources with knowledge of the preparations. Current plans call for the Apple-designed San Francisco font to replace Helvetica Neue, which came to iOS 7 in 2013 and OS X Yosemite just last year, beginning with a June debut at WWDC.

Apple’s regulatory filings for the Watch are partially typeset in San Francisco. The keycaps of the 12-inch MacBook are set in San Francisco. Publicity and marketing materials are still, by and large, set in Myriad Pro (typically the lighter-weight variant).1 It’s not quite the One True Font I thought it might be from the outset, but it’s getting there.

When it was released with WatchKit, I tried San Francisco as my OS X system font and found it even harder to read than Helvetica Neue. I suspect this is because the version I used was optimized for the Watch; I have hope that the version used on OS X will be optimized for that system, including for non-Retina displays. I’m very excited to see how this works.

I suspect San Francisco will be fine on the iPhone because it has a similar-density display as the Watch, with similar physical text sizes.


  1. Apple still typesets their brands in Myriad everywhere they use them, with the exception of the Watch. Even the new MacBook, with its San Francisco keycaps, has a Myriad-set “MacBook” insignia below the display. This could simply be a legacy thing, or it could be for consistency with the rest of the MacBook line, but I think the Watch might be the only product where its marketing materials use the same font as its UI. ↩︎

A Letter to Mark Zuckerberg Regarding Internet.org

67 human rights, technology, and other groups have written to Mark Zuckerberg regarding Facebook’s suspect plans with their Internet.org initiative:

It is our belief that Facebook is improperly defining net neutrality in public statements and building a walled garden in which the world’s poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure websites and services. Further, we are deeply concerned that Internet.org has been misleadingly marketed as providing access to the full Internet, when in fact it only provides access to a limited number of Internet-connected services that are approved by Facebook and local ISPs. In its present conception, Internet.org thereby violates the principles of net neutrality, threatening freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, security, privacy and innovation.

This comes from a very similar train of thought as the concerns previously raised by Mahesh Murthy.