Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for May, 2015

Hearst Magazines Update Newsstand Apps

D.B. Hebbard, Talking New Media:

There are the typical complaints about the fact that the apps are free to download but then you must buy the issues (sorry, you have to pay to read most consumer magazines); then there are the complaints about the Newsstand (can’t find the app once it has been downloaded).

Hearst’s apps tell us a lot about magazine readers: many are older and just not comfortable with the whole app experience of in-app purchases, or the way digital publications are navigated. That’s a shame, because Hearst’s digital editions are fairly good (app bugs aside).

I don’t think this is isolated to Hearst’s audience. It’s time to say goodbye to Newsstand.

Apple Has Reportedly Shelved Their TV Plans

Daisuke Wakabayashi, Wall Street Journal:

Investor Carl Icahn said he expects Apple Inc. to introduce an ultra-high-definition television in 2016. But after nearly a decade of research, Apple quietly shelved plans to make such a set more than a year ago, according to people familiar with the matter.

Apple had searched for breakthrough features to justify building an Apple-branded television set, those people said. In addition to an ultra-high-definition display, Apple considered adding sensor-equipped cameras so viewers could make video calls through the set, they said.

Ultimately, though, Apple executives didn’t consider any of those features compelling enough to enter the highly competitive television market, led by Samsung Electronics Co. Apple typically likes to enter a new product area with innovative technology and easier-to-use software.

Wakabayashi’s sources are notoriously months behind, but this move — if true — doesn’t surprise me in the least. I’ve long thought that Apple brings a lot more to the table with their services and an inexpensive accessory box than they would by building an expensive, large television set in a category that has razor-thin margins. That remains true as long as there’s nothing compelling they could build into an actual television set that requires the set itself.

Gene Munster must be gutted.

How Richard Stallman Does His Computing

For someone like me, Stallman’s methods are very restrictive and convoluted, requiring a level of sacrifice that isn’t very realistic for me. But it says a lot about our modern web when such a challenging set of rules must be in place in order to preserve our privacy. And, yes, I’m fully aware that my website contains a localized analytics script and an ad network code. On a related note, turning off JavaScript is probably one of the most straightforward ways you can protect your privacy online.

Apple Working on Watch Updates

Mark Gurman’s report made me think of something I hadn’t before: how will Apple Watch updates be delivered? Will they be like iOS or OS X, with a major new version every year? Will they be tied to iOS updates and releases? Or will they be released on a more loose and fluid schedule, linked to nothing more than Apple’s whims?

Testing the New MacBook with Windows 10

Alex King (via Michael Tsai) found that the new MacBook draws the animations in Windows 10 really smoothly, but struggles with some animations in OS X:

Because Apple does not cap Mission Control at 30FPS or something else, and because inertial scrolling and Space-switching more frequently operate at 60FPS, it is reasonable to assume that Apple expects Mission Control to be able to reach 60FPS too. Thus, framerates in the high 30s and low 40s stick out.

Until thorough benchmarking is completed by me or someone else, I think the best way to put it is this: Task View often runs at 60FPS, while Mission Control never runs at 60FPS.

I think pretty much all Mac users — from owners of poky Mac Minis through high-end iMacs — have experienced super slow Mission Control animations. It’s just not a well-built animation.

It’s worth noting that Exposé never seemed to suffer from a similar problem on any Mac excluding the lowest-end products, and that was running on far worse hardware than what we have today. In fact, a fair amount of OS X’s animations are significantly slower than the Tiger days. I’m not sure what’s causing such a substantial performance degradation, but I hope remedying it is a focus of iOS and OS X this year.

Tools Don’t Solve the Web’s Problems

Peter-Paul Koch:

The web definitely has a speed problem due to over-design and the junkyard of tools people feel they have to include on every single web page. However, I don’t agree that the web has an inherent slowness. The articles for the new Facebook feature will be sent over exactly the same connection as web pages. However, the web versions of the articles have an extra layer of cruft attached to them, and that’s what makes the web slow to load. The speed problem is not inherent to the web; it’s a consequence of what passes for modern web development. Remove the cruft and we can compete again.

Oh, yes, please.

This happens on the client side from the inclusion of Javascript frameworks, external plugins, analytics scripts,1 giant images, and so forth; each of these requires a DNS query, a download, and potentially rendering. This cruft also exists on the server side from related content and similar extraneous database lookups. It gets worse: the creeping of this cruft coincided with the rise of the responsive web, which means that all this crap gets served over your metered cellular connection.

Somewhere in my Pinboard,2 I have a series of links to Stack Overflow threads where someone asks a question solvable with basic CSS, yet the top-ranked answer involves a jQuery plugin or two, and a custom script. It’s atrocious.

But this cruft keeps creeping in because typical web connections are — broadly speaking — getting faster, so it’s somehow okay in the minds of some to send increasing amounts of data. Actual, real speed in lieu of client-side caching seems to no longer be a priority. And that’s why the web is slow: not because Facebook is doing anything that special, but because few people put in the effort to make it fast.


  1. If you have Ghostery installed, you know just how many tracker scripts are on so many websites. ↩︎

  2. I need to start using tags again. ↩︎

Don’t Wash Tennis Balls

Back when iOS 7 was released, I criticised the use of text strings as buttons:

Both [iOS and OS X are] used by people all over the world, and will set their device to one of the dozens of interface languages available. To accomodate the peculiarities of each language, interface elements containing text need to be flexible, and this flexibility gets compounded with additional text-based elements.

You’d therefore imagine that distinct symbols with clear meanings would be a smart way to bridge this gap. If they’re clear shapes, their function can be made obvious, and they likely need no localization.

Thomas Byttebier raises a good point:

[An] icon can often replace a long descriptive group of words. As screens get smaller, this is much welcomed. But herein lies the design trap, because most icons are unclear. They make people think. What good has a beautiful interface if it’s unclear? Hence it’s simple: only use an icon if its message is a 100% clear to everyone. Never give in.

I entirely agree with him, less his assertion that “the best icon is a text label”. It’s extraordinarily challenging to design an icon that will be read as an action — like “compose” or “refresh” — for an audience of people who range from the very tech-savvy to the novice, in hundreds or thousands of unique cultures. Different audiences will interpret icons in myriad ways, many of which the designer may not expect.

But it’s almost possible. The pictograms that are used in pretty much every airport worldwide are proof of this, but even they often accompanied by a text label in a mix of languages, so there can be no ambiguity. The consequences of an airport with ambiguous signage are significant: missed flights, frustration for already-stressed travellers, and so forth. The consequences of an ambiguous icon on a social network might be less significant, in the grand scheme of things, but ease of use should not come at the expense of trying to show off or be different.

Fight for the users.

Snooping on Facebook Instant Articles

John Gruber piqued my curiosity:

I’m intrigued by the emphasis on speed. Not only is native mobile code winning for app development, but with things like Instant Articles, native is making the browser-based web look like a relic even just for publishing articles. If I’m right about that, it might pose a problem even for my overwhelmingly-text work at Daring Fireball. Daring Fireball pages load fast, but the pages I link to often don’t. I worry that the inherent slowness of the web and ill-considered trend toward over-produced web design is going to start hurting traffic to DF.

I had to take this for a spin to find out how fast it is. Instant Articles are aptly named — they load really fast. I tested a series of articles from Facebook’s various publishers — including from the Atlantic, the New York Times, and Buzzfeed — and found that most content loads near instantaneously, including high-resolution imagery. Videos were the only exception, which sometimes exhibited a few tenths of a second of lag before autoplaying on my 50 mbps home connection.

But even videos loaded faster than pretty much any page on Pixel Envy. My site is pretty damn fast, but not compared to Instant Articles, which is a little ridiculous given that this site is nearly entirely textual.

What’s enabling this super speed? It’s all within the iOS app, so there’s not a lot of information an idiot like me can cull, but I ran a session through Squid and collected the logs. Nearly everything Facebook delivers is sent over HTTPS, so I couldn’t cache its data or see many specific loading events. Nevertheless, here are the logs for a Buzzfeed “article” about grown men playing with kittens, and some article from the Times.1 A few observations:

  • All of the article content is hosted on Facebook’s servers, including text, images, and video. Ads, on the other hand, are either provided by Facebook or through whatever network or exchange the publisher likes. In the case of Buzzfeed, that’s Moat; in the case of this Times article, it’s the newspaper itself serving the ads.

  • To get things to load fast, Facebook doesn’t appear to use tricks beyond what you might expect: mighty data centres located all around the world, and compressing the hell out their assets. It also loads media lazily. But there’s probably some other, more invisible stuff going on. I poked around the app bundle and didn’t spot anything obviously exciting to my eyes.

  • Facebook automatically loads all content — including video — by default. That seems like a rather generous assumption on the part of Facebook, given that most people are probably on metered plans. You can turn this off under the More tab, in Account Settings, then in Videos and Photos, then under Auto-play.

  • As Gruber says, far too many sites are over-complicated with gigantic photo banners and megabytes of Javascript. I’m optimistic that, if nothing else, this step by Facebook will encourage web developers to once again focus more on the speed and size of what they build.


  1. There’s also a bunch of crap from various backgrounded services. Ignore those lines; they’re just there for completeness. I did remove one confidential line, however. ↩︎

Big, Dumb Pipes

Dennis K. Berman, Wall Street Journal:

When Steve Jobs released the first iPhone in June 2007, Apple Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. were worth almost exactly the same in the public markets: About $115 billion.

What came over the next eight years was one of the greatest transfers of power and wealth in corporate history. Mobile phone operators — who had been brutish, intractable gatekeepers to the customer — were turned into Apple’s lackeys.

The customer was still spending money with the carriers, but now she was spending far more with Apple. Today Apple is worth about $735 billion, nearly double that of Verizon and AT&T Inc. combined. The carriers still love to romance the “power of the network,” but this has the feel of a crumbling empire, vainly proclaiming its domain over places long overrun.

Facebook and Google are worth more than Verizon or AT&T, too, and Amazon is pretty close. Remember how terrified carriers were of becoming dumb pipes? It’s happened; it was inevitable. And now carriers are finding creepyreally creepy — ways to try to salvage what leverage they have left.

The Future of Digital Advertising

Frightening post from Ben Thompson, framing both yesterday’s Verizon-AOL news and Facebook’s Instant Articles:

There’s no need for me to dwell on the Facebook news; I covered it at length in March in an article called The Facebook Reckoning. In that piece I noted a significant problem with Internet advertising: ad inventory is ever-increasing, which means the rates for an undifferentiated ad spot are ever-decreasing; the best way to combat that trend is through better ads, better placement, better targeting, and better measurement.

[…]

This is why the deal makes so much sense: AOL provides the technology to target individuals instead of content, and Verizon the ability to track those individuals — at least the over 100 million customers they already have — at arguably a deeper level than anyone else in digital advertising (for non-Verizon customers, AOL’s ad platform is still useful, albeit not as targeted; rates would be commensurately lower). The talk of this mashup joining Facebook and Google to form a “Big 3” of digital advertising is not unrealistic.

I certainly hope it doesn’t play out like this.

A Different Take on the Liveliness of the Mac App Store

Gabriel Hauber:

Sam Soffes said that he only sent out a couple of tweets about Redacted to announce its launch, although the app fortuitously did end up on Product Hunt and apparently got quite some attention there. The result – halfway decent first day sales. The app itself is rather simple and other apps with quite similar functionality already exist on the store.

This tells me that with a bit of effort and a good product, it shouldn’t be that difficult to generate a half-way decent revenue on the Mac App Store alone. And when you add direct sales into the mix, it looks even more attractive.

Maybe there’s a fair amount of confirmation bias here, but I don’t think the Mac App Store works as a more-or-less upscaled version of the iOS App Store. I buy little one- or two-dollar apps on my iPhone all the time, but I rarely buy new software on my Mac. It’s not as lively an ecosystem, probably because a Mac app is expected to be orders of magnitude more capable and complex than an iOS app.1 It’s also probably true that OS X and Mac apps aren’t evolving nearly as fast as their iOS counterparts.

Mac app developers do have one major advantage over iOS developers: they can offer their apps for sale in both the Mac App Store — with some exceptions — and as a standalone download. The App Store potentially offers a much greater promotional value, but at the price of the infamous 30% cut of all sales.

But that still doesn’t answer the question of how valuable the Mac App Store is to third-party developers. My guess is that it’s a good opportunity for scaled-up iPhone apps and little utilities, but has more of a neutral effect for apps with a power user audience.


  1. And probably also because, as Hauber points out, tens of millions of iPhones and iPads get sold every quarter, compared to “only” a few million Macs. ↩︎

From Reading List to Pinboard

Ben Brooks’ Pinboard usage mimics my own:

The change for me isn’t that notable on it’s own, but I have made a conscious effort to not only save read later links to Pinboard, but to also save all bookmarks to Pinboard, thus giving me a much better archive of things I read on the web. That’s truly the nicest feature of the entire move: I now have one repository to search — and that I thought was worth mentioning.

NYT Now What?

The New York Times Company:

The new version features a fresh look and improved card designs to help readers catch up even faster. Screenshots of the new cards can easily be shared with friends. Content is updated around the clock, and the app now highlights new stories since your last check-in.

NYT Now’s popular Morning Briefing now comes with an alert feature to notify users as soon as it’s ready.

I really like the sound of these features. I regularly check the app throughout the day, so any indication of what’s new is helpful to me, and the morning briefing notification feels kind of like you’re living in a movie where you need your mission dossier. Only one problem:

Fans of NYT Now rejoice: The Times’s news app — designed to get you caught up on the most important and interesting stories — is free starting today.

Why is this a problem? Brian Krogsgard explains:

I wonder, is it really worth me keeping my subscription when 90% of the Times articles I read are from what is now a free app? Likely not.

Unless, of course, they cheapen the app content.

[…]

Starting this morning, the app showcases a big sponsor link, so I guess that’s how they plan to monetize it. Furthermore, I presume they anticipate they can get folks addicted enough to want full access — and of that goal, I am quite skeptical.

I’m a Times subscriber, so launching the app to find a Delta ad larger than the NYT Now logo on the splash screen offended me a little this morning. I want to feel like I’m reading the New York Times, not Delta’s newsletter. Of course, subscribers can sign into the NYT Now app, but I’m unclear whether that gives me less of a “freemium” experience, or whether it just lets me sync my saved articles.

There’s always the standard Times app that I could use instead, but it doesn’t have the impression of speed that NYT Now does. It feels like the entire paper, which is nice on a desktop, but a little heavy for a phone. The standard app is also buried in Newsstand, and it can’t be taken out. NYT Now is still winning for me — the new app looks and feels great, and it still does what I want it to (despite curated and recommended stories from other sources being blended into the main feed, rather than being under a separate tab). But it’s kinda hard to choose between the two, as neither are now ideal for their purpose.

“My Dad, My Mentor”

Erin Lee Carr, daughter of David Carr, in Glamour:

I was in the passenger seat as my dad steered our family’s SUV in the direction of my first internship, at Fox Searchlight Pictures. He ignored the car wedging into our lane and turned my way. “Who’s your supervisor?” he asked. “Who’s head of the company? What films of theirs do you like?”

I mumbled something about how I’d loved the acerbic side of Juno, which the studio had put out about a year earlier. My dad shook his head, lit a cigarette, and said, “No one is going to take you seriously if you don’t take the job seriously. Do your fucking homework.”

Redesigning Overcast for the Apple Watch

Marco Arment’s first attempt at a Watch app wasn’t perfect, but he has a new version of Overcast out that, he thinks, is a vast improvement:

Trying to match the structure of the iOS app was a mistake. For most types of apps, the Apple Watch today is best thought of not as a platform to port your app to, but a simple remote control or viewport into your iPhone app.

My initial app was easier to conceptualize and learn, and it closely matched the iOS app. But it just wasn’t very good in practice, and wasn’t usually better than taking out my phone.

The new app is a bit weird and polarizing, and has a learning curve, but it’s great in practice if it fits your preferences. (Just like the Apple Watch.)

Arment did nothing inherently wrong with trying to be on the Watch on day one, but this goes to show just how different its interaction model is compared to a phone. Only after using it did Arment discover how he was using it, and I imagine that’s the same for pretty much any app.

There’s a lot of pressure to be first on a new platform, but there are lots of great reasons to wait to experience the product first before trying to ship something.

The Numbers

Abdel Ibrahim:

Today, Executive Editor at The Verge, Deiter Bohn, posted his in-depth review of the LG Watch Urbane, LG’s second round-screened smartwatch, which sells $349 dollars. I read the review, which highlighted the various pros and cons of the product as reviews tend to do, and then I noticed something interesting at the end of the article: A 7.3 overall score.

I wondered how that compared to their Apple Watch review, so I did a quick Google search (don’t bother using The Verge’s built-in search function — it’s horrible) and noticed that editor-in-chief Nilay Patel gave Apple Watch an overall score of an even 7.

The problem is that the Verge — as with so many other sites — attempts to assign a seemingly objective numerical ranking to an inherently subjective practice. The numbers make it sound like the site, as a publication, would more readily recommend the Watch Urbane over the Apple Watch, if only by a slight margin. In actuality, the review paints a different picture:

I wish I could say that the Urbane is the perfect Android Wear watch, but I can’t. It may be that there is no such thing, there are only different watches for different people. That’s why I called the Urbane a cipher for Android Wear: it perfectly encapsulates how divisive wearable technology can be. I’m also hard-pressed to believe that it’s worth the $349 asking price — the materials and technology aren’t that much better than the G Watch R, which is $100 less. The Urbane is for people who love big, shiny watches, and I’m clearly not one of them.

In comparison, here’s how Nilay Patel summarized his Apple Watch review:

There’s no question that the Apple Watch is the most capable smartwatch available today. It is one of the most ambitious products I’ve ever seen; it wants to do and change so much about how we interact with technology. But that ambition robs it of focus: it can do tiny bits of everything, instead of a few things extraordinarily well. For all of its technological marvel, the Apple Watch is still a smartwatch, and it’s not clear that anyone’s yet figured out what smartwatches are actually for.

If you are willing to go along on that journey, then you’ll enjoy the Apple Watch.

Sounds like a recommendation, if a hesitant one.

Naturally, the two reviews are from different writers, but it’s a confusing mix of an attempt at objectivity and subjectivity. If you relied upon the Verge’s numerical rankings as a sorting criteria for picking a smartwatch, you’d end up with a Pebble Steel, which scored an 8.5 out of 10. It’s nowhere near as capable as an Apple Watch, but it was also released six months ago, so its ranking is kind of irrelevant now.

To summarize, then: the numerical scores only give the illusion of objectivity, don’t match the content of the review, and don’t have lasting value. So why do they exist? When I read a review, I want the reviewer’s opinion; if I’m in the market for a smartwatch, which one do I buy? It sounds like Dieter Bohn recommends I don’t buy the Urbane. Which should I buy? Sounds like Nilay Patel thinks the Apple Watch is the best on the market. That’s all I need to know.

Previously:Recommended by 4 Out of 5 Dentists”.

More on the Mac App Store

Daniel Jalkut points out a caveat with those terrible Mac App Store numbers:

“Top Paid” is a terrible name for that leaderboard, because it implies being paid more money than … everybody. “Trending Paid” is fairer.

With millions of Mac users, though, it’s hard to see how 59 US sales should be enough to make the eighth position in any chart, if most of those millions of users were buying software frequently.

My guess is that people get into a groove on their Mac. They don’t buy software very often, and they’re generally happy with what they’ve used for a long time. My most recent Mac software purchase was Fantastical 2; before that, it might have been the Sims 4. I bought the former on March 25 and the latter on February 17.

Perhaps the iPhone enormously skews our perception of the success or failure of any of Apple’s products. Yes, iPad sales are in a steep decline, but perhaps people have now settled into a more regular and longer update cycle. Maybe the Mac App Store is wildly successful for many developers, who wouldn’t have dreamed of 59 US sales on launch day. It’s certainly working for some developers.

Maybe it just needs a little bit of love.

Ain’t Nobody Using the Mac App Store

In real, practical terms, the Mac App Store is a decent distribution method for Apple’s software. It’s certainly better than the old Software Update function. But for third party developers? Not as much. Not even close. Maybe nobody buys Mac software any more, or maybe all the developers who are actually able to charge for software don’t need the Store. In that case, what’s it really for, apart from Apple’s own software?