Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for July, 2015

AnandTech Reviews the Apple Watch

I’m typically a big fan of AnandTech’s in-depth reviews, but this one let me down a bit. In particular, Joshua Ho and Brandon Chester didn’t even bother to try the Workout app (via Michael Rockwell):

There is a workout component, but I suspect that this is something more targeted towards someone who is actually setting aside time every day to do nothing but exercise. I tried the interface and found it to be a useful addition, but I really haven’t had a reason to use it as the automatic tracking is pretty much good enough for my needs.

I understand that the Watch is — to put it as Apple does — their “most personal device yet” and that not all people are going to find the fitness component important, but the Workout app is worth testing. This is AnandTech, the land of the ridiculously in-depth review — I expected more. How does it compare to actual fitness and workout trackers? Is it accurate? Is it easy to use while riding a bike? (I can answer the last question: it’s kind of easy to use while riding, but you need to find a bit of road where you can take both hands off the handlebars if you need to diddle with it. Not that I’d ever do that. Ride safe.)

There are other nitpicks I have with it: the authors question a lack of a multitasking UI, for example. This, then, is a review of what the Apple Watch is, not what it does. It’s almost certainly the best glimpse you’ll get of the technology behind the Watch, but it’s decidedly not the best review of how it fits into your life.

The US Government Must Lose Cryptowars 2.0

Elissa Shevinsky in a brilliant, must-read piece for the Christian Science Monitor:

My older friends in the security world have started telling me countless battle stories about fighting “the cryptowars.” Now we chat openly at hacker conferences or their fancy corporate offices. But back then, they were building Pretty Good Privacy, known as PGP, which became one of the most widely used tools for encrypting communications. They would take their servers home at night. They thought the FBI would break into the offices and seize their code. Export controls made it illegal for them to ship this crypto code overseas, so they typed the PGP code into book form. Senior executives mailed it to a bookstore in Europe. As online e-commerce and other activities became more mainstream, the restrictions – and security pros’ paranoia! – relaxed.

[…]

But now, with FBI and National Security Agency leaders pushing Silicon Valley technologists to weaken their encryption so the US government can more easily access the protected data, it’s clear that while I may have missed the drama of the ’90s, I won’t be able to escape the cryptowars redux of the 2010s.

Stupid and Misleading Company Gains $9 Million Investment

Remember the bullshit of Bulletproof coffee, and the café founder Dave Asprey is doing in Santa Monica? He’s just raised nine million dollars to build it, and it includes other pseudo medical bullshit, per Buzzfeed’s William Alden:

It will also include a Bulletproof Vibe vibration platform, which is said to be able to support the immune system and build muscle strength by moving up and down 30 times per second. “You can use it while you’re waiting for us to make a cup of Bulletproof coffee,” Asprey said.

There is no evidence that body vibration systems improve muscle strength, and the only reference to any support or boosting of the immune system comes from Bulletproof. But these claims are implicitly validated through this venture capital injection, and that’s appalling.

FTC Reportedly Subpoenas Streaming Music Services Regarding Apple Music

Micah Singleton of the Verge demonstrates the case against Apple:

As you would expect, Apple Music doesn’t need to raise its price to make up for lost revenue, nor is it subject to other restrictions that the App Store rules place on competition streaming services, essentially giving the service a built-in advantage.

If Spotify wanted to point iOS users who try to sign up through its app to its website, where the subscription price is cheaper, it wouldn’t be allowed according to the App Store rules. “Apps that link to external mechanisms for purchases or subscriptions to be used in the App, such as a “buy” button that goes to a web site to purchase a digital book, will be rejected,” Apple wrote in section 11.13 of its App Store review guidelines.

This makes sense to me. If we assume that all streaming services have broadly comparable licensing terms with record labels, Apple can book $10 in monthly revenue from the sale of a $10 per month plan, while competing services can only book $7 per month of a $10 plan, if sold through an in-app purchase. And, it’s worth mentioning, Apple gets to book their full $3 per month cut from those competing in-app sales; they don’t have to pay a dime of that to labels.

Here’s where Singleton loses me a bit:

Competing music streaming services also aren’t allowed to offer free promos, according to the App Store guidelines, even as a three-month free trial is currently being offered for Apple Music. Music streaming services are also forbidden from offering family plans through the service, which again, Apple Music does.

When it was independent, Beats Music offered a free trial at launch, though through what mechanism I’m not sure.

The gist remains, however. I think the most likely outcome of this, should it be found against Apple, will be for the ban on advertising alternative points of purchase within an app to be overturned. But this is one of those cases where there is little precedent. It all smells like anticompetitive behaviour, but it’s up to the FTC to decide.

Jim Dalrymple Has Had It Up to Here With Apple Music

Jim Dalrymple sounds pissed:

From what I can tell in my tests, Apple Music is deciding itself, based on your library, that it will not add duplicate songs. For instance, I purchased a lot of Black Sabbath albums over the years, but not all of the compilations. I went into Apple Music and added a compilation album, but it didn’t all get added to my library. When I looked at all of the songs that didn’t get added, they were ones that I already had in my library.

[…]

However, if I decide I really want those songs, when I click the “Add” button, nothing happens, which seemed odd to me. If adding the songs is an option, why won’t they add to the library. I went to my iPhone and tapped “Show Complete Album”—when I tapped on the song to add it, the option was to “Remove from My Music.” This means that my iPhone thinks it’s already added, but the song isn’t showing up. What I had to do is go through all of the songs, remove them from the library, and then click add to get them back in the library.

[…]

At some point, enough is enough. That time has come for me — Apple Music is just too much of a hassle to be bothered with. Nobody I’ve spoken at Apple or outside the company has any idea how to fix it, so the chances of a positive outcome seem slim to none.

For what it’s worth, this sounds like an iCloud Music Library problem, not an Apple Music issue. It’s splitting hairs, but it’s an important distinction to make. Because I have Apple Music turned on, but not iCloud Music Library, I get all of the streaming features, but none of the saving or syncing ones. That means my local files remain untouched, which gives me a vastly greater sense of security.

But that’s neither here nor there, when considering what’s written here. Based on everything Dalrymple has said on this, it sounds like the absolute worst possible situation. Missing and skipped songs, matching that doesn’t work very well, and deleting local files. It sounds like my worst nightmare.

You can bet very good money that there’s going to be a tough meeting in Cupertino this week.

(Also, who said that writers like Dalrymple and John Gruber were afraid of damaging their relationship with Apple, so they temper their criticism with platitudes?)

The Gawker Tax

Capital New York’s Peter Sterne recaps a meeting between several editors and business partners at Gawker, regarding the publishing and subsequent takedown of that trashy article:

This sparked a shouting match between [managing editor Nick] Denton and Gawker features editor Leah Finnegan, who previously worked as a staff editor at the [New York Times].

“[The Times] doesn’t [weigh its reporters against its advertisers]! I know that for a fact. It does not and it never will,” Finnegan said.

“I think at some level, yes they do. I know enough New York Times people to know that,” Denton said.

“Nick, I worked there for two and a half years. They canceled ads in favor of journalism.”

“Do you know how much money we lose all the time, because of cancellations in ads? I cannot, I cannot believe that you are actually saying this!”

“Make this into an advertising company then! Say what it really is! It’s not a place for journalism!”

[John] Cook told everyone to calm down and the conversation moved on.

Two things are true here: the Times (broadly) maintains separation between church and state — that is, the editorial and advertising departments of the paper; and, the Times has vastly higher journalistic standards than Gawker. It would be irresponsible to have a conversation about the legitimacy of this entire incident without acknowledging that Gawker is, at its core, a morally-corrupt disingenuous advertising company masquerading as a news organization.

Update: The Times has confirmed to Politico that they’re not jackasses:

“It’s too bad that Mr. Denton is trying to damage others to get out of his own scandal,” Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy wrote in an email when asked about Denton’s remarks. “The New York Times does not make decisions about assignments or beats based on advertisers.”

Web Design: The First Hundred Years

Maciej Cegłowski, with yet another killer talk:

A further symptom of our exponential hangover is bloat. As soon as a system shows signs of performance, developers will add enough abstraction to make it borderline unusable. Software forever remains at the limits of what people will put up with. Developers and designers together create overweight systems in hopes that the hardware will catch up in time and cover their mistakes.

We complained for years that browsers couldn’t do layout and javascript consistently. As soon as that got fixed, we got busy writing libraries that reimplemented the browser within itself, only slower.

It’s 2014, and consider one hot blogging site, Medium. On a late-model computer it takes me ten seconds for a Medium page (which is literally a formatted text file) to load and render. This experience was faster in the sixties.

The web is full of these abuses, extravagant animations and so on, forever a step ahead of the hardware, waiting for it to catch up.

But yeah, sure, it’s the browser’s fault.

Salvaging Flash

Dan Goodin, Ars Technica:

A string of weaponized attacks targeting Adobe’s Flash media player — including three in the past 10 days — has kept software engineers scrambling to fix the underlying vulnerabilities that make the exploits so dangerous. Fortunately, they have also been busy making structural changes to the way the program interacts with computer operating systems to significantly reduce the damage that can result not only from those specific attacks but entire classes of similar ones.

At the moment, the defenses are fully implemented only in the Flash version included in Google Chrome, having made their debut earlier this week. One of the two mitigations is available in other versions of Flash, and the remaining one is expected to be added to other browsers in August.

As Google has opted to bundle Flash into Chrome, thereby creating one of the biggest and most popular security risks around, this is a welcome improvement.

I’ve got to wonder if this is a last ditch effort on Adobe’s part to prolong Flash’s welcome life, which, as far as I’m concerned, it has long surpassed. When will these improvements be rolled into Adobe’s software that relies upon Flash for various UI elements? When can we finally say goodbye to Flash entirely, the way we did for Java on the web? Is Adobe aware that this is only prolonging the agony of a product that is well beyond its sell-by date? Can we just move on already to discover the new and exciting security holes that are surely in HTML5 local storage?

The Internet Is Awful

John Degraft-Johnson has been testing the sites in the Alexa top 50, and his findings aren’t exactly surprising: a lot of sites load far too slowly, either because of the number of requests they make or the size of those requests.

I’m not sure I entirely agree with the inclusion of the China-based sites on here, though. Sure, Sina Weibo loads slowly outside of China, but that’s because its servers and users are located primarily within the country. On the other hand, it’s 2015, so geography should no longer cause issues with site speed.

Update: Wil Turner points out that the China-US slowness isn’t any better in the other direction:

@nickheer follow up on slow internet post & China: from other side of Pacific, all US hosted sites are significantly slower.

@nickheer from Seoul Hong Kong Tokyo lag is slight, real. From Shanghai tedious (if not blocked). Majors (Amazon) better, v. close to US.

The Mythical Golden Key

The Washington Post’s editorial team published a pretty bizarre column in Saturday’s edition. In essence, they renew their call for a “golden key” — some way for authorities to decrypt data in cases where it’s required, but retain its security otherwise:

Last October in this space, we urged Apple and Google, paragons of innovation, to create a kind of secure golden key that could unlock encrypted devices, under a court order, when needed. The tech sector does not seem so inclined.

But the preceding paragraph with interviews from actual experts makes clear that this request is impossible:

A rule-of-law society cannot allow sanctuary for those who wreak harm. But there are legitimate and valid counter arguments from software engineers, privacy advocates and companies that make the smartphones and software. They say that any decision to give law enforcement a key — known as “exceptional access” — would endanger the integrity of all online encryption, and that would mean weakness everywhere in a digital universe that already is awash in cyberattacks, thefts and intrusions. They say that a compromise isn’t possible, since one crack in encryption — even if for a good actor, like the police — is still a crack that could be exploited by a bad actor. A recent report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology warned that granting exceptional access would bring on “grave” security risks that outweigh the benefits.

Experts told the Post that there can be no way to make a key that only law enforcement may have access to while retaining the security of encryption in all other cases. The Post responded by insisting that such a key was needed, much in the same way that a ten year old child asks for a unicorn after being told that no such creature exists.

The Mobile Web Sucks, but You Can Do Something About It, Nilay Patel

There’s a lot to pick apart with Nilay Patel’s whiny article about the sluggish mobile web. Let’s start at the top — with how browsers apparently suck – and take it one claim at a time from thereon:

But man, the web browsers on phones are terrible. They are an abomination of bad user experience, poor performance, and overall disdain for the open web that kicked off the modern tech revolution. Mobile Safari on my iPhone 6 Plus is a slow, buggy, crashy affair, starved for the phone’s paltry 1GB of memory and unable to rotate from portrait to landscape without suffering an emotional crisis. Chrome on my various Android devices feels entirely outclassed at times, a country mouse lost in the big city, waiting to be mugged by the first remnant ad with a redirect loop and something to prove.

I don’t know what sites Patel frequents, but I do not regularly experience achingly poor performance with Safari on my iPhone. Mind you, I do have a 5S, which also has 1 GB of RAM but doesn’t have to drive nearly as big of a screen as the 6 Plus. Apple has regularly shipped underpowered large-screened iOS devices, and I hope that practice changes.

There are improvements coming in software. Safari in iOS 9 takes advantage of Metal, so that should improve rotational performance. Last year, the WebKit team also rolled out a vastly better JavaScript compiler, and they’re working on performance all the time.

But a “disdain for the open web”? How Mobile Safari and Chrome on Android exhibit this Patel does not explain.

The overall state of the mobile web is so bad that tech companies have convinced media companies to publish on alternative platforms designed for better performance on phones.

An alternative way to read this is that media companies’ sites are so bad that Facebook and Apple were compelled to build alternative ways of delivery that strip out all the crap and allow the user to actually read the articles.

And yes, most commercial web pages are overstuffed with extremely complex ad tech, but it’s a two-sided argument: we should expect browser vendors to look at the state of the web and push their browsers to perform better, just as we should expect web developers to look at browser performance and trim the fat. But right now, the conversation appears to be going in just one direction.

In Patel’s mind, no major browser vendor considers performance a serious problem. This is complete nonsense. The conversation is in the other direction currently because browser performance has gotten markedly better over the past several years, but websites have become increasingly bloated. Any advantage gained by browser vendors has been eaten away — and then some — by bad web developers.

Taken together, Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles are the saddest refutation of the open web revolution possible: they are incompatible proprietary publishing systems entirely under the control of huge corporations, neither of which particularly understands publishing or media. […] Apple and Facebook are turning their back on the web to build replacements for the web, and with them replacements for HTML and CSS and every bit of web innovation it’s taken 20 years of competitive development to achieve.

This, I suppose, is the part where Patel proves a “disdain for the open web”, but it is not proof of Chrome or Safari contributing to that. The web is gunked up with all sorts of performance-sapping scripts, ads, and trackers — even Vox Media, the company behind the Verge, admits as such.1 But, for whatever reason, Patel cannot really admit to this, except in couched and defensive terms:

Now, I happen to work a media company, and I happen to run a website that can be bloated and slow. Some of this is our fault: The Verge is ultra-complicated, we have huge images, and we serve ads from our own direct sales and a variety of programmatic networks. Our video player is annoying. (I swear a better one is coming, for real this time.) We could do a lot of things to make our site load faster, and we’re doing them. We’re also launch partners with Apple News, and will eventually deliver Facebook Instant Articles. We have to do all these things; the reality of the broken mobile web is the reality in which we live.

So: “We built a very complex site that is disrespectful of readers by taking many seconds and over a hundred HTTP requests to fully render a multi-megabyte page containing barely three paragraphs of text — much like many of our competitors — but it’s the fault of Apple and Facebook for not accommodating to these atrocious circumstances.”

But we can’t fix the performance of Mobile Safari. Apple totally forbids other companies from developing alternative web rendering engines for the iPhone, so there’s no competition for better performance, and no incentive for Apple to invest heavily in Safari development.

Bullshit. Apple is — as demonstrated above — actively pursuing a much better Safari experience on both mobile and the desktop. Just listen to this week’s Debug (NSFW language). Even Nolan Lawson, who wrote that famous “Safari is the new IE” article you’ve seen floating around, disagrees with Patel here.

That’s a recipe for stagnation, and stagnation is what we have. It’s leading powerful players like Apple and Facebook to create ersatz copies of the web inside their walled gardens, when what we really need is a more powerful, more robust web.

I empathize with the Verge and Vox teams. I really do. But Apple and Facebook’s news apps are a response to an already-bloated web that shows no signs of slowing down. Giving developers a more powerful JavaScript compiler or a more robust browser will only allow them to stretch them to their limits. But providing them with incentives to not use all of the resources allocated to them will ultimately create a better web.

Dan Chilton of Vox Product:

We’ve finally reached a tipping point where we can devote full-time resources to the performance of our platform, and we want to bring you along for the ride. This post will introduce you to our newly-formed Performance Team and describe the first steps we’re taking in pulling ourselves out of performance bankruptcy.

The Verge — like any other site — should not have performance tacked-on at the end; it should be the primary goal. Anything less is disrespectful to readers.

Update: It’s worth pointing out that Chilton’s post is from May, and that Patel’s article was written in July. In the two-and-a-half months between those posts, it doesn’t seem like they’ve dramatically reduced page weight.


  1. “Performance metric tools often use our render time to show off the upper limits of their graphs!” ↩︎

A More Diverse Comp Sci Student Base Is Graduating Than Is Being Hired by Leading Companies

Cecilia Kang and Todd C. Frankel, Washington Post:

Silicon Valley has a diversity problem, a contentious issue that has come into sharper focus in recent months as tech firms have sheepishly released updates on their hiring of minorities. The companies have pledged to do better. Many point to the talent pipeline as one of the main culprits. They’d hire if they could, but not enough black and Hispanic students are pursuing computer science degrees, they say.

But fresh data show that top schools are turning out black and Hispanic graduates with tech degrees at rates significantly higher than they are being hired by leading tech firms.

A number of tech companies have previously offered a lack of diversity in the talent pool as a reason for their predominantly white and male staff. This data indicates that this is largely untrue; there is vastly more diverse talent available than is being hired, which underscores how significant this problem is for Silicon Valley, not schools.

The “Coontown” Breakdown

Though I haven’t written much about it here, I’ve been following the ongoing implosion of Reddit from the sidelines. It has sort of felt inconsequential to me, perhaps because I don’t feel invested in Reddit’s success or failure.

There’s some interesting stuff that’s come out of it, though. Reddit has been another experiment in allowing virtually unlimited freedom of speech on the internet, and, with growth, it has — like Usenet and BBSes before it — turned into a place of hatred and contempt. The community there blew its chance.

Then, yesterday, a user by the name of “Audioburn” put together an analysis of the users of one of the more notorious and popular racist discussion boards, and how they cross-pollinate with other subreddits. The results are illuminating, but also confirming of what you might expect: lots of people prejudiced by race are also sexist, xenophobic, deliberately offensive, and into conspiracy theories. The second set of charts is even more comprehensive.

Coda for iOS

Panic has just released an update to Coda for iOS — goodbye, funny Diet Coda name — and it’s amazing. Between the redesigned UI and vastly expanded capabilities, it’s already a solid update, but they’ve brought it to the iPhone too, and that’s a crazy good proposition.

As a web designer, what device are you using when you notice issues with how your site looks on your phone? Your phone, right? Now you can make those edits for real. For the past few months, I’ve spotted things that didn’t look quite right with this site on my phone. Each time — whether I was on the train or waiting for a coffee, or whatever — I fired up Coda on my phone and fixed the problem right there. It’s pretty much perfect.

I swear they didn’t pay me for this or anything (though I have had the privilege of beta testing the app). Coda’s just that good. Every site I’ve ever made as a freelancer has been built in Coda on my Mac, and the iOS version is now just as capable.

Apple Watch Sales Are Great or Crappy Depending on Which Analyst You Ask

Remember that Slice “Intelligence” report from last week in which they claimed that Apple Watch sales had dropped 90% since peak? Well, if you ask a different group of analysts, the Watch is selling fine.

It’s worth keeping in mind that these estimates are based on the same official data from Apple: none, whatsoever. It’s all a bit academic, frankly, because Apple doesn’t plan on releasing specific sales data for the Watch, so analysts won’t even know if they’re right.

But, though this article from Mark Hibben at Seeking Alpha is just as spitbally as anything based on the Slice report, he does make one smart observation:

The idea that consumers are “losing interest” in the Apple Watch is likely a fallacy as self-serving to Apple detractors as the idea that consumers would quickly lose interest in the iPhone 6. Sounds like the same template, doesn’t it? This message gets repeated over and over in the tech media with only a slight variation: Apple’s products are just fads and consumers will quickly get tired of them.

Of course, that’s the whole point of these analyst estimates: to answer the question of whether Apple has created the next big thing, again. But it falls into the same pattern of those assuming Apple is on the precipice of collapse, as so many have done for so long.

Paying for an Underground Fare With an Apple Watch

Apple switched on Apple Pay yesterday in the UK with a reported 250,000 retail locations supporting it from launch. In addition, you can use it with the contactless readers in the London Underground. Pay close attention to the image in the linked post: the Underground readers are all on the righthand side as you walk through the gate, but most people are right-handed, so they probably wear a watch on their left arm. I wonder if frequent Tube riders will make paying easier by swap which wrist they wear their Apple Watch on.

Apple Introduces Its First 4-Inch A8-Powered iOS Device

Apple’s last major update to the iPod Touch was nearly three years ago, so this is a bit of a surprise. The new colours were expected, but the extent of this update — including new cameras and the A8/M8 combo — is pretty awesome.

It is a little odd that the marketing page emphasizes five colours — space grey, silver, gold, blue, and pink — but it’s also available in red for the Product Red campaign. It’s just as much a new iPod Touch as the other colours, and it’s just as “stunning”, per the marketing copy.

Apple also rolled out new Shuffles and Nanos in the new colours. The Nano doesn’t even get a software update to look current; it retains the incredibly glossy iOS 6-esque UI.

Update: Well, that explains the Nano.