Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for August, 2015

Best Buy Sales Are Up With Apparent Help From Apple

Phil Wahba, Fortune:

The largest U.S. electronics retailer reported a rise in domestic comparable sales of 3.8% for the second quarter, well ahead of Wall Street’s expectations, and posted a better than expected profit. While Best Buy has helped its cause by cutting costs and adding floor space to growing categories like smart homes, home theaters, and shops-within-a-shop for top brands, it has also been getting a lot of help from Apple and its roster of red-hot products.

“Demand for Apple Watch has been so strong in the stores and online,” Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly told Wall Street analysts on a conference call. The retailer expects to be selling the device, which hit the market in June, at all of its 1,050 big-box stores by the end of September, he added. Initially, Best Buy had planned to have watches in 300 stores by the holiday season. (It started selling the watches in early August.)

Must be unprecedented for a “flopped” product to be so resoundingly successful.

Google Now’s Staff Exodus

Interesting report from Mark Bergen at Recode:

Google teased [Now on Tap] with some fanfare in May, at its I/O developer conference, as a breakthrough iteration of Google Now, its personal assistant and one of the twin bedrocks for CEO Larry Page when he returned as executive in 2011.

What went unannounced was that most of the original team that built Now had departed, many of them just before I/O, according to multiple sources. Some had grown frustrated that the product, born within Android, was shuttered into search inside of Google, they said. And Sundar Pichai, Google’s SVP and incoming CEO, did not prioritize the product as much as Page.

Google could be increasing the priority of Now and they feel as though making it a core component of their search product is the best way to do that. But the article by Bergen paints a picture of a frankly brilliant product being eroded to fit within the confines of Google’s core business model. This is particularly intriguing as Apple is weeks away from unleashing their take on predictive search with iOS 9’s Proactive. As Apple increases their focus on predictive search, Google appears to be reducing theirs somewhat. Peculiar.

Advertising Malware Rates Have Reportedly Tripled in the Last Year

This report-cum-content-marketing comes from Cyphort, an enterprise-level anti-malware software company, so take it with the appropriate level of skepticism. But if 0.4% of the sites you visited now serve malware-laced ads, as is claimed by the report, that’s one in every 2,500 domains. You probably visit more websites than that every week, perhaps even more frequently, given the amount of iframes and other embedded content on typical web pages today. The nature of web ads has truly changed in the past five years or so, and with every report like this, content blockers are increasingly appealing.

Uber Lame

Johana Bhuiyan reports for Buzzfeed:

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick often talks about his dream of the perfect Uber trip. “It’s the perpetual trip, the trip that never ends,” he said at the Digital-Life-Design conference in Europe last October. “The driver picks one passenger up, picks another passenger up, drops off the first passenger, but then picks up passenger number three and drops off passenger number two.”

What would be even better is if the driver could use a really big car to hold more than a handful of people. That kind of scale could allow Kalanick to set a flat rate so it becomes affordable to lower income passengers, who perhaps need to live outside of the city centre and use it for their work commute. And perhaps this would become such a valuable piece of infrastructure that he could sell it to municipalities who could then subsidize the cost to users through taxes.

What I’m getting at is that Kalanick’s perfect Uber is a bus.

Update: Via Ben Sargent, the songthaew is fairly similar as well:

Songthaews are used both within towns and cities and for longer routes between towns and villages. Those within towns are converted from pick-up trucks and usually travel fixed routes for a set fare, but in some cases (as in Chiang Mai) they are used as shared taxis for passengers traveling in roughly the same direction.

Twitter Kills Project That Saved Politicians’ Deleted Tweets

Twitter attempted to justify this decision:

“The ability to delete one’s Tweets – for whatever reason – has been a long-standing feature of Twitter for all users. We built into our Developer Policy provisions a requirement that those accessing our APIs delete content that Twitter reports as deleted or expired,” a spokesman for the company said.

“From time to time, we come upon apps or solutions that violate that policy. Recently, we identified several services that used the feature we built to allow for the deletion of tweets to instead archive and highlight them. We subsequently informed these services of their noncompliance and suspended their access to our APIs.

How does this square with the numerous public records laws around the world?

Keep It Steady…

You know that scene out of the beginning of GoldenEye, where James Bond drives a motorcycle off the edge of a cliff1 to chase after a plane that’s in a dangerous dive? Here, it’s Tim Cook instead of James Bond, an email instead of a motorcycle, and Apple’s stock instead of a plane. Tim Bradshaw, Financial Times:

After the company’s stock started the week 10 per cent down following a “Black Monday” for Chinese equities, Apple’s chief executive insisted in a rare intervention that consumer demand in Apple’s most important growth market remained “strong”.

The world’s most valuable company clawed back $78bn in market capitalisation it had lost earlier in the day.

Apple’s stock works with bigger numbers than anyone else’s. Therefore, even a tiny blip in their share price can wipe billions of dollars in value from the company. A much larger drop, like today’s, wipes a lot more, and erodes investor confidence. This, by the way, is probably the dumbest time for that to happen, as we’re headed into Apple’s new product season through September and October.

Update: Yeah, I thought the SEC might have a problem with this email.


  1. Which is — inexplicably — at the bottom of a mountain range. ↩︎

Write Better Markdown

In a nut, if you can hand your Markdown file in its plain text format to someone who’s never read it before, and that person can read the file without difficulty, it’s good Markdown. I disagree with one of the things Brett Terpstra advises:

Markdown allows either inline ([text](url)) or reference format links. Either will work anywhere, and my personal preference is usually determined by the length of the document. Short documents get inline links. Longer ones get blocks of reference links. The readability is the determining factor.

I’ve switched to reference format links permanently; I think inline links are unreadable in almost every circumstance. Even using numerical reference links ([link text here][1]) is preferential to inline links, because [link text here](http://brettterpstra.com/2015/08/24/write-better-markdown/) really breaks this paragraph up, doesn’t it?

Beautiful Pixels Picks Their Favourite Apple Watch Apps

I’ve tried about half of the apps on this list and, while they’re good representations of what a Watch app should be in theory, the speed limitations imposed by watchOS 1 really hamper the “quick use” concept. That is, it’s rather difficult for developers to produce apps that feel like information that can be digested in a few seconds when it takes twenty or thirty seconds for the app to load. Some semblance of relief should arrive with apps optimized for watchOS 2, because they’ll be able to run logic on the watch itself instead of on the connected iPhone. I’m curious to see how much of a difference it makes to the way I use my watch.

iOS 9 Content Blocker Benchmarks

Dean Murphy:

What started off as a one page experiment has since evolved into a full product I’ve worked non-stop on over the past 60 days. I thought it would be a good idea to revisit my original post with Crystal, to show how different the mobile web will be with content blockers. […]

On average, pages loaded 74% faster with Crystal and used 53% less bandwidth. Just by having Crystal installed, I saved a total of 70 seconds and 35MB of data on these 10 pages.

I’ve been testing Crystal for a few days now and it’s almost like getting a faster phone and web connection with a single app installation; I imagine this will be a similar reaction to most content blockers. It’s kind of remarkable what a difference is made just by blocking the kinds of scripts that track you across the web. Since new versions of iOS typically have a high adoption rate, I think this will be a real headache for the targeted ad industry. It will likely pressure them into making changes to their business model, or getting sneakier with how they embed these scripts.

Update: Everything about content blockers being baked into iOS must be unnerving for web publications that are dependent on really crappy ad exchanges. I think it’s lazy to blame non-paying readers for this situation. While it’s true that this has given rise to websites that fill pages with CPM ads, nobody said that they had to be targeted, or that these scripts had to become increasingly more sophisticated (and, as a result, more resource-intensive). Nobody said that web publications needed to stuff a dozen analytics scripts into every page either.

Let’s be optimistic here and consider the possibility that ad and analytics scripts will improve. They’ll have a smaller resource footprint, and publications will use fewer of them. Will readers notice? I don’t think it’s likely. Plenty of people will discover and install content blockers, notice the improved browsing experience, and slowly forget that they’re installed. What then? Are they supposed to occasionally disable their content blockers to see if scripts are still awful? Once bitten…

Spotify Says “SORRY.” (Sic)

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek responds to yesterday’s Spotify brouhaha:

In our new privacy policy, we indicated that we may ask your permission to access new types of information, including photos, mobile device location, voice controls, and your contacts. Let me be crystal clear here: If you don’t want to share this kind of information, you don’t have to. We will ask for your express permission before accessing any of this data – and we will only use it for specific purposes that will allow you to customize your Spotify experience.

Hey, here’s an idea: spell out exactly how this data is going to be used. That way, people won’t get freaked out and Spotify looks like a responsible corporate citizen. Even better, have a progressive privacy policy for features that require an elevated level of data access. Unfortunately, this is just becoming possible on Android, which makes this difficult for a cross-platform app.

Deciding Between Spotify and Apple Music Just Got Easier

I just want to listen to music. To do that, Spotify’s revised privacy policy — which one must agree to in order to use the service — says the app needs to access to my contacts, photos, and location data, and wants me to grant permission to allow that data to be shared with advertisers or other third parties.

While there are a handful of tech companies that have shown that they are capable of providing meaningful summaries on privacy policy changes, most aren’t, and that’s especially true when they try to sneak in updates like this. They are incapable of self-regulating. It is long past time that they’re required to provide a full, plain-language disclosure of exactly what has changed and what they will do with any information collected.

Wrapping It Right

Kirk McElhearn, for Macworld:

I get a lot of packages. I buy hardware, books, CDs, and other items, and I get hardware to review from a variety of companies. Most of the packages I get are enigmatic: I never know where to start opening them, which corner to try and pull off to start the unboxing process. Some have ugly colors and look functional but not attractive, while others try too hard to stand out.

[…]

From the first moment you open an Apple box — even its outer protective shipping box, if you’ve ordered it online — the process is effortless.

Apple is the only company I know of that has packaging that’s so often saved by customers. I don’t think it’s some kind of fan nuttiness or hoarding; it’s just nicer.

Amazon Will No Longer Accept Flash Ads

Ricardo Bilton, Digiday:

Amazon said this week that starting in September, it will no longer accept Flash ads on Amazon.com or on Amazon Advertising Platform, which lets advertisers target Amazon Shoppers on Amazon’s sites and across the Web.

Good news from Amazon. Here’s where Bilton loses me:

Amazon said the move is a reaction to the recent anti-Flash tweaks from browser makers, which have taken aim at the software over the past few months. Chrome, which commands nearly 45 percent of the browser market, was recently fitted with a feature that automatically pauses non-essential Flash content, which essentially means ads. Apple, the most vocal of Flash critics, doesn’t let [Flash] content run on the iPhone and iPad, and also forces Safari users to download plugins before they can view Flash content. And Firefox maker Mozilla temporarily blocked Flash content in Firefox after a security scare in June.

What is it about Apple’s stance on Flash that confounds so many journalists? Bilton makes it seem as though Adobe created a version of Flash that worked great on iOS devices and all they needed was approval from Apple, but that’s not the case. Adobe never created a version of Flash that worked really well on any mobile device. Their earliest demonstration of Flash on mobile, in 2010, was embarrassing, to say the least. A year and a half later, Adobe killed Flash on mobile, having never achieving a really workable version of it.

As far as requiring Safari users to download “plugins”, Bilton is referring to the Flash plugin being necessary to play Flash content. It’s necessary in every browser; only Chrome bundles the plugin by default, a decision that has been criticized for its inherent security risk.

Dumped

The word above describes both what happened today with all the data — 10 GB of compressed text — that was stolen last month from Ashley Madison, and what will likely be happening to the millions of users of the site today.

I don’t mean to be glib about it: this is serious. Ashley Madison is a website that encourages an often-deplorable activity,1 but that doesn’t make this intrusion any less criminal. Unlike with credit card data breaches, which are largely inconvenient but manageable, the fallout is going to affect millions of lives immediately.

Dan Goodin, Ars Technica:

Researchers are still poring over the unusually large dump, but already they say it includes user names, first and last names, and hashed passwords for 33 million accounts, partial credit card data, street names, and phone numbers for huge numbers of users, records documenting 9.6 million transactions, and 36 million e-mail addresses. While much of the data is sure to correspond to anonymous burner accounts, it’s a likely bet many of them belong to real people who visited the site for clandestine encounters. For what it’s worth, more than 15,000 of the e-mail addresses are hosted by US government and military servers using the .gov and .mil top-level domains.

The leak also includes PayPal accounts used by Ashley Madison executives, Windows domain credentials for employees, and a large number of proprietary internal documents. Also found: huge numbers of internal documents, memos, org charts, contracts, sales techniques, and more.

Brian Krebs is convinced this is legitimate.

One of those sales techniques Goodin alludes to is a full user profile wipe, available for $20. As noted by Joseph Bernstein at Buzzfeed, the company estimated that they generated $1.7 million in revenue from this in 2014.

Robert Graham notes that Ashley Madison took security reasonably seriously:

They tokenized credit card transactions and didn’t store full credit card numbers. They hashed passwords correctly with bcrypt. They stored email addresses and passwords in separate tables, to make grabbing them (slightly) harder. Thus, this hasn’t become a massive breach of passwords and credit-card numbers that other large breaches have lead to. They deserve praise for this.

There’s plenty to read on this if you’re interested; I wanted to highlight the articles I found most intriguing. Like other breaches, there are some tools online where you can check if your (or others’) information was compromised. But don’t ask questions that you don’t want answered, at least not in this way. 36 million accounts represents a lot of potential cheaters. Reading through the revelations of a few people who did find out about their significant others’ infidelity in this manner is heartbreaking. Cheating is never okay, but I know that I wouldn’t want to find out about the infidelity of anyone I know like this.


  1. I know a handful of people who are happily in consensual open relationships. ↩︎

Please Don’t Buy a Digital SLR

Ben Brooks wants to save you money and make you a better photographer at the same time:

A great photo isn’t made by the camera.

The reason you love photography on your iPhone so very much is because Apple has made it damned easy to get a pretty solid picture each time. And the reason that you loathe picking up that dSLR is because Canon has done a lot to give you full control of everything.

Well said. This isn’t coming from a place of elitism; cheap SLRs are just generally crappier than non-SLR cameras in the same price bracket, and they’re far harder to use.

But there’s a fair counter to Brooks’ argument if you want to take way better pictures and you have a little bit of money to experiment. Does that sound like you? Try picking up something like a Sony NEX model (affiliate link — you never know). It has interchangeable lenses, like an SLR, but it does a lot of background processing, like a smartphone. It does have a bajillion modes that are part of a learning curve, but you can stick it in full manual and experiment with all of the settings at will. Or you can leave it in one of the automatic modes and get some pretty great pictures as long as you’re pointing it in the general direction of what you want to capture.

Just remember Brooks’ sage advice: “a great photo isn’t made by the camera.” It’s a tool, and it’s only as good as its operator.

Google OnHub

I was not expecting to write about new $200 WiFi router from Google today, but here I am. Out of the box, it uses Google’s DNS servers or your ISP’s — Google’s is often way faster — and collects some data, which you can opt out of. That’s giving some people a mild case of the heebie-jeebies, but if you read through the list of items they’re collecting data on, it’s all very reasonable and typical; there’s nothing nefarious going on.

Like Apple’s AirPort devices, the OnHub is controlled via an app on your phone, and it looks really good. It’s probably my favourite feature of the AirPort — well, that, and its lifespan — and I’m happy to see the same approach with the OnHub.

But, if I didn’t own an AirPort, would I buy one? Probably not. My ISP’s router comes with all the WiFi trimmings built in, as do the routers of most people I know. (I use my AirPort Extreme so I can connect a hard drive and not deal with the crappy built-in software.) Are non-enterprise WiFi routers really a big market? The OnHub probably has an advantage over the AirPort, insomuch as the latter — amongst some people I know — has the unfortunate reputation of being proprietary. It isn’t, but that’s the kind of rep Apple’s products sometimes get; Google’s products are not seen in a similar way.

The above paragraph really only makes sense if the OnHub is viewed as a WiFi router, though. That’s not really what it is: as Google alludes to in the second part of the name, it’s a hub. It’s probably going to be doing a lot more very soon. Still doesn’t answer the question of whether anyone will buy one, but it would be a lot more compelling argument if it wasn’t just a WiFi router.