Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for October, 2015

Holes

Based on the reports I’ve read so far, the new Apple TV sounds like a polished but limited 1.0 product. The limitations in this article from Serenity Caldwell — no Siri search in the App Store, no way to send or share apps, and no background audio in third-party apps (!) to name just a few — are all things I expect to be resolved in the coming months. It’s the kind of thing that makes me a slightly hesitant buyer, my thoughts being: if they couldn’t add background audio for third-party apps, something which has been in iOS for five years, what bugs are found within? But the reports I’ve read elsewhere suggest very few bugs, and simply a fair amount of surprising omissions. A classic Apple product launch, then.

Stop Doubting

Great piece from Ben Thompson:

Step back five years or so, and there were legitimate strategic questions about the iPhone: probably the two most popular were whether or not the iPhone could maintain its average selling price (ASP) or if it needed to go down-market, and whether or not Android would overwhelm the iPhone from a marketshare perspective and thus, over time, win over the complementary parts of the iPhone’s ecosystem (especially developers). As long-time readers know, I consistently argued that neither would happen — iOS and its ecosystem would continue to provide significant differentiation that maintained ASP, there were far more wealthy customers in large developing countries like China than average income numbers would suggest, and that these two factors would perpetuate the ecosystem’s allegiance to iOS — but I could at least respect that the thinking behind these objections was grounded in a cogent analytical framework (that just happened to be wrong).

On the other hand, I have a much more difficult time being respectful about today’s bear arguments that basically boil down “the iPhone was too successful previously” or, perhaps more accurately, “just because.” If you want to argue that the iPhone will be less successful than it has been previously, ground it in something other than your vague intuition!

Apple TV Review Roundup

Based on the reviews I’ve read so far on my crappy hotel WiFi connection, this sounds like a near-killer product with baffling shortcomings.

David Pogue:

Apple Music is here, too. It’s a shame Siri can’t communicate with Apple’s own $10-a-month service. It’d be cool if you could just say, “Play Harry Connick Jr.” (or any album, song, or performer you can think of) for instant playback. […]

I have another beef, too. There’s still a lot of text entry on the Apple TV—every time you enter your account information into an app, for example, or when you’re searching the Apple TV app store—and it’s excruciating. You have to slide over to one letter after another on this absurdly designed layout. […]

And why, above all, can’t you speak to dictate? You can on the iPhone and the iPad—why not here? Whassa matter, Siri—you chicken?

I thought Siri was Siri and would function similarly device-to-device, but it doesn’t sound like it. This seems like another AirDrop-like situation, where something you try on one device won’t function the same on another device, despite it being named and marketed similarly.

John Paczowski, Buzzfeed:

Setup is a breeze thanks to tap-to-configure, which quickly transfers basic information like Wi-Fi network and password and iTunes Store account to an Apple TV from an iPhone. My parents could probably set this thing up and the only phone call I’d get from them would be a triumphant one touting their success.

Smart. A few different companies have been doing this with peripheral-type devices and it makes a lot of sense.

Christina Warren, Mashable:

But tvOS isn’t simply blowing up the iOS experience for a bigger screen. That’s something we’ve seen from other Android-based set-top boxes (including, to a certain extent, Amazon’s Fire TV), and it doesn’t always work as well as you might think.

That’s because a six-inch experience and a 10-foot experience are different. The nice thing about the Apple TV and tvOS is that it knows that the experiences are different and the apps are built in a way to make that kind of shift work.

Unlike features like AirDrop or Siri, the UI is something that should feel similar product-to-product, but be tailored for the specific needs of each. tvOS sounds like a cousin of iOS and OS X that’s built specifically for a big-ass screen. Developers ought to keep that in mind; it’s going to be hard to build something great for this product without owning and extensively using one.

Inside Apple’s Perfectionism Machine

Apple seems to be opening up a little more these days; or, perhaps, their form of opening up is shifting: instead of Newsweek and Time, they’re granting exclusive interviews to Fast Company and Mashable. The latter publication scored a good one with Phil Schiller and John Ternu. Lance Ulanoff:

In fact, Apple is apparently taking the time to custom-fit all sorts of pieces in the MacBook through a process it calls “binning.” Since there can be minuscule variances that might make, for instance, the Force Touch trackpad not a perfect fit for the body or the super-thin Retina display not exactly a match for the top of the case, Apple finds matching parts from the production line. Even the thickness of the stainless steel Apple Logo, which replaced the backlit logo on previous MacBook models, can vary by a micron or so, meaning Apple needs to find a top with the right cutout depth.

Apple started doing this with the glass cutouts on the iPhone 5, and has been ramping it up across their product lines. It shows: every new product from them feels tighter and better-built than anything that came before. I doubt any other company is doing anything like this, and I believe few other companies can do anything like this. Nobody has the same scale of production dedicated to building such a narrow set of products.

Apple’s Q4 2015 Results

Huge revenues and huge sales showing, once again, that Apple’s pricing strategy and a lack of so-called “budget” options works for them. Some things I noticed:

  1. 61% year-over-year growth and 15% sequential growth in the “other products” category bodes well for Apple Watch sales. “Other” products, in Apple’s parlance, consists of Apple TV, Beats, iPods, and accessories, in addition to Watches, and there were no major announcements or introductions in this quarter in any of those product lines. iPod sales are almost certainly lower than in the year-ago quarter, too.

  2. iPhone sales don’t look as impressive in terms of sequential gain compared to the year-ago quarter because Q4 2015 ended September 26, the same day that the 6S went on sale. I imagine Q1 2016 will be impressive.

  3. iPad sales were the lowest they’ve been in the past three years, perhaps longer. The forthcoming iPad Pro isn’t available yet, and is likely to be less of a large volume product. The iOS 9 enhancements are powerful, and make a difference for anyone who has purchased an iPad since the A7 generation. I wonder to what extent the long-term support of older iPads ultimately impacts current-generation sales.

  4. Apple Pay is coming to Canada and a bunch of other countries soon, kind of:

    We’re thrilled to announce today that we’re partnering with American Express to bring Apple Pay to eligible customers in key global markets, so even more people can experience the easy, secure, and private way to pay. Apple Pay will be available to eligible American Express customers in Australia and Canada this year, and is expected to expand to Spain, Singapore, and Hong Kong in 2016.

    An Amex-only deal is likely beneficial to Apple — Amex customers are typically higher earners and spenders — but weak sauce for the more egalitarian world of a general-purpose payments system. I’d imagine Amex customers are more likely to own iPhones, especially recent ones, but I would wager that most iPhone owners, especially outside the U.S., do not have an Amex card.

    Earlier this month, in fact, TD Canada Trust mistakenly made public their Apple Pay promotional pages. It’s clearly coming as soon as it can to other partners across Canada, but it seems like the Amex deal is the only one confirmed and, therefore, the only one that Apple could announce today.

European Parliament Votes Against Net Neutrality

Robin Wauters of Tech.eu:

Alas, the European Parliament has voted against all amendments to a bill on the European single market for electronic communications, failing to properly protect net neutrality in these parts.

That means ISPs will be able to create Internet ‘fast lanes’ for those who pay to have their content load more rapidly by calling them ‘specialized services’, exempt applications from users’ monthly bandwidth cap (zero-rating), define ‘classes of services’ (and discriminate by speeding up or slowing down traffic in those classes) and also to slow down traffic to prevent ‘impending congestion’ (huh?).

Against the backdrop of the EU threatening to prosecute Google for creating a crappy competitive environment, this decision is mystifying. Do they think ISPs will be better competitors? Do they think they’ll discriminate against traffic fairly, or as “fair” as traffic discrimination can be?

German Green MEP Julia Reda:

The internet’s open structure is what made it the successful driver of growth and innovation in the digital economy and digital culture that it is today. That providers will be allowed to discriminate against certain traffic not only creates a two-tier internet, it also removes incentives for carriers to extend their capacities.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee:

If adopted as currently written, these rules will threaten innovation, free speech and privacy, and compromise Europe’s ability to lead in the digital economy.

To underpin continued economic growth and social progress, Europeans deserve the same strong net neutrality protections similar to those recently secured in the United States. As a European, and the inventor of the Web, I urge politicians to heed this call.

I couldn’t say it any better myself than Reda or Berners-Lee.

An Imagined Conversation Between Airbus and a China Airlines Representative

An Airbus representative walks into the China Airlines boardroom and is greeted by members of their interior amenities and design team.

China Airlines: Good morning.

Airbus: Bonjour, good morning.

CA: We’re really impressed with the work you’ve done on this latest batch of A330s.

A: Thank you. We worked really hard on the precise colour of lilac to be used for the seat upholstery.

CA: We can tell; it looks perfect. Listen: we asked to meet with you today to discuss the in-flight entertainment system and amenities.

A: Sure. What would you like to have? We can put screens in the seatbacks or overhead —

CA: Seatbacks would be perfect.

A: Great. And touch screen or remote control?

CA: How about both? And what kind of touch screen are you using? Is it capacitive or the same crappy resistive touch screen that has been used for decades?

The Airbus rep sighs from embarrassment.

A: Resistive. We’ve been trying to improve —

CA: They’ll never get better. Fine. What else?

A: Well, there’s a small crescent of space left on the sides of the display. What would you like to put there?

CA: Well, what do most airlines put there? It’s not a lot of space.

A: These days, most of our customers are putting at least a single power outlet in there, or perhaps a USB port for power.

CA: No, nobody’s going to use that. I can think of something better.

Facebook Says They’ve Partially Fixed the iOS App’s Egregious Battery Drain

Ari Grant, engineering manager at Facebook, has posted an explanation of where the iOS app was going wrong:

The second issue is with how we manage audio sessions. If you leave the Facebook app after watching a video, the audio session sometimes stays open as if the app was playing audio silently. This is similar to when you close a music app and want to keep listening to the music while you do other things, except in this case it was unintentional and nothing kept playing. The app isn’t actually doing anything while awake in the background, but it does use more battery simply by being awake. Our fixes will solve this audio issue and remove background audio completely.

This is a rather curious bug. My understanding of the media APIs in iOS is that they will suspend operation when the app is backgrounded unless explicitly told to keep running. Perhaps Facebook’s iOS app was set up in such a way to allow audio calling before that feature was subsumed by the Messenger app — this would make removing background audio a no-brainer decision.

Whatever the case, it’s not working for Nate Boateng.

1989–1993 in Kmart Background Music

Mark Frauenfelder, BoingBoing:

Mark Davis worked at a Kmart in Naperville, IL in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Each month, the corporate office mailed a cassette tape to all the stores, which contained easy-listening elevator music and in-house advertisements. Davis saved all 56 cassettes and uploaded them to Archive.org.

I’m Canadian; our last Kmart stopped being one in 1998. I imagine these recordings will capture a peculiar nostalgia for some of my American readers, though. They’re terrible, in a curious way.

White Should Not Be the Default

Slack’s Diogenes Brito:

On August 25th, Slack unveiled a new way for developers to connect to Slack, the “Add to Slack” button. It was the culmination of a great deal of work from many Slack employees, and just the beginning of what we have in store for Slack in the near future. Today, though, I want to talk about a seemingly small detail that has been more important to me than I would have expected: the skin color of the hand in the launch graphics.

It has become the norm in much of Western design to see white people — mostly men — represented everywhere, with more diverse groups visualized solely for illustration purposes. When a photo is chosen, white is the default; when “skin tone” emoji first launched, they were a white skin tone. As Brito notes, this becomes isolating:

The result of that American tendency is the telling and retelling of what Chimamanda Adichie would call a single story, one that reinforces people of color as “culturally other.” And boy, do we feel it.

This is a smart design decision. It’s subtle, but immediately more inclusive.

An Analysis of San Francisco

Nick Keppol of Martian Craft wrote a fantastic two-part series on the legibility and use of San Francisco in watchOS, iOS, and OS X. You should read both part one and part two:

San Francisco is a nice-looking font. It has the same invisible feel that Helvetica has with touches of DIN to aid in legibility and add a bit of style. I’m really excited to see Apple embracing optical size but I can’t help but think they could have pushed this even further (time permitting).

I’m writing this right now on a late 2012 iMac — non-Retina. SF UI is sharper than Helvetica Neue, but on non-Retina displays it’s not that much better in terms of legibility. SF UI still has blurry apertures and counters when set at most of the commonly used sizes. The grey tones are still spotty across long passages of text. It’s an over simplification, but it still looks like Helvetica with most of it’s shortcomings on 1x displays.

On Retina displays it’s a whole different story. SF UI feels more airy than Helvetica. The apertures render with clear definition and feel comfortably open. The letter are easily distinguished in a long string. It performs pretty well, even without my glasses on, especially in the text sizes. The spacing is a little tight in some areas, but not by much. I love SF UI on retina Macs and iOS devices—I deal with it on my iMac.

Some of the methodology here is a little suspect; for example, though I agree that Helvetica Neue is not a particularly good body typeface, I disagree with the author’s use of an upscaled rasterized string of characters to speak to its legibility. I also disagree that San Francisco isn’t much more readable on non-Retina displays — I find it far more legible, with much clearer structure in smaller type.

But, as an analysis, this is fantastic. It’s a really deep dive into the nuances of Apple’s new one true typeface. They’re using it in hardware and software, and even in product packaging. With that in mind, it’s no wonder there’s so much attention paid to the vast differentiation in sizes, weights, and cuts. I anticipate subtle changes will be made over time, too.

CISA Moves Forward

Haven’t hard of CISA? It’s a shitty new bill working its way through the American legislature. Mike Masnick at Techdirt:

As we’ve discussed at length, while CISA is positioned as just a “voluntary” cybersecurity information sharing bill, it’s really none of those things. It’s not voluntary and it’s not really about cybersecurity. Instead, it’s a surveillance bill, that effectively gives the NSA greater access to information from companies in order to do deeper snooping through its upstream collection points.

This isn’t partisan; the ‘yay’ votes are a healthy mix of both major American parties. This is a really crappy bill that needs to be scrapped.

RedTube

Josh Constine, TechCrunch:

Today YouTube confirmed that any “partner” creator who earns a cut of ad revenue but doesn’t agree to sign its revenue share deal for its new YouTube Red $9.99 ad-free subscription will have their videos hidden from public view on both the ad-supported and ad-free tiers. That includes videos by popular comedians, musicians, game commentators, and DIY instructors, though not the average person that uploads clips.

When a company has this kind of market dominance, they can operate with this kind of heavy hand. Online video is YouTube, in the way that tablets are iPads, and MP3 players are iPods.

I’ve been thinking about YouTube Red ever since the idea of an ad-free subscription to the site was floated a while ago, and I have no clue as to how successful it will be. The bundling of ad-free music streaming is compelling, and the addition of exclusive content — like shows from PewDiePie and the Fine Brothers — means there’s a lot for the YouTube-watching crowd. But, while the scope and scale of YouTube personalities’ reach is undeniable, their audience is used to tolerating preroll ads and product placement in exchange for free videos. I wouldn’t pay $10/month to watch ad-free YouTube, mostly because I don’t spend a lot of time on the site and because PewDiePie is irritating enough already.

Apple Music Has 6.5 Million Paying Subscribers

Assuming every user is paying $10/month — and I’m sure there are a lot of families who are on the $15/month plan — that’s a $780M annual business. It’s also one-third Spotify’s paying user base. Not bad for four months post-launch in a crowded field, but there’s lots of room for growth.

Remember Tidal?

Jon Caramanica, New York Times:

Last week, Jay Z was testifying in a trial about an uncleared sample in one of his old hits, and was asked to describe the scope of his work. He listed many of his business interests but overlooked one. His lawyer prodded him: “You have a music streaming service, don’t you?”

Jay Z replied, “Yeah, yeah. Forgot about that.”

Me too, Jay.

The Magic Keyboard

Stephen Hackett picked up one of the new Magic Keyboards and reviewed it:

I feel like I’m still in the learning curve of how much pressure I need to use, but I haven’t had any pain while getting adjusted to it. I like the clicky, precise nature of it; even using the built-in keyboard on my MacBook Pro feels sloppier, somehow.

Last week, I picked up a new Magic Trackpad. It’s super pricey, but it feels very much improved compared to its predecessor: the tracking surface is bigger, it feels more responsive — not that the old one lagged — and it feels more comfortable to use. The new keyboard sounds similar: improved in a lot of little ways to create a much better overall experience.

Apple Isn’t in the Business of Decrypting iPhones

There’s a case currently being heard involving a seized, password-locked iPhone. In their brief, Apple confirms what they’ve been telling everyone for a while: devices upgraded to iOS 8 are encrypted, and they do “not have the technical ability to do what the government requests — take possession of a password protected device from the government and extract unencrypted user data”.

However, the iPhone in question is apparently running iOS 7, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Palazzolo, and that should mean that there’s more unencrypted data that could potentially be extracted. But:

Apple said it could likely help the government if the iPhone is in working order, without substantial costs or burden, but the company would prefer not to.

“Forcing Apple to extract data in this case, absent clear legal authority to do so, could threaten the trust between Apple and its customers and substantially tarnish the Apple brand,” according to the brief, signed by Apple’s outside counsel Ken Dreifach, Marc Zwillinger and Jeffrey Landis. “This reputational harm could have a longer term economic impact beyond the mere cost of performing the single extraction at issue.”

Potentially, there is significant or incriminating information on that iPhone, but it is not Apple’s job — or any tech company’s job — to decrypt their devices on behalf of the government. Nor should they feel any burden to install any kind of back door that would allow access to law enforcement.

Tim Cook yesterday at WSJDLive (nice name):

“Do we want our nation to be secure? Of course. No one should have to decide between privacy or security. We should be smart enough to do both. Both of these things are essentially part of the Constitution.”

If law enforcement wants access to information, they need to follow better procedures, not demand that the rest of us give up our privacy and security. Good on Apple for standing up to this attempted intrusion.

Aaron Sorkin Versus the Internet

I like Aaron Sorkin’s work,1 but his tech-centric biopics — of which there are now two — blur an interesting ethical distinction between the impression of truth and the actual truth.2 Richard Brody, in a terrific review of the new Steve Jobs film for the New Yorker:

The problem with “Steve Jobs” isn’t its departures from facts about Jobs’s life that can be rapidly gleaned from a glance at Walter Isaacson’s biography of him. […] It’s the fact that the fictionalized elements of the movie don’t produce increased insight into Jobs, and don’t lead to a grasp of Jobs’s spirit in exchange for the reportorial letter of his life story.

John Gruber’s quip is equally punchy:

It’s not really about Steve Jobs at all — it’s an engaging story about a Steve Jobs-like figure and his estranged daughter.

Despite Brody’s review, I still want to watch the film. Even if it isn’t a dissection of key moments of Steve Jobs’ life, perhaps it will be a worthwhile exploration of a fictional tech company CEO who really enjoys black turtlenecks.


  1. I’m currently working my way through Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which was cancelled far too soon. ↩︎

  2. “You can’t handle the truth.” ↩︎