Month: November 2015

Thought-provoking (and hilarious) piece from Fraser Speirs:

Firstly, consider the hardware. The huge issue with the MacBook Pro is its form factor. The fact that the keyboard and screen are limited to being held in an L-shaped configuration seriously limits its flexibility. It is basically impossible to use a MacBook pro while standing up and downright dangerous to use when walking around. Your computing is limited to times when you are able to find somewhere to sit down.

Imagine a parallel universe where computers evolved the other way: from tablet to laptop, and then to desktop. Then imagine how the laptop and desktop would be seen. The tablet market is in an evolving stage. It’s not early any more, but nor is it a mature product category. As such, we’re still finding the best uses for tablets.

I, for example, find it more comfortable to read on my iPad than I do my Mac, but I don’t find it as comfortable to write many thousand words on it. Writing code is even more cumbersome, despite the excellence of Coda for iOS. My job and my hobbies tend to revolve around writing a lot, both prose and code; therefore, I find myself spending more time on my computer than my iPad.1

My parents, on the other hand, both use their iPads nearly full time, including for long emails, web browsing, reading books, and so on. They spend a lot less time with technology, so the iPad makes it way nicer to do most of the things they do every day.

We — the kinds of people who think about stuff like this and read websites like mine — have to remember that we see the world through a different lens. We care about esoteric things and prioritize accordingly, and that makes us a bit crappy at seeing how regular people use technology. Keep that in mind.

  1. Even though my computer is a laptop, I almost always leave it connected to my Thunderbolt Display. In that sense, my iPad is my most-used portable computer aside from my iPhone. ↥︎

Erica Sadun:

At this point, Apple is wasting a strong health branding component with its Apple TV product. Between the watch, iOS Motion, and Health Kit, Apple TV should be much more proactive than apps limited to logging meals (still easier to do on an iOS device) and offering coaching advice.

It’s a too bad that third-party controllers don’t yet support motion controls. Could you imagine how great a balance board would be with an Apple TV, or a connected treadmill? There’s a lot of opportunity and potential for this hardware, especially when combined with other parts of Apple’s ecosystem in both hardware and software.

It’s been a little hard to follow the Samantha Bielefeld/Victor Wynne Johnson story over Twitter, but Sonya Mann sums up perfectly why it matters:

It makes it harder for future women tech writers, anonymous or not, to be taken seriously.

That’s it. Bielefeld came along and duped people like me who assumed — wrongly — that her pseudonym was for innocent reasons. It was not. She seized the opportunity to create controversy and indulged in faked threats. This stunt has caused real harm.

Update: And, it should be noted, while making real money.

Update Dec 3: Samantha Bielefeld tells her side:

My birth certificate says Victor Wynne Johnson on it, but my heart says another, that name being Samantha. A roller coaster of confusion, and fear of rejection has plagued me for a long while. […] I could not even begin to imagine how quickly I would be shunned for seeking acceptance for being transgender.

Victor Johnson is an accused fraud who has previously used transphobic language while tweeting as Samantha Bielefeld, and has lied about the origin of that name. Lies upon lies upon lies, especially considering this massive coincidence:

It has also been widely speculated that the nasty email I took a screenshot of, and shared in my piece, ‘Well, That Didn’t Take Long‘ was actually written by me, that I sent the hate mail to myself. This is not correct. At the time I received that message I was hesitant to decide whether it was a very unlikely coincidence, or if someone was boldly letting me know that they were privy to my true identity.

This is, most likely, an extremely offensive appropriation, built on top of another, built on top of a method to generate revenue from members, built upon a series of fraudulent statements and actions. I see very little reason to doubt otherwise.

On the other hand, it’s really hard to come out as trans. For that reason, I have removed my quotation marks around the gender pronoun above and have referred to Bielefeld as a female. However, there are enough stacked lies here to doubt the validity of this and any further claims.

I love teardowns like this. An iPhone or an iPad has so many custom components and chips inside that obscure and abstract much of the functionality of the device; Apple’s chargers, on the other hand, have a bunch of stuff that I actually recognize.

See Also: Ken Shirriff previously took apart counterfeit iPad and iPhone chargers.

Brent Simmons has put together a great list of (real) women bloggers. There’s a blog on here for everyone, whether you’re a designer, a Mac or iOS developer, or just curious about the world. There’s an OPML file available, too, if you’d like to add the whole list to your RSS reader.

Great piece from Benedict Evans on the understanding gap that’s created when we attempt to analogize high technology. Along similar lines, I hear all the time about developers whose family members and friends think that they work for Apple because they sell their apps in the App Store.

Mark Bergen, Recode:

Over the weekend, executives from public Internet companies Yelp and TripAdvisor noted a disturbing trend: Google searches on smartphones for their businesses had suddenly buried their results beneath Google’s own. It looked like a flagrant reversal of Google’s stated position on search, and a move to edge out rivals.

Nope, it’s a bug, claims Google. “The issues cited were caused by a recent code push, which we’re working quickly to fix,” a Google spokeswoman said.

Strange how this bug was so beneficial to Google while damaging to their competitors. I suppose that’s unfair, though; I should really only be more suspicious if Google had a history of doing this sort of thing.

Federico Viticci, MacStories:

Today’s update to Workflow (version 1.4.2) adds, among more actions, a brand new WordPress action to publish posts and pages to configured WordPress blogs (both and self-hosted ones) and which can be combined with any other existing action or workflow for deeper automaton. After using a beta of this action for the past few weeks, I can say that it’s, by far, the best automated publishing workflow I’ve ever had, and I don’t want to go back to anything else.

Workflow continues to be the framework that holds together automation and cross-application productivity on iOS.

I’ve hesitated to comment on the flurry of articles being written in the wake of the tragic attacks in Paris;1 I feel as though there’s still uncertainty that needs to be clarified, and grieving that must be done.

But there comes a time when we must address aspects of what occurred. In the aftermath, there has been a demonizing of encryption and technology. Trevor Timm, writing for the Guardian:

The entire encryption subject became a shiny scapegoat while the truth slowly trickled in: as of Tuesday, it was clear that American and/or French intelligence agencies had seven of the eight identified attackers on their radar prior to the attacks. The attackers used Facebook to communicate. The one phone found on the scene showed the terrorists had coordinated over unencrypted SMS text messages – just about the easiest form of communication to wiretap that exists today.

Encryption is not evil; it’s not even relevant in this discussion. But the now-necessary defence of encryption must be made by people who are diligent and knowledgable because they’re going up against heavyweights who think that a magic “golden key” exists.

  1. And what about Beirut? One of the best articles to come out in the past couple of weeks is from Max Fisher writing at Vox, noting that the media did not ignore Beirut — we did↥︎

Clive Thompson, Wired:

It’s increasingly hard to “opt out” of online tracking. “Unless you want to go live in a cave away from society,” Nissenbaum notes, you need to be online — often for work or to access government services. Online services claim they’re voluntary, but the cost of being a refusenik grows every day.

In this context, obfuscation is a clever judo move. It’s a way for people in a relatively weak position — which is to say all of us, compared with Google or Facebook — to fight back. You exploit your adversaries’ inherent weakness: their insatiable appetite for data.

Clever strategy, but I’m not sure it is as impossible to opt out of tracking as claimed. I went through the AdChoices blanket opt-out page and opted out of everything listed, then turned off third-party cookies in Safari. I haven’t seen any interest-based ads since.

Mind you, after I started doing this, I noticed that some websites — like my favourite shoe company’s — started funnelling my natural in-site clicks through a third-party ad network. By making me click on those links, it looks to Safari as though I’m opting into those cookies. Crafty and deceptive.

Mary Jo Foley is the best on the Microsoft beat:

I first blogged about Midori in 2008. Microsoft was assembling a team of crack engineers to build a new operating system that wasn’t based on the Windows kernel. The Midori team was charged with building not just the OS from scratch, but a full software stack, including a browser, related tools and more.

It sounds like this ambitious project — the Microsoft version of what Mac OS X was to Mac OS 9 — has been shut down internally, but lessons from it will carry through to future Microsoft products. It’s kind of a shame that there’s so much legacy support required of Windows; if Microsoft could do a clean-slate refresh of their operating system, I bet they would, if only because it would allow them a greater degree of flexibility and iteration internally.

Noelene Clark, Entertainment Weekly:

In the [CBS This Morning] interview, Iovine said the streaming service aims to help women find music. “I’ve always known that women find it very difficult at times — some women — to find music,” he said. “And this helps makes it easier with playlists that are curated by real people.”

This is pretty condescending and misogynistic. Iovine has since apologized, stating that their “new ad focuses on women, which is why I answered the way I did, but of course the same applies equally for men”. That is, he believes his comment should have been interpreted as something closer to People — men and women — find it very difficult at times to find music, which is fine and true. But that’s not what he said, and that’s all that matters.

As far as Apple goes, I doubt they’ve had an instance in a long time of an executive speaking off-script as badly as Iovine does. Embarrassing.

At around 9:00 at night, the temperature in Magelang finally drops to a more hospitable 28°C from the 37° or so that it’s been hovering at. My girlfriend and I are here, just outside Yogyakarta, for this leg of the trip and we’ve stopped at a warung for dinner — think of a small trailer that can be pulled behind a bicycle serving ridiculously tasty food. This warung is known for several noodle dishes, but we’ve asked for mie godog — literally, “boiled noodles”. The broth from this cart is made with candlenut and it’s cooking overtop some hot coals in a wok with spring onions, garlic, some mustard greens, and the aforementioned egg noodles. Every few seconds, someone on a scooter or motorbike putters past, inches from the trio of younger men sitting and smoking on the stoop of the karaoke bar next door.

I’ve taken a couple of Live Photos of the scene and play them back, and I realize that it’s captured the sights and sounds well enough that I’ll be able to show my friends and parents back in Canada, but something’s missing: the smell of this place. It’s a distinct blend of engine fumes, clove cigarette smoke, burning wood, and this incredible food. This, to me, says worlds about the immediacy of place of Live Photos, as well as the limitations that they have. They are a welcome step closer to better capturing a moment in time, but the technology isn’t quite good enough yet for this moment.

A warung in Magelang.
A warung in Magelang

I’ve been using an iPhone 6S since launch day — “Space Grey”, 128 GB, non-Plus — and I’ve read all the reviews that matter. But when I boarded a plane on October 24 from Calgary to Surabaya, I was unprepared for the way that this product would impact my travels, and how my travelling would impact my understanding of mobile technology.

We begin this story during a stopover at Vancouver International Airport. As this is an upgrade from an iPhone 5S, I’m still getting used to the size of the 4.7-inch 6S. After just the short hop from Calgary, I’ve noticed that my 6S feels less comfortable in my front-right jeans pocket, to the point where it becomes an obligation to remove it upon sitting down in a tight airplane seat.

This issue is exacerbated by the addition of a case. I never use one, but I felt that it would make my shiny new phone last a little longer in the rougher conditions I’d be experiencing at some points of my trip. My Peel case didn’t show up in time — something about a fulfillment issue — so I settled for Apple’s mid-brown leather model. It’s nice, but even after just a couple of days, I’m already seeing staining on the edge of the case, where it wraps around the display.

At least it gets rid of that damn camera bump.

My girlfriend and I kill some time by hopping on the moving walkways and checking out some of the kitschy tourist shops that dot the halls. I pull out my phone and take a few short videos across the different available video quality settings. I’m sure 4K looks better, but I don’t have a display that can take advantage of that resolution; 60fps looks great, but also looks too much like a home movie. I kind of wish Apple would add a 24fps mode, for a more cinematic feel. I settle on 30fps 1080p: it’s not exotic or technologically advanced these days, but it works pretty much everywhere and looks gorgeous. Even without the optical stability of the 6S Plus, I’m still impressed by how well the camera cancels out shakiness.

After a couple of hours, we board the twelve-plus-hour flight to Taipei. I pull my phone out, sit down, and notice that the Airbus seats lack power outlets. I check my phone, and it looks like there’s 50-odd percent left. In airplane mode, it should be fine for listening to music for much of the flight and taking the odd photo and video. Maybe without much battery life to spare, I’d even get some sleep.

Taipei from above, 5:28 AM.

We land in Taipei bright and early, and steer immediately to the complimentary showers to freshen up. My iPhone is on the last drips of power in low battery mode, but the shower room has an outlet to top it up. We have an eight-hour layover here which we’ll be spending entirely in the airport — thankfully, with free and reasonably speedy WiFi.

I review the photos I’ve taken while circling the city earlier and am pleasantly surprised at their quality in the dim twilight and smog.

In a little over two hours, we’ve seen most of the airport, which, as with every other, consists of duty free shops only occasionally separated by small cafés and restaurants. There are plenty of tech-related shops selling iPhones, MacBooks, and iPads, all at prices much greater than the exchange rate would suggest. Even outside of the airport, Apple products, in particular, are expensive on this side of the world, especially for the middle-or-lower-class income bracket.

I try to log into Tumblr, an account on which I’ve enabled two-factor authentication via text message. I realize that I cannot receive the confirmation message as I’ve turned off all data on my phone to avoid exorbitant roaming charges. Damn.

After another few hours spent walking throughout the airport in a fruitless search for a basic and inexpensive shirt, it’s finally time to board the flight to Surabaya via Singapore.

Despite taking the same plane and the same seats for the second half of this flight, it’s necessary — for some reason — to leave the aircraft and turn around, passing through a security check again. This irritates me, as my pockets and bag are full of crap that I’ve accumulated in entirely “secure” zones, yet cannot be brought back onto the flight.

To make matters worse, the WiFi at Singapore’s airport requires text message authentication, which I cannot get, cf. my troubles logging into Tumblr. It’s also usually possible to get a code from an attendant, but none are present because it’s late at night, of course.

Thanks to the extra memory in the A9 SoC, I still have plenty of Safari tabs cached so I don’t necessarily need a live internet connection. Unfortunately, it hasn’t preserved all of them — the camera still takes as much memory as it can. My pet theory is that Apple could put desktop levels of RAM in the iPhone and the camera would still purge Safari tabs from the cache.

It’s 11-something at night by the time we land in Surabaya. My phone retains a decent charge despite none of the planes including seat-back power outlets. We exit the airport into the overwhelming Indonesian humidity and heat, and hop into a small van to take us to our hotel.

As we wind through the city, I try recording with my phone pressed against the window. If you’ve ever filmed anything at night in even a moderately well-lit city, you know how difficult this is; in Surabaya, with its extremely dim lighting, almost nothing is visible. I put my phone on the seat and watch the city scroll by.

In the morning, we head over to the mall to pick up a SIM card for my time here. On Telekomsel, 4 GB of 3G data plus plenty of messages and call time costs me just 250,000 Rupiah, or about $25 Canadian. I later learn that it should have cost about half that, but I’m a tourist. Whatever the case, that’s a remarkable deal; at home, I pay $55 per month for 1 GB of data.

I’ve never previously tried swapping my SIM while iMessage is active, or adding a phone number to an existing iMessage account. I have to power-cycle my phone so that Telekomsel can activate the SIM, and another time to get it to work with iMessage, after re-enabling cellular data.

But it doesn’t quite work correctly. I’m presented with a prompt to “update” my Apple ID password, and I can’t figure out whether I need to set a new password or simply type it in again. I try the latter and find that the WiFi hotspot I’m connected to is too slow to reach the Apple ID servers. I try a few times, try a third power cycle, pop in my Apple ID password again, and iMessage is finally activated.

I try messaging a friend in Calgary. To my surprise, it fails. I realize that I must add the country code; despite having prior correspondence of several years while in Canada, it does not automatically resolve this. My friend reports that he’s receiving messages from both my new Indonesian number and my iCloud email address. I chalk this up as another instance where iMessage doesn’t understand that we typically want to message people, not numbers or addresses.

I get a tap on the wrist: my Apple Watch notifies me that it is using iMessage with the same email addresses that I’ve been using for years. Sigh.

After two days in Surabaya, we board a plane for Bali. Destination: Ubud, near the middle of the island. After checking into our hotel, I grab my “proper” camera and head off on a short walking tour of the area.

I’ve opted to bring my seven year-old Canon XSi — coincidentally sporting the same 12 megapixel count of the iPhone 6S — and Canon’s cheap and cheerful 40mm portrait lens plus a polarizer on this vacation (those are affiliate links). It’s not the latest gear, but it’s versatile enough when accompanied by my phone.

Ubud is a fascinating little town. It isn’t coastal, so we don’t get any beach time, but it’s an artistic and vibrant place. It happens to be extremely hot during the early afternoon, which makes spending any extended time under the sun uncomfortable and delays the time that we decide to explore. Due to Bali’s proximity to the Equator, the sun sets somewhere between 5:30 and 6:00, and “magic hour” seems to last the entirety of late afternoon. That’s great news for my vacation photos.

In spite of the heat, we take a walk one afternoon in search of some sandals; the ones provided by the hotel are fine for the room, but not for walking around the city. We duck into a small restaurant for lunch, and my girlfriend orders sate. It’s served in a miniature clay grill overtop hot coals, and I realize that this is the kind of moment the Live Photo feature was built for.

Other reviews have pointed out that it’s sometimes hard to remember that the video component continues to record after taking the still photo. I find it difficult to remember that it begins to record video before tapping the shutter button, so I must remember to wait a couple of seconds between tapping to focus and snapping the still; I must also remember to keep my phone raised after taking the picture. It takes me a few tries to get the hang of it, but I’m pleased by the result. Yet, I cannot share it with anyone — a month after the 6S’ release, it seems that none of the popular services that I use support Live Photos.

The next night, we explore the city later in the afternoon, when it’s a tiny bit cooler. I haven’t remembered to bring my DSLR, as we only plan on going for dinner and poking around some boutiques.

We spot a sign directing passers-by to a rice field “50 metres” away, and decide to take a look. After a walk of probably double that distance along a very sketchy path, with sheer drops on one side, we arrive at one of the most breathtaking landscapes I’ve ever seen. Rice paddy fields stretch from both sides of the single-track lane, framed by coconut trees. A rooster crows in the distance. The sun is low in the sky behind a bit of smog, so it’s a perfect golden hue.

Rice paddy fields in Ubud.
Rice paddy fields in Ubud

It’s so beautiful that it takes me a few minutes to remember to pull out my phone and, low-ish battery be damned, begin snapping. I snap plenty of landscapes on either side, take the requisite panorama, and even a few Live Photos. Later at the hotel, I review these photos and realize that I can’t remember which ones are “Live”, and which ones are not. I look in vain for a Live Photos album; despite every other “special” photo and video format available on the iPhone being filtered into their own album, it simply doesn’t exist for Live Photos. I try searching “live”, or looking for an icon in the thumbnail view — neither works.

I finally stumble across them as I swipe through the photos I shot on the rice fields that day and notice a slight amount of motion. This is apparently the only indicator of a Live Photo, and the only way to find one. Not easy.

But, as I take a look at the few I’ve shot so far, I see great value in the feature. Live Photos can’t capture everything, but they greatly enhance an otherwise static scene. The sound and video snippet add context and a better sense of place: the rooster crowing, the crickets, and even the steam and smoke curling up from that sate the previous day. I have some perfectly fine still photos, too, but their context is entirely imagined; every Live Photo I’ve taken so far does a better job bringing the memory back. It’s too bad that the heat and smell of the place can’t yet be captured as well.

In any case, I don’t think Live Photos are the gimmick some see them as. They’re a little bit cute, but they work remarkably well.

We spend a day travelling from Ubud to Seminyak and seeing the sights there. Our driver, Sandi, had in his car — among the television screens, faux fur on the dash, and short shag roof liner — a USB outlet for passengers to charge their phones. But, he tells me as I plug mine in, most people just use their power banks. I tell him that I’ve noticed a lot of portable batteries around and he says that some people carry two or more, just in case. He says that this is completely normal.

I’m starting to question the power consumption of my own phone. I’ve used it for long enough in Calgary that I know that I can get a full day’s use out of it, from 7:00 in the morning until late at night. Here, I’m not getting even half that. I check the battery statistics and see that all of my usual web-connected apps have a “low signal” notice.

Not only is 3G service somewhat slower than you might expect in this region, it also has patchier coverage. That eats battery life at a much more significant rate, particularly if you have background services polling for data regularly. iOS is supposed to compensate for this, but if you have email inboxes set to refresh on a timed schedule, it seems as though it will obey that regardless of signal strength.

The low battery mode in iOS 9 does a good job of substantially increasing battery life when cellular coverage is less than ideal. I find it indispensable: coverage is too poor for my inboxes or Tweetbot to refresh regularly, and I don’t really want to check my email much while on holiday anyway.

After dropping our bags at the hotel, we head to Uluwatu for the world-famous kecak dance, performed at sunset on a cliff above the sea. I am so captivated by the dance that I all but forget to take photos until the climax, where the dancer playing the monkey is encircled by fire.

We hang around following the dance to take photos with some of the performers. There are a couple of floodlights illuminating the stage area, but it’s still pretty dark. We get our turn to take a selfie with the monkey performer, and I turn on the new front-facing flash. The photo comes out well — great white balance, well-exposed, and not too grainy — but we look sweaty and tired; I shall spare you that sight.

The next day, we head to the beach. Our hotel is just two blocks away, but even that feels sweltering; the cool waters of the Indian Ocean are beckoning. I shoot with both my iPhone and DSLR here. Normally, I’d be very cautious about stepping into the waves for some more immersive shots with my iPhone pocketed, but the increased water resistance of the 6S gives me more confidence that a few light splashes won’t be an issue, especially with a case.

When we get back to the chairs by the side of the beach, I notice that some lint from my pocket has accumulated around the edges of the case. I pop my phone out to dust it off and notice just how nice it feels in the hand. It is not, to my eyes, the best-looking iPhone industrial design — that would be the 5S followed by the original model — but it is the best-built, by far, and feels fantastic in the hand, despite the size. I’m looking forward to using it regularly without a case again at home.

We weave through Seminyak, then onto Yogyakarta, Magelang, and Rembang. Dinner in the latter two cities is often spent at warungs — it is some of the best food you can have anywhere, provided you know which ones are clean.

Our last dinner in Rembang is in a particularly interesting warung. The proprietor is known for his interpretation of nasi tahu — literally translated as rice and tofu. He sets up his preparation table surrounded on three sides by small, low benches, each of which can seat no more than three or four people. Tarps are draped overtop to protect against the possibility of rain — ’tis the season, after all.

We’ve squeezed ourselves onto the bench directly opposite the cook, currently mashing together peanuts, garlic, lime, and some broth into a paste while frying fist-sized lumps of tofu. It’s crowded and, with a bubbling wok of oil behind the cook, it’s hot, but the combination of every sensation makes the scene unforgettable. I want to show people at home, so I take a few photos on my iPhone of the cook at work, trying also to capture the close quarters of the space.

A warung in Rembang serving nasi tahu.
A warung serving nasi tahu

It occurs to me that taking photographs in this environment would be unnatural and straining were it not for a camera as compact and unassuming as my iPhone. Even my DSLR equipped with a pancake-style portrait lens — which I’ve specifically chosen to be less imposing — would be too obtrusive in this moment.

The final few days of our vacation is spent at a home in Surabaya that doesn’t have WiFi. That’s fine in terms of my data consumption, but the slower 3G connection tends to choke on any modern media-heavy site. Every unnecessary tracking script and every bloated cover image brings my web browsing to a crawl.

Then, I run into an issue where my connection refuses to complete. My iPhone shows me a dialog box informing me that there has been a “PDP authentication failure”. I do not know what PDP is, why it must authenticate, or why its failure means I can’t load anything online. I reset my network settings and that seems to work for a while, only for PDP to be unauthenticated again, or whatever.

I reset and search the great IT help desk that is Google for an answer. The top result is a Reddit thread, so I tap on it, only for it to fail to load. I page back and try an Apple Support thread link and it works fine; though, of course, it has no answers. Reddit, specifically, will not load on my 3G connection.

I get sidetracked from my PDP issue and do a little bit of digging. It turns out that Indonesian pornography laws prohibit both porn itself, and any conduit for it. Though Indonesia does not have a nationwide firewall a la China, the federal government has pressured the major ISPs and cellular networks to block major sites that allow access to porn.

Later in the day, we get carried away at Historica Coffee and forget to grab dinner. There’s not much open at midnight on a Wednesday, particularly if you’re not that interested in maybe-it’s-food from sketchier vendors.

I swipe to the right on my home screen expecting to see shortcuts to late night food, but that feature isn’t enabled here.

I open Yelp. “Yelp is not available in your country.”

We opt for a nearby late night Chinese food place, and it’s pretty damn good.

On the long series of flights home, I get a chance to review photos from both my DSLR and iPhone while triaging my Instapaper queue. I have more than a few articles saved that proclaim that the camera in an iPhone today is good enough to be considered a camera, not just a smartphone camera. These articles began to percolate around the time of the iPhone 4S, and they are a perennial curiousity for me, especially as I glance at my screen of crisp photos taken on my DSLR.

There’s no question that an iPhone has never had a better camera than those in the 6S and 6S Plus today, with the latter edging out the former due to its optical stabilization. iPhones — and smartphones in general — have taken very good quality photos for the past few years, and I would not hesitate to print or frame any of them. In fact, every photo in this travelogue is unedited, and I think they all look pretty good.

But I’m looking now at photos from that paddy field back in Ubud, and there is an inescapable muddiness to the trees in the background. I didn’t bring my DSLR on that walk to compare, but I’ve no doubt it would render a vastly clearer and more detailed image.

iPhone on the left; Canon on the right, both at 100% size. Both feature 12 MP sensors, but the iPhone has a much wider-angle lens and a significantly smaller sensor.
iPhone on the left, Canon on the right

Similarly, I have photos taken on both cameras from atop a cliff near Uluwatu of surfers paddling in the waves. The wide-angle lens of my iPhone provides a better idea of the scope of the scene, but the surfers are reduce to dark blobs. The images captured on my “real” camera show the clarity in the water and the surfers are clearly human beings.

This is, of course, a completely unfair comparison: the APS-C sensor in my XSi has about ten times more area than the iPhone’s sensor, and it’s paired with a much bigger lens which allows more light in. But, it does illustrate just how different the quality of image is from each device.

There are all kinds of tricks that are easier with a DSLR, too, like tracking focus from or of a moving object. For example, I will look through the windshield from a moving car for potentially interesting roadside scenes. Upon spotting one, I’ll grab focus of something of a similar focal distance as the objects of the scene, then move my camera in the opposite direction of travel at a similar speed. This is much easier on highways where speeds are constant, so I’m able to develop a rhythm of sorts. With my DSLR, this is tricky, but something I can reliably do; I have never succeeded in using this technique on my iPhone. It might be the rolling shutter or something I’m not doing quite right, but I also have not heard of someone else doing something similar.

I offer this not as a complaint with the iPhone’s camera, but as clarification that there is still great value to having a camera with a big-ass sensor and a great lens. I’m under no illusions; I am an optimistic hobbyist photographer, at best, but I can’t shake the feeling that I made the right decision in bringing my DSLR as well. It’s bulky, cumbersome, old, has “hot” pixels on the sensor, and creates gigantic RAW files that occupy a lot of space on my MacBook Air.1 However, it creates beautiful images to last a lifetime, and that’s what counts most for me.

I’ve spent an hour or so in an “e-library” in Taipei’s international airport wrapping up this travelogue. Nobody seems to use the e-libraries here, so they function as a pseudo-private lounge, and a pretty great place to find a power outlet. It’s quite nice.

There were some things I expected about bringing my iPhone to Indonesia. I anticipated that I’d use it to keep in touch with a few people at home, look up addresses and directions, and be able to take great-quality photos anywhere, any time. But I learned a lot about the phone, too: Live Photos showed their brilliance, and I was able to extend my battery life despite none of the aircraft including seatback power. I found out just how well the camera works for capturing intimate moments that would feel artificial or posed if I were to use my DSLR, and figured out some new iMessage limitations.

What I learned most, though, isn’t about the iPhone 6S directly; it’s about the role of technology and the internet in a developing nation.

In most developing nations, the proliferation of technology is limited by policy and economics; Indonesia is no exception to this. But, while I was there, I saw people regularly carry two, three, or more smartphones: usually an inexpensive Android phone — something like a OnePlus or a Xiaomi — plus either an iPhone or a BlackBerry. Apple’s products are still very much a luxury: an iPhone is about a third more expensive in Indonesia than it is in the United States, while the median income is half that of the U.S.2

The Jakarta Post reports that only about 29% of Indonesians are connected to the internet, and the internet they’re connected to is different than the one you and I are used to. But they’re making the most of what they’ve got, and established their own rules and understanding — it isn’t rude to use your phone at the dinner table, for instance, and Path remains alive (remember Path?). Not all the services and products you and I have come to expect have made their way there, and if you think search in Apple Maps is poor where you live, you’ve seen nothing yet.

I escaped to Indonesia for a relaxing vacation in a part of the world I’ve never visited. I vowed to get off the beaten path and out of my cushy boutique hotel. In doing so, I leave with a hint — but only a hint — of what life is like for hundreds of millions of Indonesians. In doing so, I learned a little bit of how they use technology; their smartphone is often their only computer and only connection to the internet.

There is something further to consider here: we — designers, developers, and product people — spend a lot of time worrying about how our new product looks and works in U.S. English on an LTE connection, for the tastes of an American (or, at least, Euro-centric) audience. We spend little time asking how it will function for people who fall outside those parameters — parameters which, by the way, narrow as fast as greater amounts of people get connected to the web. My quip about Path earlier is indicative of this: we assume Path is dead because we don’t use it; yet, it has, as far as I can work out, a respectable user base in Southeast Asia, and that market grows every day.

I’m not pretending to be fully educated in the country after spending just three weeks there, but I am certain I understand it better than three weeks ago. Indonesia is beautiful, breathtaking, delicious, and full of the nicest and most accommodating people I’ve ever met, and I’m Canadian. You should go. Bring a camera.

  1. Not to mention post-processing in Photos on OS X, which remains an app that is hard to love. My workflow for a trip like this is to shoot hundreds of images, import them all into one album for the trip, and then pick my selects from that album.

    In Aperture, I’d give five-star ratings to the images I was certain about, four-star ratings to those that might have potential, and no stars to images I wouldn’t bother using. (The digital packrat in me doesn’t delete them — just in case, I suppose.) Then, I could simply filter to four-star-or-better images and edit within that set, upgrading some to five-stars if I deemed them worthy. Exporting was as simple as selecting the already-filtered set within the album.

    Photos doesn’t have this level of granularity: you either “like” a photo, or you do not. That keeps things a lot simpler, and I don’t mind that. What I do mind is that there appears to be no way to find only photos I’ve liked within an album. My workaround has been to create a smart album with that filtering criteria, but that seems like a workaround, not a solution. ↥︎

  2. This has other effects, too: a couple of years ago, I guessed that data problems and inconsistencies in Apple Maps would be less frequent in places with more iPhone users, and I think that’s true. With less penetration in Indonesia, Apple Maps often lacked significant local points-of-interest. ↥︎

Lauren Goode of the Verge:

It’s a problem that exists not only around the iPad Pro, but mobile software development in general, and highlights the very real challenges that smaller software companies face when deciding which software platforms to prioritize — especially as mobile tablets and PCs converge.

One of the common complaints made by software developers who spoke to The Verge is that they can’t offer free trials of their apps as part of the App Store download process, or issue paid upgrades to long-term users. Others say that selling apps through the App Store can create a kind of wall between them and their customers if the customers have issues with their software. Broadly speaking, the iPad Pro is forcing them to rethink their monetization strategies.

Federico Viticci demonstrates regularly that it’s possible to work entirely from an iPad; depending on your job, it may be possible for you, too. But there are industries where software comparable to its desktop counterpart doesn’t yet exist for the iPad. Software development, design, and other industries still rely upon very particular legacy application packages, and their developers are hesitant to invest in building iPad versions for a variety of reasons.

Maybe that’s okay: not every industry necessarily needs to go iPad-only. There are plenty of industries today that cannot go Mac-only, for example, and nobody seems to think that’s as limiting to the Mac’s success as current shortcomings are to the iPad. But, those are current shortcomings, and Apple is surely aware of them: Viticci wrote last week that the tides might shift for at least one major app:

Over the past few months, I’ve personally heard about an iPad Pro version of Xcode in early stages, being demoed internally at Apple. I don’t know if this will ever actually happen, but it sure would make for a nice surprise at WWDC next year.

Here’s hoping that their lead — plus enhancements to the App Store and iOS — will encourage third-party developers to invest more heavily in the platform.

Thirty years ago today yesterday, the first edition of Calvin and Hobbes was published. Libby Hill wrote one of the best articles I’ve yet read about the strip back in June for the A.V. Club:

Loneliness and sadness aren’t new fare for comic strips. If anything, Watterson’s characters are merely carrying on in the grand tradition of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts, where preternaturally clever children are nevertheless stymied by the world they live in. Like Peanuts, Calvin And Hobbes is timeless for the exact same reason: It appealed to adults just as much as it appealed to children. It spoke of things not always acknowledged in polite company, how people are mean, how we wish we had more friends, how being grown up seems weird and being a child even weirder, how the world doesn’t make sense, and how it’s hard to believe in things even though we desperately want to believe in them.

Calvin and Hobbes will, forever, be my favourite comic strip, and I think it’s because of the loneliness that Hill describes. It’s something we can all relate to, to one degree or another. It provided a sort of micro-escapism that combined rich, layered storytelling with some of the best art ever committed to newsprint.

Tony Chambers interviewed Jony Ive for Wallpaper:

Before we even got into thinking about how we could create a natural experience, it took a long time to really understand the fundamentals that were at play, that ultimately define your experience of writing or drawing naturally with a pencil. And I think that process feels to me like a very good discipline for technology groups to understand, because that process leads you to observe the tiniest details in terms of what we do and how we do it, and why we do it.

I think this is certainly one of those occasions where at the end of this design and product development exercise, it really did yield two things. One was the Apple Pencil. But the other was a more significant understanding of how we do everyday things. We’ve learned a lot, which is actually useful beyond this project.

Every review I’ve read of the Pencil is effusive in its praise for it, and that speaks volumes for the kind of care and diligence Ive’s team and the engineering team had for it. The extent to which it has been so universally well-received contrasted with the more lukewarm reception of the Smart Keyboard makes me think that the latter is not something many people at Apple use regularly. The Pencil, on the other hand — well, perhaps this response provides a clue:

And you still start a design with a sketch or a scribble?

Yes, we all do. The whole team use sketchbooks. I think it’s a mixture of drawing either by yourself or when you’re with people flitting between conversation and drawing.

I wonder if any of the team members have been using an iPad Pro plus the Pencil as a step beyond the sketchbook.

XKCD creator Randall Munroe wrote about Einstein’s two theories of relativity for the New Yorker. It’s well worth your time — trust me:

When you get answers that don’t fit together, it can make you feel like you’re not very good at thinking. Or, if you’re the kind of person who feels like you’re good at thinking, it can make you think that the space doctor’s numbers must be wrong. But a lot of the time it’s not you or the numbers—instead, it’s the picture that’s wrong in some small way.

This is a good reminder of how we see the past through rose-tinted glasses. There are people who make a great deal of noise about Apple’s visual design philosophy post-iOS 7. Some of it is valid criticism; some is preferential disagreement.

There is a school, though, of those who believe that Apple once paid vastly more attention to detail than they do today, and these screenshots show that there have always been occasional inconsistencies and — for lack of a better word — sloppiness. The radii of the corners of the Reminders, Contacts, and Notes apps, for example, are all different. The ultra-light weight of Helvetica used for the search box in Reminders is nothing like any other app, and the photograph used for the “Brightness and Wallpaper” icon in Settings is completely out of place. And what’s up with the brown glass iBooks prompt in the App Store, or the Contacts app’s portrait view?

I say this not to stain your impression of how iOS used to be, but to make the case that Apple has never been perfect. They’re just better than their competition at this sort of stuff, most of the time. I wish there were borders around buttons in iOS today, and that the eased animations throughout the UI did not block interaction. But I’d also be interested in seeing how iOS features of today would fare if the material-heavy visual style persisted. I doubt that the OS would feel as lithe if a feature like Control Centre or Peek were drawn in a more visually rich style.

Josh Constine, TechCrunch:

Going forward, Instagram’s platform will only permit photo editing apps and ones like Tinder that let you pull in your own Instagrams (but not your feed), brand and ad management apps, and tools for media and broadcasters. Existing apps will need to comply by June 1st, 2016, and the policies and reviews will go into effect for new apps starting December 3rd, 2015.

I’m surprised they ever allowed this access in the first place. Nobody I know uses a third-party Instagram reader, even on an iPad. I bet that Twitter will watch this move carefully, though; I’m sure there are internal discussions regarding the degree to which third-party apps work with their platform.