Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for April, 2016

Prince: Technologist and Luddite

Jon Caramanica, New York Times:

Many advances in music and technology over the last three decades — particularly in the realm of distribution — were tried early, and often first, by Prince. He released a CD-ROM in 1994, Prince Interactive, which featured unreleased music and a gamelike adventure at his Paisley Park Studios. In 1997, he made the multidisc set “Crystal Ball” available for sale online and through an 800 number (though there were fulfillment issues later). In 2001, he began a monthly online subscription service, the NPG Music Club, that lasted five years.

These experiments were made possible largely because of Prince’s career-long emphasis on ownership: At the time of his death, he reportedly owned the master recordings of all his output. With no major label to serve for most of the second half of his career and no constraints on distribution, he was free to try new modes of connection.

In keeping with his complete ownership, he effectively scrubbed the legitimate web of his music over the past few years, with Tidal being the sole streaming service offering his catalogue. This wasn’t, I don’t think, a fuck you to listeners, but rather a gamble that fans would buy his music anyway.

See Also: The Daily Dot uncovered and modernized the font that was shipped to members of the press after he began using the unpronounceable “love symbol”.

Search in the App Store

Marco Arment wrote a great piece nominally about the paid App Store search rumour, and managed to deliver this searing criticism of the App Store’s search functionality in the process:

Not only is Apple searching the comparably tiny App Store, but they review every app before publishing it. With a huge staff of humans reviewing all of the input, good search should be much easier because the apps and their metadata should be relatively well-structured and regulated, and very little abuse and fraud should get through.

And yet, the App Store is still full of spam, scams, clones, and flagrant violations of Apple’s own rules, while the app-review team still capriciously nitpicks trivial and arbitrary details with the few developers who are actually trying to make good apps and represent them honestly in the Store.

I know this gets repeated ad nauseum, but it remains true: the App Store is not in good shape. A paid search placement feature dropped overtop the existing infrastructure would likely be a disaster.

Looking at the Future

Perhaps the most underemphasized aspect of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is its gorgeous new display. A few people have been writing about it — most notably, Craig Hockenberry:

I think the additional detail gives our brain a better appreciation of the image even if it can’t put things like chromatic adaptation into words.

After using this iPad for a couple of weeks, I’ve realized it’s like the advances of Retina in an important way: I never want to use a lesser display again. And as with higher density, I think it’s obvious that Apple will eventually update all its products to use this improved screen technology.

Hockenberry is currently working on a book for A Book Apart to explain colour management to developers (and, perhaps, designers as well). It’s definitely going to be worth the wait. Apple is clearly future-proofing their displays with this wider gamut standard.

Dr. Raymond M. Soneira of DisplayMate ran some fairly comprehensive tests on the iPad Pro:

The display on the iPad Pro 9.7 is a Truly Impressive Top Performing Display and a major upgrade to the display on the iPad Air 2. It is by far the best performing mobile LCD display that we have ever tested, and it breaks many display performance records.

No kidding.

Ad Tech Is Completely Broken

Melody Kramer of Poynter interviewed Salon developer Aram Zucker-Scharff about his experiences dealing with advertising on the web. In short, it’s a mess. There’s a lot that I want to quote from the interview, but this one really shows the bullshit prevalent in the industry:

I have a story about this actually, from working at a previous employer. I prefer to sit in on sales calls for contracts with ad tech because of this very problem. And we had a problem with a major advertiser. The advertiser had run their ad through an agency and the agency was telling them that the ad had 10 percent viewability. […]

So, the agency called us. And we talked to them and said they we could measure viewability on our own (which we could) and that wasn’t making any sense. So they put us on the phone with a major ad tech company that was measuring viewability for them. […]

Finally we are connected with the ad tech company and they have sent an engineer who is talking technical stuff at high speed with, in my opinion, the clear intent to confuse the people who are usually in this type of meeting — all sales people with little expertise in tech.

The thing is, I’m in the room and I’m just listening until he gets to the point which is ‘we don’t track Webkit browsers.’

At this time Webkit is the browser rendering engine for Chrome, Safari and a number of other smaller browsers.

This is a major ad tech company and they just said that they’re not tracking 70 percent of our traffic, but reporting it to the advertiser as if they were.

There’s a lot that publishers should learn from in this interview, but there’s also so much that ad tech companies need to deal with. They don’t screen ads, they allow them to run arbitrary code on websites, and they track far too much information.

Publishers are getting hammered from all sides on this. Readers don’t want to pay for individual subscriptions because they get news in small drips from multiple sources. Advertising on the web has become inherently less valuable than for any other medium, for some reason, so it’s difficult for publishers to financially justify employing a staff to do direct ad sales, particularly when it’s so much easier for a company to buy ad space on a network. There’s justification for this attitude, especially since two networks, AdSense and DoubleClick, continue to dominate the online advertising market — if a company buys advertising on both networks, they instantly have significant reach across the web.

So publishers do what they can: they put half a dozen ad spots on each page, assuming that their ad tech partners have vetted what will appear there. And then everything goes to hell because each of those ad spots drops its own cookies, spawns its own JavaScript, and generally behaves as the most obnoxious citizen of the web.

There are lots of failures of assumption here: ad tech companies assume that those buying ad space with them are not complete assholes, performing only a cursory check on — what I assume is — a small sample of the ad buys they receive. They then market their network as safe to publishers1 who simply want to stem their dwindling revenue. And then they have to put up with abysmal ad code (be careful when opening that link; it’s a lightweight page with necessarily non-lightweight copies of bad code on it).

Users hate these ads. For non-tech-savvy readers, they’re a nuisance — they don’t understand why their computer has come to a crawl just because they opened some article from their local news site, for instance. Savvier users have resorted to blocking ads, to the detriment of publications’ revenue.

In an ideal world, publications would sell their own ad space — that’s what the Economist does, for example. But that’s unlikely to happen, for various reasons, so the next best thing is for ad networks to do a better job policing their inventory.

Update: I’ve been hearing that publishers aren’t pushing back very hard against bad ad practices. Whether it’s due to technological ignorance, a lack of care, in a sense, or fear, they simply aren’t giving the ad industry any reason to improve. As with anyone, ad tech is in it for their own gain, but publishers need to fight for their say in this. They ought to demand greater standards. What I’m hearing is that they simply don’t.


  1. DoubleClick says that publishers can “[trust] performance with best-in-class malware and fraud protection”, for instance. ↩︎

San Francisco Mono

John Gruber:

Apple’s WWDC 2016 website is sporting a “source code” theme, and is typeset using what appears to be a monospaced variant of San Francisco. Looks pretty good — I hope this is something they’re going to release at WWDC. I’d wager that it is.

My silly pet theory is that this year’s marketing materials hint at the much-rumoured Xcode for iPad.

A Blast From the Past

In 2009, Google’s then-VP now-CEO Sundar Pichai published a statement in support of the E.U.’s investigation into Microsoft’s tying-in of Internet Explorer to Windows:

[…] Google believes that the browser market is still largely uncompetitive, which holds back innovation for users. This is because Internet Explorer is tied to Microsoft’s dominant computer operating system, giving it an unfair advantage over other browsers.

Good observation.

European Commission Sends Statement of Objections to Google

From the E.U.’s press release (emphasis theirs):

The Commission opened proceedings in April 2015 concerning Google’s conduct as regards the Android operating system and applications. At this stage, the Commission considers that Google is dominant in the markets for general internet search services, licensable smart mobile operating systems and app stores for the Android mobile operating system. Google generally holds market shares of more than 90% in each of these markets in the European Economic Area (EEA). In today’s Statement of Objections, the Commission alleges that Google has breached EU antitrust rules by:

  • requiring manufacturers to pre-install Google Search and Google’s Chrome browser and requiring them to set Google Search as default search service on their devices, as a condition to license certain Google proprietary apps;

  • preventing manufacturers from selling smart mobile devices running on competing operating systems based on the Android open source code;

  • giving financial incentives to manufacturers and mobile network operators on condition that they exclusively pre-install Google Search on their devices.

The Commission believes that these business practices may lead to a further consolidation of the dominant position of Google Search in general internet search services. It is also concerned that these practices affect the ability of competing mobile browsers to compete with Google Chrome, and that they hinder the development of operating systems based on the Android open source code and the opportunities they would offer for the development of new apps and services.

After reading through the tweets linked on the relevant Techmeme entry, it strikes me that very few people seem to understand the E.U.’s objections here. The market dominance is not a problem in of itself, nor is it necessarily wrong to prejudice first-party products and services over those from third parties. The objection is that Google is combining those things. The Commission’s press release is rather comprehensive; many of the knee-jerk reactions to this feel deliberately ignorant.

The Canadian Competition Bureau recently dropped its investigation into similar allegations. In Europe, there are several investigations pending.

Option to Log in With iCloud Password Removed in OS X 10.11.4

Rich Trouton observes:

Starting in OS X Yosemite, Apple introduced a new option to log into your Mac using the password associated with an Apple ID. As of OS X 10.11.4, this option seems to have been removed from the Users & Groups preference pane in System Preferences.

A bizarre change, particularly as it isn’t fully implemented — the option still exists in Setup Assistant. I can’t work out whether this is for security purposes or just because Apple felt like it. I’ve reached out for comment and will update this if I hear back.

Apple Starts Rolling Out Web Previews for tvOS App Links

Once again today, Federico Viticci at MacStories:1

Apple has begun rolling out web links and iTunes web previews for Apple TV apps. The change, first noticed by Jeff Scott and which we were able to confirm via Safari on OS X, allows users to link to tvOS apps in a web browser, which will show an iTunes Preview with screenshots, app description, and other information.

This seemingly minor feature addition – after all, users have been able to share links and open iTunes web previews for iOS and Mac apps for years – is a notable improvement for the tvOS app ecosystem. When third-party Apple TV apps launched last year, Apple didn’t offer the ability to link to apps directly, which considerably limited a developer’s options to link to their apps from websites and social media accounts.

The craziest part for me is that those pages currently have zero functionality beyond being a preview of the app. There’s no way for someone to download the app, of course, because the Apple TV doesn’t have a web view. You can’t AirDrop the link to your Apple TV, either, nor can you take any action on the page.

I bet that changes at WWDC.


  1. Is that team great or what? ↩︎

Helena, the Mysterious Startup

Sam Biddle, Gawker:

Last week, I received a PDF presentation about “Helena,” a new startup boasting a 20-year-old Yale student CEO and connections—so they claim—to some of the most powerful and influential people in the world, from Stanley McChrystal to, uh, Selena Gomez. I spent the better part of last week trying to figure out what the company does—and I’ll level with you, man, I’m still not sure.

I highly recommend reading this pitch deck because it is amazing. It’s jam-packed with words, yet manages to communicate nothing. It is a miasma of buzzwords or, as Biddle puts it, “startup lorem ipsum”.

Really, this is the money quote:

“Will Helena generate money?” This one prompted a sarcastic reply: “When you have staff and office space you do need to fund your operation, so that’s given.”

Staff and office space!? “How will the revenue be generated, exactly?”

“I’ll put that on the list [of questions] to pass through.”

Gold.

Minor MacBook Improvements

Slightly faster processors, slightly better graphics, and faster memory for the same price. Oh, and it comes in a rose gold colour now. It’s not a large update, especially considering that the MacBook was launched over a year ago, but it’s a good spec bump.

The MacBook Air lineup now has 8 GB of RAM standard across the board, too. So, that just leaves the MacBook Pro waiting for an update.

Who’s excited for WWDC?

Update: And the updated MacBook’s battery lasts even longer as well. Good upgrade.

MapKit.js

Federico Viticci, MacStories:

Fruity Maps is a proof of concept web app made by Tim Broddin (via 9to5Mac) to demonstrate what an Apple MapKit web view would look like.

This is undocumented, but Apple is also using an embedded MapKit view on their WWDC Attending page, which seems to suggest that an announcement in June could be likely.

Interestingly, this is the third major revision that I can find to the web version of Apple’s MapKit: back in September, I noticed that they were using a 2.x version of MapKit.js on individual retail locations pages,1 while the iCloud.com Find My iPhone web app still uses the 1.0 version of MapKit.

After I experimented with both prior versions of MapKit last year, it seemed that it was getting closer to a public debut. The newest version is closer still — Broddin’s documentation suggests that it’s awfully close to being a user-friendly product. The question now, I suppose, is whether this is because it should be easy to use for Apple internally, or whether they plan on making MapKit on the web public at last.


  1. Click “driving directions and map”. ↩︎

WWDC 2016 Officially Announced

Apple PR:

Apple today announced that it will hold its 27th annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), hosting the creative talent behind the world’s most innovative apps, from June 13 through 17 in San Francisco. At WWDC, Apple’s developer community comes together from all corners of the globe to learn about the future of Apple’s four software platforms — iOS, OS X, watchOS and tvOS.

Pretty sure they mean “MacOS”.

Monday’s kickoff events, including the keynote address, will be held at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. The rest of the week’s conference sessions will take place at Moscone West.

This is very different. The keynote is typically held in the Presidio room at Moscone West which, in 2011, had a capacity of about 1,500 attendees. It was increased in 2013, but there’s only so much space at Moscone.

The Bill Graham, meanwhile, holds about 6,000 people, depending on configuration. Apple last used it to introduce the iPad Pro and iPhone 6S; previously, they unveiled the Apple II there, too.

The marketing materials for this year’s conference are terrific, by the way. Registration for the random ticket draw is open until early Friday morning.

NASA’s Fabled 1970s Graphics Manual Reprinted

Liz Stinson, Wired:

NASA issued the manual, developed by New York design studio Danne & Blackburn, in January, 1976. It published just 40 copies, which remain highly collectible. Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth decided to recreate the manual and raised more than $940,000 on Kickstarter last year to do the job. Its backers are just now getting their copies. For those of you who missed your chance to get in early, you can buy the manual for $79.

Long-time readers will know that this is very, very appealing to me.

Media Websites Battle Faltering Traffic

John Herrman, New York Times:

As social networks grew, visits to websites in some ways became unnecessary detours, leading to the weakened traffic numbers for news sites. Sales staffs at media companies struggled to explain to clients why they should buy ads for a fragmented audience rather than go to robust social networks instead.

Advertisers adjusted spending accordingly. In the first quarter of 2016, 85 cents of every new dollar spent in online advertising will go to Google or Facebook, said Brian Nowak, a Morgan Stanley analyst. […]

At the same time, publishers pored over a report from the analytics firm Parse.ly, detailing how important Facebook had become to their business: Among sites tracked by the firm, more than 40 percent of web traffic came from the social network.

See also Joshua Topolsky’s article on Facebook from last week’s edition of the New Yorker.

Facebook’s Messenger Bots Are Frustrating

Debuting last week at Facebook’s F8 conference, the initial batch of Messenger bots have not been well-received. Spencer Chen struggled to order flowers because the bot didn’t understand cancellation commands, while Mat Honan was provided a weather forecast for an entirely different city.

Buzzfeed’s Katie Notopoulos tried to purchase shoes, and came upon a realization:

Some people hate to shop. They want to look nice, but hate having to pick out their own clothes and would be grateful to be shown just three options from a trusted store. […]

However, this is NOT the customer who is buying $400 women’s shoes. The $400 women’s shoes customer most likely enjoys shopping. The same for $400 men’s shoes! The kind of shopper who is going to buy the fairly expensive kind of apparel that Spring offers is not the same customer who wants to use a bot that will show them three options.

And Darren Orf over at Gizmodo summed up the platform’s status:

But most people will likely try out these rough-cut bots and decide they’re not worth the hassle. Chatbots leave you with that same itch in the back of your mind that it’s easier to get the weather or send flowers the old-fashioned way. They’ll get better, but it’s going to take time. Right now, chatbots are a robotic wild west, and for the foreseeable future, you’re better off sticking with civilized society.

These issues are familiar to anyone who used Siri after it first launched in 2011 or, indeed, anyone who has used virtually any natural language processing software. Beyond speech recognition problems, it’s clear that virtual assistants and bots like these continue to struggle with grasping human intent. They’re only programmed to pick up on key words and phrases, and to try to follow the progression of the conversation. But the moment that something is interjected — like when Chen asked the flower delivery bot whether it was available in Canada — it doesn’t follow the flowchart, and the conversation breaks down.

If Apple is on track to debut the Siri API at WWDC, it would be helpful to third-party developers if it would assist with the interpretation and contextualization of the conversation instead of requiring developers to build their own artificial intelligence infrastructure.

WWDC 2016 To Be Held June 13 – 17

Apple hasn’t yet announced WWDC dates for this year, but Siri knows.

Update: Or, perhaps, this is simply Apple’s unorthodox announcement strategy.

Update: Link updated. Twitter’s mobile site still blows.

The App Effect

Mayur Dhaka:

Apple ran a video at WWDC last year called The App Effect. In it, Apple tries to deliver the message that the App Store is a platform that gives big companies and one-man-shows a level playing field. Case in point, the video at 1 minute, 46 seconds has Instagram’s CEO saying ‘You know it’s a testament that two guys in a room working on an idea can launch an app and instantly have hundreds and millions of people very quickly’.

The more I think about it, the more I think that the rumour of paid search results in the App Store is just one idea floating around within a small team of people. That it would improve the App Store’s profitability sounds like an interpretation of the writers of the original Bloomberg story.

What concerns me is that this story would have been immediately written-off prior to the introduction of iAd, or even just a few years ago. It is entirely unlike Apple. But recent decisions — such as the introduction of an interstitial ad displaying to users not subscribed to Apple Music, or the other interstitial ad that displayed on older iPhones after the introduction of the 6S — makes this all the more likely. That it’s even within the realm of possibility is worrying.

QuickTime for Windows Has Reached End-of-Life

It’s not every day that you get QuickTime news. In this case, it’s decidedly not good. Dan Goodin of Ars Technica:

If your Windows computer is running Apple’s QuickTime media player, now would be a good time to uninstall it.

The Windows app hasn’t received an update since January, and security researchers from Trend Micro said it won’t receive any security fixes in the future. In a blog post published Thursday, the researchers went on to say they know of at least two reliable QuickTime vulnerabilities that threaten Windows users who still have the program installed.

It’s easy enough to uninstall QuickTime, but a surprising number of programs on Windows list it as a dependency, including GoPro Studio and Cubase to run, and Premiere Pro, After Effects, and Traktor for various features. Basically, if a Windows program works with AAC or MOV, it likely depends on QuickTime.

Apple has uninstallation instructions available.