Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for October, 2016

‘Anniversaries Are About Getting Old’

John Gruber:

A lot of this 10th anniversary of the iPhone speculation is regarding the rumors that next year’s new iPhones might sport a new industrial design, with edge-to-edge displays that eliminate both the top and bottom bezels from the front face. If such a design does appear next year, the timing will be purely coincidental.

[…]

I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple never even mentions next year that 2017 is the 10th anniversary of the original iPhone. And if they do mention it, I think it will be a brief passing reference on stage, not a part of any advertising or marketing campaign.

If they do mention it, I think it will be a lot like the way Phil Schiller alluded to the original Mac when introducing the 27-inch Retina iMac:

It’s the thirtieth birthday of the Mac this year, and [this lineup is] the best ever. […] I think [the Retina iMac is] the perfect fitting to the thirtieth birthday of Macintosh.

Today’s Retina iMac is obviously different from the original Macintosh in pretty much every way. But if you put them side-by-side, you’d notice the familial similarity. The Retina iMac is that original Macintosh with every single element pushed to the ragged edge.

If the next iPhone is similar to what the rumours say, it’s going to be that kind of upgrade. It’s very likely that you’ll be able to place it beside the original iPhone and acknowledge the similarities, while seeing it as possibly the purest expression of what a smartphone can be. Yet, while it may be a fitting tribute on the iPhone’s tenth birthday, that’s not why it’s being released next year. Whatever the case for the iPhone next year, it’s because that’s the best of what Apple can do.

Reported Performance Discrepancies Between Intel and Qualcomm Modems in the iPhone 7

Jeff Benjamin, 9to5Mac:

The report from Cellular Insights finds that iPhone 7’s equipped with Qualcomm’s MDM9645M modem, which powers the (A1660, A1661) Verizon, Sprint, and SIM-free models, features better cellular performance than the (A1778, A1784) Intel version. Not only that, but the Qualcomm version’s ability to take advantage of Ultra HD Voice has been disabled as well according to the report.

I wouldn’t read too much into this report. Remember last year’s brief controversy about the performance differences between the dual-sourced A9 SoCs? It quickly fizzled out after Apple noted that all iPhones experience slight differences in processor performance and battery life due to variances in manufacturing processes. There’s no reason to suspect that Apple has dual-sourced their modems this year without assuring comparable real-world performance.

Computational Photography and the Pixel

Of all of the features of Google’s new Pixel phones, the camera is receiving perhaps the loudest praise. It’s no wonder: most of the images I’ve seen look fantastic, especially in low light.

Sam Byford of the Verge spoke with Google’s Marc Levoy about how they used software to eke out the best photos they could from a fairly standard smartphone camera sensor:

The traditional way to produce an HDR image is to bracket: you take the same image multiple times while exposing different parts of the scene, which lets you merge the shots together to create a final photograph where nothing is too blown-out or noisy. Google’s method is very different — HDR+ also takes multiple images at once, but they’re all underexposed. This preserves highlights, but what about the noise in the shadows? Just leave it to math.

[…]

Google also claims that, counterintuitively, underexposing each HDR shot actually frees the camera up to produce better low-light results. “Because we can denoise very well by taking multiple images and aligning them, we can afford to keep the colors saturated in low light,” says Levoy. “Most other manufacturers don’t trust their colors in low light, and so they desaturate, and you’ll see that very clearly on a lot of phones — the colors will be muted in low light, and our colors will not be as muted.” But the aim isn’t to get rid of noise entirely at the expense of detail; Levoy says “we like preserving texture, and we’re willing to accept a little bit of noise in order to preserve texture.”

This sounds like a very clever workaround for getting great images from a sensor smaller than a postage stamp, and the results so far seem to support that.

However, some reviewers seem to prefer the warmer tones of the iPhone’s camera, and the Pixel doesn’t have the wide colour capture of the iPhone. While the former benefit is preferential, the latter benefit is becoming increasingly noticeable: the iPads Pro, the iMac, the iPhone 7, and — likely — next week’s MacBook Pros all support a wider colour gamut.

Of course, there’s a followup question worth asking: which of those is more important for a smartphone?

Hello Again

It’s official: Apple’s next event will be held at 10:00 Pacific on October 27 at their campus in Cupertino. They’re giving this event a pretty bold title, again. Maybe there will be iMac-related news at this event after all.

In the words of Tim Cook, “this is probably the last product introduction in the Town Hall ever” all over again. Mark your calendars.

Update: Mark Gurman says that an update to the iMac has been in development.

Two Twitter Offers Rumoured to Have Dissolved Due to Trolls

Alex Sherman, Chris Palmeri, and Sarah Frier, Bloomberg:

Walt Disney Co. decided not to pursue a bid for Twitter Inc. partly out of concern that bullying and other uncivil forms of communication on the social media site might soil the company’s wholesome family image, according to people familiar with management’s thinking.

Eugene Kim, Business Insider:

But according to CNBC’s “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer, Salesforce was turned off by a more fundamental problem that’s been hurting Twitter for years: trolls.

“What’s happened is, a lot of the bidders are looking at people with lots of followers and seeing the hatred,” Cramer said on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street,” citing a recent conversation with Benioff. “I know that the haters reduce the value of the company…I know that Salesforce was very concerned about this notion.”

It would be awful if the only reason Twitter decides to get a handle on the worst parts of their service is because the company is unsaleable otherwise. Awful, but entirely expected.

Good Design, Inside and Out

Om Malik, writing for the New Yorker:

Porsche’s and Apple’s design philosophies are similar. Much like the 356, the original iPhone was about defining a foundation for the future. It was different from other phones on the market — it made a rectangular touchscreen the main way to interact, displacing buttons and keypads. Now the iPhone is the essence of a phone.

This is not a new argument, but it is a very good one. There is an expectation of what an iPhone should look like and, though it has morphed in form and materials since its debut, the iPhone 7 still looks like an iPhone, and that’s right. So is this:

The seamless interaction between the technologies hidden behind the screen, the software, and our services is good design. Apple thus far has made sure that it gets most of that experience right — especially the stuff under the hood. Perhaps the next time someone criticizes its designs, we should remember: good design means your phone doesn’t explode.

I’ve written a fair bit about Siri over the past month or so: in my iOS 10 review, in response to Walt Mossberg’s piece, and in response to a piece from Stephen Hackett. I think it’s important to keep bringing it up because I think Siri is currently fundamentally flawed in its design.

The way I see it, Siri requires three streams of improvement that can roughly be prioritized in terms of their complexity and perceived intelligence. At the highest level, it should be able to maintain context over the course of several requests. That is what a good human assistant would be able to do, and it’s a request for Siri that I’ve often seen expressed in tech circles.

Something slightly less complex but, arguably, of similar value is to improve the number of things Siri knows and can do. Frustrations with Siri’s limited knowledge have partially been alleviated through the introduction of SiriKit, but it is a limited set of APIs. Trivia and news items should be more frequently updated, and that’s something only Apple can do.

But there are usability concerns that run much deeper. For example, holding up my Apple Watch and saying “Hey Siri, text Michel” will return an onscreen button that must be tapped in order to dictate my text. I’ve mentioned this previously, but I’ll bring it up again because it grates on me for a couple of reasons. First, a task initiated by voice should continue using vocal interaction because the user has indicated that their hands are occupied. Second, this is something Apple already knows because the same command on an iPhone responds with an audible prompt for dictation. On the iPhone, this is an example of good design; on the Apple Watch, it’s poorly-designed in a pretty obvious way.

If Siri is to be the interaction mechanism of the future — as is indicated by bringing it to the Mac, using it as a primary user interface for the Apple TV, and the introduction of the AirPods which can’t even adjust the volume without depending on Siri — it ought to deserve an appropriate amount of attention to its design and functionality.

Apple’s most recent hires and acquisitions indicate that, behind the scenes, Siri is being given a high priority within the company. Yet, it’s hard to square those acquisitions with Siri’s age: Apple has had five years to work on this stuff. It would be ridiculous to argue that they blew their chance — not with over a billion Siri-capable devices in active use — but there’s definitely an impression that Apple isn’t yet good enough at augmented reality and machine learning. More worrying for me is that the user interface component of Siri — a field where Apple typically excels — simply isn’t good enough.

Mac-Focused Apple Event Rumoured to Be Held October 27

This event has to be one of the closest to the winter holidays in Apple’s recent history. I’m excited.

Update: Realistically, I’m expecting a significant update to the MacBook Pro line, with a minor update to the 13-inch MacBook Air. I doubt we’ll see updates to the iMac or Mac Mini, let alone the Mac Pro. Mark Gurman is hinting that the 11-inch MacBook Air isn’t being discontinued.

Field Notes: Lunacy

Field Notes’s quarterly edition is called “Lunacy” this time around, and it looks gorgeous. However, I’m more interested in another product they launched today: the Brand’s Hall pen:

We’ve partnered with Allegory Goods of Chicago to produce a limited-edition, fine rollerball pen using wood reclaimed from an iconic Chicago building, which was constructed in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1871. The body of the Brand’s Hall Pen is made from salvaged Old-Growth White Pine (likely from Western Michigan) that has been turned by hand on a lathe and then individually sanded, embossed and polished in Chicago. No two are exactly alike.

Accompanying the pen is the history of Brand’s Hall, and it’s fascinating — it’s what this post links to. The pen is a little spendy, but I’ve ordered one. I’m a sucker for stuff like this.

New MacBooks Still Rumoured for October

We all know that Project Titan is one of the most difficult ideas Apple has undertaken, second only to updating their Mac lineup. But relief is, reportedly, nearly here, according to Mac Otakara:

Furthermore, it seems that they are also going to announce the new MacBook Pro at the same time [in October], which will go on to replace the entire MacBook Pro series.

It seems all of these models are developed with support for the USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 ports in mind, and will no longer be compatible with the USB-A connector, and the MagSafe 2 and Thunderbolt 2 ports.

The MagSafe is such an Apple-y connector: it brings so many improvements over a standard power connector that it justifies its nonstandard design.

Dropping it ten years after its introduction is equally Apple-y. If the MacBook is anything to go by, they’re basically saying that charging your computer is something you should do so infrequently that tripping over your cable is a thing of the past, because you’re probably asleep.

Speaking of the MacBook, Mac Otakara also says that the 11-inch Air might be dropped, which makes sense, given the amount of overlap between the little Air and the 12-inch MacBook. Mac Otakara has no news on any other Macs, and it appears that the iPad won’t be refreshed until springtime.

Update: As Macs slowly move from USB-A to USB-C, at what point does the iPhone start shipping with a USB-C to Lightning cable in the box?

A Profile of Tracy Chou

Miranda Katz, writing for Backchannel:

Chou had spent her twenties working at places such as Google, Facebook, and Quora before landing at Pinterest as an engineer, and as she expanded her networks she started informally keeping track of the number of female engineers at tech firms. It was deeply ironic, she thought, that in a data-driven industry that prides itself on running experiments, performing A/B testing, and measuring outcomes, there was no official, easily accessible data about the number of women actually working in the field. And so she wrote:

As an engineer and someone who’s had ‘data-driven design’ browbeaten into me by Silicon Valley, I can’t imagine trying to solve a problem where the real metrics, the ones we’re setting our goals against, are obfuscated. Vanity metrics are dangerous; just pointing to the happy numbers, like those on Grace Hopper conference attendance, doesn’t do anything except make people feel good while the real issues fester, unaddressed.

With her employer’s blessing, she then shared the number of female engineers at Pinterest — 11 out of 89 — and encouraged her readers to do the same. They did. Within a week, employees from over 50 companies had submitted data, including Dropbox, Rent the Runway, Reddit, and Mozilla — and the companies kept on coming.

In the three years since Chou first coaxed tech companies into releasing their diversity figures, the motivation to do so has somewhat fizzled out. Of the eight large companies that I compare annually, four — Amazon, LinkedIn, Yahoo, and Twitter — haven’t released their numbers for 2016. Countless smaller companies also haven’t; I spot-checked Reddit, Mozilla, and Dropbox, and the most recent report from those three companies is Dropbox’s, from January.

A lack of diverse employees clearly remains a defining issue of most of the tech companies that we rely upon daily. Chou’s work laid the foundation for every company to be transparent and to do better. But, without constant pressure, it seems that many major tech companies would rather avoid releasing their internal stats.

Shame on Y Combinator

Marco Arment:

[Peter Thiel], a non-employee (a ‘part-time partner’), is directly supporting Donald Trump at a massive scale — over a million dollars! — after we’ve learned even more of Trump’s horrendous statements, positions, and past actions than we could’ve ever imagined.

This isn’t voting for an economic or social policy — this is literally paying a huge amount of money to directly support a racist, sexist bigot with rapidly mounting allegations of multiple sexual assaults.

Much like Brendan Eich’s contributions to the “yes” vote on Proposition 8, this isn’t merely a difference of opinion. I will always stand up for the ability for others to have political opinions that differ from my own, but I have no tolerance for those who purchase the power to discriminate.

Update: Erica Joy:

Power doesn’t surrender power w/out a struggle. In this struggle to end or uphold straight/white/male/cis supremacy, actions do the talking. Peter Thiel’s actions have demonstrated where he falls in this struggle. YC’s actions should demonstrate the same.

Ellen Pao:

We have hope for YC; YC has openly acknowledged bias and harassment problems in tech, and it has made progress in diversity and inclusion in its own organization over the last few years. We saw an opportunity to work with YC companies interested in building vibrant and diverse organizations, and we actively invited YC as a contributor to our VC Include program to gain access to its nearly 1,000 companies and CEOs, who are greatly admired and emulated.

But Thiel’s actions are in direct conflict with our values at Project Include. Because of his continued connection to YC, we are compelled to break off our relationship with YC. We hope this situation changes, and that we are both willing to move forward together in the future. Today it is clear to us that our values are not aligned.

Project Titan Reportedly Scaled Back

Mark Gurman and Alex Webb, Bloomberg:

Apple Inc. has drastically scaled back its automotive ambitions, leading to hundreds of job cuts and a new direction that, for now, no longer includes building its own car, according to people familiar with the project. […]

New leadership of the initiative, known internally as Project Titan, has re-focused on developing an autonomous driving system that gives Apple flexibility to either partner with existing carmakers, or return to designing its own vehicle in the future, the people also said. Apple has kept staff numbers in the team steady by hiring people to help with the new focus, according to another person.

Apple executives have given the car team a deadline of late next year to prove the feasibility of the self-driving system and decide on a final direction, two of the people said. Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr declined to comment.

If Apple elects to just build the software platform, does that mean they license it to other car companies? That seems unlikely to me. More likely, if this report is accurate, would be a collaboration — or series of collaborations — that give Apple some control over the car itself, similar to their co-branded Watches.

A collaborative path still feels unlike Apple. But, perhaps due to the nature of a product like this, that may prove to be a good thing.

Update: A collaborative strategy might also make it easier to do multiple price points, particularly at the higher end. After the performance of the first-generation Apple Watch Edition, it might make more sense to work with an automotive brand already positioned to sell high-end cars.

‘Welcome to Macintosh’ Season 3

Mark Bramhill announced today that he’s bringing back his podcast, Welcome to Macintosh, for a third season. Regular readers here will know that I’m not a big podcast guy, but Welcome to Macintosh is one of the few that I love. It’s a well-edited, fast-paced show, and every episode revolves around a single narrative.

Bramhill wants to raise $10,000 to bring it back. He needs money to travel, license music, and more. I’ve contributed. If you like the show, I hope you will too.

Ampholes

Back in 2009, Digg started wrapping external links on their site in an iframe using a URL shortener. The “DiggBar”, as it was called, was widely derided for, among other things, stealing search rankings — this was back when Digg was relevant — and breaking bookmarking. It was adjusted shortly after launching, only to be killed off about a year later.

So, lesson learned, right? Well, not as far as Google is concerned. Alex Kras enabled AMP on his self-hosted WordPress site, only to find it ruined his URLs:

Most importantly, I was surprised to find out that instead of redirecting users to an optimized version hosted on my server, Google was actually serving a snapshot of the page from their own cache. To make things worse, Google was injecting a large toolbar at the top of the snapshot encouraging users to get back to Google search results (a functionality already provided by the back button) and making it harder to get to the original site.

A while back, I was trying to get access to the regular version of a page because there was an element that was broken on the AMP version. To do so, I had to adjust the URL manually — there appeared to be no other way to get to the HTML page.

Remembering the SR-71 Rumour Mill

I’m a sucker for a good SR-71 story. In this one for War is Boring, Robert Beckhusen writes about the attempts by industry watchers to figure out what Lockheed was building before the SR-71 was declassified. In some cases, it feels remarkably similar to today’s Apple rumour mill:

By March, [retired admiral John B. Pearson] and his coworkers studied shipments of liquid hydrogen and oxygen fuel, movements of test pilots and even subcontractors working on specialized precision valves to deduce not only the existence of a new spy plane, but guess its specifications. They weren’t dead-on accurate, but they were close.

If you haven’t read it before, Brian Shul’s account of flying the SR-71 is worth your time.

Well Rounded

Dr. Drang:

The problem with always rounding halves up is that in doing so, you introduce a persistent bias in whatever calculations you do with the rounded number. If you’re adding a list of rounded numbers, for example, the sum will be biased high.

If you round halves to the nearest even number, though, the bias from upward roundings tends to be negated by an equal number of downward roundings. Overall, you get better results.

This article is technically about a change in PCalc, but it’s worth reading for these two paragraphs alone. I was always taught to round all halves upwards, but the round-to-even rule makes far more sense, especially when working with large sets of numbers. Consider me enlightened.

Getting Sirious

Great piece from Stephen Hackett:

There are some fundamental differences between Apple and Google when it comes to privacy, and I believe those differences will allow Google to continue to lead in the area of digital assistants infused with artificial intelligence. However, consumer privacy has nothing to do with some of the simple tasks Siri still fails at doing.

Siri falls back to a Bing search results page way too often. I expect my virtual assistant to be able to parse information from the Internet and read it back to me as I drive or am in the kitchen with my hands dirty. Reading a bunch of search results completely defeats the purpose of using Siri to begin with.

I’ve noticed examples of this on my Apple Watch, too. I might get a text message while cooking, read it, and then say “Hey Siri, reply to that text from Geoff”. Siri will show me an onscreen button with a microphone, which I must tap with my probably-messy hand to begin dictating my reply.

This example, and inconsistencies between similar queries, and returning a list of Bing results — these are all examples of Siri’s functional pitfalls. Improving all of these aspects doesn’t require a compromise on privacy. This is just about the software doing the right thing.

The Environmental Cost of the Galaxy Note 7 Recall

Jason Koebler, Vice:

Early Tuesday morning, Samsung announced it has permanently discontinued and stopped promoting the Galaxy Note 7, and has asked its customers to return their devices for a refund or exchange. A Samsung spokesperson told me the phones will not be repaired, refurbished, or resold ever again: “We have a process in place to safely dispose of the phones,” the company said.

This sounds reasonable, but the fact is that besides sitting in your nightstand drawer for eternity (a fate that will surely befall some of these phones) or being thrown into a garbage dump or chucked into the bottom of a river, being recycled is the worst thing that can happen to a smartphone.

The consumer electronics industry has made significant improvements towards reducing their environmental footprint, but there’s a long way to go. It’s particularly egregious here because the word recycling connotes a sense of environmental responsibility. But, as such a small amount of a phone is typically being recycled that it feels misleading, at best.

Coincidentally, Amelia Urry looked into Apple’s iPhone-dismantling robot, “Liam”, earlier this week for Grist. It’s better than traditional recycling techniques, but nowhere near as great as one might think. The drift towards a three-year refresh cycle due to higher-quality, better-performing smartphones ought to be encouraged for its ecological benefits.

Walt Mossberg on Siri

Walt Mossberg:

If you try and treat Siri like a truly intelligent assistant, aware of the wider world, it often fails, even though Apple presentations and its Siri website suggest otherwise. (And I’m not talking about getting your voice wrong. In my recent experience, Siri has become quite good at transcribing what I’m asking, just not at answering it.)

In recent weeks, on multiple Apple devices, Siri has been unable to tell me the names of the major party candidates for president and vice president of the United States. Or when they were debating. Or when the Emmy awards show was due to be on. Or the date of the World Series. When I asked it “What is the weather on Crete?” it gave me the weather for Crete, Illinois, a small village which — while I’m sure it’s great — isn’t what most people mean when they ask for the weather on Crete, the famous Greek island.

Mossberg isn’t alone. Earlier today, Neven Mrgan asked Siri to play music recently added to his library. No variation of that request was successful. Last week, I asked Siri what the weather would be like in Banff the next day, and it provided me with a weekly forecast, not the hourly forecast anyone would expect for that question.

These requests are not complex — Mossberg says that Apple fixed many of these commands in the weeks after he tweeted about them, which suggests to me that it’s trivial to reprogram a given query. I tested some of Mossberg’s questions about the 2016 U.S. election and found many of my questions were answered, but not consistently or reliably.

This comes down to two key gaps in the Siri development chain. First, Apple says they update Siri every other week; I maintain that it should be updated far more frequently than that. Second, Apple told Mossberg that they don’t prioritize trivia:

It puts much less emphasis on what it calls “long tail” questions, like the ones I’ve cited above, which in some cases, Apple says, number in only the hundreds each day.

My hunch is that questions like these are asked less frequently not because people don’t try, but because users have tried and Siri didn’t answer. Over time, users teach themselves that Siri simply isn’t good for this kind of information, and they stop trying.

Update: John Gruber:

These sort of glaring inconsistencies are almost as bad as universal failures. The big problem Apple faces with Siri is that when people encounter these problems, they stop trying. It feels like you’re wasting your time, and makes you feel silly or even foolish for having tried. I worry that even if Apple improves Siri significantly, people will never know it because they won’t bother trying because they were burned so many times before. In addition to the engineering hurdles to actually make Siri much better, Apple also has to overcome a “boy who cried wolf” credibility problem.

Entirely agreed, with one minor exception: I think the inconsistencies are worse than outright failure. The inability to answer a query implies a limitation which, while not ideal, is understandable. Inconsistency, on the other hand, makes Siri feel untrustworthy. If I can’t reliably expect the same result with basic queries that are almost identical, I’m much less likely to find it dependable.

User Fingerprinting Through Social Media Account Login Tokens

Robin Linus demonstrates an impressively straightforward technique for fingerprinting users by testing which social networks have an active login token. This reminds me a little of Epic Marketing’s equally simple history sniffing technique — albeit, in a much more limited capacity.

You should know that this link sniffs several popular sites with login forms, which, naturally, includes a couple of porn sharing sites. Depending on your workplace security settings, that might raise a red flag or two.