Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for February 6th, 2019

Messages’ Mixed Messages

By pretty much any measure, iMessage is an unmitigated and hardly-celebrated success. It is a proprietary, encrypted, synchronized messaging protocol that requires virtually no configuration. It can be pseudonymous or effectively anonymous. It supports multiple media types — text, of course, but also photo, audio, video, web links, Animoji/Memoji, digital touch, Tapbacks, and so on. Despite this rich feature set, it works alongside the universal SMS standard, and most of its extended functionality gracefully falls back to SMS requirements where applicable. There is simply nothing like it in any other app or on any other platform.

The impressive thing about these add-ons is how little they’ve changed the fundamental app. If you want to use all of these extended features, they’re there; if you don’t, it’s the same Messages app you’re used to.

But as much as I appreciate how unobtrusive the additions to Messages are, their hidden nature makes them less discoverable than they could be. Message effects, for example, are hidden behind a long-press of the send button. Nobody is going to stumble into that accidentally; nobody is going to think to even do that. I see the wisdom in not wishing to make the platform’s most-used app any more complicated than it needs to be, but many of these features are borderline inaccessible. They’re also not updated very often — new Animoji characters only appear with the occasional iOS update, and message effects haven’t been altered in a few years.

My personal bugaboo is the photo effects feature. Introduced in iOS 12, photo effects work kind of like Snapchat lenses or Instagram Stories. You can transform your selfie with the addition of Animoji or Memoji characters, add filters, and layer on text and stickers from other iMessage apps. There’s a lot to like about this feature, but it’s mired in an inscrutable and visually heavy user interface.

Please thank me for the exclusion of my face.
Messages Photo Effects
Let me walk you through this. You start by tapping the camera icon from within a message thread; even if you’re adding an Animoji to a photo of yourself, you cannot launch this from within the Animoji iMessage app. Then, tap the star or pentagram icon in the lower-left to start adding effects. This button does not appear anywhere else in the system,1 so your ability to figure out what it does rests entirely on your having known about it previously. Effects are added by scrolling horizontally through the app drawer at the bottom, and are applied by opening an app, selecting an effect, and then tapping the × button to close the panel. Tapping “Done” in the upper-right will, counterintuitively, dismiss the entire camera view.

This is a mess.

And, when you consider Apple’s history with this kind of thing, it’s a surprising miss. Apple has been popping cameras into the display bezels of Macs since 2005; ten years ago, you couldn’t scroll through a Facebook news feed without seeing Photo Booth pictures from your friends. That’s been replaced on every platform by postings of one smartphone photo after another — no surprise, since the total number of smartphone users worldwide far exceeds the number of traditional computer users, let alone the number of Mac users. But, even though many of those pictures may come from iPhones, virtually none of them take advantage of Apple’s photo effects because those effects are only available in Messages.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t understand why, when Apple shipped the first iPhone with a front-facing camera in 2010, they did not include a Photo Booth-like app.

To be clear, I do not think it’s particularly important for Apple to chase popularity of its own apps in public social networks. The fact that Apple’s Clips app is, as of writing, the one hundred and twenty-fourth most popular app in the Photo & Video category in the Canadian App Store right now — just barely above Flickr’s app and less popular than Canon’s Connect app — is, I think, immaterial to Apple’s overall strategy. Even so, placing photo effects solely in Messages behind several layers of obfuscation and user interface weight is a bizarre choice. I feel the same way for message effects, many of the features of iMessage apps, and even Tapbacks.

I’m not advocating for a radical redesign of Messages; I’m not even convinced it’s critical for Messages itself to be redone. But I do want to feel some confidence that these features are somehow important or interesting to Apple because I find them interesting and important. They feature Memoji on billboards, but make it hard to use or even find for an average user. That is completely unlike the seamless and easy core features of Messages. I think that confusion only adds to my feelings that these extended features are needlessly complex.

The thing I keep returning to as I write this is the core beauty of Messages: its simplicity. Among the things that are most notable about these extended features is how they don’t complicate the core functionality of Messages; it only becomes a more complicated app if you figure out how to make it so. Under the surface, of course, it has become more complex, but that isn’t obvious; as a result, neither are these extended features obvious. Is there a way to make them more visible without impeding the clarity of Messages? I’m not sure. But, at the very least, I’d like to see some of these features broken out into less-siloed parts of iOS so that it’s easier to enjoy them outside of the context of an iMessage thread.


  1. A small correction: this button also appears in FaceTime for the same purpose. I still think it’s unintelligible. Thanks to Joshua Price for pointing this out. ↩︎

Hundreds of Bounty Hunters Had Access to AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint Customers’ Real-Time Location Data for Years

Joseph Cox, Vice:

Often CerCareOne’s phone location service — known in the industry as a phone ping — would use data from cell towers and provide a Google Maps-style interface to the bounty hunter of the device’s approximate location.

But some of the data available to CerCareOne customers included a phone’s “assisted GPS” or A-GPS data, according to documents and screenshots of the service in action provided by two independent sources. A-GPS inherently relies on telecom company information — it uses a phone’s GPS chip in conjunction with information gleaned from the telecom network to locate a phone. It is used to locate cell phones that dial 911 in an emergency and it operates faster than a phone’s GPS chip alone, which can sometimes take minutes to connect to a satellite, according to telecom filings with the Federal Communications Commission. […]

Blake Reid, associate clinical professor at Colorado Law, told Motherboard in an email that “with assisted GPS, your location can be triangulated within just a few meters. This allows constructing a detailed record of everywhere you travel.”

“The only reason we grant carriers any access to this information is to make sure that first responders are able to locate us in an emergency,” Reid added. “If the carriers are turning around and using that access to sell information to bounty hunters or whomever else, it is a shocking abuse of the trust that the public places in them to safeguard privacy while protecting public safety.”

This is a damning report. Even though all cell carriers involved pointed to commitments they had made previously to discontinue location sharing deals with third parties — which, by the way, I still doubt — these reports paint a picture of an industry repeatedly undermining basic consumer trust. As long as individuals’ data can be traded and sold with virtually no oversight, this kind of thing will keep happening. It’s unconscionable that little effort has been made to regulate an industry that cannot stop itself from stooping to the absolute lowest ethical level and still finding room below it.

AnandTech and Paul Thurrott Each Published iPhone XR Reviews This Week

So here’s something a bit unexpected: two technology news websites have published reviews of a late-model iPhone. It’s February; the phone in question was released over three months ago. But they’re good reviews, and I recommend reading them.

Andrei Frumusanu at AnandTech took the usual route of that website and dove deep into its hardware characteristics and performance, and comparing it to the iPhone XS models. This, from their graphics performance tests, is notable:

Because of the relatively low screen resolution on the part of the XR’s display — a sub-FHD 1792×828 — I’ve had a lot of trouble actually getting workloads to push the A12’s GPU to its peak frequencies in on-screen scenarios. This causes an interesting dilemma for the iPhone XR: It has absolutely abundant GPU performance that won’t be used any-time soon. As game developers on iOS will be targeting and tuning their workloads to run smoothly on the most demanding devices of a generation, it means that games will most likely be setting their baseline as the higher-end iPhone XS Max, which has to push over twice the pixel resolution. The net result is that for any given 60fps graphics workload, the iPhone XR will run cooler and with a longer battery life than what you would experience on the XS or XS Max.

Paul Thurrott is smitten, too:

No matter. The iPhone XR, despite these apparent deficiencies, still emerges as the best new iPhone. And I’m not the only one who has figured this out: The iPhone XR has been the best-selling iPhone since it launched, and that includes both new iPhones — meaning the models that Apple launched late last year–as well as the cheaper, older iPhones that it still continues to sell as well.

That may not surprise those who believe that price is the primary driving factor for that success. But I believe that price is only one element of what makes the iPhone XR so special. And that Apple would be wise to examine why this model is so successful and not just immediately abandon the design, as it did previously with the “unapologetically plastic” iPhone 5C. Unlike that rip-off, the iPhone XR has a future.

The iPhone XR is a remarkable product, and its success is not shocking to me at all. But I still believe that this iPhone lineup has become more confusing over time, with the 2018 models differentiating little in naming or overall appearance. This round of reviews seems like a good reminder that the iPhone XR isn’t the junior or “lite” version of the flagship XS models; it’s a terrific product that can stand alone.