Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for June 24th, 2021

Some Digital Packrattery

A recent piece by Doc Searls was the inspiration for today’s post:

The best new phones come with the ability to shoot 108 megapixel photos, record 4K video with stereo sound, and pack the results into a terabyte of onboard storage. But what do you do when that storage fills up?

If you want to keep those files, you’ll need to offload them somewhere. Since your computer probably doesn’t have more than 2Tb of storage, you’ll need an external drive. Or two. Or three. Or more. Over time, a lot more.

Welcome to my world.

Like Searls, I am a digital packrat; unlike him, I do not have quite so many terabytes of storage sitting around on hard drives. But it is a lot, and I know that my large collection of spinning drives will probably die one day. The thing is that most of the files on my drives, I can safely assume, would not be missed if they disappeared. But some of them would be, and I do not know which ones.

I do know that I dodged a bullet earlier this year.

I should preface this by saying that this is not some stealth advertising for Backblaze, nor have I received any compensation for posting it. I have questions and qualms with Backblaze. But this is a true story of a Groundhog Day tragedy averted.

In 2019, shortly after I had finished setting up my kind-of new iMac, I was laying in bed about to drift off to sleep when I sat straight upright with the fear that I would lose my entire iTunes library in some catastrophic hard drive failure. This is not an exaggeration: the database file that is among my most prized digital possessions dates back to when I bought an iPod Mini in 2004, and has ballooned to just shy of fifty thousand songs. These songs are all properly tagged and titled, and everything had correct cover art until Music somehow shuffled all of the pictures between different albums and songs earlier this year. It is a modern marvel how Apple removed the App Store and podcasts and e-books and a virtual university from iTunes, stripped it down to just music, and the result is somehow worse than the app it replaced.

Anyhow, I like and appreciate streaming music services, but if they disappeared tomorrow, I would be mildly upset. If I lost my iTunes library — now my Music library, I suppose — I would be devastated. But I have always been treated it with a level of risk that does not comport with how much I value it. My library totals over half a terabyte, which makes it the digital equivalent of one of those overstuffed sectional sofas: impossible to fit comfortably in a space, and quite awkward to move around. Despite this, it has been moved onto and off of external hard drives with alarming regularity as the library expands and then I get a bigger hard drive to move it to, and then — well, you see where this goes.

So, after a terrible night’s sleep in 2019, I spent the following morning setting up a remote backup service. I chose Backblaze; you may prefer something else. And — lo — just four months later, a full mirror of my iMac’s internal and external hard drives.

Jump cut to earlier this year. February 2. I was sitting at my desk, copying some files onto that very same external hard drive, when it spontaneously disconnected. I unplugged it, plugged it back in, and it would not mount. Running various Disk Utility commands did not help. Luckily, I was copying files onto one partition, but my iTunes library was stored on a different partition — because, you know, I’m not a fool — and that appeared to be okay. But the main reason I was able to remain calm is that I knew that my entire library was preserved in some data centre and I could entirely restore it.

That day, I ordered a modern solid state drive to replace the spinning rust version. There is another story here about how I needed to order from Amazon because I was unable to find an adequate drive locally, and Amazon lied to me about shipping speed and caused a small amount of grief in trying to sort that out, but that is remarkably even less interesting than my Backblaze story. Anyway, the drive arrived a week later — despite selecting and paying for one-day shipping — and I was able to fully recover my iTunes library from the broken drive.

Is there a point to this story? Sure: I never want to be without local and remote backups. This is a lesson most people learned about a decade ago, but I fully understood it a few months ago.

Microsoft Announces Windows 11

Not every day brings a new major version of Windows, but Microsoft is pitching today’s announcement of Windows 11 as just such an occasion. On the surface, it is more of an iterative update than any new version of Windows for a long time; it seems like, with Windows 10, Microsoft established a good foundation that does not require radical changes. At the time, Microsoft even went so far as to claim that Windows 10 would be the “last version of Windows”. Things change.

I’m probably never going to love any new version of Windows so long as it keeps feeling and acting and looking like Windows, but there are a couple of things announced today that are notable in relation to its role in the broader operating system market.

Aaron Tilley, Wall Street Journal:

Microsoft said it won’t require developers to use its payment system, drawing a contrast to Apple, which typically takes a 30% cut on sales made through its iPhone App Store. Microsoft has backed Epic Games Inc. in its legal battle with Apple over app-store fees. Apple has fiercely defended its app-store policy as providing customers greater security.

That’s true not only of iOS but of the app stores on each of its platforms. In Apple’s world, if someone got an application through the App Store, Apple usually owns that customer relationship, not the developer. There are exceptions; but, as a general rule, if an app comes from one of Apple’s app stores, Apple owns that financial relationship.

Microsoft has decided that it does not need to be a part of every transaction that occurs through its platform, even if that customer relationship began from the Microsoft Store. That seems wise. How much of that is driven by regulatory action that specifically targets very large, very valuable technology companies is up to you to decide — but it seems pretty obvious that none of this would be happening without intensifying legal scrutiny around the world.

Tilley:

Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney on Thursday tweeted: “The 2021 version of Microsoft is the best version of Microsoft ever!”

App developers still need to pay Microsoft a 15% fee on sales if they want to use the software giant’s apps payment system. The charge is 12% for game developers.

I am not sure what Sweeney is cheering about on Twitter. PC games are still subject to a 12% commission, and it is my understanding that this does not apply to the Xbox where games are subject to a 30% commission. According to figures released during the Epic Games lawsuit against Apple, Xbox players represent the second-biggest source of Fortnite revenue, while PC gamers generate so little revenue for Epic that their share was not broken out.

The other thing that caught my eye was how Satya Nadella ended the presentation.

Dieter Bohn, the Verge:

Nadella’s speech was almost entirely about building a case that Windows would be a better platform for creators than either macOS or (especially) iOS. He argued that “there is no personal computing without personal agency,” insisting that users should be more in control of their computers.

Nadella called out the changes Microsoft is making to its app store rules, allowing more types of apps, Android apps, and — most importantly — allowing apps to use their own payment systems if they so choose. He said, “A platform can only serve society if its rules allow for this foundational innovation and category creation.” That rhetoric sounds vaguely nice and inspiring out of context, but in the specific context of the current debates, lawsuits, and legislation over app store rules, it’s a sharp and direct critique.

That quote about personal agency will, I think, resonate particularly with the kind of person who watches a forty-five minute presentation about a new operating system. It is probably something we can all appreciate, however, as something that bridges the extremes of the Free Software Foundation’s mantra and something like the console model.

It is also a reflection that the desktop platform model that has worked for Microsoft for decades will continue to work for the foreseeable future. This is not a new strategy — not really. About ten years ago, Microsoft tried chasing a console model with Windows RT, but it did not go well; four years ago, it tried again with Windows 10 S. Both platforms restricted users to apps from Microsoft’s own software marketplace, and both contained many software limitations akin to those of Apple’s operating systems.

Bohn:

[…] Just as Google and Apple build their companies around their business models, so does Microsoft. But Microsoft’s business model has nothing to do with selling Windows or even getting a cut of app sales anymore. It’s about Microsoft 365, Azure, and enterprise services.

This is not entirely true; Microsoft’s most recent quarterly earnings indicate that the category into which it categorizes Windows represents about a third of the company’s overall revenue. But it is remarkable that Windows — a product that used to be so synonymous with Microsoft that I often heard people calling the company “Windows” — ceased to be its flagship product in financial terms, even though it is the foundation on which most of Microsoft’s products are built — and, it should be pointed out, the environment where much of the world’s business and governance passes through.