Category Archives: Technology

512 Pixels on YouTube

Stephen Hackett loves old Macs. (And iPhones and iPods and Newtons.) His fascination with old Apple hardware and the passion to share it with a larger audience — many of whom weren’t around for the dark days when Apple was doomed — is one of the things I love most about reading 512 Pixels.

He’s slowly been expanding into video production with a channel on YouTube. The latest video covers the iPod Shuffle, the tiny iPod without a screen that Apple still sells. At just $49, it’s not much more expensive than a long USB-C cable and may be the best bargain in Apple’s lineup after the $399 iPhone SE. Stephen writes about the original Shuffle:

The first Shuffle was built like a glorified USB thumb drive. This new player was smaller than a pack of chewing gum, and built around the concept of shuffling your music. There was no need for a screen or a true clickwheel. If you wanted to listen to music in order, the switch on the back could be set to continuous playback.

Ah, nostalgia. One of the reasons I blog at all, and have been for 14 years now, isn’t so much for today’s audience but tomorrow’s. Even the most mundane blog posts take on new significance with a few years’ distance. Old technical topics have surprisingly poor representation on today’s web, as linkrot sets in.

I’m looking forward to what else Stephen has planned. I know from the Connected podcast that lately he has been trying to collect all the different original iMac colors. (Two other podcasts that are worth a listen for an additional trip down memory lane: The Record and Simple Beep.)

Sticking with the big iPad Pro

I’ve been conflicted about which iPad Pro to use ever since the 10-inch rumors started. If both sizes had been available right away, I think I would have bought the smaller version. Small is convenient; I still really like and use even the iPad Mini. But there was only one iPad Pro when the Apple Pencil was introduced, so I bought that one.

Luckily the 13-inch iPad Pro still has some nice benefits. More room for split-view apps, of course, but also 4 GB of RAM compared to the new iPad Pro’s 2 GB. Federico Viticci is sticking with the big one:

2 GB of RAM was one of the first things I heard about the new device yesterday, and part of the reason why I’m going to stick with the 12.9-inch Pro. In addition to a more comfortable iOS experience, I like knowing that I’m using the most powerful iPad hardware currently available (I don’t count the camera as essential to what I need to do on an iPad).

I realized this week that I was wasting time wondering which iPad is the best for me. It’s the ol’ paradox of choice. So to cement the decision, I went by the Apple Store yesterday and picked up a Smart Keyboard for the 13-inch. I’ve been meaning to get one for months, and now that I have it, it makes even less sense to trade in my iPad for a different one. (The keyboard really does transform the iPad. It’s great.)

iPhone SE sales potential

John Gruber runs down the list of yesterday’s Apple announcements. On the iPhone SE, he recognizes that it’s a great device especially in the short term, before the iPhone 7 is released:

If you listen to my podcast, you know how ambivalent I remain about the physical size of the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and 6S. I was really hoping that the iPhone SE would effectively have iPhone 6S specs — CPU and GPU performance, and similar camera quality. That seems to be exactly what Apple delivered. I honestly think this is the phone I’m going to use for the next six months.

Jason Snell follows up on the Dan Moren post I linked to by also covering the new products. Highlighting the sales potential for the iPhone SE, Jason writes:

In the past year, Apple has sold 30 million 4” iPhones, out of around 230 million total. That’s only 13 percent of the total, but it’s still a very large number of phones—and this, during a year when the most modern four-inch iPhone Apple sells was introduced in the fall of 2013. Is there room for the iPhone SE to be 20 percent of Apple’s total iPhone sales? I think so.

I keep thinking about the iPhone SE price: $399 for essentially the power of a 6S, which is $649. That’s just a great value. I’ve said on Core Intuition recently that while the 6S and upcoming 7 will always remain the most popular phone, I think the SE could hold its own with the 6S Plus in units sold. Now I wonder if it could even surpass it.

According to David Smith’s stats, the Plus versions represent about 15% of active devices 4-inch or bigger. That share goes up to about 20% if you exclude older devices no longer for sale, like the 5 and 5C. That seems about right to me. If you sat around an Apple Store and watched 10 people buy iPhones, I’d be surprised if more than a couple were the Plus. Starting next week, a couple of those iPhones could be the SE, too.

Apple event non-product focus

Dan Moren writes for Six Colors about the structure for the 1-hour Apple event today, of which only about half the time was spent on new products:

“If the Apple-FBI fight isn’t yet about public opinion, it probably will be if the matter ends up going to Congress. So it’s no surprise that Tim Cook is going to use his bully pulpit to push Apple’s track record on the welfare of its customers and the world at large, rather than how many products it’s sold and how much money it’s made.”

I’d like to see this continue at future events. Leave the record sales numbers for the finance call, and instead focus on what good Apple is doing because they are big, not just how they are big. Even though I own some Apple stock, I do not personally care that much about the precise magnitude of iPhone shipments this quarter.

As for the new products, nothing to complain about. Since the $10,000 Apple Watch Edition didn’t get a $50-dollar price drop like the Apple Watch Sport did, guess I’ll skip that purchase and get an iPhone SE instead.

Ulysses iOS missing Dropbox support

After I blogged about Ulysses for Mac, a couple people told me that an iPad version was coming soon and that it was great. That new version shipped this week. I put down $20 immediately even before reading the positive MacStories review by David Chartier.

Unfortunately I can’t use it much because it has no native Dropbox support. For a market that has literally many dozens of Dropbox text editors, I didn’t consider that Ulysses would ship without something so integral to my writing workflow.

(The Mac version doesn’t have this problem because of the concept of “External Folders”. I simply add my Dropbox notes folder to Ulysses on my Mac and everything syncs.)

Last month I wrote a post called iCloud is too opaque, in which I made an argument against having important text files and photos synced to a backend that allows no visibility when things go wrong, and no compatibility with other apps. Ulysses for iOS falls into this trap. Its use of iCloud is private to the app, unlike iCloud Drive or Dropbox which are accessible from other apps.

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. The FAQ for Ulysses spends considerable space trying to explain away their lack of Dropbox support, even attempting to pin the issue on Dropbox instead of Ulysses itself.

The Soulmen, makers of Ulysses, are talented designers and developers, and I’m typing this in Ulysses for Mac because their app has a great mix of features and attention to detail. I respect that they’ve grown the company to 11 people already. But closed syncing solutions aren’t a good choice for exclusivity. Having cross-platform syncing across competing Twitter apps is why I created Tweet Marker, so you can be sure I want the same for my text documents.

Concerned about user-generated content

On the latest Under the Radar podcast, Marco Arment and David Smith talk about ways to make your app more robust. That includes tips for scaling your app with a lot of data, and also dealing with potentially hostile user data. It’s that last point that I’ve been thinking the most about lately.

With the experience of building Tumblr and Instapaper, Marco is clearly now hesitant to ship app features that accept arbitrary user-generated content, because a small indie company just doesn’t have the resources to deal with spam and abuse. Instead, he suggests outsourcing whenever possible. For example, letting Apple accept and reject podcasts, and basing the Overcast podcast directory search on that already-vetted list.

Let’s say you’re building a Twitter-like service. As we all know, hate is widespread on Twitter. At times, it seems impossible to even have a G-rated Twitter experience. But the problem is less that users can publish terrible tweets, and more that it is so easy to be exposed to those tweets with search, trending topics, retweets, and replies.

As I work on my microblogging project, I’m trying to be aware of these points in the platform where bad content can leak out. So I don’t have global search or trending topics. I also don’t make it easy to stumble upon random users. But I do have replies, which by default will currently go out as push notifications if you have the iPhone app installed. It’s that area that I should focus my attention.

Two options that come to mind for minimizing abuse in replies:

  • Don’t allow replies from people you aren’t following. This solves the problem, but it comes at the expense of discussion. It removes the accessibility that many people love about Twitter’s asynchronous following model.
  • Quarantine or attempt to classify replies so they don’t bubble up in your timeline or as notifications by default. This would be like an over-aggressive email spam filter. Difficult to get right and possibly routed around by clever microbloggers.

After listening to Marco and David, and reviewing the full scope of what I’ve been trying to build, I’m pretty concerned about this. I’m looking at Akismet, and other metrics internal to my app for judging content and suspicious user accounts, but I may be a little in over my head on this issue.

Apple Watch is slow… for now

Dan Moren wrote an essay for Six Colors last week about why slowness is such a problem for the Apple Watch:

“The stale data and the lack of speed means that either you have to stare at your Watch for several seconds and hope the data updates; or tap on the complication to load the Watch app, which as we all know takes a good long while as well; or simply give up and pull out your phone. […] It’s not just that the Apple Watch is slow; it’s that it’s slow while promising to be faster.”

Both Dan and Jason Snell followed up on this topic in the latest Six Colors subscriber podcast. The problem, they recognized, is that the first Apple Watch tried to do too much. Apple should instead focus on a few core features and make them fast.

Which features? I still use the Apple Watch every single day, and I use it for just three things: telling the time, tracking fitness (including reminding me to stand up), and glancing at notifications.

Some people have stopped wearing their watch every day. Again, that’s fine. Curtis Herbert was falling into that category, until he went snowboarding with friends and realized how useful the Apple Watch is when you can’t get to your phone or tap buttons. In an article about the snowboarding trip, Curtis says the Apple Watch’s problems are solvable in future versions:

“Siri on the Watch will get faster. The battery situation will improve. The Watch as a whole will get faster. We’re spoiled by iPhone speeds and sometimes forget just how long it took us to get there, and the crap we dealt with until then.”

I’m not worried about the future of the watch either. Our early expectations were much too high — in contrast with the first iPhone, which exceeded all hopes because it was seemingly from the future already — and it will take a couple more years to catch up to where we’d all like the watch to be. In the meantime, the watch is useful today, even slow-ish.

iPhone SE (no 5)

Mark Gurman of 9to5Mac reports that the new 4-inch iPhone will be called simply “iPhone SE”, not “5SE”. As I said before, I don’t really care what it’s called, but this is good news nevertheless.

John Gruber adds:

“Isn’t it more accurate to think of this as an iPhone 6S in a 4-inch body than as an iPhone 5S with ‘upgraded internals’? Other than the display, aren’t the ‘internals’ the defining characteristics of any iPhone?”

I agree with John. Other than the screen size, this phone will feel a lot like an iPhone 6S. And because I love the smaller size, I personally think it will have the best of both the 5S and 6S.

Prediction: this phone is going to be much more popular than people expect. I won’t be surprised if it takes the 6S Plus’s spot as the 2nd most popular iPhone.

Dave Winer on Instant Articles

Maybe I misjudged Facebook’s Instant articles. Dave Winer is a supporter, because it builds on RSS:

“Facebook is using open web technology to power Instant Articles. I’m not sharing anything that isn’t already publicly documented on the Facebook developer site. People have trouble understanding this, I assume, because it seems so out of character for a big web destination like Facebook to care about the open web. It’s kind of a miracle. But there it is. The open web is about to get a real shot in the arm from a most unexpected place.”

I guess one question is whether there will be any other RSS readers that support Instant Articles. If we can get some of the benefits of Instant Articles, but outside of Facebook, that is something.

App review for the fast web

Facebook continues to roll out their Instant Articles format to more publishers. It’s now available to anyone, with this catch:

“You won’t be able to publish Instant Articles until your RSS feed has been approved.”

That’s just what we need: the worst part of the App Store approval process applied to the web. No thanks.

Google’s competing Accelerated Mobile Pages has problems too, as I mentioned in the last half of this post about the cost of links. Although unlike Facebook, which wants to trap content behind their own platform, AMP is at least more open and useful to the larger web.

I hate to say it but neither Instant Articles nor AMP are really good enough. I think we need a third standard for super-fast web pages. (Or do we? Maybe the web is okay as-is if we fight page bloat.)

iCloud is too opaque

Last night, Federico Viticci tweeted that he lost a draft blog post he was working on because of an iCloud problem:

“Just lost 1.5k words I had prepared for tomorrow because I wanted to try iCloud sync instead of Dropbox this week.”

The story has a happy ending because he was able to manually recover the document from the app’s database, but that is well beyond the complexity that most users could handle. iCloud is usually so opaque that we just can’t see what is going on behind the scenes with our data.

Everything I write on this blog (and notes for all my projects) goes into simple text files on Dropbox. I can edit from multiple apps on different platforms, the files are synced everywhere, and Dropbox tracks the revisions of each file so that I can restore a previous version at any time. I could take the text file I’m currently typing in, drag it to the Finder’s trash and empty it, and restore from the web in 30 seconds even without any kind of traditional backup solution.

That’s why all my photos are on Dropbox too. Instead of being opaque like iCloud, with no easy way to troubleshoot or recover files when things go wrong, with Dropbox it’s all there in the local file system or over the web.

Dropbox has had a few side projects and distractions, but their foundation is obvious and accessible, so they can keep coming back to that. Here’s Stephen Hackett writing in December about documents and photos after Dropbox shut down Mailbox and Carousel:

“As much as these apps were loved by their users, it’s clear that the company is moving in another direction. While things like Paper don’t make much of a difference to me, knowing that Dropbox will reliably sync my files, be easy to use on iOS and continue to be around is important to me. If Mailbox and Carousel had to go to make that possible, then so be it.”

I really like the clean UI in Dropbox’s Paper, but because it doesn’t yet sync with regular files like the rest of Dropbox, Paper isn’t building on Dropbox’s core strengths. Daniel and I use it for planning Core Intuition, but I wouldn’t use it for critical writing any more than I would use the new Apple Notes.

I hear that people love iCloud Photo Library and Notes, and that the quality of these apps and companion services has significantly improved. That’s great. (I also think that CloudKit is clearly the best thing Apple has built for syncing yet.)

But to me, it doesn’t matter if it’s reliable or fast, or even if it “always” works. It only matters if I trust it when something goes wrong. Conceptually I’m not sure iCloud will ever get there for me.

Algorithmic timeline now rolling out

Dan Moren reports that Twitter is rolling out their algorithmic timeline, where tweets aren’t strictly reverse-chronological. It is opt-in for now, and likely won’t apply to third-party clients:

“I’d also guess that third-party clients won’t be able to implement this for a while, if ever. So users of Tweetbot, Twitterrific, and others won’t really have a substantively different experience.”

I don’t see the setting in my Twitter account yet. As a user, I hardly care, because I don’t read the Twitter timeline directly anyway. But I’ll be watching how people react to this and how it might affect my own microblogging plans.

Apple says macOS

Nice observation by Jason Snell from the Apple quarterly report conference call:

“It probably means nothing, but when Maestri listed off Apple’s four major product platforms, he said this: ‘We’ve built a huge installed base around four platforms: iOS, Mac OS, watchOS, and tvOS.’”

Like Jason, I’ve long wanted a return to “Mac” as the most important part of the OS name, and have suggested it a couple times on Core Intuition. It was a missed opportunity to do this transition after 10.9, when it could have cleanly gone to Mac OS 11 without the .10 and .11 silliness.

The new tvOS and watchOS branding — combined with Apple’s quote above — makes an official rebranding to “macOS” at WWDC this year seem almost likely. The next major version should be macOS 11, without the “X” and “10.x”. That would still look a little wrong compared to simply “Mac OS”, but it would be much better than “OS X”, and the lowercase would be consistent with the rest of the platforms.

Matt Gemmell on Twitter ads

Matt Gemmell has started including shorter posts on his blog. Today he writes about Twitter’s decision to not show ads to some popular users:

“There are problems with that approach, the main one being the tacit admission that their ads are detrimental. If you’re rewarding people by reducing the hostility of their experience, maybe just fix the experience for everyone, and find something positive to charge for instead.”

Ads are the worst. I don’t know if it’s possible to build a large-scale social network like Twitter or Facebook without being mostly ad-supported, but I’d like to believe it is. WordPress.com — which has elements of a social network, even though we don’t consider it one — might be the closest successful attempt.

iPhone 5se sleep button

Zac Hall of 9to5Mac follows up with a new leaked photo after the latest iPhone 5se news. It seems the hardware design may borrow more from the 6 than the 5. Zac writes:

“If the leaked image turns out to both be the real deal and what Apple ships later this year, that means the updated 4-inch iPhone will feature rounded volume toggles and a relocated sleep switch like on iPhone 6 hardware versus a top sleep switch and iPhone 4-like volume buttons from the iPhone 5 series hardware.”

NoooOOOooooo. I can understand wanting consistency between models, but the iPhone 6 sleep button is a major usability issue because it gets in the way when trying to use the volume buttons. I’ll be disappointed if the design trade-offs from the 6 make the 5se worse. (But I’ll buy one anyway.)

iPhone 5SE

Mark Gurman reveals at 9to5Mac that the new phone I’ve been waiting for will be called the 5SE:

“The ‘se’ suffix has been described in two ways by Apple employees: as a ‘special edition’ variation of the vintage 4-inch iPhone screen size and as an ‘enhanced’ version of the iPhone 5s. Indeed, the upcoming ‘5se’ features a design similar to 2013’s flagship but upgraded internals, software, and hardware features that blend the old design with modern technologies from the past two iPhone upgrades.”

Seems odd to keep the “5” name for a phone that more closely resembles the iPhone 6/6S except for size. But I don’t really care what it’s called. This phone matches my expectations or exceeds them. Fantastic that it even supports Live Photos.

New SSD for the iMac

In the most recent Six Colors subscriber magazine, Jason Snell talks about adding an SSD to his Mac Mini home server. It got me thinking about finally upgrading our old family iMac (late 2009!) to give it a little more life, so I ordered a new SSD for it today.

A side note about email newsletters: I subscribe to several, and while I love reading them, I can’t help but think that this great content should be on the web instead. Perhaps a copy of the newsletter text could be subscriber-only on the web just for the first 3-4 months after it has been published, and then open up to everyone. Ben Brooks has some more thoughts from the skeptical side of the newsletter debate.

Back to the iMac. The new SSD cost more than I was expecting ($200 + $50 tools), so I think it will serve mostly as a fun exercise in taking apart computers with my son rather than a great upgrade value. A brand new Mac Mini is still only $500, for example. But because nearly everyone in the family already has their own MacBook, or wants one, doesn’t seem practical to buy a new shared desktop computer.

Finally trying Ulysses

I’m finally trying Ulysses. After posting about how I write blog drafts, a reader pointed out that Justnotes for Mac isn’t actively maintained anymore. I think Ulysses will make a nice replacement, both for my Dropbox folder of 1000+ notes, and also for longer, more structured writing I want to do.

Ryan Irelan uses that structure to organize courses for Mijingo:

“Each course is also a Collection inside of the courses collection, in which I have separate sheets for each section of the course (or even broken down into multiple sheets per section depending on the length)”

Ben Brooks is also trying to consolidate from the iOS 9 Notes app and others to just using Ulysses:

“This was my pain point, I often just simply forgot where I jotted something down. I don’t typically make tasks out of articles I am writing, so I remember what is what by looking in Ulysses, and if it isn’t in Ulysses I won’t go searching for it. Notes was the most convenient place to write, but also a bit of a black hole for writing.”

I can already tell that Ulysses is a great app. Looking forward to the upcoming universal version with support for the iPad Pro, too.

Ignoring follower counts

I’ve said before that there’s something about the 140-character limit that brings out both the best and worst in people. Nick Harris hints at this while writing about taking a break from Twitter:

“But largely ignoring the Twitter Noise Machine – particularly when my timeline becomes the Twitter Hate Machine – is going to be good for me.”

He also talks about the obsession with stats and follower counts, which Brent Simmons picks up on and carries further:

“I did have Google Analytics for a few months in 2014 when I was doing sponsorships. I spent too much time looking at the numbers and trying to make them go up. But no amount of going-up is ever satisfying: I just wanted more.”

When designing my new microblogging platform, I made a conscious decision to not even show follower counts. You can get the followers from the API, but I didn’t want to have the numbers right in your face when viewing someone’s profile. It’s too easy for us to make a judgement based on how many followers they have, and so miss out on whatever they have to say.

A8 or A9 for the iPhone 6C

I’ve talked about my hope for a new 4-inch iPhone several times on Core Intuition, and a few times on this weblog, like here and here. The rumors keep growing, and Stephen Hackett has written out his thoughts on a potential iPhone 6C:

“The easy assumption is that the 6C would replace the aging 5S as the free-or-very-cheap option, but the recurring rumor of the 6C being powered by the A9 makes me think this may slide in roughly where the iPhone 6/6 Plus currently sits in the lineup.”

I’d love to see an A9, but I’m not counting on it. I think an A8 is fine too, mostly matching the internals of the latest iPod Touch. This wouldn’t be competitive with the iPhone 6S but it would still be a great upgrade from the iPhone 5S, which is the primary phone for anyone (like me) who still clings to the 4-inch design.

The larger 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch designs will remain the top of the line iPhones for years to come. The 6C doesn’t need to change that; it’s not a peer to the larger phones. It just needs to clean up all the money Apple’s left on the table from customers who want a smaller phone. I’ll buy one right away.