An overabundance of doughnut gravy

September 29th, 2008 — Wordman

Apple has rejected a number of iPhone applications from their store recently, because they “duplicate functionality” of Apple applications (or, evidently, of apps Apple might write). Apple is now adding a new wrinkle: they now warn that notification of these rejections is included in non-disclosure agreements.

So, forget for a second that this whole process is stupid, bad business, insipid, and almost certainly illegal. Instead, imagine that you are a developer who gets an app rejected like this. In addition to being angry and disillusioned, you also have a problem: you now can’t tell your fans why the app they are waiting for will never come without violating the NDA. About all you can say is “we have stopped work on this application”. If anyone demands an explanation, all you can say is “we can’t tell you”.

I suggest an alternative solution. Rather than say “we can’t tell you”, explain it with a phrase that has no actual meaning whatsoever, but one that will come to be known to mean “Apple screwed us over with their idiocy but we can’t tell you that”. I offer up the following phrase (which, I must stress, has absolutely nothing to do with the iPhone, Apple or the app store, but is merely a way of stating the inexplicable): “an overabundance of doughnut gravy”. So you might say something like: “We regret to inform you that we have canceled all work on application X. We found we could not continue after suffering from an overabundance of doughnut gravy.”

Another counterexample to open source

January 3rd, 2008 — Wordman

As reported by Fake Steve Jobs, an article recently penned by Jaron Lanier makes an argument in favor of closed source development. This is not necessarily an anti-open source stance, as Lanier claims it has its place, but…

…a politically correct dogma holds that open source is automatically the best path to creativity and innovation, and that claim is not borne out by the facts.

Why are so many of the more sophisticated examples of code in the online world—like the page-rank algorithms in the top search engines or like Adobe’s Flash—the results of proprietary development? Why did the adored iPhone come out of what many regard as the most closed, tyrannically managed software-development shop on Earth? An honest empiricist must conclude that while the open approach has been able to create lovely, polished copies, ithasn’t been so good at creating notable originals. Even though the open-source movement has a stinging countercultural rhetoric, it has in practice been a conservative force.

A couple of years ago, my friend MV mentioned another, more encapsulated example of how closed source can build better solutions. I haven’t seen it mentioned much, so will repeat it here.

The example comes from the very early days of the graphical user interface. Once you start to build a system that has “windows” that can move around, you have to contend with the idea that these windows overlap. Even if each window is a rectangle, it doesn’t take many windows to make some complicated shapes. Even two windows can do so. Consider this image of an early Mac desktop from the Apple Museum:

Mac desktop

The “System Folder” window is easy enough to represent, but how do you describe the shape of the visible portion of the “Mac System Software” window? What about the visible portion of the gray background? It’s just a collection of intersecting rectangles, but think about it for a second: how would you describe such shapes to a computer? Oh, and you only have 128K of Memory and an 8MHz, 16-bit processor. When building a GUI, you have to deal with this issue at some level. For example, something is painting the desktop background; how does it know not to paint over the windows? (For those that know a bit about graphics, double buffering doesn’t help you here, because a) you don’t have the memory and b) it is to slow on chips like this.)

The general concept for describing such shapes became known as “regions”. There are a number of different ways to implement regions. It was clear that Xerox PARC had one when the Apple team famously visited. It wasn’t at all clear what that implementation was, however, as it was closed source. Lacking access to Xerox’ methods, engineer Bill Atkinson took a look at the problem, figured out how they must have done it, and coded his version into the drawing system that would become QuickDraw.

It turns out, however, that Atkinson’s region code wasn’t really anything like Xerox’ code. It was much better. Better, in fact, than most other systems that came along, particularly the implementation used later by Windows. In an anecdote about Atkinson and regions, Andy Hertzfeld says that Apple “considered QuickDraw’s speed and deftness at region handling to be the most significant ‘crown jewel’ in Apple’s entire arsenal.”

This brilliant system (now supplanted by code that takes better advantage of modern hardware, particularly video cards) probably wouldn’t have happened if the Xerox code had been open source. Atkinson most likely would have started with their solution and refined it, and a bit of genius would have never been born.

The impending return of “beleaguered”

September 26th, 2007 — Wordman

Through the last half of the 1990′s it was nearly impossible to find a news article that mentioned Apple in its opening paragraph without the word “beleaguered” appearing nearby. This trend continued long after the “beleaguered” epithet ceased to be truly applicable. In spite of positive financials and an innovative product line, pundits continued to preach the imminent collapse of Apple. Even the introduction of the iPod didn’t impress anyone (as Slashdot’s now famous assesment of “No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.” best illustrates). Eventually Apple managed to turn perception around, to the point where media coverage turned into fawning hero worship in many cases.

Just as this was a series of overreactions, so to will be the backlash against Apple that is starting now. I predict that by this time next year, it will again be trendy to refer to Apple as “beleaguered”, though such a charge will be even less true than it was at the start of the decade.

Certainly, Apple has been doing a lot of unnecessary damage to its image. This is likely to get worse. At the same time, it now faces serious competition on the downloadable music front.

What strikes me about most about their latest stumbles, however, is an underlying cause of troubled interaction with other companies. It seems, in particular, that many of their recent choices have been driven more with an eye toward entanglements of deals they have made than a desire to make good products. This switch is taking them away from what their loyal fans loved about them, and is likely to do more damage than Apple expects.

In the famous dual interview with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, the two were asked the following: “What did you learn about running your own business that you wished you had thought of sooner or thought of first by watching the other guy?” To me, this seemed to be the most illuminating of the questions they were asked. Gates said this:

Well, I’d give a lot to have Steve’s taste. [laughter] He has natural—it’s not a joke at all. I think in terms of intuitive taste, both for people and products, you know, we sat in Mac product reviews where there were questions about software choices, how things would be done that I viewed as an engineering question, you know, and that’s just how my mind works. And I’d see Steve make the decision based on a sense of people and product that, you know, is even hard for me to explain. The way he does things is just different and, you know, I think it’s magical. And in that case, wow.

Jobs thought a little while before answering. He ultimately said this:

You know, because Woz and I started the company based on doing the whole banana, we weren’t so good at partnering with people. And, you know, actually, the funny thing is, Microsoft’s one of the few companies we were able to partner with that actually worked for both companies. And we weren’t so good at that, where Bill and Microsoft were really good at it because they didn’t make the whole thing in the early days and they learned how to partner with people really well.

And I think if Apple could have had a little more of that in its DNA, it would have served it extremely well. And I don’t think Apple learned that until, you know, a few decades later.

If Apple’s interaction with NBC is any indication, they still have quite a ways to go in partnering. It very much seems as if Apple’s attempt to get more deal making into its DNA has caused it to forget the focus on product, style and people that Gates and others (including myself) so admire.

Doubly problematic is that Apple’s new style of dealmaking may actually wind up hurting them. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if media executives who have been dealing with Apple try to extract some payback against Apple, now that they have Amazon to go to. On the other hand, if this is what it takes for media execs to get their heads out of their asses enough to offer DRM-free music (like they could have done ten years ago), it might end up being good for consumers, if not necessarily Apple. Keep an eye on the differences between new music deals record companies sign with Apple and Amazon.

As a related, but more “long shot”, prediction, it could be that, after creating the first real innovation in cell phones in years, Apple gets so fed up with all the compromises needed to get deals done in the mobile space that they just abandon the idea.

At present, a Google search for “beleaguered Apple” returns around 292,000 results. Over the next year, Apple will sell tons of iPods, release funky products and make tons of money, but that won’t stop the result count on that particular search from increasing dramatically.

A week with the Apple TV

March 29th, 2007 — Wordman

Apple claims that its new Apple TV “is like a DVD player for the Internet age”, which is exactly why I wanted one. It is also the standard to which I will be comparing and judging it. Since electronics manufacturers and media companies seem to have learned nothing in the last twenty years and are now full tilt into another hideously stupid format war, I’m hoping I can flip them all the bird and use the Apple TV in lieu of a new HD-DVD or Blue-ray player for my high definition viewing. After spending a week with Apple’s opening salvo into this market, it looks promising, but still has a way to go.

As with many new Apple products, a lot of press (or blogging, at any rate) surrounds the Apple TV. I agree with nearly everything in MacRumors’ review of the device, so no need to rehash it here. It’s also worth noting ArsTechnica’s usual thorough coverage for screen shots and so on. The innards of the box also seem to be extremely hackable, which I like. One thing I don’t quite get with all the coverage is all the bitching about no cables being included. When was the last time you bought an AV component that came with cables you actually used? My original DVD player came with RCA cables. Where are they now? In a drawer, because I hooked it up using S-Video and fiber optic audio. So, to Apple: I fully support you not including crappy cables that I’d toss.

The first thing to get used to about the Apple TV is that operates essentially like a glorified iPod. This surprised me a little bit. I was expecting more of a “stripped-down computer” experience, not a “pumped-up iPod” experience. Whatever you want to call it, though, it is a fairly slick experience. The benefit of the iPod-like interface is that it is simple. It’s obvious how to use the thing and you can do quite a bit with minimal controls. The drawback of the iPod-like interface is that it is simple. I want this box to do more than it does. Fortunately, what I want it to do can all be done with software changes, so future revs of the software may deliver it.

Some of the things that have impressed me over the week, in no particular order:

  • Contrary to the initial announcement, the Apple TV supports both 1080i (which means I can run it in my TV’s best resolution) and 480p (which means you can run it on a non-HD set). The picture looks great in 1080i, especially photos.
  • Part of the set up features a key registration/code entering step, which suggests there is a sort of “publilc key” trust relationship going on between the Apple TV and your iTunes. I guess what impresses me here is that it’s done in a way that seems obvious and painless, which is not always easy to pull off.
  • Setup was even easier than I expected it to be.
  • The number and types of connectors on the back of the Apple TV are exactly correct. That is, if I was building the thing, those are exactly the set of connections I would have added. (Well, I would have added firewire as well, I suppose.)
  • The Apple TV can work both by syncing with iTunes and playing the local copy or by streaming playback directly from up to five different machines. Even over my 802.11g network, DVD quality video streamed very well. This greatly reduces the drawback of the Apple TV’s smallish hard drive.
  • My universal remote had no problem learning the codes from Apple’s remote. Once the codes were recorded in my universal remote, I could even use the “pair remote” feature. This must mean that each Apple remote transmits an identifier unique to the device as well as the command, and that the “pairing” tells the Apple TV to only listen to signals with that identifier. Since I recorded the signal from the Apple remote to my universal, it must have recorded this id as well.
  • No dongly power brick thing. Just a plain power cord.
  • Picture quality is much better than my attempts to hook my laptop up to the same TV via the DVI connection.

I can also suggest the following improvements to Apple:

  • In picture mode, allow browsing by film roll, like you can in iPhoto.
  • When viewing pictures, allow rating of pictures, like you can in iPhoto, and sync the vote results back to the source machine. My wife and I like to rate pictures together and the big TV screen would be an extremely useful way for us to do so. I don’t use the music rating as much, but presumably it could work the same way.
  • Improve what is on screen when music is playing. For the life of me, I’m not sure why the standard iTunes visualizer isn’t an option. It seems like an obvious choice. Add it.
  • QuickTime files can contain multiple audio tracks (director’s commentary or other languages, for example). In the QuickTime Player, you can turn these channels on and off (in the Pro version, anyway). Add capability to control this from inside the Apple TV.
  • Many have said it: given the fact that a) the Apple TV exists as a front for the selling of content from the iTunes store and b) that the Apple TV can play trailers and other samples from the store, the fact that you can’t actually order anything from the store though the Apple TV seems really dumb.
  • And, the big one: surround sound. In spite of containing hardware that can handle it, the Apple TV’s support for real surround sound is limited and mysterious. Some of this can be fixed with software, but it would also require that Apple license some technology into QuickTime, which it doesn’t look like they will do any time soon. Apple, if you are really trying to make the Apple TV “like a DVD player for the Internet age”, you are going to have to give it at least the capabilities of a DVD player from the last century. I’d love to be able to tell people that the Apple TV works as a valid alternative to HD-DVD or Blue-ray, but its lack of real surround sound appears to be the only reason that I cannot. I realize that you’re trying to embrace the most compatible format so that all receivers can be supported, but that isn’t what your competition is doing.
  • It’s not entirely obvious what the best way to rip a DVD for display on the Apple TV is. It appears that MediaFork (previously HandBrake) is working like mad to get a version out that can at least turn 5.1 DVDs into the funky semi-surround sound that Apple uses in its trailers. They should be releasing in mid April or so.

While neither impressive nor depressing, it’s worth mentioning that the box runs surprisingly hot, which may not bode well for those trying to hack an upgrade to the hard drive. Another odd thing is a lack of a power button. Like an iPod, you can put it to sleep (holding down the play button for five seconds), but it never really turns off (it even syncs while “asleep”).

Since I use a universal remote (with lots of spare buttons) and the Apple TV uses Mac OS X and includes a version of Perl, a hack that I’d love to see someone do is to build a program that detects arbitrary remote control signals and, based on which signal it was, execute a certain script. For example, my remote has a “System 5″ button. I’d like to be able to hit this button to cause /usr/bin/screencapture to execute, taking a snapshot of the screen. Naturally, this would require various other hacks (like ssh) to be in place to configure the whole thing, but I think this would be a very powerful mechanism. I don’t know enough about IR communication to make it work, though.

In all, I’m pleased with my Apple TV purchase, but not as pleased as I’d like to be. Time will tell how often Apple makes software improvements and how significant they are when they do. How they handle the surround sound problem will probably mark the difference between a killer success and a marginal one.

Smith Haven Apple store opening

September 12th, 2006 — Wordman

My wife and I were on hand for the opening of the Apple Store Smith Haven, partially because we’ve never gone to an opening before but mostly because it was only a few blocks from home. I brought my camera, but cleverly left its batteries in a recharger in my kitchen. I took some crappy mobile phone photos, but others have posted better.

We got there at about a half hour early, making us about 80th or so in line. The crowd was not at all what I expected: all ages, all races, all genders. Many more couples and seniors than I expected. One elderly guy in a Giants hat was breathing oxygen through a nose tube fed from a messenger bag slug across the back of a t-shirt declaring that “old guys rule”. There were some requisite geeks, like the guy in the “Nobody Reads My Blog” t-shirt, a pimply teen photographer with his skinny white ass sticking out of the dumb low cut pants that teens wear or the guy pitching the Long Island Macintosh User Group. There were also a few aging-hipster-artist-with-pony-tail types as well, but largely the crowd was surprisingly normal.

By the time the store actually opened, the line was at least twice as long as it was when we got there and still growing. The doors opened without much fanfare, in spite of one guy trying to drum up some spirit. Inside, the entire staff flanked the entrance in two columns, all cheering and clapping. They kept this up without stopping until the store reached capacity, which seemed like at least ten minutes. I can barely clap for five seconds without getting bored with it, so I was kind of impressed by this. We all got a box with a black XL t-shirt with a white Apple logo followed by “Smith Haven” on it. It didn’t occur to me until later, but the box was a nice touch, classier than a big pile of shirts being thrown around. I wonder what it costs to box them all.

The store itself is a fairly standard mall Apple store: glass front, walls with monitors, iMacs and Mac Pros, two rows of islands with laptops, ipods, etc. I was a bit surprised that the 24″ iMac wasn’t in evidence. Also, one whole island was dedicated to external hard drive cases, which I found a bit curious. Maybe the mark-up is worth the extra attention?

After my wife drooled over the latest iPods, I noticed Shake for the first time, and a few third party software titles caught our eye, we were ready to leave. Of course, we had to do the requisite messing around with Photo Booth, and I tested a theory by using my Swiss Army knife to swipe the resulting image from the machine on the sly:

Given that people were still waiting in line outside when we left, it looks like this will be a good location for Apple. It also looks likely to help out the generally shabby Smith Haven Mall (which has been undergoing much needed renovations for months). I, for one, haven’t even been in the place in nearly fifteen months but will probably now go in every couple of weeks.

Rendering the Mouse

January 26th, 2006 — Wordman

There is lots of talk about the purchase of Pixar by Disney. I won’t make much comment on it because, like so much else, it’s been done. In particular, this guy nails it.

I will say that the deal will go a long way toward solving Apple’s video content problem, though it won’t make non-Disney media companies any less afraid.

The main point of this post, however, is to talk about the genius of Pixar films. I’m not talking about their features, though those are certainly entertaining. Pixar’s brilliance, however, really shines in their short films. Their early stuff in particular, like Luxo, Red’s Dream and Tin Toy both pushed the envelope of the technology of the time and told great stories. I bought the Monsters, Inc. DVD just to get a copy of For the Birds. I’d love to have a DVD of just their shorts, but for now it looks like I have to settle for crappy, quarter-of-already-awful-standard-TV-resolution iTunes downloads.

Greed trumps thinking differently

January 11th, 2006 — Wordman

Apart from another dumb name from Apple (“MacBook Pro”), the underwhelming announcements in the most recent MacWorld keynote hid a really cool idea that could have changed how people used computers, had it not been saddled with an extremely irritating and unnecessary limitation. The new edition of iPhoto has a feature called (somewhat unimaginatively) “photocasting”. It allows you to upload a photo album to a server, and provides an RSS feed to which others can subscribe. If they also have iPhoto, it wraps around the RSS feed and opens the album like any other iPhoto album. Instant, easy image sharing for the masses. They don’t need to know how it works, it just does.

This is a cool idea largely because it helps eradicate one of the more unpleasant abuses of technology: e-mail attachments. There are a number of free and easy ways to move files from one person to another. Attaching them to an e-mail is one of the worst of them. It works, but it really isn’t what e-mail systems were built for. This method survives, even prospers, because most people don’t know any better. The photocasting system avoids the main drawbacks of e-mail file transfer: maybe you really don’t want that 50 megabytes of pictures from grandma to fill up your inbox and make the rest of your mail bounce. Maybe you don’t want to spend the download time it will take to grab all this data you don’t want, just to read your e-mail. Maybe there shouldn’t be separate copies of this data stored individually in the dozens mail queues that grandma cc’d on the message. By easily creating a single copy of the data in a semi-public spot and mailing a reference to this data, this data is no longer shoved down at you, putting you in control of if you want it or not. By making it seamless, Apple brings this solution to the masses.

Problem: Apple’s implementation of this idea requires the possession and use of their subscription .Mac service, which means that the masses will never use this idea enough to allow it to supplant e-mail attachments as the photo-sharing mechanism of choice. Had the whole system been made an open standard that could be published to any web server, the majority of the planet would be sharing photos this way within a year. By tying it to a service that most do not use and only Apple provides, this great idea will languish.

Well, perhaps not. The one saving grace is that Apple chose to use an RSS feed. Since RSS is an open standard, it’s likely that enterprising souls will release “iPhoto album readers” on various platforms, so at least the “viewing” half of the system might catch on. No doubt people will build software to upload a bunch of pictures to your own server and publish a compatible RSS feed for them. This will be useful, but you won’t be able to do it from iPhoto, which will suck.

The .Mac service, while somewhat interesting, is completely useless to me because I own my own web domain (for not much more than a .Mac subscription). The service would only be compelling to me if one or more of the following happened:

  • Apple combines the two products they obviously consider to be yearly costs (iLife and .Mac) into a bundle that costs much less than the two combined. That is, offer an iLife + .Mac yearly subscription for $100 or so. This, I suppose, would be the equivalent of giving away iLife with a .Mac subscription.
  • Someone built an open source clone of the .Mac system that I could run on my own server. It may be that such a project already exists, but Google’s insistence on ignoring the dot in “.Mac” make searches for it problematic. (If anyone is interested in starting such a project, I think a great name would be “!Mac”, pronounced “not Mac”.)
  • .Mac is changed to provide domain hosting services, with corresponding flexibility for installing blog software, etc. I’m not holding my breath for this.

I’m sure Apple is thinking that keeping the system closed like this will bring them more revenue. I’m also sure that making these neat ideas open would bring them even more.

Update: There is now a surprising amount of foaming at the mouth about how well or badly Apple uses RSS. Sam Ruby wades through it.