Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Lightbox

In 1999, I started a link weblog to collect news about animated films. I updated it for a few years, until there were plenty of other good news sources from industry writers more qualified than I was to run such a site. I was just a fan.

The site was a homegrown MySQL database and set of PHP scripts. Somewhere along the way, I lost the archive, and never noticed that the site had broken until today. To make matters more difficult, I had blocked it in my robots.txt, so the Internet Archive copy (which existed, at least in parts) wouldn’t load cleanly.

I took some time today to piece it back together as a new static HTML file and (partial) RSS feed. I’ve preserved the original design and HTML tags. Fun rediscoveries in the HTML include spacer GIFs, <blockquote> to indent the entire page, and RSS 0.91.

I called it The Lightbox. It was just a linkblog. But now 16 years later, I’ve enjoyed skimming through the old posts.

iAd hypocrisy

I was looking for a different old post in my archives, and stumbled on this one: “I hope iAd fails”, which I wrote 5 years ago this month. One of my points was that we had a healthy marketplace in the App Store for normal people to actually pay for apps:

“Do we really want to give that marketplace up? Because once it’s gone, and iAds are the norm, it will be an uphill battle to get anyone to pay for anything.”

Fast-forward 5 years to today, and well, we’re on that hill right now. Except there’s a landslide and I don’t know who’s going to get buried.

On the Upgrade podcast, Jason Snell and Myke Hurley talked about whether iOS 9’s Apple News was relevant: what problems is it solving, if any, and — because it will feature unblockable ads powered by iAd — how does it fit into the larger issue of blocking web ads and closed platforms? The discussion starts about an hour in.

(If you’ve used Apple News already, you may not have even seen any ads yet. But Apple’s page on Apple News Format makes it clear that they will be encouraging iAd for publishers: “Monetization is made simple with iAd”.)

I stand by the opinion that iAd is a mistaken strategy. Apple, if you’re serious about this fight with Google, go all-in on the fight and abandon iAd. It seems hypocritical to attack web ads while rolling out your own news platform with ads that can’t be blocked.

Sitting out on the front porch with the kids for the lunar eclipse. Great view of the moon.

→ 2015/09/27 9:19 pm

Added a 3D Touch quick action to my in-progress iOS app. Almost makes me want to actually order an iPhone 6S.

→ 2015/09/26 10:26 am

I probably shouldn’t have started installing watchOS 2.0 right before needing to leave the house. Taking… for… ev… er.

→ 2015/09/24 7:38 pm

Instagram hits 400 million users

From Graham Spencer at MacStories, commenting on the latest Instagram numbers and that the service is only 5 years old:

“But I was really surprised to remember that Facebook acquired Instagram in April 2012, when Instagram had ‘only’ 40 million users. If I recall correctly, a lot of people thought Facebook was crazy to buy Instagram for $1 billion. Well, I think Facebook got the last laugh on that one, and as Forbes points out, Instagram now has more monthly active users than Twitter (316 million).”

Impressive growth, but it fits. Instagram has crafted a user experience that encourages thoughtful posts and never feels overwhelming in the way a Twitter or Facebook timeline can be. If Instagram was a paid product, I bet Instagram’s churn rate would be the lowest of any of the big social networks. They did it with a small team and weren’t afraid to grow slowly.

Complete mirror of this blog

I’ve been blogging here for 13 years. If you take any random post from that first year, the majority of the links to other web sites are broken. The default outcome for any site that isn’t maintained — including the one you’re reading right now — is for it to vanish. Permanence doesn’t exist on the web.

We can solve this, but it will take time. For now I think mirroring our writing is a great solution, to guard against domain names expiring and other inevitable failures. But where to mirror to?

Only 2 companies keep coming to mind: and GitHub. I believe both will last for decades, maybe even 100 years, and both embrace the open web in a way that most other centralized web sites do not.

Even though I self-host this weblog on WordPress, I’ve chosen to mirror to GitHub because of their focus on simple, static publishing via GitHub Pages. It has the best chance of running for a long time without intervention.

I exported all of with the httrack command-line tool and checked it into GitHub, with a CNAME for It works perfectly. I still need to automate this process so that it updates regularly, but I’m very happy to finally have a complete mirror for the first time.

Steve Jobs and ET

I watched two documentaries last week. The first was “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine”, which I somewhat regret paying $7 to rent. It had its moments, but also seemed to become more negative and dramatic the longer it went on. I guess we should all hope to be so lucky and famous to have people try to bring out the best and worst of us.

The second documentary I watched was “Atari: Game Over”, which was free on Netflix. It was great, interspersing a history of the rise and fall of Atari with the effort to dig up the ET game cartridges supposedly buried in New Mexico. Highly recommended.

Peace, indies, and the App Store

You’ve probably heard that Marco Arment has pulled his content-blocking app Peace from the App Store. The app was extremely successful:

“As I write this, Peace has been the number one paid app in the U.S. App Store for about 36 hours. It’s a massive achievement that should be the highlight of my professional career. If Overcast even broke the top 100, I’d be over the moon.”

I’ve seen some comments asking why he didn’t think to do this sooner, before he even shipped the app. But we are just now starting to understand the impact of ad blockers in iOS 9. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the web is different than it was a few days ago, and so our choices — and Marco’s — are different too. As I mentioned yesterday, content blockers are one facet of an overall shake-up for the web.

Brent Simmons writes that only indies can do what Marco did. Marco must have left a lot of money on the table with this decision. It will always look like the right call to me when someone goes with their gut feeling and not with profit.

Wrap-up thoughts on the TV web

I’m going to mostly let John Gruber have the last word on the Apple TV vs. the web debate, because I could write about this every day and my readers would run away before I run out of material. I’m glad John addressed the Mac vs. the command-line argument, though, because it didn’t seem quite right to me either. He says:

“The difference is that the command-line-less Mac was intended to replace command-line-based computers. The GUI relegated the command-line interface to a permanent tiny niche. Apple TV and Apple Watch aren’t like that at all — they’re not meant to replace any device you already use to access the open web.”

This is the most hopeful part of the Apple ecosystem as it relates to the web. Apple’s other platforms really do have a great web experience. Remember when web sites were faster and worked better on a PC than a Mac? If anything, the opposite is true now.

One of the themes I keep hearing is that a “web browser” on a TV will make for a poor user experience, so don’t bother. I tried to correct that misunderstanding in this post; it’s not about standalone Safari, it’s about web technologies that could be used in native apps. But ignoring that, I think everyone too easily forgets what the mobile web was like before the iPhone.

Steve Jobs, from the original iPhone introduction:

“We wanted the best web browser in the world on our phone. Not a baby web browser or a WAP browser — a real browser. […] It is the first fully usable HTML browser on a phone.”

That was a breakthrough. I believe the same evolution is possible on tvOS — to include parts of the open web and do it with a great user experience. You can start by weaving it together inside native apps. (I filed a bug with Apple yesterday with a suggestion. It was marked as a duplicate.)

The web is at a fascinating, pivotal time right now. It has been shaken up by centralized publishing, closed platforms, and now content blockers. Users no longer value the concepts that made Web 2.0 special. The web can still have a strong future, but we have to try something, and we have to try it on every platform we can.

Expecting two packages today: the new Apple TV, and my new iPhone 5S (32 GB, space gray).

→ 2015/09/18 8:43 am

2015, the year that web server logs mattered again. Can’t trust the numbers from Google Analytics and related tracking services anymore.

→ 2015/09/17 4:32 pm

I put Ghostery on my Mac. Only problem so far is I must have been a little aggressive about enabling all the options, because it was even blocking Gravatar.

→ 2015/09/17 11:19 am

Peace for the web

I haven’t paid too much attention to ad blocking until this week, even though I had been running the iOS 9 beta since WWDC. Several content blockers were released yesterday, like Marco Arment’s new app Peace. Marco writes:

“You won’t believe how fast browsing the web can be without the bloated, privacy-invading junk that too many publishers force on you without your knowledge or consent.”

Today, Nilay Patel has an essay framing the issue as a fight between Apple, Google, and Facebook, with the web as a casualty:

“And with iOS 9 and content blockers, what you’re seeing is Apple’s attempt to fully drive the knife into Google’s revenue platform. iOS 9 includes a refined search that auto-suggests content and that can search inside apps, pulling content away from Google and users away from the web, it allows users to block ads, and it offers publishers salvation in the form of Apple News, inside of which Apple will happily display (unblockable!) ads, and even sell them on publishers’ behalf for just a 30 percent cut.”

I’m conflicted on this. I hate ads, and I think good publishers can adapt, but I’m also concerned that some progress we’ve made in native apps and user experience could be offset by steps back in open platforms. The health of the open web is more important than any one company, including Apple.

The web without HTML

On Twitter, Alex Fajkowski responded to my blog post about tvOS with this:

“They have access to the open web—NSURLSession exists. HTML rendering is inappropriate for the watch and tv.”

I disagree with both of those sentences. Maybe Alex didn’t read my full post, because I wrote that web services are not enough. HTML and links and URLs are equally important parts of the open web. NSURLSession gets you web services but nothing else.

(As an aside, HTML turns out to be a pretty useful format for styling text, too. Why wouldn’t you want to use it for iTunes movie descriptions on the TV, for example? That seems completely appropriate.)

Think about the full scope of the internet. What percentage of content is available via web services — that is, structured data that can be parsed and displayed with a custom, native UI — compared to all the traditional, HTML-based web sites? You’ll find that there is an almost unimaginably large number of that latter kind of web site, and the only way to access and display that content is with an HTML renderer.

Now imagine a world with only native apps. You’d need custom apps and web services for different kinds of content, just as we have native Twitter or Instagram apps today, but we’d need these for many thousands of categories: tvOS with TVML, recipe or cooking apps with FOODML, and so on. Eventually, having so many formats would get unmanageable. We’d need to invent a general purpose format that could accommodate many app formats, and (surprise!) that general format would look a lot like HTML. Why break old content and essentially reboot the web, when we already have a capable format in HTML?

Of course, there’s no immediate risk of getting to that hypothetical native-only future. But when a company with the size and influence of Apple has 4 major platforms and only 2 of them have access to the open web, that should give us pause. Let’s reflect on how this plays out, so we can get back on track if the web does become marginalized.

John Gruber commented that these new devices don’t need the web at all, comparing it to the original Mac shipping without a command line interface. I realized while reading his closing paragraph that my own blog post had been poorly titled, and so the whole point too easily misunderstood. John wrote:

“Or it could be that Apple has decided never to open WebKit to developers on Apple TV. Either way, it won’t affect Apple TV’s success, and everything will be OK.”

Apple TV’s success doesn’t change my argument. My Apple TV dev kit arrives on Friday, I’m going to build an app for it, and I can’t wait to watch Apple’s latest platform take off. When I wrote that the Apple TV “needs” the web I didn’t mean that it would be crippled and unsuccessful without it. I simply meant that the web should be there in some form, even if limited.

(It doesn’t even have to be Safari. There just needs to be enough web technologies to make some part of the open web possible. Again, that means web services, HTML, and links.)

Yesterday, John Gruber also wrote about web apps and native apps, and what each should focus on:

“Native apps can’t out-web the web, and web apps should embrace that.”

That’s good advice. There are plenty of important tasks for the web community that should be top priorities, such as encouraging a return to independent publishing and trying to fix the lack of redundancy. The web will always be playing catch-up with native apps for user experience, but the web will always be ahead as a distributed, open publishing platform. And that is such an important feature, it should be available on as many devices as possible.

The new A8-based iPod Touch would be my ideal phone if it had cellular. Maybe a 6C will still happen next year, but in the meantime, it’s time to upgrade. And that probably means getting a 5S.

→ 2015/09/16 1:24 pm