Category Archives: Technology

iPhone introduction felt impossible

John Gruber remembers what it was like watching the iPhone announcement:

Apple had amazing product introductions before the iPhone, and it’s had a few good ones after. But the iPhone was the only product introduction I’ve ever experienced that felt impossible. Apple couldn’t have shrunk Mac OS X — a Unix-based workstation OS, including the Cocoa frameworks — to a point where it could run on a cell phone. Scrolling couldn’t be that smooth and fluid. A touchscreen — especially one in a phone — couldn’t be so responsive.

I felt the same way. Even the day I brought the iPhone home, I wasn’t sure that it was actually going to work. I was ready to be unsurprised if it turned out to be unstable — crashing often or overheating. It was stunning how good it was. It absolutely felt like a phone from the future.

One thing I had forgotten about from 10 years ago was the activation process, which was definitely not from the future. It was rooted in the past, connecting to iTunes like an iPod. Here are some of my tweets from that day, showing the long delay between picking up the iPhone from the store and actually using it, plus my last-minute decision to even wait in line:

6:34am: Good morning iPhone Day! Weather forecast in Austin for today: 40% chance of showers and storms.

10:15am: It’s only 10am but already realized I need to go to Plan B. Bribe friends already in line to use their 2nd iPhone purchase.

11:09am: Change of plans. Heading to the Apple Store now to join in the line-waiting fun. Will it be too late?

12:26pm: I expected rain, but that seems unlikely. It’s hot like a real Austin summer here in the iPhone line.

2:32pm: Hanging out in The Line with Jeremy of Barton Springs Software and @damon. Apple Store is closed. Had some lunch and a Starbucks soy latte.

4:03pm: 2 hours left. We can redeem our free Starbucks coffee coupons now. Excited! (About the iPhone. Not the coffee.)

6:30pm: Got my iPhone.

7:35pm: Activation will have to wait. Ratatouille.

8:18pm: Movies all sold out. Pre-activation dinner at Kerby Lane instead.

9:53pm: Activation took less than a minute. Also, no plan choice. Just $20 added on to what I already pay, I guess.

11:56pm: @danielpunkass Wait, what? You can make calls on it? (But seriously, you’re right. It’s a computer first and a phone second.)

Apparently I waited in line most of the day. I remember it only being a few hours. I also love how trivial these tweets seem. A big reason to have a microblog is because even the most mundane posts today carry extra significant years later.

MarsEdit 4 and microblogs

Great to see Daniel Jalkut announce a public beta of MarsEdit 4. There are a lot of new features in this version, but the one that I love the most actually might seem minor. It’s just a short line in Daniel’s announcement, under WordPress-specific enhancements:

Post Format support

For anyone using WordPress for microblogging, this is a big deal. It means you can post with the “status” post format for your short posts. It’s a really convenient way to post to a WordPress microblog from a Mac. (And of course, you can use MarsEdit to post directly to a Micro.blog-hosted blog as well.)

Preview of Sunlit 2.0

A few years ago, Jon Hays and I built an app for photos called Sunlit, powered by the App.net API. We evolved it to work with other services, like Flickr and Instagram, but as App.net faded away we could never justify the investment to rewrite significant parts of the app to bring it forward and keep it relevant. It also wasn’t clear what the app should do if we were to modernize it. So we let the app sit in the App Store, kind of neglected, and even discussed removing it from sale.

As I rolled out Micro.blog to Kickstarter backers, Jon dusted off the Sunlit project and experimented with something that should’ve been obvious to us earlier: Sunlit should post to blogs. And more than that, it should work well with microblogs and IndieWeb standards. It should become a great app for photoblogging. The new version of Sunlit can post photos to Micro.blog, WordPress, or any site that supports the Micropub API.

To play nicely with microblogs, we introduced a new post type in the app for single photos. For longer posts, you can still collect multiple photos together, add text, and post them as a story directly to your blog. There’s also a brand new editing interface with filters and advanced adjustments:

screenshots

Jon has put a bunch of work into this while I focus on Micro.blog. Sunlit 2.0 is already feature complete and in beta testing now. We expect to ship it sometime this summer.

The algorithm has ruined Facebook

Dave Winer writes today about how because of the way the Facebook news feed works, sometimes you never seem to hear from friends again because they’re demoted by the algorithm. Your friends are posting, but you never see what they’re saying. Also:

For other people you are a missing person. You being the person who dutifully informs all your Facebook friends of what’s going on in your life. You, the friend they never seem to think of. No surprise they’re not thinking of you. The Algorithm decided you don’t count.

If you want to see this in action, visit Facebook in a web browser and see what it shows you. Don’t scroll or click anything, just wait a few seconds and hit reload. Then hit reload again. And again. Each time you’re presented with a completely different view of what’s important. It’s unusable.

10.5-inch iPad Pro resolution

Federico Viticci reviews the new 10.5-inch iPad Pro at MacStories. On the screen size:

While some had assumed that Apple would take the same 2732 x 2048 display of the 12.9” iPad Pro and condense it to a smaller size, the company has introduced a new resolution in the iOS device matrix – a decision, I think, made to hit 264ppi on a 10.5” panel while retaining UI elements that are large and comfortable to tap. Cramming the large iPad’s display in this model might have resulted in a richer multitasking experience at an even smaller scale, but I believe touch usability would have suffered.

I assumed until reading Federico’s review that when my 12.9-inch iPad Pro was ready for an upgrade, I’d downsize to the new 10.5-inch. That no longer seems like a good choice. While my MacBook Pro is getting repaired this week, I’m using the 12.9 as my exclusive computer. The extra resolution in split view is really great. I don’t think I’d want to give that up.

More on Twitter’s 10 years

Stephen Hackett marked his 10th anniversary of using Twitter by writing about how great Twitter has been for connecting people. Of course, the company’s problems are also well known:

The company itself seems to struggle in getting even basic decisions right. I often joke that Twitter may be doomed, but I don’t say it in pure jest.

He made a similar joke on Connected 133 that Twitter will be gone in 5 years. I think it’s a toss-up. But one thing I’m pretty sure about: the hate tweets and harassment problems can’t be fixed by waving a magic wand. They are fundamental and must be planned for at the beginning.

More on algorithms and UI

Ben Thompson’s daily update email today covers fake news and algorithms. It’s a great post, although a little disheartening in the way that most coverage of filter bubbles and the election tend to be. One line in the closing paragraph:

Algorithms have consequences, particularly when giving answers to those actually searching for the truth.

It mirrors something I wrote in January about algorithms and curation:

Software has consequences. How it’s designed informs what behavior it encourages. If it’s built without thought to these consequences, it will succeed only by accident.

Quick posting via retweets on Twitter and re-sharing on Facebook contributes to the spread of fake news. As the New York Times article Ben links to says, fake news is “designed to attract social shares and web traffic”. Bad news stories with dramatic headlines can spread more quickly than they would if everyone posted an original comment with their link.

It’s too easy to click a retweet button without thinking. Fake news is as much a user experience and design problem as it is an algorithmic problem.

Twitterrific Phoenix on Kickstarter

I use Twitter much differently than most people. I haven’t returned to my @manton account in over 4 years, and instead I cross-post all my blog posts to @manton2. I reply and like tweets when I get mentions, but I don’t actually follow anyone.

But despite this weird use of Twitter, I follow the company closely and still maintain the Tweet Marker timeline syncing API. So I’m excited to see Iconfactory launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund new work on Twitterrific for Mac.

I’ve backed the project. It’s a good opportunity to support one of the pioneers of Twitter development.

Humans and algorithms

I’ve been following Seth Godin and reading his books for many years, but recently two of his statements caught my attention. The first is an older video episode with Gary Vaynerchuk, where Seth talks about why he has no presence on social media except automatic cross-posting of his blog posts.

The second is equally relevant to what I’ve been thinking about with Micro.blog. Seth says that we’ve surrendered control over how our software works to algorithms instead of human decision-makers who can take responsibility for mistakes. It’s too easy to blame the computer:

That person who just got stopped on her way to an airplane—the woman who gets stopped every time she flies—the TSA says it’s the algorithm doing it. But someone wrote that code.

Algorithms are a shortcut. They should give us more leverage to go further, faster, not dictate where we go.

The social web is now permeated with algorithms. Today, Twitter again promoted what’s trending higher up in their app. That may be a step in the wrong direction. Trends can sometimes surface the better parts of Twitter, but they’re also an invitation to view the worst possible tweets you’ll ever see.

Let’s not be afraid to add curation by humans. That’s not an admission of failure. It’s an acknowledgement that algorithms are imperfect.

Software has consequences. How it’s designed informs what behavior it encourages. If it’s built without thought to these consequences, it will succeed only by accident. For 2017, one of my goals is to slow down and be more deliberate about features that can have this kind of impact.

Microblogging community on Slack

Since I launched on Kickstarter, backers have asked if there should be a Slack community to discuss Micro.blog and related microblogging topics. I wasn’t sure. I know some people are already in multiple Slack groups, including the excellent IndieWebCamp IRC/Slack, and I also didn’t want to distract from any posts that should happen in the open on blogs.

Some discussion just fits better in chat, though. There’s an emerging community of indie microbloggers. Having a place to share tips, tools, and ask questions about Micro.blog just makes sense.

I’m experimenting with the Slack channel now, and I’ll be opening it to all Kickstarter backers next week. If you’ve backed the project before Monday, expect a backers-only project update with information on how to join.

App.net is shutting down

Dalton Caldwell and Bryan Berg announced the official shutdown of App.net today:

In May of 2014, App.net entered maintenance mode. At that time we made the difficult decision to put App.net into autopilot mode in an effort to preserve funds and to give it ample time to bake. Since then every dollar App.net has charged has gone towards paying for the hosting and services needed to keep the site running. Unfortunately, revenue has consistently diminished over the past 2+ years, and we have been unable to return the service to active development.

As I wrote about just last week, the founders of App.net deserve our thanks for trying something very difficult and succeeding beyond what anyone expected. I’m still amazed at everything they were able to do.

So, what now? I believe the next step for the open web and Twitter-like services is indie microblogging.

Dropbox, iCloud, and GitHub on the iPad

Federico Viticci has another fantastic long-form essay, this time about using the iPad Pro for a year. It’s the story of his iPad workflow plus mini reviews of each app that make using the iPad as a primary computer possible.

I haven’t finished reading the whole thing yet, but I’ve been paying particular attention to the theme of file management. I use Dropbox for my most important files — documents, notes, and photos — because I want them synced everywhere and accessible in an obvious, transparent way. iCloud is too opaque and app-specific.

Federico covers this conflict early in the essay with a list of iCloud downsides:

iOS apps like Documents and Workflow can’t access or display the contents of other apps’ folders. This prevents the existence of a full-featured iCloud Drive file manager that offers functionalities Apple doesn’t want to build in their iCloud Drive app. There should be an API to allow third-party apps to gain access to the entire contents of your iCloud Drive filesystem, just like there are APIs for photo and music access.

I’ll be happily surprised if Apple ever adds such an API. It seems unlikely. And if that’s true, it means iCloud will be permanently crippled compared to Dropbox.

The trend to new iCloud-first apps like Ulysses and Bear is fine. It doesn’t appeal to me, though. I use Ulysses on the Mac because I can sync with Dropbox. There are so many Dropbox-capable iOS text editors that I feel confident using my current favorite and switching whenever I want.

Federico also describes using GitHub and the iPad app Working Copy for collaborative editing:

Working Copy’s diff support has been a boon for how we edit Markdown and collaborate on articles. We can keep track of every edit and comment in a centralized location without creating duplicates. Working Copy makes it easy to follow the evolution of a document through multiple commits; every writer can chime in with their own suggestions and Working Copy will handle file merging and conflict resolution thanks to GitHub.

GitHub is useful for much more than code. I personally love the simplicity of Gists and GitHub Pages. It’s great to see how MacStories can use GitHub for editing articles, too.

Apple Maps adds ChargePoint

A few of years ago we took a vacation to New York City and Montreal. We were taking the subway so often, I switched to Google Maps for its transit directions. I’ve been using Google Maps exclusively ever since.

Until now, there were very few reasons to go back to Apple Maps. Apple has been playing catch-up. Why use a product that is only adding features from a competitor, but not anything new?

This week Apple rolled out a unique feature that’s interesting to me: ChargePoint integration to find charging locations for electric cars. Ryan Christoffel covers it at MacStories:

Having spent several years building partnerships to ensure its data won’t lead any drivers astray, Apple has more recently been able to focus on integrating data that’s less important, but still quite useful. A few months ago we saw the company team up with Parkopedia to improve parking data, and now charging stations are a natural next step.

I rarely need this — and the ChargePoint app itself has more detail, such as how many spots are actually available — but I’m excited about it as a new feature. I hope that it represents a fundamental improvement across the maps platform. I’m putting Apple Maps back on my home screen for a while.

Twitter at 10 years

It was 2008 in Chicago, the C4 conference was wrapping up and I shared a cab to the airport with Alex Payne, who built the first Twitter API. I was so excited about the potential for the platform that I probably had a dozen ideas for Twitter apps. Alex and I sat at a cafe at the airport, waiting for our respective flights, and talked about the future.

Years passed. I did build and ship a few Twitter apps, including the popular Tweet Marker sync API. But I also grew disillusioned. I took a break from using Twitter.

Alex had left the company and Twitter was much different from a business and leadership perspective by the time the rest of the world started paying attention. Thousands of employees worked at Twitter. How many of them had experienced the early days of following friends’ tweets via SMS, when the service seemed genuinely new and important? The future had arrived but it was full of hashtags.

This year — with rumors of Twitter being acquired, with fake news and the election, with online harassment — many people have written about the future of Twitter. I’ve been paying attention again, experimenting with cross-posting. I missed the 10th anniversary of when I joined Twitter in July 2006, but not the date of my first tweet a few months later.

10 years is a good milestone to reflect on. I want to highlight a few posts I’ve read recently, and then wrap things up at the end.

What I like about this article by Faruk AteĹź is that he gives a sense of the major changes Twitter has gone through, most of which were difficult to fully understand at the time. On the change with @-replies:

The second thing is that when they started hiding @-replies to people you don’t follow, they stripped the user experience of a vital ingredient for civility: peer transparency. The tone of discourse changed much for the worse over time, following that new behavior of the timeline. Before the rollout, all your friends would see if you behaved like a jerk to someone; after the rollout that was no longer the case. It removed the natural consequences of bad behavior, thereby encouraging people to reap the benefits of such bad behavior much more frequently.

This is a theme across many posts, that we didn’t realize what all these changes were adding up to. I have some related thoughts about Instagram and another post on why today’s social networks are broken.

Next, Sarah Frier writes for Bloomberg about how Twitter leadership is losing faith in Jack Dorsey. That despite new features such as live video, Twitter failed to ship other development efforts and fell behind competitors:

Advertisers see potential in the company’s live video strategy, but they’re also being wooed by photo- and video-sharing app Snapchat, and Facebook’s Instagram, which has recently become more advertiser-friendly. At the time of Twitter’s 2013 initial public offering, those services weren’t close competitors. Now they both have larger daily audiences than Twitter.

As long as Jack Dorsey has 2 jobs, it will be easy to blame him for being unfocused. I don’t know if that’s fair. But when streaming live football gets so much attention, there do appear to be competing visions at Twitter.

Twitter is too expensive to acquire. It’s also too flawed for a company like Disney to take a risk on. So instead there was another round of layoffs. From Kurt Wagner at Recode:

Last year, Twitter also cut 300 jobs shortly after Jack Dorsey took on the CEO role full-time. (Or part-time, given that he’s also running Square.) The current feeling among those close to the company is that Twitter is simply too bloated, and pays too much in stock-based compensation for a company that’s still not profitable.

There are no guarantees for an unprofitable company. The only certain thing is that something will change.

Back to Alex Payne. He wrote a post 6 years ago about his time at Twitter, and his unsuccessful attempt to convince coworkers to decentralize Twitter. It holds up very well:

Decentralization isn’t just a better architecture, it’s an architecture that resists censorship and the corrupting influences of capital and marketing. At the very least, decentralization would make tweeting as fundamental and irrevocable a part of the Internet as email.

It used to be impossible to imagine that Twitter could fail. And today, it’s still unlikely to vanish or even change much overnight. But the web will be better if we assume that Twitter is a lost cause. From the 10-year view, it’s clear that Twitter has already changed.

Acquisition rumors come and go, although they seem more real this time, and we’re reminded that few web sites last forever. It’s time to prepare for a web without Twitter.

Talkshow.im archives

Shutting down a web site correctly isn’t easy. When Talkshow announced they were closing, I was surprised. Six months is a limited time to launch, get traction, and then wind down. But I was glad that they’d let any show be exported as an archive.

The archives aren’t available for very long. If you hosted a show on Talkshow, you have until December 1st to download it.

I downloaded a couple to see how Talkshow handled it. Just in case no one else grabs them, I’m copying them here: Pop Life episode 5 with Anil Dash and guest John Gruber, and the Six Colors live coverage for Apple’s September 7th event. I had Instapaper-ed both of these to read later anyway.

The archive itself is a simple .zip file with HTML, CSS, and user profile images. In the Finder it looks like this:

Talkshow.im Finder screenshot

This self-contained structure makes it very easy to re-share somewhere else. Credit to Talkshow for keeping this simple. But it also strikes me as so easy to keep hosting as static files, I wonder why Talkshow doesn’t keep the archives available indefinitely, which would preserve any existing links to these shows from the web.

Fixing AMP

When I first wrote about Accelerated Mobile Pages, there wasn’t a true implementation. Now we see how Google is rolling this out, and it has problems. John Gruber uses Ars Technica as an example:

On desktop browsers, these URLs do get redirected to Ars’s website. But on mobile they don’t. Share from one mobile device to another and nobody ever leaves google.com. Why would any website turn their entire mobile audience — a majority share of their total audience, for many sites today — over to Google?

Maybe this is inherent in how AMP works, and we should have predicted it. If Google’s AMP implementation must run in browsers, will there always be a layer of JavaScript and custom URLs that hide the original web site?

I’d prefer if Google added AMP support directly to Chrome. While it would be a much more limited rollout, it would feel more natural, with fewer drawbacks for publishers.

Competing news platform Apple News isn’t problem-free either. The apple.news:// shared links also add a redirect, with inconsistent behavior since not all platforms and countries even support Apple News. Apple News is an RSS reader that’s designed like a closed platform.

I want the web to be faster. Breaking links should not be part of the solution.

Indie publishing is about control

Andy Baio redesigned his blog recently and argued that blogs still matter because of ownership and control. Of course, I agree. And though it may seem far off, there’s no guarantee that Twitter will outlast our own blogs. Andy writes:

Twitter, itself, may be acquired and changed in some terrible way. It’s not hard to imagine a post-Verizon Yahoo selling off Tumblr. Medium keeps pivoting, trying to find a successful revenue model. There’s no guarantee any of these platforms will be around in their current state in a year, let alone ten years from now.

Ben Brooks followed up:

Having my own site gives me complete control to do whatever I want, whenever I want, however I want. I don’t understand why people ever want it any other way.

Words are powerful. Especially right now, why let anyone else have control over the format of our words and how they spread? Having a blog is a statement: our writing exists apart from the whim of an algorithmic news feed.

Today’s social networks are broken

Brent Simmons has left Twitter, frustrated with the diminishing value of the service, Twitter’s inability to deal with harassment, and more:

And then it was part of the system that helped elect a fascist President. This tipped it over for me: it’s no longer worth my participation. The shitheads can have it.

Facebook has also been in the news for its role in letting fake news spread. Ben Thompson has a long essay this week on it:

I get why top-down solutions are tempting: fake news and filter bubbles are in front of our face, and wouldn’t it be better if Facebook fixed them? The problem is the assumption that whoever wields that top-down power will just so happen to have the same views I do. What, though, if they don’t?

Maybe. Though while we should debate how to balance Facebook’s enormous power, there should be a parallel effort to move away from the centralized publishing model that gave Facebook that power.

Facebook has confused itself into thinking it is the whole internet, and so the principles of a free press that apply to the open web, also must apply to Facebook. No. While Facebook has a great responsibility to do the right thing, because they are so big, Facebook is just a web site.

I want Facebook to improve. I want Twitter to improve. But I can do very little to effect change at those companies, and some problems are so fundamental as to be essentially unfixable. The web wasn’t supposed to be like this, with all the power and all the writing concentrated into so few sites.

It’s time for a new social network that brings discoverability and community without the baggage of an ad-driven network that must grow to a billion users. A social network that embraces the open web, and freedom of expression, while preserving a clean timeline that can’t be interrupted by harassment.

Not just one new social network. I hope that many developers will work on products that encourage independent publishing again.

It’s going to take time to build. That’s why I started working on Micro.blog 2 years ago. I’ve made great progress, but I’ve also drifted, unfocused, uncommitted to finishing it, as if I knew something was missing.

Something was missing. The election results have made that clear. I was thinking big, but not big enough. The way forward must include both a decentralized publishing platform and the tools to encourage a safe community.

If you’d like to know when the beta is finally ready, please subscribe to the announce list. Thank you. Update: Edited to reflect the new name for Micro.blog.

USB-C vs. the headphone jack

I have no problems with USB-C on the new MacBook Pro. It will be a small headache at the beginning, for sure. But because it’s a standard there’s no long-term compatibility risk the way there is with removing the 3.5mm headphone jack.

More on that below. First, Marco Arment doesn’t think using USB-C exclusively is very practical in a pro laptop:

A pro laptop released today should definitely have USB-C ports — mostly USB-C ports, even — but it should also have at least one USB-A port.

John Gruber responds that Apple’s strategy is to speed up adoption:

They design for the future, and in doing so, they bring the future here faster. In the alternate universe where the new MacBook Pros ship with one USB-A port, the transition to ubiquitous USB-C peripherals and cables will happen at least a little slower.

I agree with that. But then he closes with this:

I’m not saying Marco is wrong. I’m just saying Apple’s not wrong either. It’s the same trade-off with the iPhone 7 headphone jack.

I don’t think it’s the same at all. It’s a convenient narrative to group together both the migration away from USB-A and the one away from 3.5mm headphones. There are important differences, though.

USB-C is a standard that is already used in many devices from different vendors. It will become universal. The immediate replacement for the 3.5mm headphone jack on the iPhone 7 is the Lightning EarPods which come in the box. Lightning is a proprietary cable that will never be used in non-Apple phones, and in fact is not even used on Macs.

You can argue that more and more people will use Bluetooth headphones, but I doubt they will be as common as wired headphones for many years, and there’s no guarantee that an all-wireless future will ever arrive. There is a very clear migration from USB-A to USB-C. The move to Lightning headphones and Bluetooth is much more complicated and not directly comparable.

Mixed feelings about the iPhone 7 future

Federico Viticci published a great review of the iPhone 7 for MacStories last week. He opened with this:

After nearly two years spent using a 5.5-inch iPhone, I’m accustomed to not having a compact phone anymore. The iPhone 6 Plus and 6s Plus have reshaped my iPhone experience for a simple reason: they give me more of the most important device in my life.

Followed by the main theme of his review:

In many ways, the iPhone 7 feels like a portable computer from the future – only in a tangible, practical way that is here with us today.

I’ll admit to some jealousy of Federico’s iOS-only lifestyle. Apple’s mobile OS is fun to use in part because of its simplicity and in part because of its inherent mobility.

If I could only choose one computing device — one phone, no tablets, no Macs — I would get an iPhone 7 Plus. The largest phone would make for a great mini tablet, nice for photography, writing, and the web. Maybe when I retire from living in Xcode and Objective-C, I’ll daydream about traveling the country with a backpack and iPhone 7 Plus, never tied to my desk again.

But in the meantime, I’m fortunate that I can have a Mac and a few iOS devices. When I go to a conference, I take the iPad Mini and big iPad Pro along with my phone. Because I have those larger devices available, I always want the convenience of carrying the smallest phone when I’m not sitting down to work. The weight and feel of the iPhone SE is perfect.

There’s a point in Federico Viticci’s review where he covers the headphone jack controversy. He hints at a common justification I’ve heard for some of Apple’s decisions, and I think it’s kind of a defeatist attitude that is worth commenting on:

You and I might wax philosophical about the beauty of RSS, HTML, MP4, and USB, but millions of people only demand easy tech and engaging social apps.

Federico is right, but this fact is exactly why those of us who are passionate about open standards must make a strong case for them. We can’t leave such important decisions only in the hands of big corporations and fickle customers. It’s our responsibility to write about what we believe is best for the web and best for the tech industry.