Food Fight!

As reported here and here, Apple has updated the language in the latest release of their iPhone/iPad developer tools to explicitly disallow development with other tools and languages:

3.3.1 — Applications may only use Documented APIs in the manner prescribed by Apple and must not use or call any private APIs. Applications must be originally written in Objective-C, C, C++, or JavaScript as executed by the iPhone OS WebKit engine, and only code written in C, C++, and Objective-C may compile and directly link against the Documented APIs (e.g., Applications that link to Documented APIs through an intermediary translation or compatibility layer or tool are prohibited).

I’m happy that Apple is being explicit about this sort of thing, rather than their previous passive aggressive stance that gave more wiggle room for their apologists. This is a big “screw you” to Adobe in particular, who had been planning to release a Flash-to-iPhone converter with Creative Suite 5. I understand why they’re doing it, but in the broader scheme of what’s at stake, why pick a fight with one of the largest software vendors for the Mac?

In addition to being grounded in total, obsessive control over the platform, the argument seems to be that the only way to make a proper iPhone/iPad experience is to build things with their tools, as a way to prevent people from developing for multiple platforms at once. This has two benefits: first, it encourages developers to think within the constraints and affordances of the platform, and second, it forces potential developers to make a choice of which platform they’re going to support. It’s not quite doubling the amount of work that would go into creating an app for both, say, the iPhone and Android, but it’s fairly close. So what will people develop for? The current winner with all the marketing and free hype from the press.

To be clear, developing within the constraints of a platform is incredibly important for getting an application right. But using Apple’s sanctioned tools doesn’t guarantee that, and using a legal document to enforce said tools steps into the ridiculous.

Fundamentally, I think the first argument — that to create a decent application you have to develop a certain way, with one set of tools — is bogus. It’s a lack of trust in your developers and even moreso, a distrust of the market. In the early days of the Macintosh, it was difficult to get companies to rework their DOS (or even Apple II) applications to use the now-familiar menu bars and icons. The Human Interface Guidelines addressed it specifically. And when companies ignored those warnings, and released software that was a clear port from a DOS equivalent, people got upset and the software got trashed. Just search for the phrase “not mac-like” and you’ll get the picture. Point being, people came around on developing for the Mac, and it didn’t require a legal document saying that developers had to use MPW and ResEdit.

The market demanded software that felt like Macintosh applications, and it’s the same for the iPhone and iPad. On the tools side, the free choice also meant that the market produced far better tools than what Apple provided — instead of the archaic MPW (ironically, itself something of a terminal application), Think Pascal, Lightspeed C, Metrowerks Codewarrior, and even Resorcerer all filled in various gaps at different times, all providing a better platform than (or at least a suitable alternative to) Apple’s tools.

But like this earlier post, it seems like Apple is being run by someone who is re-fighting battles of the 80s and 90s, but whose personal penchant for control prevents him from learning from the outcomes. That rhyming sound you hear? It’s history.

Friday, April 9, 2010 | cs, languages, mobile, software  

On needing approval for what we create, and losing control over how it’s distributed

I’ve been trying to organize my thoughts about the iPad and the direction that Apple is taking computing along with it. It’s really an extension of the way they look at the iPhone, which I found unsettling at the time but with the iPad, we’re all finally coming around to the idea that they really, really mean it.

I want to build software for this thing. I’m really excited about the idea of a touch-screen computing platform that’s available for general use from a known brand who has successfully marketed unfamiliar devices to a wide audience. (Compare this to, say, Microsoft’s Tablet PC push that began in the mid-2000s and is… nowhere?)

It represents an incredible opportunity, but I can’t get excited about it because of Apple’s attempt to control who creates for it, and what they can create for it. Their policy of being the sole distributor of applications, and even worse, requiring approval on all applications, is insulting to developers. Even the people who have created Mac software for years are being told they can no longer be trusted.

I find it offensive on a very basic level, because I know that if such restrictions were in place when I was first learning to write software — mostly on Apple machines, no less — I would not have a career in the field. Or if we had to pay regular fees to become a developer, use only Apple-provided tools, and could release only approved software through an Apple store, things like the Processing project would not have happened. I can definitively say that any success that I’ve had has come from the ability to create what I want, the way that I want, and to be able to distribute it as I see fit, usually over the internet.

As background, I’m writing this as a long-time Apple user who started with an Apple ][+ and later the original 128K Mac. A couple months ago, Apple even profiled my work here.

You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!

There’s simply no reason to prevent people from installing anything they want on the iPad. The same goes for the iPhone. When the iPhone appeared, Steve Jobs made a ridiculous claim that a rogue application could “take down the network.” That’s an insult to common sense (if it were true, then the networks have a serious, serious design flaw). It’s also an insult on our intelligence, except for the Apple fans who repeat this ridiculous statement.

But even if you believed the Bruce Willis movie version of how mobile networks are set up, it simply does not hold true for the iPad (and the iPod Touch before it). The $499 iPad that has no data network hardware is not in danger of “taking down” anyone’s cell network, but applications will still be required to go through the app store and therefore, its approval process.

The irony is that the original Mac was almost a failure because of Jobs’ insistence at the time about how closed the machine must be. I recall reading about how the original Macintosh was almost nearly a failure, were it not for engineers who developed AppleTalk networking in spite of Steve Jobs’ insistence of keeping the original Macintosh as an island unto itself. Networking helped make the “Macintosh Office” possible by connecting a series of Macs to the laser printer (introduced at the same time), and so followed the desktop publishing revolution of the mid-80s. Until that point, the 128K Macintosh was largely a $2500 novelty.

For the amazing number of lessons that Jobs seems to have learned in his many years in technology, his insistence of control is to me a glaring omission. It’s sad that Jobs groks the idea of computers designed for humans, but then consistently slides into unnecessary lockdown restrictions. It’s an all-too-human failing of wanting too much control.

Only available on the Crapp Store!

For all the control that Apple’s taken over the content on the App Store, it hasn’t prevented the garbage. Applications for jiggling boobs or shaking babies have somehow first made it through the same process that delayed the release or update of many other developers’ applications for weeks. Some have been removed, but only after an online uproar of keyboards and pitchforks. The same approval process that OKs flashlight apps by the dozen and fart apps.

Obvious instances aside, the line of “appropriate” will always be subjective. The line changed last week when Apple decided to remove 5,000 “overtly sexual” applications, which might make sense, but is instead hypocritical when they don’t apply the same criteria to established names like Playboy.

Somebody’s forgetting the historical mess of “I know it when I see it.” It’s an un-answerable dilemma (or is that an enigma?), so why place yourself in a situation of being arbiter?

Another banned application was a version of Dope Wars, a game that dates back to the mid-80s. Inappropriate? Maybe. A problem? Only if children have been turning to lives of crime since its early days as an MS-DOS console program, or on their programmable TI calculators. Perhaps the faux-realistic interface style of the iPhone OS tipped the scales.

The problem is that fundamentally, it’s just never going to be possible to prevent the garbage. If you want to have a boutique, like the Apple retail stores, where you can buy a specially selected subset of merchandise from third parties, then great. But instead, we’ve conflated wanting to have that kind of retail control (a smart idea) with the only conduit by which software can be sold for the platform (an already flawed idea).

Your toaster doesn’t need a hierarchical file system

Anyone who has spent five minutes helping someone with their computer will know that the overwhelming majority don’t need full access to the file system, and that it’s a no-brainer to begin hiding as much of it as possible. The idea of the ipad as appliance (and the iPhone before it) is an obvious, much needed step in the user interface of computing devices.

(Of course, the hobbyist in me doesn’t want that version, since I still want access to everything, but most people I know who don’t spend all their time geeking out on the computer have no use for the confusion. I’m happy to separate those parts.)

And frankly, it’s an obvious direction, and it’s actually much closer to very early versions of Mac OS — the original System and Finder — than it is with OS X. Mac OS X is as complicated as Windows. My father, also an early Mac user, began using PCs as Apple fell apart in the late 90s. He hasn’t returned to the Mac largely because of the learning curve for OS X, which is no longer head and shoulders above Windows in terms of its ease of use. Surely the overall UI is better, clearer, and more thoughtfully put together. But the reason to switch nowadays is less to do with the UI, and more to do with the way that one can lose control of their Windows machines due to the garbage installed by PC vendors, the required virus scanning software, the malware scanning software, and all the malware that gets through in spite of it all.

The amazing Steven Frank, co-founder of Panic, puts things in terms of Old World and New World computing. But I believe he’s mixing the issue of the device feeling (and working) in a more appliance-like fashion with the issue of who controls what goes on the device, and how it’s distributed to the device. I’m comfortable with the idea that we don’t need access to the file system, and it doesn’t need to feel like a “computer.” I’m not comfortable with people being prevented by a licensing agreement, or worse, sued, for hacking the device to work that way.

It Just Works, except when It Doesn’t

The “it just works” mantra often credited to Apple is — to borrow the careful elocution of Steve Jobs — “bullshit.” To use an example, if things “just worked” then I’d be able to copy music from my iPod back to my laptop, or from one machine that I own to another. If I’ve paid for that music (whether it’s DRM-free or even if I made the MP3 myself), there’s simply no reason that I should be restricted from copying this way. Instead we have the assumption that I’m doing something illegal built into the software, and preventing obvious use.

Of course, I assume that as implemented, this feature is something that was “required” by the music industry. But to my knowledge, there’s simply no proof of that. No such statement has been made, and more likely, it’s easier for Apple fans to use the “evil music industry” or “evil RIAA” as easier to blame. This thinking avoids noticing that Apple has also demanded similar restrictions for others’ projects, in a case where they actually have control over such matters.

Bottom line, when trying to save the music collection of a family member whose laptop has crashed is a great time, and it’s only made better by taking the time to dig up a piece of freeware that will let me copy the music from their iPod back to their now blank machine. The music that they spent so much money on at the iTunes Store.

Like “don’t be evil,” the “it just works” phrase applies, or it doesn’t. Let’s not keep repeating the mantra and conveniently ignoring the times when the opposite is true.

It’s been a long couple of months, and it’s only getting longer

One of the dumbest things that I’ve seen in the past two months since the iPad announcement is articles that write about the device comparing it to other computers, and how it doesn’t have feature x, y, or z. That’s silly to me because it’s not a general purpose computer like we’re used to. And yes, I’m fully aware of the irony of that statement if you take it too literally. I am in fact complaining about what’s missing from the iPad (and iPhone), though it’s about things that have been removed or disallowed for reasons of control, and don’t actually improve the experience of using the device. Now stop thinking so literally.

The thing that will be interesting about the iPad is the experience of using it — something that nobody has had except for the folks at Apple — and as is always the case when dealing with a different type of interface, you’re always going to be wrong.

So what is it? I’m glad you asked…

Who is this for?

As Teri likes to point out, it’s also important to note the appeal of this device to a different audience — our parents. They need something like an iPhone, with a bigger screen, that allows them to browse the internet and read lots of email and answer a few. (No word yet on whether the iPad will have the ability to forward YouTube videos, chain e-mails, or internet jokes.) For them, “it’s just a big iPhone” is a selling point. The point is not that the iPad is for old people, the point is that it’s a new device category that will find its way into interesting niches that we can’t ascertain until we play with the thing.

Any time you have a new device, such as this one, it also doesn’t make a lot of sense. It simply doesn’t fit with anything that we’re currently used to. So we have a lot of lazy tech writers who go on about how it’s under-featured (it’s a small computer! it’s a big phone!) or that it doesn’t make sense in the lineup. This is a combination of a lack of creativity (rather than tearing the thing down, think about how it might be used!) and perhaps the interest of filling column inches in spite of the fact that none of these people has used the device, so we simply don’t know. It’s part of what’s so dumb about pre-game shows for sports. What could be more boring than a bunch of people arguing about what might happen? The only thing that’s interesting about the game is what does happen (and how it happens). I know you’ve got to write something, but man, it’s gonna been a long couple weeks until the device arrives.

It’s Perfect! I love it like it is.

There’s also talk about the potential disappearance of extensions or plug-in applications. While Mac OS extensions (of OS 9 and earlier) were a significant reason for crashes on older machines, they also contributed to the success of the platform. Those extensions wouldn’t be installed if there weren’t a reason, and the fact is, they were valuable enough that it was the occasional sobs for an hour of lost work after a system crash to have them present.

I think the anti-extension arguments come from people who are imagining the ridiculous number of extensions on others’ machines, but disregarding the fact that they badly needed something like Suitcase to handle the number of fonts on their system. As time goes on, people will want to do a wider range of things with the iPhone/iPad OS too. The original Finder and System had a version 3 too (actually they skipped 3.0, but nevermind that), just like the iPhone. Go check that out, and now compare it to OS X. The iPhone OS will get crapped up soon enough. Just as installing more than 2-3 pages of apps on the iPhone breaks down the UI (using search is not the answer — that’s the equivalent of giving up in UI design), I’m curious to see what the oft-rumored multitasking support in iPhone OS 4 will do for things.

And besides, without things like Windowshade, what UI elements could be licensed (or stolen) and incorporated into the OS. Ahem.

I’d never bet against people who tinker, and neither should Apple.

I haven’t even covered issues from the hardware side, in spite of having grown up taking apart electronics and in awe of the Heathkit stereo my dad built. But it’s the sort of thing that disturbs our friends at MAKE, and others have written about similar issues. Peter Kirn has more on just how bad the device is in terms of openness. One of the most egregious hardware problems is the device’s connection to the outside world is a proprietary port, access to which has to be licensed from Apple. This isn’t just a departure from the Apple ][ days of having actual digital and analog ports on the back (it was like an Arduino! but slower…) it’s not even something more standard like USB.

But why would you artificially keep this audience away? To make a couple extra percent on licensing fees? How sustainable is that? Sure it’s a tiny fraction of users, but it’s some of the most important — the people who are going to do new and interesting things with your platform, and take it in new directions. Just like the engineers who sneaked networking into the original Macintosh, or who built entire industries around extending the Apple ][ to do new things. Aside from the schools, these were the people who kept that hardware relevant long enough for Apple to screw up the Lisa and Mac projects for a few years while they got their bearings.


I am not a futurist, but at the end of it all, I’m pretty disappointed by where things seem to be heading. I spend a lot of effort on making things, and trying to get others to make things, and having someone in charge of what I make, and how I distribute it is incredibly grating. And the fact that they’re having this much success with it is saddening.

It may even just work.

Friday, March 12, 2010 | cs, mobile, notafuturist, software  

Dick Brass

An interesting op-ed by Dick Brass, a former Vice President at Microsoft on how their internal structure can get in the way of innovation, and citing specific examples. The first relates to ClearType and the difficulties of getting it integrated into other products:

Although we built it to help sell e-books, it gave Microsoft a huge potential advantage for every device with a screen. But it also annoyed other Microsoft groups that felt threatened by our success.

Engineers in the Windows group falsely claimed it made the display go haywire when certain colors were used. The head of Office products said it was fuzzy and gave him headaches. The vice president for pocket devices was blunter: he’d support ClearType and use it, but only if I transferred the program and the programmers to his control. As a result, even though it received much public praise, internal promotion and patents, a decade passed before a fully operational version of ClearType finally made it into Windows.

Or another case in attempts to build the Tablet PC, in stark contrast to Apple’s (obvious and necessary) redesign of iWork for their upcoming iPad:

Another example: When we were building the tablet PC in 2001, the vice president in charge of Office at the time decided he didn’t like the concept. The tablet required a stylus, and he much preferred keyboards to pens and thought our efforts doomed. To guarantee they were, he refused to modify the popular Office applications to work properly with the tablet. So if you wanted to enter a number into a spreadsheet or correct a word in an e-mail message, you had to write it in a special pop-up box, which then transferred the information to Office. Annoying, clumsy and slow.

Having spent time in engineering meetings where similar arguments were made, it’s interesting to see how that perspective translates into actual outcomes. ClearType has seemingly crawled its way to a modest success (though arguably was invented much earlier with Apple ][ displays), while Microsoft’s Tablet efforts remain a failure. But neither represent he common sense approach that has had such an influence on Apple’s success.

Update: A shockingly bad official response has been posted to Microsoft’s corporate blog. While I took the original article to be one person’s perspective, the lame retort (inline smiley face and all) does more to reinforce Brass’ argument.

Thursday, February 4, 2010 | cs, failure, software  

Go Greyhound, and leave the route-planning to us!

While checking the bus schedule for Greyhound, I recently discovered that travel from New York City to Boston is a multi-day affair, involving stops in Rochester, Toronto (yes, Canada), Fort Erie, Syracuse, and even Schenectady and Worcester (presumably because they’re both fun to say).

oh, you can get there from here all right

1 day, 5 hours, and 35 minutes. That’s the last time I complain about how bad the Amtrak site is.

Monday, September 21, 2009 | software, thisneedsfixed  


Adobe Illustrator has regressed into talking back like it’s a two-year-old:

cant do that noooo

Asked for further comment, Illustrator responded:


No doubt this is my own fault for not having upgraded to CS4. I’ll wait for CS5 when I can shell out for the privilege of using 64-bits, maybe the additional memory access will allow me to open files that worked in Illustrator 10 but no longer open on newer releases because the system (with 10x the RAM, and 5x the CPU) runs out of memory.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009 | software  

No Date? No Time!

I’ve not been working on Windows much lately, but while installing Windows XP today, I was greeted with this fine work of nonfiction, which reminds me why I miss it so:

oh, well i guess that makes sense

So I can’t synchronize the time because…the time on the machine is incorrect. And not only that, but my state represents a security risk to the time synchronization machine in the sky.

I hope the person who wrote this error message enjoyed it as much as I did. At least when writing bad error messages in Processing I have some leeway for making fun of the situation (hence the unprofessional window titles of some of the error dialogs).

Thursday, May 7, 2009 | software  

Pirates of Statistics

Pirates of Rrrrr!Article from the New York Times a bit ago, covering R, everyone’s favorite stats package:

R is also the name of a popular programming language used by a growing number of data analysts inside corporations and academia. It is becoming their lingua franca partly because data mining has entered a golden age, whether being used to set ad prices, find new drugs more quickly or fine-tune financial models. Companies as diverse as Google, Pfizer, Merck, Bank of America, the InterContinental Hotels Group and Shell use it.

R is also open source, another focus of the article, which includes quoted gems such as this one from commercial competitor SAS:

Closed source: it’s got what airplanes crave!“I think it addresses a niche market for high-end data analysts that want free, readily available code,” said Anne H. Milley, director of technology product marketing at SAS. She adds, “We have customers who build engines for aircraft. I am happy they are not using freeware when I get on a jet.”

Pure gold: free software is scary software! And freeware? Is she trying to conflate R with free software downloads from CNET?

Truth be told, I don’t think I’d want to be on a plane that used a jet engine designed or built with SAS (or even R, for that matter). Does she know what her product does? (A hint: It’s a statistics package. You might analyze the engine with it, but you don’t use it for design or construction.)

For those less familiar with the project, some examples:

…companies like Google and Pfizer say they use the software for just about anything they can. Google, for example, taps R for help understanding trends in ad pricing and for illuminating patterns in the search data it collects. Pfizer has created customized packages for R to let its scientists manipulate their own data during nonclinical drug studies rather than send the information off to a statistician.

At any rate, many congratulations to Robert Gentleman and Ross Ihaka, the original creators, for their success. It’s a wonderful thing that they’re making enough of a rumpus that a stats package is being covered in a mainstream newspaper.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009 | languages, mine, software  

iPolljunkie, iPoliticsobsession, iFix, iLackawittytitle

I apologize that I’ve been too busy and distracted with preparing Processing 1.0 to have any time to post things here, but here’s a quickie so that the page doesn’t just rot into total embarrassment.

Slate this morning announced the availability of a poll tracking application for the iPhone:


I haven’t yet ponied up ninety nine of my hard-earned cents to buy it but find it oddly fascinating. Is there actually any interest for this? Is this a hack? Is there a market for such things? Is the market simply based on the novelty of it? Is it possible to quantify the size of the poll-obsessed political junkie market? And how is that market comprised—what percentage of those people are part of campaigns, versus just people who spend too much time reading political news? (I suspect the former is negligible, but may be tainted as a card-carrying member of the latter group.)

To answer my own questions, I suspect that it was thrown together by a couple of people from the tech side of the organization (meaning “hack” in the best sense of the word), who then sold management on it, with the rationale of 1) it’ll generate a little press (or hype on, um, blogs), 2) it’ll reinforce Slate readers’ interest in or connection to the site, and 3) it’s a little cool and trendy. I don’t think they’re actually planning to make money on it (or recoup any development costs), but that the price tag has more to do with 99¢ sounds more valuable and interesting than a free giveaway.

Of course, anyone with more interesting insights (let alone useful facts), please pass them along. I’m hoping it’s an actual Cocoa app, and not just a special link to web pages reformatted for the iPhone, which would largely invalidate this post and extinguish my own curiosity about the beast.

Update: The application is a branded reincarnation of a poll tracker developed by Aaron Brethorst at Chimp Software. Here’s his blog post announcing the change, and even a press release.

Friday, October 3, 2008 | infographics, mobile, politics, software  

Is Processing a Language?

This question is covered in the FAQ on Processing.org, but still tends to reappear on the board every few months (most recently here). Someone once described Processing syntax as a dialect of Java, which sounds about right to me. It’s syntax that we’ve added on top of Java to make things a little easier for a particular work domain (roughly, making visual things). There’s also a programming environment that significantly simplifies what’s found in traditional IDEs. Plus there’s a core API set (and a handful of core libraries) that we’ve built to support this type of work. If we did these in isolation, none would really stick out:

  • The language changes are pretty minimal. The big difference is probably how they integrate with the IDE that’s built around the idea of sitting down and quickly writing code (what we call sketching). We don’t require users to first learn class definitions or even method declarations before they can show something on the screen, which helps avoid some of the initial head-scratching that comes from trying to explain “public class” or “void” or beginning programmers. For more advanced coders, it helps Java feel a bit more like scripting. I use a lot of Perl for various tasks, and I wanted to replicate the way you can write 5-10 lines of Perl (or Python, or Ruby, or whatever) and get something done. In Java, you often need double that number of lines just to set up your class definitions and a thread.
  • The API set is a Java API. It can be used with traditional Java IDEs (Eclipse, Netbeans, whatever) and a Processing component can be embedded into other applications. But without the rest of it (the syntax and IDE), Processing (API or otherwise) it would not be as widely used as it is today. The API grew out of Casey and I’s work, and our like/dislike of various approaches used by libraries that we’ve used: Postscript, QuickDraw, OpenGL, Java AWT, even Applesoft BASIC. Can we do OpenGL but still have it feel as simple as writing graphics code on the Apple ][? Can we simplify current graphics approaches so that they at least feel simpler like the original QuickDraw on the Mac?
  • The IDE is designed to make Java-style programming less wretched. Check out the Integration discussion board to see just how un-fun it is to figure out how the Java CLASSPATH and java.library.path work, or how to embed AWT and Swing components. These frustrations and complications sometimes are even filed as bugs in the Processing bugs database by users who have apparently become spoiled by not having to worry about such things.

If pressed, perhaps the language itself is probably the easiest to let go of—witness the Python, Ruby and now JavaScript versions of the API, or the C++ version that I use for personal work (when doing increasingly rare C++ projects). And lots of people build Processing projects without the preprocessor and PDE.

In some cases, we’ve even been accused of not being clear that it’s “just Java,” or even that Processing is Java with a trendy name. Complaining is easier than reading, so there’s not much we can do for people who don’t glance at the FAQ before writing their unhappy screeds. And with the stresses of the modern world, people need to relieve themselves of their angst somehow. (On the other hand, if you’ve met either of us, you’ll know that Casey and I are very trendy people, having grown up in the farmlands of Ohio and Michigan.)

However, we don’t print “Java” on every page of Processing.org for a very specific reason: knowing it’s Java behind the scenes doesn’t actually help our audience. In fact, it usually causes more trouble than not because people expect it to behave exactly like Java. We’ve had a number of people who copy and pasted code from the Java Tutorial into the PDE, and are confused when it doesn’t work.

(Edit – In writing this, I don’t want to understate the importance of Java, especially in the early stages of the Processing project. It goes without saying that we owe a great deal to Sun for developing, distributing, and championing Java. It was, and is, the best language/environment on which to base the project. More about the choice of language can be found in the FAQ.)

But for as much trouble as the preprocessor and language component of Processing is for us to develop (or as irrelevant it might seem to programmers who already code in Java), we’re still not willing to give that up—damned if we’re gonna make students learn how to write a method declaration and “public class Blah extends PApplet” before they can get something to show up on the screen.

I think the question is a bit like the general obsession of people trying to define Apple as a hardware or software company. They don’t do either—they do both. They’re one of the few to figure out that the distinction actually gets in the way of delivering good products.

Now, whether we’re delivering a good product is certainly questionable—the analogy with Apple may, uh, end there.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008 | languages, processing, software  

Panicky Addition

In response to the last post, a message from João Antunes:

…you should also read this story about Panic’s old MP3 player applications.

The story includes how they came to almost dominate the Mac market before iTunes, how AOL and Apple tried to buy the application before coming out with iTunes, even recollections of meetings with Steve Jobs and how he wanted them to go work at Apple – it’s a fantastic indie story.

Regarding the Mac ‘indie’ development there’s this recent thesis by a Dutch student, also a good read.

I’d read the story about Audion (the MP3 player) before, and failed to make the connection that this was the same Audion that I rediscovered in the O’Reilly interview from the last post (and took a moment to mourn its loss). It’s sad to think of how much better iTunes would be if the Panic guys were making it — iTunes must be the first MP3 player that feels like a heavy duty office suite. In the story, Cabel Sasser (the other co-founder of Panic) begins:

Is it just me? I mean, do you ever wonder about the stories behind everyday products?

What names were Procter & Gamble considering before they finally picked “Swiffer”? (Springle? Sweepolio? Dirtrocker?) What flavors of Pop-Tarts never made it out of the lab, and did any involve lychee, the devil’s fruit?

No doubt the backstory on the Pop-Tarts question alone could be turned into a syndicated network show to compete with LOST.

Audion is now available as a free download, though without updates since 2002, it’s not likely to work much longer (seemed fine with OS X 10.4, though who knows with even 10.5).

Tuesday, August 19, 2008 | feedbag, software  

Mangled Tenets and Exasperation: the iTunes App Store

By way of Darling Furball, a blog post by Steven Frank, co-founder of Panic, on his personal opinion of Apple’s gated community of software distribution, the iTunes App Store:

Some of my most inviolable principles about developing and selling software are:

  1. I can write any software I want. Nobody needs to “approve” it.
  2. Anyone who wants to can download it. Or not.
  3. I can set any price I want, including free, and there’s no middle-man.
  4. I can set my own policies for refunds, coupons and other promotions.
  5. When a serious bug demands an update, I can publish it immediately.
  6. If I want, I can make the source code available.
  7. If I want, I can participate in a someone else’s open source project.
  8. If I want, I can discuss coding difficulties and solutions with other developers.

The iTunes App Store distribution model mangles almost every one of those tenets in some way, which is exasperating to me.

But, the situation’s not that clear-cut.

The entire post is very thoughtful and well worth reading, it’s also coming from a long-time Apple developer rather than some crank from an online magazine looking to stir up advertising hits. Panic’s software is wonderful: Transmit is an application that singlehandedly makes me want to use a Mac (yet it’s only, uh, an SFTP client). I think his post nicely sums up the way a lot of developers (including myself) feel about the App Store. He concludes:

I’ve been trying to reconcile the App Store with my beliefs on “how things should be” ever since the SDK was announced. After all this time, I still can’t make it all line up. I can’t question that it’s probably the best mobile application distribution method yet created, but every time I use it, a little piece of my soul dies. And we don’t even have anything for sale on there yet.

Reading this also made me curious to learn more about Panic, which led me to this interview from 2004 with Frank and the other co-founder. He also has a number of side projects, including Spamusement, a roughly drawn cartoon depicting spam headlines (Get a bigger flute, for instance).

Tuesday, August 19, 2008 | mobile, software  

Typography Grab Bag: Berlow, Carter, and Indiana Jones

raiders.jpgIndiana Jones and the Fonts on the Maps – Mark Simonson takes on historical accuracy of the typography used in the Indiana Jones movies:

For the most part, the type usage in each of the movies is correct for the period depicted. With one exception: The maps used in the travel montages.

My theory is that this is because the travel maps are produced completely outside the standard production team. They’re done by some motion graphics house, outside the purview of the people on-set who are charged with issues of consistency. A nastier version of this theory might indict folks who do motion graphics for not knowing their typography and its time period—instead relying on the “feel” of the type when selecting. The bland version of this theory is that type history is esoteric, and nobody truly cares.

(Also a good time to point out how maps are used as a narrative device in the film, to great effect. The red line extending across the map is part of the Indiana Jones brand. I’d be curious to hear the story behind the mapping—who decided it needed to be there, who made it happen, who said “let’s do a moving red line that tracks the progress”—which parts were intentional, and which unintentional.)

Identifying the period for the faces reminded me of a 2005 profile of Matthew Carter, which described his involvement in court cases where date was in doubt, but typography of artifacts in question gave away their era. Sadly the article cannot be procured from the web site of The New Yorker, though you may have better luck if you possess a library card. Matthew Carter designed the typefaces Verdana and Bell Centennial (among many others). Spotting his wispy white ponytail around Harvard Square is a bit like seeing a rock star, if you’re a Cantabridgian typography geek.

From A to Z, font designer knows his type – a Boston Globe interview with type designer David Berlow (one of the founders of Font Bureau), some of the questions are unfortunate, but a few interesting anecdotes:

Playboy magazine came to me; they were printing with two printing processes, offset and gravure. Gravure (printing directly from cylinder to paper), gives a richer, smoother texture when printing flesh tones and makes the type look darker on the page than offset (indirect image transfer from plates). So if you want the type to look the same, you have to use two fonts. We developed two fonts for Playboy, but they kept complaining that the type was still coming out too dark or too light. Finally, I got a note attached to a proof that said, “Sorry. It was me. I needed new glasses. Thanks for all your help. Hef.” That was Hugh Hefner, of course.

Or speaking about his office:

From Oakland, Calif., to Delft, Holland, all the designers work from home. I have never been to the office. The first time I saw it was when I watched the documentary “Helvetica,” which showed our offices.


The strange allure of making your own fonts – Jason Fagone describes FontStruct, a web-based font design tool from FontShop:

FontStruct’s interface couldn’t be more intuitive. The central metaphor is a sheet of paper. You draw letters on the “sheet” using a set of standard paint tools (pencil, line, box, eraser) and a library of what FontStruct calls “bricks” (squares, circles, half-circles, crescents, triangles, stars). If you keep at it and complete an entire alphabet, FontStruct will package your letters into a TrueType file that you can download and plunk into your PC’s font folder. And if you’re feeling generous, you can tell FontStruct to share your font with everybody else on the Internet under a Creative Commons license. Every font has its own comment page, which tends to fill with praise, practical advice, or just general expressions of devotion to FontStruct.

Though I think my favorite bit might be this one:

But the vast majority of FontStruct users aren’t professional designers, just enthusiastic font geeks.

I know that because I’m one of them. FontStruct brings back a ton of memories; in college, I used to run my own free-font site called Alphabet Soup, where I uploaded cheapie fonts I made with a pirated version of a $300 program called Fontographer. Even today, when I self-Google, I mostly come up with links to my old, crappy fonts. (My secret fear is that no matter what I do as a reporter, the Monko family of fonts will remain my most durable legacy.)

The proliferation of bad typefaces: the true cost of software piracy.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008 | grabbag, mapping, refine, software, typography  

All Streets Error Messages

Some favorite error messages while working on the All Streets project (mentioned below). I was initially hoping to use Illustrator to open the generated PDF files (generated from Processing), but Venus informed me that it was not to be:


I’m having difficulties as well. Why did I pay for this software?

Generally, Photoshop is far better engineered so I was hoping that it would be able to rasterize the PDF file instead, never mind the vectors and all.


Oh come on… Just admit that you ran out of memory and can’t deal. Meanwhile, Eugene was helping out with the site, from the other end of iChat:


Oh well.

Sunday, April 27, 2008 | allstreets, software  

Visualizing Data Book CoverVisualizing Data is my book about computational information design. It covers the path from raw data to how we understand it, detailing how to begin with a set of numbers and produce images or software that lets you view and interact with information. Unlike nearly all books in this field, it is a hands-on guide intended for people who want to learn how to actually build a data visualization.

The text was published by O’Reilly in December 2007 and can be found at Amazon and elsewhere. Amazon also has an edition for the Kindle, for people who aren’t into the dead tree thing. (Proceeds from Amazon links found on this page are used to pay my web hosting bill.)

Examples for the book can be found here.

The book covers ideas found in my Ph.D. dissertation, which is basis for Chapter 1. The next chapter is an extremely brief introduction to Processing, which is used for the examples. Next is (chapter 3) is a simple mapping project to place data points on a map of the United States. Of course, the idea is not that lots of people want to visualize data for each of 50 states. Instead, it’s a jumping off point for learning how to lay out data spatially.

The chapters that follow cover six more projects, such as salary vs. performance (Chapter 5), zipdecode (Chapter 6), followed by more advanced topics dealing with trees, treemaps, hierarchies, and recursion (Chapter 7), plus graphs and networks (Chapter 8).

This site is used for follow-up code and writing about related topics.