Apple's Control Issues

Section 3.3.1 of the new iPhone OS 4 preview SDK caused quite a firestorm on the interwebs. It tells developers exactly which tools they may use to develop apps for the app store. Apple must have known it would raise hackles and did it anyway. Now that’s thinking different. To those who say “they can’t do that!”, well, they just did. It’s pretty evil, but Apple has the users and the mindshare. Short of legal action (it’ll be interesting to see how much of this section is enforceable in court) it’s hard to see how Apple can be persuaded to change its mind. And this won’t result in a developer exodus — developers will flock to the iPhone as long as it’s a leading mobile platform.

It’s hard for me to sympathise with Adobe. Flash is a proprietary plugin that really only runs well on Windows. (In fact, most people forget that Flash’s ubiquity is a direct result of Microsoft bundling Flash with every copy of Windows.) Then Adobe got delusions of Flash’s platform-hood and is having trouble adjusting to the fact that one of the real platform vendors (Apple) didn’t like Flash very much, probably because Flash is a dog on OS X. Problem is, you don’t really become a platform by shipping plugins — the JRE browser plugin is a far more mature (and open source!) platform and it’s nowhere as ubiquitous as Sun/Oracle would like.

The other point against Flash is that it’s fundamentally pro-publisher and pro-advertiser and anti-user. Flash makes the user work twice as hard to maintain control over privacy by having its own hard-to-use settings manager and independent cookie store. This is the platform I’m supposed to get passionate about? And the recent iAd unveiling nicely showed how one can do “rich media ads” in HTML5.

All of this said, Apple’s hubris and control freakery will definitely turn off a lot of the tech crowd, many of whom are also early adopters. I’m sure Apple knows this but also knows you can’t sell 85 million units mobile devices by appealing to the tech crowd — and the ones who care about the best user experience will stay with Apple anyway. Apple’s competitors could always show Apple the folly of its ways by, you know, designing a better product that customers will want — the upgrade cycle on phones is a lot shorter than desktops and people aren’t that averse to changing phones if a new one is cheaper and/or offers a better experience.

Speaking for myself, although I like my iPhone, I’d like a bit more flexibility on a tablet, so I’ll wait to see if a good Windows or Android device comes along. But so far neither Google nor Microsoft has produced anything compelling enough. It’s sad to see the future of personal computing being ceded to a company that wants to turn it into a walled garden.

Looking Forward to Lost's Series Finale

A good TV show begins well, but a great TV show must end well. With a bang, not a whimper.

Many critically acclaimed shows would have a tough time with that definition. For example, Battlestar Galactica was a wildly uneven ride [Battlestar Galactica awesomeness sparkline]. It started extremely well (the mini series and the short first season). It lost a bit of steam in the 2nd season and by the middle of the 3rd I began to suspect that Ron D Moore didn’t really have a plan about how to end his story. Nevertheless, BSG’s mid-season and season finales remained very good, but they left the rest of the season looking like filler.

The mid-season finale for the fourth season, in particular, was excellent and would have been a perfect ending for the series. Instead we had to watch the actual ending, which I liked on first viewing but soured on as soon as I thought about it for two minutes (Note: Spoilers ahead). Not because of the more implausible plot points (“Let’s give up all our technology and go back to the stone age! Ooh, angels!”) but because of the giant deus ex machina planted in the middle of the story (“God did it!”). BSG often hit high notes that other shows struggled to achieve, but its flaws are hard to ignore.

By contrast, a lesser-known show called The Shield qualifies. It started reasonably — an interesting police procedural, not a bad series but not great either. But it improved over time [The Shield - awesomeness sparkline]. In later seasons, it cut the fat to an astonishing degree, becoming almost mini-series like. It also brought in excellent actors like Glenn Close and Forest Whitaker to beef up the already excellent cast. And the final episode was amazing. That is how you do a character-driven ending without sacrificing plot (Ron Moore take note). I was left wondering about the fate of a major character right upto the last few minutes.

Now, in a few weeks, Lost — another long-form TV series — will come to a close. It started with a very strong first season, but lost steam during the second and most of the third. Luckily the showrunners recognized this and trimmed the fat, and as a result season 3 ended on a high note and the shortened seasons 4 & 5 and what we’ve seen of season 6 have been better for their efforts [Lost awesomeness sparkline]. Lost’s innovative and complex narrative has served it well in episodes like Through the Looking Glass and The Constant, but will the story hold up under the weight of all the mystery? This week’s episode, Ab Aeterno, promises great things. I’m really hoping showrunners David Lindelof and Carlton Cuse don’t lose their way.

Smart (curly) Quotes in MSN / Windows Live Messenger

Undocumented MSN / Windows Live Messenger “feature”: Shift+Ctrl+” (Shift+Ctrl+Quotation Mark) toggles smart or curly quotes in the Conversation Window. Unfortunately, not only does this completely undocumented keystroke not give any feedback to the user (and it’s easy to press this by mistake while IMing away) but also breaks some emoticons: [Weepie] produces a weepie [Weepie], but :‘( and :’( produce nothing.

Update: The shortcut is Shift+Ctrl+Quotation Mark on US keyboards only. On British keyboards the shortcut is Shift+Ctrl+~.

Update 2: This still happens in the latest version of Live Messenger (14.0.8089.726), which is why I’ve bumped this post to 2010 (I first wrote about this bug in 2004!).

Tab Docking in Google Chrome

Almost everyone knows you can tear off and re-join tabs in Chrome, but it also supports powerful docking features that are quite useful, especially on Windows XP and Vista (which lacks the window manager refinements of Windows 7).

The most useful feature probably is the ability to drag a tab to the middle of the left or right edge of the browser window (as shown below) and have the windows arrange themselves into a vertically-split view that’s ideal for side-by-side comparisons.

Drag tab to the middle of the left or right edges of the browser window Vertically split Chrome windows side-by-side

There are more docking positions listed on Chrome’s help pages.

Flash is a win for Adobe, not Users

Here’s a revealing quote from a Flash evangelist about exactly who benefits from Flash. Hint: it’s not the users.

Companies will not stop using Flash because it is extremely profitable, especially in the advertising space.

I’m glad someone finally admitted it. Flash is not primarily about users — it’s been about giving companies commercial opportunities they never had with the Web, i.e., better ways to grab the user’s attention. (And by that I mean ads. For every good game that uses Flash, there are probably 50 distracting ads that use it.) In fact, Flash is positively user-hostile and un-weblike in giving users control over the browsing experience: crashes, general slowness, nightmarish security, super-cookies that can’t be easily managed via a browser’s privacy controls, … the list goes on.

On the other hand, John Nack points out that Flash made video ubiquitous on the web. They do deserve a hat-tip for that, but now that Youtube, Vimeo, BBC and several other sites have standardized around H.264, the de facto future of web video appears to be H.264 (despite some very well-reasoned arguments against from Mozilla). All it’d take is for a H.264 licensor (Google, say) to distribute a lightweight binary plugin for H.264 support for browsers like Mozilla and pre-Win7 IE, which don’t support H.264. Bingo, you no longer require Flash to play video on modern sites.

Of course, Flash is far more than just video. It’s very capable and Nack is correct when he says the Web moves far more slowly than the Flash team. But browser capabilities are going up not down — which means justifying using Flash will become more, not less, difficult over time. Ultimately, what I wrote 6 years ago (in a slightly different context) remains true:

Upgrading the browser results in a far superior user experience than hacking together kludges adding layers on the server that execute on the client via plugins.

Tweaking IE's Security Zones Settings

If you still need to keep IE around after all the security warnings, cranking up IE’s security settings is a great idea. Most people need IE for a specific few sites anyway, so it shouldn’t get in the way much. Here are the security settings to use for each zone (in Tools > Internet Options > Security Tab):

  • Internet: High
  • Intranet: High (especially if you are on a home network or you have a workgroup)
  • Trusted Sites: Medium-High (add the sites you need IE to work with to this zone)
  • Restricted Sites: High

(Yes, the zones security model is horrible and well past its sell-by date, but that’s the price you pay for keeping IE around.)

After you do this, you may notice that Firefox has trouble downloading files (a side-effect of trying to respect the new Internet security settings). To get around this, follow the instructions on this thread to tweak your security settings, or (less recommended) create an about:config entry called browser.download.manager.skipWinSecurityPolicyChecks and set it to true. Google Chrome doesn’t have this problem.

If you’re still using Internet Explorer 6, please upgrade to the latest version (version 8) as soon as you can. And consider installing Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome as your default browser — you’ll be much safer on the web.

Update: this no longer works with Firefox 3.6 — the skipWinSecurityPolicyChecks setting has been removed (not very well thought out move, imho). I’d still recommend cranking up IE’s security settings, though — and using other browsers like Google Chrome or Opera for downloading EXEs (both of these ignore Windows’/IE’s security policies).

Feels a bit chilly outside

And now I know why:

Image of a snow-covered Britain from NASA's Terra satellite

That’s an amazing picture, almost like something from The Day After Tomorrow, and all the more awe-inspiring because it’s real. As one of the commenters at BadAstronomy also noted, all the talk about England’s green and pleasant land makes one forget just how far North it is (above the US in latitude), and how dependent it is on a very complex web — things like the Gulf Stream — for its climate.

The BBC has more news and pictures about the Big Freeze of 2010.

(via BadAstronomy)