As the Wwworm Turns

Microsoft’s recent announcement that it is, in effect, abandoning the unloved and unlamented Edge browser stack in favor of Chromium is, well, both hilarious and dripping in irony.

Consider at first blush the history of the web in the barest terms:

  • 1991 — http, html, etc. invented using NeXT computers
  • 1992 — Early browsers (Mosaic, NetScape, etc.) implement and extend the standard, notably NetScape adds Javascript and tries to make frames and layers a thing. Also, the <blink> tag.
  • 1995 — Microsoft “embraces and extends” standards with Internet Explorer and eventually achieves a 95% stranglehold on the browser market.
  • 1997 — As NetScape self-destructs and Apple’s own OpenDoc-based browser “Cyberdog” fails to gain any users (mostly due to being OpenDoc-based), Apple begs Microsoft for a slightly-less-crummy version of IE5 to remain even vaguely relevant/useful in an era where most web stuff is only developed for whatever version of IE (for Windows) the web developer is using.
  • 2002 — FireFox rises from the ashes of NetScape. (It is essentially a cross-platform browser based on Camino, a similar Mac-only browser that was put together by developers frustrated by the lack of a decent Mac browser.)
  • 2003 — Stuck with an increasingly buggy and incompatible IE port, Apple develops its own browser based on KHTML after rejecting Netscape’s Gecko engine. The new browser is called “Safari”, and Apple’s customized version of KHTML is open-sourced as Webkit.
  • As a scrappy underdog, Apple starts a bunch of small PR wars to show that its browser is more standards-compliant and runs javascript faster than its peers.
  • Owing to bugginess, neglect, and all-round arrogance, gradually Microsoft loses a significant portion of market share to FireFox (and, on the Mac, Safari — which is at least as IE-compatible as the aging version of IE that runs on Macs). Google quietly funds FireFox via ad-revenue-sharing since it is in Google’s interest to break Microsoft’s strangehold on the web.
  • 2007 — Safari having slowly become more relevant to consumers as the best browser on the Mac (at least competitive with Firefox functionally and much faster and more power efficient than any competitor) is suddenly the only browser on the iPhone. Suddenly, making your stuff run on Safari matters.
  • 2008 — Google starts experimenting with making its own web browser. It looks around for the best open source web engine, rejects Gecko, and picks Webkit!
  • Flooded with ad revenue from Google, divorced from any sense of user accountability FireFox slowly becomes bloated and arrogant, developing an email client and new languages and mobile platforms rather than fixing or adding features to the only product it produces that anyone cares about. As Firefox grows bloated and Webkit improves, Google Chrome benefits as, essentially, Safari for Windows. (Especially since Apple’s official Safari for Windows is burdened with a faux-macOS-“metal”, UI and users are tricked into installing it with QuickTime.) When Google decides to turn Android from a Sidekick clone into an iPhone clone, it uses its Safari clone as the standard browser. When Android becomes a success, suddenly Webkit compatibility matters a whole lot more.
  • 2013 — Google is frustrated by Apple’s focus on end-users (versus developers). E.g. is the increase in size and power consumption justified by some kind of end-user benefit? If “no” then Apple simply won’t implement it. Since Google is trying to become the new Microsoft (“developers, developers, developers”) it forks Webkit so it can stop caring about users and just add features developers think they want at an insane pace. It also decides to completely undermine the decades-old conventions of software numbering and make new major releases at an insane pace.
  • Developers LOOOOVE Chrome (for the same reason they loved IE). It lets them reach lots of devices, it has lots of nooks and crannies, it provides functionality that lets developers outsource wasteful tasks to clients, if they whine about some bleeding edge feature Google will add it, whether or not it makes sense for anyone. Also it randomly changes APIs and adds bugs fast enough that you can earn a living by memorizing trivia (like the good old days of AUTOEXEC.BAT) allowing a whole new generation of mediocrities to find gainful employment. Chrome also overtakes Firefox as having the best debug tools (in large part because Firefox engages in a two year masturbatory rewrite of all its debugging tools which succeeds mainly in confusing developers and driving them away).
  • 2018 — Microsoft, having seen itself slide from utter domination (IE6) to laughingstock (IE11/Edge), does the thing-that-has-been-obvious-for-five-years and decides to embrace and extend Google’s Webkit fork (aptly named “Blink”).

Photo-backup, Hubic, and Other Stories

So, a year ago I started backing up to HubiC after my previous backup service decided to stop servicing retail customers. At the time, HubiC seemed on paper like a great option — potentially offering the simplicity and utility of DropBox with effectively unlimited storage capacity.

In practice, HubiC is useless. I’ve had a 2012 Mac Pro constantly connected to HubiC via a fast cable connection for 12 months and managed to back up only about 1/4 of the files I’ve pointed at it. The damn thing breaks down constantly. Every time I log in it wants me to change passwords. They just billed me for renewal, but I’m two days late and I can’t cancel my account without paying for another year. Good luck with that, guys.

Now, I haven’t been sitting on my hands while I watch HubiC fail to deliver on any of its promises. Most of my stuff continues to be backed up locally via Time Machine. The stuff I work on is stored in the cloud (iCloud, GitHub, Google Drive, and/or DropBox).

My big problem is photographs and video.

The disaster that is my Flickr account
Flickr’s auto-uploader turned my Flickr account into an unfixable mess

Now, when Flickr raised its “free” tier to offer 1TB of cloud storage for JPEGs, I jumped on that. It may not be RAW storage, but it’s better than nothing, and 1TB is enough space for a huge number of JPEGs. The big problem, Flickr’s (since discontinued) auto-uploader was so stupidly designed that it successfully rendered my Flickr account borderline useless (it created an album for every folder it found an image in, and it uploaded every image it found, including things like UI images inside applications and development trees, so I have “albums” comprising sprites from sample game development projects and logos for PHP templates) and Flickr’s account management tools look and work like something an intern abandoned in 2005, so just deleting stuff is an exercise in frustration. It looks to me like Flickr’s abandonware API isn’t really up to the task of even supporting a third party application to untangle the mess.

And of course, since Yahoo changed hands and various security scandals unfolded just logging into Yahoo accounts is a pain, and you need to navigate ads to even get into your account. Yahoo is the GeoCities of 2018.

Google photos in "action"
When I scroll to some arbitrary point on my timeline, this is what I see for some random (long) amount of time…

Recently, Google raised the “free” tier of photos.google.com to unlimited storage of photos where RAW files are JPEGs are processed into high-but-not-full-quality JPEGs on-the-fly. I’ve tried it and it’s pretty damn good. The uploader is smart enough to skip files that are clearly not important photos (e.g. too small, wrong format) and ignore obvious duplicates. The problems are (i) that the uploader application periodically just hangs and needs to be manually killed and restarted (ii) the web app seems to be weirdly slow and unreliable (I can log on with two machines side-by-side and they’ll see different subsets of my photos), (iii) no Apple TV support, and (iv) online photo editor seems to need one or two extra clicks to accomplish anything (but it’s a lot better than nothing). I’m pretty confident that my stuff is there, just not in my ability to see a given photo from a given machine on a given day. It’s certainly the most complete, easy-to-navigate, and shareable archive I’ve ever managed to create of my photographs. And if I can find a photo there, I can locate the original RAW image pretty easily.

Now, the absolute best system for dealing with my photographs thus far is iCloud. If I could simply rent 10TB from iCloud for a reasonable price (let’s say, $25/month) and get my Mac to automatically sync multiple volumes to iCloud, my problem would be solved. Obviously, I’m a happy Apple customer. If I were a more-than-casual Windows or Linux user then this would not be a useful option to me, and I’m not sure what I’d do, because I’m pretty sure there’s no equivalently seamless option for people who don’t want to pay the “Apple Tax”. Google Drive isn’t even a tolerable substitute for DropBox (although I think it has Sharepoint beaten).

Here’s where iCloud beats all other options:

  • I don’t need to think about it or do anything. (Well, on a desktop device, I need to NOT avoid storing my data in iCloud) If I take a photo, then it ends up in the cloud pretty quickly (basically, when the device gets recharged while on a LAN, if not sooner).
  • By default, full-resolution images are not propagated to all my devices (as would be the case for DropBox, or Hubic if it actually worked). Instead, as with everything in iCloud it’s available on-demand. (Indeed, it’s a bit reminiscent of the way iTunes deals with movies… superficially less convenient than pure streaming, but a lot more flexible and useful in practice).
  • If I ingest a RAW photo from a camera onto a device, then it’s in the cloud and available from any device on-demand (but it’s not wasting space on all my devices).
  • If I want to work on a photo, I can use the best native tools that are available on the device I’m using — seamlessly (although I’m inclined to actively avoid Adobe applications because Adobe’s workflow involves use of Adobe’s barely functional Cloud ecosystem).

The big problem — of course there has to be one — is that Apple’s highest storage tier is 2TB. I’m currently on 200GB which is plenty for the stuff I need that isn’t photos and videos, but hopelessly inadequate for photos and videos. 2TB (the next tier up, and it’s competitively priced) would be sufficient for my photos and videos if I were to curate them, but I don’t want to curate shit. I want to dump it in the cloud and not think about it.

Missing in Action

All of this adds up to a bunch of pretty disappointing non-solutions. Even though Apple provides a file sync system that works pretty well for personal photographs, it wouldn’t work for say a small photography business. (I guess you could use some kind of “family plan” but I’m pretty sure that would run you into weirdness pretty fast.) And it’s not like we’re talking advanced workflow support here — I just want my photos backed up and available.

Where is a tool that automatically detects blurred, underexposed, or overexposed photos and flags them as less worthy of backup? (Google’s photos app does a pretty good job of automatically correcting exposure, I wonder if it’s smart enough to task the uploader with going back to the RAW and reprocessing and re-uploading the photo?)

Where is the tool that remembers which photos have been opened or zoomed in and flags them as more interesting or worthy of backup?

Where is the tool that correlates the GPS location data of your iPhone photos and tentatively applies them to your corresponding camera photos?

Aperture used to collect photos from bursts into a single set and represent them with what it guessed was the best one. Where did this idea disappear to?

There’s a ton of low-hanging fruit here. Someone, please do something. I’m busy.

Replacing Crashplan

I’ve been pretty happy with Crashplan for five years or so, although lately not so much. Obviously, one reason to be unhappy with Crashplan is that they’re no longer supporting the family plan I was using to back up all our Macs. Worse, their quality of service seems to have (understandably) slipped as my plan approaches its termination.

Exhibit 1: my wife bought a new laptop. When she tried to restore files from her old laptop, they were MIA.

So, here we are at a nasty juncture where our supposedly bulletproof fire-and-forget backup system is (a) not working terribly well and (b) shortly going to not work at all.

Possible Crashplan Replacements

The obvious replacement is Carbonite. The problem with Carbonite is that it’s going either (a) be a lot more expensive than Crashplan was (because of our family plan — which is the equivalent of, effectively, n $100/year plans where n is the number of computers you back up; the small business plan works out as being stupidly expensive if you have more than 250GB of data) or (b) require me to do a bunch of work (i.e. set up one computer as the family server, have all the other devices back up to it, and then back it up via Carbonite. So Carbonite will either cost $300 (say) per year or $100 per year but require me to be my own network engineer. Oh, and forget mobile backups.

If I want to do a whole bunch of work I might as well just use Amazon S3. For 2TB of data that’s a mere $46/month. Ouch. I could probably use their cheaper long term storage, but now I’m basically starting my own Crashplan / Dropbox implementation and that sounds kind of like hard work. Forget that.

So, on to the “consumer” options (I’ve tried to pick 2TB plans as this is the absolute minimum I can live with):

  • Dropbox — $99 p.a. 1TB (there is no 2TB plan)
  • Box — $540 p.a. for unlimited (3 computers)
  • Hubic — $60 p.a. 10TB
  • Amazon — $120 p.a. 2TB
  • Google — $240 p.a. 2TB
  • Microsoft — $99 p.a. 5 users, 1TB/user
  • Apple — $120 p.a. 2TB (no Android client)

(Edit: TablePress was a disaster.)

Note that all these services support web browser access, so you can get at your files from any device with a web browser, but I’m talking about file-system integration where you can just save your file in the usual place and it’s seamlessly backed up to the cloud. I should note that Dropbox and Hubic even provide Linux clients. Everyone supports Mac, Windows, and iOS.

At first glance, Hubic looks like the standout value-for-money option. (Hubic is essentially like Dropbox, except it’s run by a gigantic hosting company). The problem is that I’ve found Hubic to have a poor user experience, especially with regard to performance. (My own experience is quite limited — and I’m kind of shocked that my blog post on Dropbox vs. Box vs. Hubic ranks quite high on Google searches for “Hubic Review”.) This may be a result of server location, or simply under-provisioning (10TB is so close to “unlimited” that I imagine it attracts a lot of abusive users).

(Edit: I should mention that Hubic offers both Dropbox-like services and backup services. It also has what looks like a pretty robust API. Also there are advantages to storing your data in France. On the other hand — no 2FA.)

At second glance, Microsoft OneDrive seems like a great deal at 5TB for $100/year. The problem is that it’s 5x 1TB per user, which is effectively 1TB. Still, a great deal if you’re happy with 1TB and want Microsoft Office for your family.

The shock comes at third glance — Apple’s product is competitively priced (cheaper than Dropbox!). It doesn’t support Android (surprise!) but aside from that it’s a great deal, you can share it with your family (with each person having segregated storage), it requires no real configuration and — this is the kicker — it’s smart about mirroring stuff to your devices. Want a 1TB photo library in the cloud? Great. Want it on every one of your family computers? Not so much.

Conclusion

Hubic is the clear winner in terms of price per unit storage. Apple is the clear winner in terms of functionality and comes second in price. When I take into account the fact that I pay Apple $3/month for a lower tier of storage just for convenient mobile backups it’s an even better deal (hooray for Opportunity Cost). After some consideration I’m thinking of doing both. Hubic for volume backup and iCloud for convenience.

I’ll let you know how it works out.

Followup…

I nearly gave up on Hubic. After paying for the 10TB plan I received no response and my account didn’t change… Well, until the next day. Sacré bleu! I’m still a bit concerned that the app hasn’t been updated since 2015, but it seems to work.

Anyway, I’m going to start backing up to Hubic and we’ll see how things go.

 

Further research has shown that there are two more reasonably-priced alternatives to Carbonite, notably iDrive and Backblaze. Backblaze seems very compelling for a single computer ($5/month unlimited; $4 with a two year plan), and not bad for a small number of computers (it works out as roughly the same as Crashplan for 3 computers). iDrive is offering some interesting discounts (and lets you handle any number of computers with one account) but I find the website poor to the point of suspecting the competence of the company.

Google’s New Logo

Google's new logo overlaid with circles (top) and Futura (bottom)
Google’s new logo overlaid with circles (top) and Futura (bottom)

Let me begin by saying that I don’t hate it — and I like it a lot more than the old logo which seems to have been the word “Google” in Times New Roman or whatever browsers showed by default as Serif back in the day. The old logo had the chief virtue of being unpretentious and not looking like, say, Marissa Meyer had devoted a whole weekend to it.

I saw someone claim that the new Google logo was an awesome piece of economy because it could be build entirely from booleans of circles and rectangles. I think that would be pretty cool — and in fact conceptually far more interesting than what it actually is, but you can see at a glance that it’s not so.

The new logo is simply a slightly bespoke version of Futura, a nice, modernist typeface which — in very much the Bauhaus style (which it was inspired by — looks simple and industrial but is actually the product of careful design. Google’s logo is essentially some Futura variant, hand-kerned, with slightly modified glyphs. Much like the subtly rounded corners on iOS7 icons and rounded rectangles.

Many corporate logos are simply examples of slightly customized typography — in this case Google seems to have taken the most common variant of Futura (the default weight of the version bundled with Mac OS X) and tweaked it a bit. Not great, not horrible, and better than Times New Roman. I imagine a lot of designers are incensed either because they’re anti-Google and like to disparage anything it does or they’re pro-Google and would like to see it put a bit of effort into picking a logo.

Google in modified Futura (top) vs. DIN Alternate (bottom)
Google in modified Futura (top) vs. DIN Alternate (bottom)

Personally, I think Google should have picked a more interesting typeface that somehow reflected its values. I would have picked a member of the DIN family (or similar) — a typeface designed first and foremost for legibility while being more attractive (in my opinion) than Futura. Google is, at its heart, a supremely utilitarian company, and I think DIN would deeply reflect this. Futura, with its Bauhaus underpinnings, strikes me as pretentiously faux-utilitarian. It looks geometric at the cost of practicality and legibility, but sacrifices design purity in the interest of aesthetics.

DuckDuckGo vs. Google

DuckDuckGo Bang!

I think it’s safe to say that DuckDuckGo is not quite as good as Google when it comes to search. But it’s not bad at all.

But it’s a lot cleverer than Google. It’s almost as though, rather than working on cloning Facebook, making creepy glasses, or trying to beat Apple by acquihiring a bunch of ex-Apple guys they’ve actually been trying to make a better search engine. To begin with, if you set DDG as your default search engine (on Safari this actually means installing an extension, since Apple doesn’t let you add it the obvious way) your address bar becomes a command line, with special (and very convenient) commands.

For example, if you want to use Google, you simply prefix your search with !g. So there’s that. If you want to use Bing, you can use !b, and !i for Google Image search. If you want to search for something on Amazon it’s !a. Stackoverflow !so. That’s actually enough — right now, DDG wins. Here’s a link to all the bang commands.

Now of course the main argument for DuckDuckGo is that it makes its money comparatively honestly by selling search terms without tracking its users. Well, it claims not to track its users, but even if it does it’s probably advantageous to not have your email, searches, and ad-clicks all being tracked by one entity, right? At least make them work for a living.