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”).

RAW Power 2.0

RAW Power 2.0 in action — the new version features nice tools for generating black-and-white images.

My favorite tool for quickly making adjustments to RAW photos just turned 2.0. It’s a free upgrade but the price for new users has increased to (I believe) $25. While the original program was great for quickly adjusting a single image, the new program allows you to browse directories full of images quickly and easily, to some extent replacing browsing apps like FastRAWViewer.

The major new features — and there are a lot of them — are batch processing, copying and pasting adjustments between images, multiple window and tab support, hot/cold pixel overlays (very nicely done), depth effect (the ability to manipulate depth data from dual camera iPhones), perspective correction and chromatic aberration support.

The browsing functionality is pretty minimal. It’s useful enough for selecting images for batch-processing, but it doesn’t offer filtering ability (beyond the ability to show only RAW images) or the ability quickly modify image metadata (e.g. rate images), so FastRAWViewer is still the app to beat for managing large directories full of images.

While the hot/cold pixel feature is lovely, the ability to show in-focus areas (another great FastRAWViewer feature) is also missing.

As before, RAW Power both functions as a standalone application and a plugin for Apple’s Photos app (providing enhanced adjustment functionality).

Highly recommended!

Epic Fail

Atul Gawande describes the Epic software system being rolled out in America’s hospitals.

It reads like a  potpourri of everything bad about enterprise IT. Standardize on endpoints instead of interoperability, Big Bang changes instead of incremental improvements, and failure to adhere to the simplest principles of usability.

The sad thing is that the litany of horrors in this article are all solved problems. Unfortunately, it seems that in the process of “professionalizing” usability, the discipline has lost its way.

Reading through the article, you can just tally up the violations of my proposed Usability Heuristics, and there’s very few issues described in the article that would not be eliminated by applying one of them.

The others would fall to simple principles like using battle-tested standards (ISO timestamps anyone?) and picking the right level of database normalization (it should be difficult or impossible to enter different variations of the same problem in “problem lists”, and easier to elaborate on existing problems).

There was a column of thirteen tabs on the left side of my screen, crowded with nearly identical terms: “chart review,” “results review,” “review flowsheet.”

I’m sure the tabs LOOKED nice, though. (Hint: maximize generality, minimize steps, progressive disclosure, viability.)

“Ordering a mammogram used to be one click,” she said. “Now I spend three extra clicks to put in a diagnosis. When I do a Pap smear, I have eleven clicks. It’s ‘Oh, who did it?’ Why not, by default, think that I did it?” She was almost shouting now. “I’m the one putting the order in. Why is it asking me what date, if the patient is in the office today? When do you think this actually happened? It is incredible!”

Sensible defaults can be helpful?! Who knew? (Hint: sensible defaults, minimize steps.)

This is probably my favorite (even though it’s not usability-related):

Last fall, the night before daylight-saving time ended, an all-user e-mail alert went out. The system did not have a way to record information when the hour from 1 a.m. to 1:59 a.m. repeated in the night. This was, for the system, a surprise event.

Face meet palm.

Date-and-time is a fundamental issue with all software and the layers of stupidity that must have signed off on a system that couldn’t cope with Daylight Savings boggles my mind.

A former colleague of mine linked to US Web Design System as if this were some kind of intrinsically Good Thing. Hilariously, the site itself does not appear to have been designed for accessibility or even decent semantic web, and blocks robots.

Even if the site itself were perfect, the bigger problems are that (a) there are plenty of similar open source projects, they could have just blessed one; (b) it’s a cosmetic standard, and (c) there’s pretty much no emphasis on the conceptual side of usability. So, at best it helps make government websites look nice and consistent.

(To be continued…)

Lost Productivity

A couple of months ago I listened to a Planet Money podcast discussing the mysterious slowdown in US productivity growth (the link is to one of several podcasts on this topic). Like most NPR content, the story got recycled through a number of different programs, such as Morning Edition.

The upshot was, that productivity — which is essentially GDP/work — has stalled since the — I dunno — 90s, and it doesn’t make sense given the apparent revolutions in technology — faster computers, better networks, etc.

Anyway, the upshot — and I’m basing this on memory because I can’t find the exact transcript — is that there’s a mysterious hole in productivity growth which, if it were filled, would add up to several trillion dollars worth of lost value added.

Well, I think it’s there to be found, because Free Open Source Software on its own adds up to several trillion dollars worth of stuff that hasn’t been measured by GDP.

Consider the dominant tech platforms of our time — Android and iOS. Both are fundamentally built on Open Source. If it weren’t for Open Source, iOS at minimum would have been significantly altered (let’s assume NeXTStep would have had a fully proprietary, but still fundamentally POSIX base) and Android could not have existed at all. Whatever was in their place would have had to pay trillions in licenses.

On a micro level, having worked through a series of tech booms from 1990 to the present — in the 90s, to do my job my employer or I had to spend about $2000-5000 for software licenses every year just to keep up-to-date with Photoshop, Director, Illustrator, Acrobat, Strata 3d, 3dsmax, Form*Z, and so on and so forth. By the mid aughts it was maybe $1000 per year and the software was So. Much. Better. Today, it’s probably down to less than $500.

And, in this same period, the number of people doing the kind of work I do, is done by far more people.

That’s just software. This phenomenon is also affecting hardware.

The big problem with this “lost productivity” is that the benefits are chiefly being reaped by billionaires.

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.