Monthly Archive for August, 2007

English lesson

This goes out to all the people I associate with regularly who have sloppy habits. You’re my friends, but please – it’s important. Ok?

First up: WEIRD, not wierd, people. This should not be difficult!

Oh, and while we’re at it: pronunciation. There’s no extra “o” in there. So please, never say that word “pronounciation”, because it doesn’t exist. Yes, I know it’s different from the word it’s derived from, and I agree the irony is just… delicious, but it’s horribly annoying.

Another pet peeve at the moment is inappropriate use of less/fewer. Less is for a singular thing, fewer is for a plural – yes, you can have less cheese; but you can’t have less hedgehogs. It even sounds wrong!

I’m not even going to get into there/their/they’re, or itsos (I’m still not sure about that term – yes, its form displays the kinship with “typo” – but it’s not a similar shortening of “itsographical error”, so I can’t help but feel a twinge of distaste), or the Greengrocer’s Apostrophe.

Finally. “Wondering” means you’re thinking, not perambulating. Please stop using it that way in conversations. Phrases such as “I was wondering about” just leave me hanging, expecting an object to pop up any moment…

I’m sure our relationship will be much better when I’m not cringing during our conversations. :)

Should principles trump progress?

So, HandBrake. It’s great, and the devs are very committed and do a great job. But… A couple of possible features have been cast aside recently, because they wouldn’t be cross-platform – in both cases, they’d be Mac-specific.

You see, it turns out OS X is pretty good (!). Through Core Audio, it’d be possible to add some great features into HandBrake, essentially for “free” – using Apple’s much-better-than-faac AAC codec, and volume manipulation. But… they’d only work on OS X. Now, I can see how it’s important to treat all platforms fairly; but when there isn’t an easy way (or perhaps, any way) for the others to implement this, why make everyone suffer? With respect, I’d say that’s short-sighted – especially when it’s technically possible, due to the separate codebases. There’s even an existing patch to make HandBrake use Apple’s AAC; it’s just never going to be applied.

If it’s presented as an ideological argument, that’s a valid point of view that must be respected. But… HandBrake already has platform-specific features. The Mac version uses Growl, and can rip straight from the DVD (for the moment), to name just a couple. So we’re doing it already; why not continue? Surely, if the default experience is identical – the extra functionality is opt-in, not opt-out – then we don’t have a problem?

On Font Rendering

This started life as a comment but it’s a bit long, so here we are.

Over the last couple of months – particularly after the release of Safari 3 beta for Windows – there have been a few good articles about the differences between Apple’s and Microsoft’s approaches to font smoothing. predictably, it seems that Mac users prefer the Mac way, and Windows users prefer the Windows way – both due to familiarity, and, well – if I hated text display on a platform I’d switch away from it pretty damn quickly, wouldn’t you?

Obviously, I’m going to prefer Apple’s smoothing. Firstly, because I’m familiar with it. As so many people have pointed out before me, unfamiliar is almost always unwelcome, at least to begin with. Nintendo told us that when they introduced the Wii – “Don’t worry, the name seems strange now, but give it six months…” – and I have to say I don’t find it so outlandish any more. So, it makes comparing font rendering techniques difficult, and you have to recognise your bias. That’s what I’m trying to do.

Secondly, because I too have an ideological objection to bastardising a font for the sake of “clarity” – if you fuck with it, it’s not the same typeface; and that completely defeats the point (aha, haha, ha…). End of story.

Thirdly, because you actually see the fonts as they are on a Mac. On a Mac, you can really learn to love fonts. You can celebrate their differences and their similarities, and enjoy choosing the right typeface for the right place. Nothing lifts design from ‘mediocre’ to ‘great’ like the perfect font.

Incidentally, I wonder if poor rendering could help to explain the astounding prevalence of shit fonts such as Comic Sans. Maybe it’s hard to see just how atrocious it looks under Windows?

Fourthly, because I find ClearType (the Windows way) extremely difficult to read. It’s too spindly, and the letter shapes are less familiar due to being forced to fit the pixel grid. It takes far more concentration to read. In contrast, despite the slight fuzziness you get under OS X (particularly with low-resolution screens), its letter shapes are easier on the eye; it’s like reading a book, with calming, friendly curves on the letters.

Quartz smoothing just plain looks better. On a decent screen, the text is sharp, has a fantastic shape, and really shows off the letterforms. The beauty of the font itself shines through. Aesthetics are so important – they’re one of only a handful of reasons that using a computer can be pleasurable, instead of just tolerable. Don’t sacrifice your fonts at the altar of ‘clarity’ – love them and cherish them as the triumphs of design they really are.

Another brief aside. I think aesthetic appeal can even make up for inadequacies in other areas. I suppose it’s like being attracted to a beautiful girl/guy who’s not much of an intellectual :) That makes me sound shallow, so let’s try a geekier example. I love my Nokia N80 because its high-resolution screen can make me go, “Wow!” even when I’m just writing a text message. I’m totally willing to put up with the fact that the phone itself is crashy as hell and has a faulty speaker that’s beaten repair teams for twelve months. It just doesn’t matter so much, when using it is such a treat for my eyes. Of course, that’s not to say other factors aren’t desirable and important, just that nothing can make such a difference to your attitude. back »

HandBrake 0.9.0

So, HandBrake 0.9.0 is out, and it’s pretty hot – so many new features it’s not even worth trying to list them. I’m particularly thrilled by this release as it was announced on a website I had a small hand in, contains my first couple of lines of Objective-C code ever, and is mirrored on my server (as well as many others).

Now, if only I could stop saying stupid things on irc, I might feel like I was getting somewhere…

Congratulations guys.

Some thoughts on iPhone-centric web design

iPhone SafariSo, as a persistent dabbler in web design, and a dude who generally has an opinion on everything, this piece on Wired got me thinking about new sites (or accessible versions of existing sites) designed specifically for the iPhone. It’s not a great article – it doesn’t attempt to justify the premise that the iPhone has caused “the creation of a subset of the mobile web that only works with the iPhone’s unique features”, or even explain it properly – but it’s an interesting thinking point. Before we launch into it, though, let’s have an over-simplified history lesson!

For anyone without a background knowledge of the famous Browser Wars™ of the early internet, it was both the best and the worst period of time the web has gone through. The best, because there were two major players driving it forward at a blistering rate of progress; the worst, because those two behemoths of the browser space were often highly incompatible. This made designing exciting, but hugely problematic.

IE 4 onwards began to become a problem, in a very Microsoftish way. Basically, they allowed a hell of a lot of hooks in web content, which could exploit proprietary, closed features of IE; and they didn’t properly support existing standards. This was dressed up as being a good thing – these were ‘additions’ to standards which made the experience better under IE, but other browsers could still display most of the content (just without IE’s embellishments). However, pages began to be designed specifically for Explorer, making other browsers distinctly second class. Suddenly, IE had a stranglehold on the market; the web came more or less under Microsoft’s control. Then… nothing. Microsoft basically abandoned IE, there was no innovation, and the web stagnated as virtually a proprietary extension to Windows.

So, what does this have to do with the iPhone? Well, at first glance, some of this looks awfully familiar: proprietary extensions, client-specific pages from major players… Is history really repeating itself? Let’s examine each aspect.

First, the iPhone’s hooks into web content. Now, I’m generally a “standards or death” kinda guy, very much against any vendor-specific addons; I don’t want another IE fiasco. However, I do sometimes break the rules when there’s good reason (even on this very site). I’m a bit on the fence in this case, but I think I’m gonna let it slide. Here’s why.

The hooks iPhone provides fall into two categories. The first is “enrichment”; special links for dialling a number or looking up an address in the Maps application, for example. This is fundamentally no different to the special urls instant messaging services have used for years. It’s tying into closed functionality, sure – but crucially, and unlike a decade ago with IE, it doesn’t damage the user experience on any other device. Not one jot. Not only that, but this functionality is trivial to implement in other clients if desired (though one would question the usefulness of a ‘dial’ functionality on a desktop computer, heh). I think the problem a lot of people have with this is the precedent, not the current implementation; it’s the old ‘slippery slope’ argument. Now, it’s sensible to be vigilant. We can’t give the keys to the castle to Apple any more than we should give them back to Microsoft – but we’re far from that at the moment.

The second category of hooks is subtly different. It encompasses things such as ‘viewports’ – hints to the iPhone as to how far it should be zoomed in by default, what width to set the page to by default, etc. Now, this is non-trivial in terms of implementation; but, think for a moment. Why should any other client need to implement these? No desktop client would ever need to be told how wide its ‘viewport’ is, because that viewport is a clearly defined window on the screen. No other client navigates in the way the iPhone does (by zooming on sections of text), so it doesn’t need to be given a default zoom level. This set of “compensation” extensions are only needed by the iPhone, because they solve problems the iPhone creates itself.

So, that’s the “proprietary hooks” fallacy gone. But what about the custom web pages? They’re very real indeed. Again, though, despite surface similarities there are huge differences between them and the IE-dependent pages of old. One such difference is glaringly obvious: these pages do not depend on an iPhone. They don’t utilise closed APIs, and they don’t do anything you can’t do in a standard desktop browser. They are standards-based.

Yes, such pages organise their content differently – they often have large fonts and big, touchable targets for button presses with a finger. They may even follow the iPhone design style. At the end of the day, though, these are design choices, and that’s the designer’s prerogative. In the same way that 99% of web pages have been designed with the desktop browser in mind, these pages are designed primarily for a mobile browser. Big deal. Desktop-centric sites still work on the iPhone, they’re just slightly less convenient; mobile-centric sites will still work on the desktop, they’re just slightly less convenient! If desktop users want to go cry to mummy because they’re no longer de facto top dog, fine, but don’t try to pretend this is IE 4 all over again. This is standards-based design which just happens to be aimed primarily at a different demographic.

There is one point I concede, and that is this: some frigtards have decided that it’s a good idea to use browser sniffing to only allow iPhones users access to their spiffy new mobile sites. Apple have never sanctioned this. It’s a terrible idea, highly unfair, and if I ever meet someone who’s done this I’ll severely limit his or her options for having children. Comprende?

20/08/07 – Seems John Gruber agrees that this is a steaming pile. Maybe we could get enough people together for a vigilante group? 😉

Accident or evil plan? Well, it’s hardly the first time tactics like this have emerged from Redmond. I call evil plan: if you study the history of the computer industry you’ll find Microsoft strongarming itself into many different sectors in almost exactly the same way. They make it very, very easy to get your code wrapped around their closed system; your application is then reliant on Microsoft products for life. I’m an Apple geek, though, so I’m not without bias. back »

Spoiler: Deathly Hallows is crap

Says it all really. See here if you want to read JK Rowling’s smug, unnecessary explanation of the weak, overly neat, sickly and predictable ending/epilogue/ramble.

Sorry, sounds harsh, but it’s a disappointing ending to an over-hyped, averagely-written series. I don’t begrudge her some success, but it’s got ridiculous; there are so many better authors out there who deserve it more.

El Simpsone

I should probably add my thoughts having seen the Simpsons Movie.

Like you’ve not seen it.

I thought it was pretty damn funny, and revisited some of the old style, totally unexpected comedy. You know – where they lead you down one funny joke, and then abandon it part way through to go somewhere even funnier. I still chuckle about the Spider Pig scene, a week later… and that was far from the best moment. Loved the Springfield Gorge tribute, too… my word did that clip get played too much in the first seasons.

It managed to live up to my expectations, and I’d recommend it. It didn’t exceed them – but then my expectations were pretty f-ing high.