May 21, 2015No Comments

The Web vs native apps

Back in 2010 Sir Tim Berners Lee warned about the threat posed to the web by Facebook et al.

Yesterday Jeremy Keith made this timely post (thanks to @fjordaan for tweeting it) about how poorly-performing websites are fuelling the shift towards native apps. In case you missed it, Facebook – which has already created a closed content silo – recently launched Instant Articles, which is basically their proprietary presentation mechanism for external content that is (presumably) be pre-cached to enhance the speed of the experience.

Rather than taking you to the external site they're keeping you on Facebook, which is obviously good for Facebook, but you can't argue with the fact that sometimes the user experience of external news sites is pretty terrible, so users will understandably like Instant Articles.

I’ll not repeat Jeremy’s points so read his post.

...

As an aside (from me), Jeremy makes a valid point about the rise of JavaScript frameworks being a contributing factor to the problem. I’ve long argued about the appropriateness or otherwise of single-page-application sites. The truth is that there is a time and a place for them, but they are not necessary for delivering content quickly on the web. People often lose sight of this.

In a previous guise I remember arguing against going full-single-page-app in favour of ‘proper’ indexable content URLs on a project. And for keeping the number of requests on those pages down to a minimum (and, yes, making those requests super speedy via, minification, caching et cetera).

This is all well understood good practice, and yet a BuzzFeed article I just tested triggered 335 individual server requests. And one of the reasons I don't like WordPress particularly is that out of the box (and with most of the popular themes) it leads to bloated request-heavy pages. There's no culture of optimisation around it, yet WordPress seems more popular than ever (Yes, this site is WordPress; it’s good at doing blogs).

This all said, I have spent most of the last 18 months years building complicated AngularJS-based single page application Milk. However, the reasons why a JavaScript framework is appropriate for Milk are:

  1. It is only for use by logged-in users.
  2. It serves individual user-specific content such as their personal messages. It’s much faster to load the raw JSON data of a message than to reload an entirely new document with all its assets.
  3. It provides live status updates on some items.
  4. Our caching and local storage strategy ensures that users only load the application framework once, even though they may visit hundreds of pages within the app over the course of a week.
  5. And even then, our uncached page load is only 242KB (on a mobile device) and 18 requests, many of which are asynchronous.

It’s an application not a website, it just happens to use web technology. This is a very different use-case to a public page of content such as a news article.

The web is natively great at delivering pages of text very quickly. I consider documents and applications quite separately. And I don’t think it's contradictory to be a cheerleader for both. The trick is, I believe, not to try to make documents more application-like.

...

Mind you, that ALL said... Although JavaScript frameworks are a problem in some instances, I think the real culprit in the case of the Buzzfeeds of this world, is the amount of advertising and sponsored content adding bloat to their pages. If publishers had spent more time testing their sites on edge and 3G mobile connections maybe we’d not be in this situation where Facebook Instant Articles look set to be a hit.

[Edit]
This article on A List Apart also makes some good points

February 3, 20152 Comments

On encryption

I should apologise that this blog is not (currently) served over https. It's on my to-do list, but that list is pretty stupidly long. (As an aside I don't look forward to the day when I have nothing to do. The idea of just putting my feet up is horrible. It feels like I've had at least 50% more things to do than I have time to do since about 2007; but the upshot is that I genuinely don't think I've been bored once in the last 7 years.)

Anyway, recent comments by Phil Zimmermann – the creator of email encryption software PGP – struck me as particularly (if unsurprisingly) smart. The upshot is yet another timely argument against David Cameron's frankly embarrassing stance on end-to-end encryption: Hackers are always going to be able to get around whatever security you put up, but if your data is properly encrypted it doesn't matter if they get access to your servers. So those Sony emails and movie scripts, for example, would never have been leaked if they'd been stored encrypted.

This article is worth a read, as is Phil's original blog post.

In related news, BWM recently patched their ConnectedDrive software after a flaw was identified by a third party. The shocking part of the story is that prior to this patch the software was using unencrypted plain text HTTP to send and receive data! Given that the software operates door locks (among other functions) it is mind-boggling to me that its developers didn't choose HTTPS in the first place.

A culture of 'encrypt by default' needs to be instilled.

November 9, 20141 Comment

Getting out (and getting data out) of Bitcasa

Bitcasa was (in my opinion no longer is) a very promising cloud data storage provider - a bit like Dropbox except for two practical differences: Firstly the Bitcasa desktop application mounts your Bitcasa drive as a network volume, rather than syncing to a local folder (so it can hold more data than your hard drive). And secondly the data is encrypted both in transit and on the server. They also offered "infinite" storage for a very reasonable fee. In principle it was great.

Rachael has been using it (on my advice) to back up her photography work (~80GB of new images per week), and now has several terabytes of TIFF and RAW files in her account. We've been running an automated upload process every evening and had a further 10TB to upload. The data is also on RAID hard drive units but, as it's business critical information, a remote backup seemed sensible.

Unfortunately on 23rd October Bitcasa announced that they were discontinuing the infinite accounts and were going to be offering a 1TB or a 10TB service for $99 or $999 per annum. For those in the early pricing scheme and with over 1TB of data this amounts to a roughly tenfold increase in annual cost.

"You have between October 22, 2014 and November 15, 2014 to migrate your data"

The other key part of the announcement was that there was a 15th November deadline (just over 3 weeks) to either migrate the account or to download all data, otherwise it would be deleted. That such an unreasonably short amount of time has been given reeks, to me, of some corporate / financial "emergency" measure, but that's just speculation.

Bitcasa has always felt, in my experience, a bit "beta": uploads are much slower than with Dropbox and are very processor intensive. This is, I understand, related to the encryption processing but generally (particularly more recently running it on a new computer) it's been usable. We've never had much reason to download files from it though.

Rachael was (grudgingly) willing to upgrade her account to the $999 10TB package in order to buy enough time to find an alternative long-term solution, but it isn't working. More than 20 attempts to run the account upgrade process have failed with a server error. Several support tickets I raised have not been answered after several days, except one which was marked by them as "Solved" with a generic advice response.

Bitcasa upgrade server error

Awkward indeed... It doesn't bode well. Maybe they're just being swamped with user requests but it feels to me like they are going under.

We have therefore been trying to salvage critical data from the account, but the process is slow and unreliable. Despite us having (according to speedtest.net) an 80Mbps download connection speed, downloading 1GB from Bitcasa is taking about 2-3 hours, when dragging the file out of the Bitcasa drive using Finder on the Mac. And more often than not the operation fails after 40 minutes or so.

Bitcasa - Finder error

The alternative - downloading via their web app - isn't much better. It's faster but trying to download more than one file at a time results in a corrupted zip file. Not very practical when you've got a folder with hundreds of files in it. Even Bitcasa recommend avoiding it (in a support response):

"We recommend not downloading multiple files through the web portal. If one of the file(s) is damaged, it will break the entire zip file. Downloading single files from the web portal should be fine."

However, this morning I discovered that moving files in the Terminal is much more reliable. A lot of the problems seem to be related to the Finder. It's going to take right up to the deadline to get all of the data but it is now, finally, just about feasible.

On balance, for us, speed and reliability are more important than encryption for this use-case. So we're moving the data to Amazon 'Glacier' (via S3). Uploading directly to S3 is like a dream compared to Bitcasa, the data is uploading at over 2 megabytes per second.

The sad thing is that we were willing to pay $999 to migrate the Bitcasa account but then technical failures and lack of support simultaneously made it impossible to do this, and destroyed any confidence we had in the system that we would have been paying for anyway.

It looks on the face of it like Bitcasa are moving more towards a business-to-business API-driven service provider but this is basically a big "fuck you" to all their existing customers. If I were one of their investors I would be less than impressed.

October 31, 20141 Comment

The trouble with Twitter

The Problem with Facebook is well explained in this video by science communicator Derek Muller. Basically they algorithmically filter your news feed in such a way that you probably won't see most of what your friends post. This is contrary to what users expect to happen, but they are none the wiser because they don't know about what they don't see.

Of course it's all about this button, the heart of Facebook's business model:

boost_post

Once you give them cash they'll show your post to all your friends / followers and of course a load of other people who don't know you too. Fine: they have to make money. I just happen to hate it because it feels dishonest to actively hide things like that.

Facebook would argue that they're trying to make my new feed "relevant" and "manageable", something which Twitter does not do.

I've always greatly preferred Twitter's follow model to Facebook's friend model because I'm not socially obliged to follow my friends and family. I might be related to you but I'm not necessarily interested in your town's local politics, or whatever. On Twitter it is left up to me to curate my feed by following the accounts I find interesting.

However, it's changed. I joined Twitter early when it felt like a close-knit little network. For ages I followed about 40 people, most of whom I knew personally (early adopter web industry-types) plus a handful of other interesting people. Posting a Tweet was like putting something up on the village noticeboard. Most if not all of your followers would see it. And I would see all of my followers’ posts; in fact at first I received an SMS message whenever one of them tweeted. My feed was a mix of industry stuff and <= 140 character witticisms.However—grumble grumble—Stephen Fry joined and got stuck in a lift then it went mainstream. Soon those 'brand' things got in on the action and it became a marketing and news platform, all about driving clicks to websites.This has driven real human users away. I'd say 80% of the people I used to connect with on Twitter no longer use it. Or if they do they're completely silent and passive. "Last tweet: July".The trouble is that now when I post a tweet it feels like I'm standing at Oxford Circus during the morning rush hour. And most of the people surrounding me in the crowd are announcing things through megaphones. If I'm lucky perhaps I'll glimpse a familiar face but – to continue the urbanisation analogy – most of my friends don't come this way any more because they find it unpleasantly busy and they've moved out to the country.Evidence of this data overload symptom is the regular appearance now of ICYMI tweets. Often re-posting something a few hours later I'll get a number of people commenting on it that I would have hoped to have seen it the first time but it's now a mile down their timeline.

Solutions do exist: Using Twitter lists or TweetDeck, and the act of curating your following list by unfollowing non-human accounts. Sadly what's left when you take away the noise is a bit of a ghost town.

For me Twitter was most interesting as a system for connecting human minds in real-time, not unlike Conjoiner technology in Alastair Reynolds’ fictional universe. That was genuinely exciting. Sadly, real-time is only usable up to a certain tweets-per-hour threshold. I don't want to be connected in real-time to machines.

Here are two hypothetical experiments (that of course would be completely at odds with Twitter's business model) that would make it very different but to me more interesting:

  1. Limiting the number of people you anyone can follow to 100
  2. Not allowing any links or media in tweets*.

A third experiment would be the option of following things that ONLY appear in a list and / or making a list your default timeline view, which would have the same effect.

But maybe it's too late for all that. Or maybe I'm just being a sentimental Old Web guy.

*Yes, I tweeted a link to this blog post.

September 17, 20142 Comments

Introducing Milk

Milk is an application suite for schools and colleges designed to be used by students, teachers and parents. It is a student self-management tool. Milk comprises an iOS and Android mobile app for students, as well as the Milk Web Portal which is open to all users.

I was honoured to be invited to join the Milk team at the end of December 2013 and I have been heading up its development since January. Milk is being piloted in a number of schools across the UK this term. It's been a lot of hard work but it's immensely satisfying to see it now coming to fruition.

To find out more about Milk visit our website.


Introducing Milk

April 23, 20142 Comments

New Twitter.com features

Twitter finally updated my profile to the new display format - several weeks after they upgraded my cat. Here's an almost pointless blog post about what I like and dislike about the new profile design:

  • Overall appearance: Like
  • Massive font size for just certain tweets apparently selected at random: Dislike
  • Front-end build details, particularly the way the profile photo slides up out of the way as you scroll down, to be replaced by the compact in-nav-bar version: Like
  • Pinned tweets: Dislike (because it reduces the beautiful simplicity of Twitter... but I'll probably use it to promote something)
  • Not showing replies by default: Like
  • Showing non-tweet-based activity in my timeline such as who I followed: Dislike (I think).

That's it. You don't care. Good.

April 22, 2014No Comments

On big smartphones

Apple are rumoured to be creating an iPhone 6 option with a 5.5-inch display.

Regardless of whether that's true, it seems odd to me that such large devices (I won't use the word ph****t) are proving so popular. I've recently been using an LG / Google Nexus 5 intermittently in place of my iPhone 5. While I like many (but certainly not all) things about it, its size is not one of them.

Its 5" display makes it:

  • Uncomfortable to hold in one hand while operating the keyboard with your thumb
  • Slightly too big for a trouser pocket (OK, it goes in but can be uncomfortable when sitting down)
  • Make you look a bit Dom Joly when talking on the phone.

And I think one of the popular Samsung devices is even bigger!

What reasons are there for wanting such a large display on a mobile? Presumably it's reading and watching video. Is that right? I do very little of either on my phone which might explain my failure to understand this trend.

For me the iPhone 5 is the perfect form-factor for a mobile phone. A tablet has a different set of functions. Trying to merge the two feels like folly, akin to Microsoft's attempt to design an OS interface that works on both tablets and desktops.

March 25, 20141 Comment

Farewell Windows XP?

woe

Microsoft is ending support for Windows XP and will no longer be selling it. But according to this Independent article XP is still installed on a third of all PCs worldwide. Vista sits at just 4% and around 50% are running Windows 7.

I'm the kind of person who feels a low level sense of unease if I've not installed all of the available updates to whatever software I'm using – past the point of reason in all honesty. But I'm in the minority here, most normal people just aren't interested. And they don't like change.

I was "a PC guy" for many years, having built a few of my own PCs in the late 90s. I was running Windows as my primary OS until February 2005 when I bought a Mac Mini out of curiosity, and found myself directly in the crosshairs of Apple's business plan (actually it started when they released iTunes for Windows, which I liked and which lead to me buying an iPod).

In the case of Apple they have an agenda to keep selling new hardware, so although their OS updates are improvements there is that accidental-on-purpose creep of hardware demand that means that a given device gets slower over time. And if you don't upgrade then third party software eventually stops supporting your OS. This cycle is hard to avoid in a commercial world where, for example, a designer running an old version of the Adobe suite will eventually start being sent files they cannot open. So they upgrade their OS and soon feel they need to buy a new Mac. It's no surprise that OS X Mavericks was free.

But in an isolated environment, such as within a corporation, a given computer will in theory run as well today as it did ten years ago except for failures in hard drives, which are replaceable. A friend told me that his dad is still using an iPhone 3GS running iOS 5 and it's as fast as the day it was bought. He can't run many 3rd party apps but he can use email, SMS and make and receive phone calls so why should he upgrade?

Are we early adopters fools for playing the upgrade game? I'd say no, because new software to us is interesting and useful which is justification enough. As for everyone else, getting the long tail to play catch up is likely to give Microsoft headaches for years to come.

Other than avoiding the Vista car crash, how could they have played it differently?

December 4, 2013No Comments

How Bitcoin Works

Fascinating and more than a bit clever, if you'll excuse the pun.

October 27, 20134 Comments

No signal

I’m writing this in the notes app on my phone because I’ve got no signal so cannot log into my blog, or download and set up the WordPress app (which itself wouldn't be able to connect to my blog anyway, and I can't remember whether it works offline). Actually, worse than having no signal, I've got a patchy 2 bars and a GPRS connection that occasionally steps up to Edge but then drops out completely and the process starts over again. The tease.

I’m at my in-laws’ house and they don’t “have the Internet” here, and actually don’t particularly want it either. Oddly there are no neighbours’ WiFi networks in range; I just tried in the hope of finding a BT Openzone (or Fon) I could latch onto. Nope. Not even any private ones. A luddite neighbourhood?

I remember (of course) not having the Internet. Other than games, in those days PCs were more or less devoid of distractions. The 1996 equivalent of scrolling through Vines for 10 minutes was playing a game of Minesweeper on the big setting.

I remember my dad having Compuserve, and it seeming a bit boring. Then, later, I remember picking up a Freeserve disc from Dixons in Stockport and being fairly excited about getting on the World Wide Web – but not being exactly sure what the web was or whether I’d be that into it. I think I assumed it’d be a novelty for a while – I liked the idea of email – but had no idea quite how big a deal it would turn out to be. “Quite”, you might say.

By 1997 I had made my own website complete, of course, with a visible hit counter and a Java plugin ripple effect. The future.

At university in 1998 we had an internet connection at our student house in Leeds but only on one of our PCs at a time, depending on which room we ran the phone extension and modem to. “Are you going to be long on the Web? Can you give me a shout when you're finished so I can use the phone?”

We played 2-player Warcraft II and Starcraft between the bedrooms on floors 2 and 3 by way of daisy-chaining parallel printer cables (remember LPT1?) and putting a Laplink cable on one end to reverse the gender and pin-out. I always lost.

And Unreal Tournament through a 56k ‘v90’ was unseen assailant frag hell. Though it’s impressive that it was playable at all.

...

None of this was that long ago. It’s remarkable how quickly we’ve come to expect connectivity to the Internet, wirelessly everywhere, such that now (trips into the wilderness aside) being offline is the exception rather than the norm.

The Internet has become a kind of magical Higgs-Field-like property that pervades the very air we breathe... Until we lose signal and the spell is broken.

“Oh for God’s sake, why won’t it just load?!”

So, keeping in mind that famous Louis C.K. clip, I won’t complain. That such a thing as a wireless Internet connection exists at all is little short of a miracle (well that and the culmination of decades of work by scientists, mathematicians and engineers).

Instead I'll write this offline on my phone to kill some time until I’m tired enough to fall asleep. Which is, conveniently, now.

Contact

© 2022 Ade Rowbotham Ltd