Favorite quotation: Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes, that way when you criticize them, you're a mile away and you have their shoes. - Jack Handey

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Why Apple Should Embrace Blu-Ray

Many people will tell you that Apple has decided optical media is not the future, just like they decided long ago that floppy disks were not the future. However I will argue here that not only has Apple not decided this, and I will explain why optical media will play a hugely important role in the future.

Lists of benefits and comparisons with other types of media and devices

I will summarize first of all the inherent benefits of optical media:

* cheap

* ubiquitous

* you can write on them

* low carbon footprint

* archival life-span

* not affected by solar flares

* ideal for personal publishing of data (due to availability of jewel cases, printable labels, LightScribe, ubiquity of playback devices)

Advantages of optical media when compared with the cloud:

* cannot be censored or taken offline

* cannot go out of business

* cannot have server down-time

* does not require a computer to transfer to another individual

* does not require free storage space on a computer to use

* does not require an expensive internet connection to use

Advantages of optical media when compared with USB sticks:

* generally much faster data transfer (Blu-Ray 4x is a lot faster than you think!)

* much cheaper per gigabyte

* does not require you to unplug USB peripherals in order to use it

* cannot be damaged by ejection

* easy to organize lots of optical discs in one place (jewel cases with spine labels, binders, etc.)

* cannot be damaged by electromagnetic pulse (rare solar flares, power surge, etc.)

* cannot be damaged by water (flood, spill, etc.)

* not susceptible to file system corruption and data corruption

* cannot catch a virus

* do not get used for storage of unique data (are always a copy)

* does not attach to the outside of the device

Nice things about internal optical drives:

* can be easily replaced at low cost if it breaks (if a USB port breaks, you may have to buy a new logic board!)

* can be easily upgraded

* can be replaced with a hard disk or SSD, etc., if you don't need it

Three example incidents that have led me to these conclusions

1. Corrupt Data, Feb. 2013

I had a customer come to my store and drop off four 2GB USB sticks containing large TIF images to be printed. Three of the four USB sticks contained corrupt data -- although the files copied over, they were not readable. Perhaps the user pulled out the USB sticks before the copies had completed, or perhaps the devices were never properly reformatted when the user first got them. Maybe they were cheaply made in China and just had bad memory modules inside. Whatever the case may be, the USB sticks failed miserably at the task of transferring 8GB of data. I told the customer that my lab prefers that he provide everything burned to DVD, since when you burn it to a DVD the computer runs a verification of the data, and he can write on each DVD with a sharpie his name and phone number so that if it gets left in the computer we'll know whose it is. (We have a drawer full of anonymous black USB sticks people have left behind, which they could not have written their name on even if they had wanted to.) The customer brought the DVDs in and from there, everything went smoothly.

  1. 2. The Wide Stick, Oct. 2012

A customer brought in a USB stick to make prints from, but the USB stick had a folding handle that stuck outwards about 1cm on each side of the port (top, bottom, left, and right). On our computer at work, the USB ports are all sardined closely together, which meant that in order to insert this USB stick we would have to unplug something. Our peripherals are: (a) keyboard, (b) mouse, (c) printer, (d) USB card reader. The cords are all black, and come down from a hole in the top of the desk, so you can't really tell which one is which. We pulled out two then put in the USB stick, but now the mouse and keyboard did not work. Then we had no way to "eject" the USB stick, and so it had to be forcibly pulled out before it was "ready." This resulted in the data on the USB stick becoming corrupted. The customer did not have a backup of the data on this USB stick since they had been using it as their main documents storage drive for "several years" and "never had a problem with it." The employee who did this felt terrible but I'm not sure what else they could have done, except simply not plug in the USB stick to begin with, and instead, ask the customer to bring in the files on a CD or DVD (they were 500MB files, too big to e-mail).

  1. 3. The Broken Front Ports, July 2011

Our computer tower, like most, has front-facing USB ports for easy access. The computer in a low shelf, below the work area. A rather narrow walkway about three feet wide extends past this area on the side of the counter that the employees stand on. People often walk back and forth along this walkway, sometimes rather quickly since they might be rushing to answer a ringing phone or help an impatient customer, etc. An employee had put a customer's USB stick into the front USB ports of the computer -- they had requested some files be printed. The files were huge and the USB stick was very slow, so it was taking a few minutes to copy all the gigabytes of data. While this was happening that employee had to go help another customer. While he was away, another employee, who did not see the black USB stick protruding from the computer, was walking quickly past this area and clipped the protruding USB stick with his shin. This not only broke the customer's USB stick, but also broke both front USB ports on our computer. Had the customer used a CD or DVD, this would not have happened, since the CD or DVD goes inside the computer and does not alter its physical profile.

Social benefits of optical media

Self-publishing/freedom of speech

Public archives/libraries

Offline, safe backup

Fair-use of digital content

Technological future of optical media

Continues to scale in speed and capacity

Comparison to floppy disks is ridiculous

Ubiquity in the household

The real reason some people don't like optical media

Corporate control over media and software distribution

Corporate tracking of media and software usage

Licensing fees for codecs and DRM

Japanese vs. American ownership of technology

Removal of rights, privacy, and ownership from individuals

What's next, no bookshelves in houses?

Proof Apple has not abandoned optical media

The MacBook Pro still ships in two versions: one with, and one without an optical drive. If Apple had abandoned optical entirely they would not do this. With the iMac they dropped the slot but they still sell the external optical disk drive (whereas they didn't sell their own brand of external floppy drive when the iMac went floppy-less).

iOS Text Selection Woes

I feel like text selection has gotten worse in iOS as time has gone on. Especially in webpages.

Sometimes you go to select text in a webpage, and it's like it can't decide between whether you're trying to select a single word or the entire block of text. I think this might have to do with the underlying JavaScript or HTML code of the webpage and some type of interaction between that and the act of selecting text. What I think might be necessary would be an abstraction layer that separates the text that the user is seeing from the underlying code that is generating that text, so that when you select some text the operating system is analyzing your interaction with the text that you're seeing without interference from any underlying mark-up or scripts.

An example of one of the problems that comes from this are times when you're trying to select one sentence at the end of the paragraph on a webpage and as soon as your selection reaches the last word all of a sudden the entire selection area expands to encompass the whole paragraph. Another really annoying thing is when the text selection area expands to automatically encompass the following word after the one you're trying to select. This could be due to character encoding variations causing the OS not to recognize spaces.

This type of interface problem is inherent in the MVVM programming patterns common on the web because there are no abstraction layers between the view, controller, and the data itself. You don't see this problem with selecting text in an RSS news feed because in that case, there is an abstraction layer and the view is not tied directly to its controller.

Generally speaking though I think that the OS should by default simply allow the user to select text without modifying their selection, and expanding it to the nearest full word etc. The automatic detection aspect is what is really causing all the problems because it's not prepared to deal with the weirdness found on the web.

One example is the Github "RAW" view of text. You can't "select all" and trying to select a given set of words is kind of hard to do. Kind of ridiculous, since all it is, is a page of text.

Another example is the fact you can neither "paste" nor "cut" if the on-screen keyboard isn't on the screen. So I finally get the selection box over the text I want, and now I have to clear my selection to get the on-screen keyboard to appear. When the keyboard is on the screen it usually changes the scrolling behavior of the text, and making the selection doesn't involve typing anything. You also get a smaller screen area to work with. So why do they do that?

And why can't you have a docked, split keyboard?