Tags: hardware

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Tuesday, January 24th, 2023

Inside the Globus INK: a mechanical navigation computer for Soviet spaceflight

The positively steampunk piece of hardware used for tracking Alexei Leonov’s Apollo-Soyuz mission.

In between

I was chatting with my new colleague Alex yesterday about a link she had shared in Slack. It was the Nielsen Norman Group’s annual State of Mobile User Experience report.

There’s nothing too surprising in there, other than the mention of Apple’s app clips and Google’s instant apps.

Remember those?

Me neither.

Perhaps I lead a sheltered existence, but as an iPhone user, I don’t think I’ve come across a single app clip in the wild.

I remember when they were announced. I was quite worried about them.

See, the one thing that the web can (theoretically) offer that native can’t is instant access to a resource. Go to this URL—that’s it. Whereas for a native app, the flow is: go to this app store, find the app, download the app.

(I say that the benefit is theoretical because the website found at the URL should download quickly—the reality is that the bloat of “modern” web development imperils that advantage.)

App clips—and instant apps—looked like a way to route around the convoluted install process of native apps. That’s why I was nervous when they were announced. They sounded like a threat to the web.

In reality, the potential was never fulfilled (if my own experience is anything to go by). I wonder why people didn’t jump on app clips and instant apps?

Perhaps it’s because what they promise isn’t desirable from a business perspective: “here’s a way for users to accomplish their tasks without downloading your app.” Even though app clips can in theory be a stepping stone to installing the full app, from a user’s perspective, their appeal is the exact opposite.

Or maybe they’re just too confusing to understand. I think there’s an another technology that suffers from the same problem: progressive web apps.

Hear me out. Progressive web apps are—if done well—absolutely amazing. You get all of the benefits of native apps in terms of UX—they even work offline!—but you retain the web’s frictionless access model: go to a URL; that’s it.

So what are they? Are they websites? Yes, sorta. Are they apps? Yes, sorta.

That’s confusing, right? I can see how app clips and instant apps sound equally confusing: “you can use them straight away, like going to a web page, but they’re not web pages; they’re little bits of apps.”

I’m mostly glad that app clips never took off. But I’m sad that progressive web apps haven’t taken off more. I suspect that their fates are intertwined. Neither suffer from technical limitations. The problem they both face is inertia:

The technologies are the easy bit. Getting people to re-evaluate their opinions about technologies? That’s the hard part.

True of progressive web apps. Equally true of app clips.

But when I was chatting to Alex, she made me look at app clips in a different way. She described a situation where somebody might need to interact with some kind of NFC beacon from their phone. Web NFC isn’t supported in many browsers yet, so you can’t rely on that. But you don’t want to make people download a native app just to have a quick interaction. In theory, an app clip—or instant app—could do the job.

In that situation, app clips aren’t a danger to the web—they’re polyfills for hardware APIs that the web doesn’t yet support!

I love having my perspective shifted like that.

The specific situations that Alex and I were discussing were in the context of museums. Musuems offer such interesting opportunities for the physical and the digital to intersect.

Remember the pen from Cooper Hewitt? Aaron spoke about it at dConstruct 2014—a terrific presentation that’s well worth revisiting and absorbing.

The other dConstruct talk that’s very relevant to this liminal space between the web and native apps is the 2012 talk from Scott Jenson. I always thought the physical web initiative had a lot of promise, but it may have been ahead of its time.

I loved the thinking behind the physical web beacons. They were deliberately dumb, much like the internet itself. All they did was broadcast a URL. That’s it. All the smarts were to be found at the URL itself. That meant a service could get smarter over time. It’s a lot easier to update a website than swap out a piece of hardware.

But any kind of technology that uses Bluetooth, NFC, or other wireless technology has to get over the discovery problem. They’re invisible technologies, so by default, people don’t know they’re even there. But if you make them too discoverable— intrusively announcing themselves like one of the commercials in Minority Report—then they’re indistinguishable from spam. There’s a sweet spot of discoverability right in the middle that’s hard to get right.

Over the past couple of years—accelerated by the physical distancing necessitated by The Situation—QR codes stepped up to the plate.

They still suffer from some discoverability issues. They’re not human-readable, so you can’t be entirely sure that the URL you’re going to go to isn’t going to be a Rick Astley video. But they are visible, which gives them an advantage over hidden wireless technologies.

They’re cheaper too. Printing a QR code sticker costs less than getting a plastic beacon shipped from China.

QR codes turned out to be just good enough to bridge the gap between the physical and digital for those one-off interactions like dining outdoors during a pandemic:

I can see why they chose the web over a native app. Online ordering is the only way to place your order at this place. Telling people “You have to go to this website” …that seems reasonable. But telling people “You have to download this app” …that’s too much friction.

Ironically, the nail in the coffin for app clips and instant apps might’ve been hammered in by Apple and Google when they built QR-code recognition into their camera software.

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2023

Shift Happens

Marcin’s book is coming along nicely—you just know it’ll be a labour of love.

You’ve never seen a book on technology like this. Shift Happens is full of stories – some never before told – interleaved with 1,000+ beautiful full-color photos across two volumes.

The Kickstarter project launches in February. In the meantime, there are some keyboard-based games here for you to enjoy.

Thursday, November 17th, 2022

Russell Davies: The internet of good things

An internet-enabled kettle sounds stupid, but this is a genuinely thoughtful piece of hardware.

Tuesday, September 20th, 2022

Have I reached the Douglas Adams Inflection point (or is modern tech just a bit rubbish)? – Terence Eden’s Blog

This chimes with something I’ve been pondering: we anticipate big breakthoughs in software—AI!, blockchain!, metaverse! chatbots!—but in reality the field is relatively stagnant. Meanwhile in areas like biology, there’s been unexpected advances. Or maybe, as Terence indicates, it’s all about the hype.

Thursday, May 5th, 2022

Notes from a gopher:// site - daverupert.com

The result of adding more constraints means that the products have a broader appeal due to their simple interface. It reminds me of a Jeremy Keith talk I heard last month about programming languages like CSS which have a simple interface pattern: selector { property: value }. Simple enough anyone can learn. But simple doesn’t mean it’s simplistic, which gives me a lot to think about.

Sunday, January 16th, 2022

The computer built to last 50 years | ploum.net

A fascinating look at what it might take to create a truly sunstainable long-term computer.

Saturday, January 8th, 2022

The Optional Chaining Operator, “Modern” Browsers, and My Mom - Jim Nielsen’s Blog

This is something I bump against over and over again: so-called evergreen browsers that can’t actually be updated because of operating system limits.

From what I could gather, the version of Chrome was tied to ChromeOS which couldn’t be updated because of the hardware. No new ChromeOS meant no new Chrome which meant stuck at version 76.

But what about the iPad? I discovered that my Mom’s iPad was a 1st generation iPad Air. Apple stopped supporting that device in iOS 12, which means it was stuck with whatever version of Safari last shipped with iOS 12.

So I had two older browsers that couldn’t be updated. It was device obsolescence because you couldn’t install the latest browser.

Websites stop working and the only solution is to buy a whole new device.

Thursday, September 9th, 2021

Meet the Self-Hosters, Taking Back the Internet One Server at a Time

Taking the indie web to the next level—self-hosting on your own hardware.

Tired of Big Tech monopolies, a community of hobbyists is taking their digital lives off the cloud and onto DIY hardware that they control.

Thursday, April 22nd, 2021

The Infrastructural Power Beneath the Internet as We Know It - The Reboot

I’ve lately been trying an exercise where, when reading anything by or about tech companies, I replace uses of the word “infrastructure” with “means of production.”

Brilliant!

Tuesday, February 9th, 2021

Interplanetary Lobbing

League tables for the game of probe-throwing currently underway in our solar system.

The league covers expensive hardware lob matches held between planets in the Solar System. Two dwarf planets have recently been admitted to the league and lost their first matches against league champions Team Earth.

Tuesday, January 26th, 2021

The unreasonable effectiveness of simple HTML – Terence Eden’s Blog

I love the story that Terence relates here. It reminds me of all the fantastic work that Anna did documenting game console browsers.

Are you developing public services? Or a system that people might access when they’re in desperate need of help? Plain HTML works. A small bit of simple CSS will make look decent. JavaScript is probably unnecessary – but can be used to progressively enhance stuff.

Thursday, June 20th, 2019

Hack the Moon

The history of Apollo’s hardware and software—the technology, the missions, and the people; people like Elaine Denniston and Margaret Hamilton.

(The site is made by Draper, the company founded by Doc Draper, father of inertial navigation.)

Thursday, May 23rd, 2019

Playdate. A New Handheld Gaming System

Well, this is interesting. Panic, the little software company that could, are making a handheld gaming device. This is like the hardware equivalent of the indie web.

Monday, January 14th, 2019

djinn and juice : The Best Debugging Story I’ve Ever Heard

Cassie and I were swapping debugging stories. I shared the case of the 500 mile email with her. She shared this with me.

Sunday, December 30th, 2018

Very Slow Movie Player on Vimeo

I love this use of e-ink to play a film at 24 frames per day instead of 24 frames per minute.

Friday, December 28th, 2018

Malicious AI Report

Well, this an interesting format experiment—the latest Black Mirror just dropped, and it’s a PDF.

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

The Official NoPhone Store

Like a nicotine patch for your phone hand.

Monday, May 21st, 2018

Pi-hole®: A black hole for Internet advertisements

This looks like a terrific use of a Raspberry Pi—blocking adtech surveillance at the network level.

Wouldn’t it be great if the clichéd going-home-for-Christmas/Thanksgiving to fix the printer/wifi included setting up one of these?

There’s an article about Pi-hole in Business Week where the creators offer some advice for those who equate any kind of online advertising with ubiquitous surveillance:

For publishers struggling to survive even with maximum ad surveillance, the Pi-hole team recommends a renewed focus on subscriptions, affiliate links, and curated endorsements for products and services that might truly interest users, similar to the way podcast hosts may talk about how much they personally enjoy a sponsor’s products. There’s nothing wrong with pitching people stuff they might enjoy, the team says. It’s just the constant, ever-intensifying surveillance that needs to stop.

Tuesday, April 17th, 2018

House of Lords - AI in the UK: ready, willing and able? - Artificial Intelligence Committee

Design fiction from the UK parliament. I mean, it’s not exactly a classic of speculative fiction, but it sure beats a white paper.