I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

“Did we just rip off Marco Arment and The Magazine?”

That’s actually the title of the latest newsletter from TypeEngine, a startup promising a platform to easily make Newsstand magazines a lot like mine.

I don’t really know what to think about things like this. Copying design elements and features should be done sparingly, carefully, and from a diverse pool of sources. Even though many elements of The Magazine’s design are simple or commonplace, their combination is unique.

I haven’t used TypeEngine’s app, but from their screenshots and feature descriptions, it looks like they’ve lifted quite a few elements from The Magazine and not many from other places.1

But I worry that TypeEngine, and startups like them, are focusing too much on the wrong side of this problem and filling a lot of people with false hope or misleading expectations. Any competent web developer can build a basic CMS. Any competent iOS developer can download and show HTML pages in an app. These are straightforward platforms to build. A decent developer can code an entire iOS magazine platform from scratch in 3–6 months. Granted, not everyone is a developer or can afford one, but the recent demand (and impending oversupply) of platforms that enable mass creation of The Magazine-like publications indicates a lack of understanding of the market.

The Magazine isn’t successful because I have red links, centered sans-serif headlines, footnote popovers, link previews, and a white table-of-contents sidebar that slides over the article from the left with a big shadow even on iPhone. It isn’t successful because authors write in Markdown, the CMS gracefully supports multi-user editing, we preview issues right on our devices as we assemble them, and any edits we make after publication are quickly and quietly patched into the issue right as people are reading it. Very little of this matters.

It’s succeeding because Glenn, the authors, the illustrators, the photographers, and I pour a lot of time and money into the content, relentlessly publishing roughly two original illustrations, four photos, and 10,000 polished words every two weeks.

If you want to succeed by copying something from The Magazine, copy that.

The app is secondary — it’s just a container. I’m not going to get a meaningful number of new subscribers because I add a new setting or theme. This is why publishers like Condé Nast can have such mediocre, reader-hostile apps: the apps don’t matter as much as we like to think. The content and the audience matter much more than what color your links are.

And there aren’t any startups promising a turn-key supply of great content that attracts enough paying subscribers to fund it. You’re on your own for that.

  1. If they’re really interested in reducing cloning accusations with the argument that they’re just making a platform that other people can use to potentially make a clone of The Magazine, they should at least use a more distinct example theme in their screenshots.

    I try to give new products similar to mine the benefit of the doubt — I really don’t want this to just be a clone — but decisions like this worry me. I’m seeing a lot of red flags with TypeEngine. ↩︎

“Coffee-powered car”

A few people have sent me this story about a “coffee-powered car”, which is a great headline but isn’t actually true:

Instead of the brewed beverage, the vehicle is fueled by pellets made from the chaff that comes off of coffee beans during the roasting process, which is then heated and broken down into carbon monoxide and hydrogen, the latter of which is cooled, filtered and combusted in an internal combustion engine.

The process is called gasification and works with just about any carbon-based substance.

Indeed, the car is basically powered by burning wood pellets, and packed coffee chaff can be substituted for wood. So how much chaff does it need?

The creator of the vehicle, Martin Bacon, tells that the vehicle can travel about 55 miles on a 22-pound bag of pellets, which in wood form costs about $2.50.

This would be interesting, but chaff is nearly weightless. It looks like a lot of volume, but even the slightest air current blows it away. How much coffee do you need to roast to get 22 pounds of chaff?

Here’s most of the chaff from my roast this morning. Some burns off during roasting, and a few flakes come out with the beans, but this is the majority of it, taken from the roaster’s chaff tray:

It’s not enough to register my scale’s minimum measurement of 1 gram of chaff for this half-pound roast.

I don’t know how much chaff a big shop roaster leaves behind after a big roast. (I can’t find this information anywhere, but I’d love to hear from a pro roaster who knows.) Maybe they can get more.

If we generously assume that they can yield 2 grams of chaff per roasted pound, and that chaff pellets produce the same amount of power by weight as wood pellets, they’d need to roast about 5,000 pounds of coffee to produce the 22 pounds of chaff needed to power this car for 55 miles. And that’s not including the energy required to collect all of this chaff and pack it into pellets.

It’s pretty far removed from what most people would assume you mean by a “coffee-powered car”.

A Mac Pro Mini

For years, geeks have wanted Apple to make an “xMac”: an expandable desktop tower like the Mac Pro, but much cheaper, generally achieved in theory by using consumer-class CPUs and motherboards instead of Intel’s expensive, server-grade Xeon line. Apple’s refusal to release such a product is almost single-handedly responsible for the Hackintosh community.1

Apple has shown that they don’t want to address this market, presumably because the margins are thin. And the demand probably isn’t as strong as geeks like to think: most businesses buy Windows PCs for their employees, and most consumers buy laptops for themselves. The relatively small group of people who still want desktop Macs seems to be served adequately by the iMac and Mac Mini.

With Apple now letting the Mac Pro stagnate without an update since August 2010, while the rest of the Mac line has seen multiple new generations and huge improvements since then, it seems like this just isn’t a segment that they care about anymore. The Mac Pro stagnation and the improvements in the other lines have pushed many former Mac Pro owners to the new iMacs and Retina MacBook Pros, which are so fast that they can compete with 2010’s Mac Pros.

The Mac Pro is all but forgotten now, but Dan Frakes restarted the discussion of the xMac this week, arguing for the next Mac Pro to be a consumer minitower:

Put all this together—Apple’s relentless efforts over the past few years to make everything smaller, cooler, and less power-hungry; the fact that you don’t need massive components to get good performance; and an apparent trend towards conceding the highest-end market—and it seems like a Mac minitower is a logical next step for the Mac Pro line.

I don’t think it’ll happen like this.

The Mac Pro has three problems:

Back in 2011, I wrote Scaling down the Mac Pro. Most of it still applies: most ways to significantly reduce the Mac Pro’s cost or size would make it far less attractive to the people who do still buy it.

My conclusion in 2011:

It’s impossible to significantly change the Mac Pro without removing most of its need to exist.

But I think it’s clear, especially looking at Thunderbolt’s development recently, that Apple is in the middle of a transition away from needing the Mac Pro.

Fewer customers will choose Mac Pros as time goes on. Once that level drops below Apple’s threshold for viability or needing to care, the line will be discontinued.

I bet that time will be about two years from now: enough time for Apple to release one more generation with Thunderbolt and the new Sandy Bridge-based Xeon E5 CPUs in early 2012, giving the Mac Pro a full lifecycle to become even more irrelevant before they’re quietly removed from sale.

A few power users will complain, but most won’t care: by that time, most former Mac Pro customers will have already switched away.

It’s turning out to be even more brutal than I expected: Apple didn’t even bother with a Xeon E5 update.2 It looks like they’re accelerating the Mac Pro’s demise by neglect, not preparing for its recovery.

There’s even less of a reason to buy the Mac Pro today than I expected. With Fusion Drive, an iMac can have 3 TB of storage that’s as fast as an SSD most of the time (for most use, including mine3) without any external drives. And the recent CPUs in the iMac and MacBook Pro are extremely competitive with the Mac Pro at a much lower cost.4

Coincidentally, the Mac Pro discontinuation date I predicted as two years from that post will be this November: that’s roughly when Tim Cook hinted that we should expect to see “something really great” for “pro customers” to address Mac Pro demand.

I really want that to be a great new Mac Pro, but I can’t deny that both Apple and the market are sending strong signals suggesting otherwise.

Desktop Retina displays are a wildcard. We can already observe from the Retina MacBook Pros that high-density LCD panels appear to be nearly ready for desktop sizes, but GPUs and video-cable interfaces (e.g. Thunderbolt) will be severely limiting factors. It’s possible that bringing Retina density to desktop-size displays without sucking will require the Mac Pro’s margins, thermal and power capacities, and horsepower for the first few years.

But Apple is patient, and building a Retina iMac might be significantly easier since it avoids the high-speed-video-cable problem. With Fusion Drive significantly improving disk speeds, high-end Thunderbolt A/V peripherals finally starting to appear, and so many pros already using Retina MacBook Pros and iMacs today, a Retina iMac would be a strong temptation for current Mac Pro users.

Maybe Cook’s “something really great for pro customers” is the Retina iMac. If so, as much as I hate to say it as a fan of expandable towers, that’s probably enough.

  1. A lot of people, my past self included, also just want to build their own towers from individually purchased parts, which Apple will probably never support. But I bet Apple could win a lot of them over by just shipping an “xMac” for a reasonable price. ↩︎

  2. A few high-end users have built Xeon E5 Hackintoshes with strong results compared to current Mac Pros↩︎

  3. I’ve been using Fusion Drive in my Mac Pro for almost a month and I’m very pleased. In practice, it actually feels faster overall than the separate SSD and HDD setup did, because the SSD is finally being intelligently used for my working files even when they’re so large that I previously kept them on the HDD.

    I now have 4 TB of space performing at SSD speeds most of the time, at a very reasonable cost, using only two drives. ↩︎

  4. Today, you can get a 27” iMac that’s competitive with or faster than most sensible 2010 Mac Pro configurations (3.4 GHz quad-core Ivy Bridge, 16 GB RAM, 3 TB Fusion Drive, GTX 680MX) for $2,949.

    The most sensible, comparable Mac Pro to get is probably the 3.33 GHz 6-core with 16 GB RAM, 2 TB hard drive (no small SSDs are available to fuse, but you could get an aftermarket one), the ancient Radeon HD 5870, and a 27” LED Cinema Display (not even the Thunderbolt Display, which isn’t compatible because there are still no Thunderbolt ports on the Mac Pro). It would be slightly faster than the iMac in the most CPU-bound roles, but substantially slower in many other tasks. It costs $4,673. ↩︎

Why ATP and Neutral aren’t on 5by5

People keep asking us this, since my Build and Analyze and John Siracusa’s Hypercritical were both 5by5 tech podcasts, and now we’ve started a new tech podcast.

There really isn’t an interesting story behind it.

I want to own everything I do professionally unless there’s a very compelling reason not to. Some people feel uneasy having that level of control, but I feel uneasy not having it (to a fault).

When I started Build and Analyze, there were many compelling reasons to yield control and ownership to Dan: I needed a host, I didn’t know how to edit podcasts well or make them sound good, I didn’t have as much of an audience on my own, I couldn’t sell sponsorships myself, and I couldn’t devote much time to it. As far as I know, John was in a similar situation, although I can’t speak for him. That was more than two years ago, and we both ended our 5by5 shows last year for unrelated reasons.

Now, I know how to host, edit, promote, and sell a podcast without putting an insane amount of time into it. Since I’m willing to do that, John and Casey don’t need to, so it’s easy on them.

I’m not specifically avoiding 5by5 — I just don’t think we need what other people’s podcast networks provide. Maybe that will change over time, but I don’t expect it to.

Baby steps toward replacing Google Reader

With Google Reader’s impending shutdown, lots of new feed-sync services and self-hostable projects will be popping up.

Nearly every mobile and desktop RSS client syncs with Google Reader today, often as the only option. Getting widespread client support for any other service will be difficult since it’s probably going to be a while before there’s a clear “winner” to switch to.

The last thing we need is a format war — with Reader’s shutdown in July, we don’t have time for one.

An obvious idea that many have proposed (or already implemented) is to make a new service mirror the (never-officially-documented) Google Reader API. Even if it also offers its own standalone API for more functionality, any candidates to replace Google Reader should mirror the fundamentals of its API.

Clients then only need to change two simple things:

Then use that as the hostname for all API requests: https://{hostname}/reader/api/0/...

Like it or not, the Google Reader API is the feed-sync “standard” today. Until this business shakes out, which could take years (and might never happen), this is the best way forward.

We need to start simple. We don’t have much time. And if we don’t do it this way, the likely alternative is that a few major clients will make their own custom sync solutions that won’t work with any other company’s clients, which won’t bring them nearly as much value as it will remove from their users.

Let’s get Reeder and NetNewsWire to support the Hostname field ASAP so we can build alternative services to back them. Once they support it, other clients will need to follow from the competitive pressure of checklist feature comparisons. The result will be the easiest, fastest solution for everyone and a healthier ecosystem for feed-sync platforms.

What do you think, Silvio Rizzi and Black Pixel?

“Please, as an advice to general HN posters…”

I don’t browse Hacker News regularly because too few of its posts interest me. But my posts often rank well there and gather a lot of comments, then various Twitter bots start showing up in my saved search for links, so I usually end up reading the comment threads on my posts.

I probably shouldn’t.

It’s remarkable (and quite sad) how so many commenters there get so angry and have so much hatred toward people who write opinions they disagree with about electronics. But this epic rant is probably the most unintentionally amusing, ridiculous one I’ve seen against me to date, by someone I’ve never met, in response to my boring, uncontroversial Google Reader API post:

Please, as an advice to general HN posters, please avoid posting links here on HN, because his sole intention is to sell his readers out more than focusing on writing. That’s a fairly grande accusation, but it’s justified.

Do you know why is he writing about Google Reader now? Go to your HN homepage right now, as of writing this comment, the Google reader announcement has about 1700 upvotes. Ouch, that’s a lot of views for someone to let go of. Hence, if someone writes something that compliments this announcement, common sense tells me that they would get more page views.

There’s nothing wrong in having ads on your blog/website, people do it all the time. What’s wrong is trying to create an impression to your readers that your sole intention is to write quality content, while you care just about pageviews. Please, realize that is no different from Techcrunch!

Marco isn’t innocent, if you’ve been following him closely. Also, I think it would help if you take a look at this page where he just blatantly sells us, his readers like some piece of junk commodity.


Free works

Google Reader’s upcoming shutdown and Mailbox’s rapid acquisition have reignited the discussion of free vs. paid services and whether people should pay for products they love to keep them running sustainably.

But users aren’t the problem. As Michael Jurewitz wrote, many tech startups never even attempt to reach profitability before they’re acquired or shut down. Nobody ever had a chance to pay for Google Reader or Mailbox.1

When a free option is available in a market of paid alternatives, far more people will choose the free product, often by an order of magnitude or more. Asking people to pay unnecessarily is asking them to behave irrationally and against their own immediate best interests, even if it’s probably worse long-term. (This behavior affects far more than the tech industry.) And when the free product is better in some ways, which is often the case when a tech giant or well-funded startup enters a market previously occupied only by small and sustainable businesses, the others don’t stand a chance.

The risks are very low for new consumer tech startups because everything required to start one is relatively cheap and can often be ready to launch within a few months of starting development. If a product grows huge quickly, which almost always requires it to be free, it will probably be acquired for a lot of money. Free products that don’t grow quickly enough can usually die with an “acquihire”, which lets everyone save face and ensures that the investors get something out of the deal. Investors make so much from big acquisitions that they can afford to lose a lot of other unsuccessful products in the meantime.

So even in the worst cases, free products don’t usually end too badly. Well, unless you’re a user, or one of the alternatives that gets crushed along the way. But everyone who funds and builds a free product usually comes out of it pretty well, especially if they don’t care what happens to their users.

Free is so prevalent in our industry not because everyone’s irresponsible, but because it works.

In other industries, this is called predatory pricing, and many forms of it are illegal because they’re so destructive to healthy businesses and the welfare of an economy. But the tech industry is far less regulated, younger, and faster-moving than most industries. We celebrate our ability to do things that are illegal or economically infeasible in other markets with productive-sounding words like “disruption”.

Much of our rapid progress wouldn’t have happened if we had to play by the rest of the world’s rules, and I think we’re better off overall the way it is. But like any regulation (or lack thereof), it’s a double-edged sword. Our industry is prone to many common failures of unregulated capitalism, with the added instability of extremely low barriers to entry and near-zero cost per user in many cases.

If you try to play by the traditional rules and regulations, you run the risk of getting steamrolled by someone who’s perfectly willing to ignore them. Usually, that’s the biggest potential failure of the tech world’s crazy economy, which sucks for you but doesn’t matter much to everyone else. But sometimes, just like unregulated capitalism, it fails in ways that suck for everyone.

Google Reader dominated the feed-reading and feed-sync markets so much that almost no alternatives exist, and the few alternatives are very unpopular. Reader is effectively a monoculture, if not a monopoly. And it isn’t just one popular provider of an open standard — it’s a proprietary service that takes a lot of work for anyone else to replicate (as many people are going to learn over the next few months).

While the constant churn of young free products doesn’t usually do much harm, proprietary monocultures are extremely vulnerable to outcomes that suck for everyone. And a proprietary monoculture that’s unprofitable, shrinking in popularity, or strategically inconvenient for its owner is far worse. It’s likely to disappear at any moment, and there may not be anything to fill the gap for months or years, if ever. For all of the people who use RSS every day, as part of their jobs or hobbies, imagine the disruption to their lives if Google had shut down Reader immediately without notice. (Now think of how far off July isn’t.)

If Reader was just a free, popular host running open-source software, anyone could just set up the same services on any web host and migrate their data without much disruption. But it’s not, so it’s going to be a lot more work and much more disruption to our workflows and habits in the meantime.

And we lucked out with Reader — imagine how much worse it would be if website owners weren’t publishing open RSS feeds for anyone to fetch and process, but were instead posting each item to a proprietary Google API. We’d have almost no chance of building a successful alternative.

That’s Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. (Does the shutdown make more sense now?)

The best thing we can do isn’t necessarily to try to pay for everything, which is unrealistic and often not an option. Our best option is to avoid supporting and using proprietary monocultures.

  1. Charging money for something also doesn’t guarantee profitability. Consider Sparrow. ↩︎

Android under New Google

Dan Frommer wrote some interesting speculation about Android and called out some of its failings, but I disagree that this part represents Android failing to meet its goals:

Android has done little to radically disrupt the mobile industry. The majority of power still belongs to the same telecom operators that ruled five years ago, and many of the same handset/component makers. Google has helped Samsung boringly ascend and has accelerated decline at Nokia and BlackBerry. It has perhaps stopped Apple from selling as many phones as it might in an Android-free world, and has helped prevent Microsoft from gaining a solid foothold in mobile. …

It’s true that the carrier model hasn’t been disrupted, and in fact, Android has helped strengthen it (and build an uncomfortably close, “open”-internet-hostile relationship between Google and Verizon Wireless).

But back when the first iPhone was making a huge splash, when Google started taking Android seriously and quickly pivoted it from a BlackBerry ripoff into an iOS ripoff, I don’t think they intended to disrupt the established carrier or retail models.

I think it was a defensive move. Mainstream computing and internet usage were clearly moving away from PCs and toward mobile devices, and Google saw a potential future where their core business — web search with their ads — could be wiped out by a single Bing-exclusive deal on a dominant, locked-down platform.1

Google needs Android to have substantial market share to prevent any other platform vendor from ever locking Google’s most important services out of a major part of mainstream computing. It’s the same reason Chrome and Chrome OS exist. In an industry dominated by vertically integrated control freaks, everyone must become one to ensure that nobody else can lock them out.

The flaw with the Android strategy is that, in practice, it doesn’t prevent powerful manufacturers from forking it and cutting Google out. Google probably assumed that no single manufacturer would ever get powerful enough to create their own alternatives to Google’s integrated apps, store, and services, and that Android would be deployed much like Windows on PCs: largely unmodified, with manufacturers all shipping almost the same software and differentiating themselves only in hardware. But as we’ve seen already with Amazon and the Kindle Fire platform (and maybe soon, the powerful Samsung Galaxy line), that’s not a safe assumption anymore.

So I agree with Frommer’s conclusions: maybe big changes are on the horizon at Google to fix this. Old Google, in 2007, frequently toyed around with “open” projects that might not lead anywhere useful for the overall business. Old Google made Android.

New Google is much more strategic, cold, and focused. Let’s see what they do to it.

  1. This concern isn’t overly paranoid or unwarranted: it already happened with iOS 6 Maps. Sure, there’s now a Google Maps app that you can download separately, but most iOS users aren’t likely to bother, and it can never be as deeply integrated into other parts of iOS as Apple’s native Maps service. ↩︎

Your favorite Thursday sandwich

I usually agree with Om Malik, but not this time, on why he won’t use Google Keep, Google’s new Evernote clone:

It might actually be good, or even better than Evernote. But I still won’t use Keep. You know why? Google Reader.

I spent about seven years of my online life on that service. I sent feedback, used it to annotate information and they killed it like a butcher slaughters a chicken. No conversation — dead. The service that drives more traffic than Google+ was sacrificed because it didn’t meet some vague corporate goals; users — many of them life long — be damned.

Looking from that perspective, it is hard to trust Google to keep an app alive. What if I spend months using the app, and then Google decides it doesn’t meet some arbitrary objective?

In this business, you can’t count on anything having longevity. To avoid new services that are likely to get shut down within a few years, you’d have to avoid every new tech product. Products and services lasting more than a few years are the exception, not the rule.

And unfortunately for users, Google doesn’t owe anyone a “conversation” about what they do with their products. Companies can do whatever they want. They could shut down Gmail tomorrow if it made business sense. There wouldn’t be a conversation.

Users have no power.

We can complain about Google Reader’s shutdown and start as many online petitions as we think will make a difference,1 but we all have short memories and can’t resist free stuff.

Want to really stick it to them? Stop using Google. All of it. Search, Gmail, Maps, the works. Delete your account and start using Bing. Ready?

Yeah. That’s the problem. You won’t. I won’t. Nobody will.

It’s not just Google. Everyone does this. Facebook introduces some giant privacy invasion or horrible redesign every six months, then when its users “revolt”, they roll back some of it, and everyone forgets about it because they got what they wanted: Facebook still accomplished most of what they wanted to do, and the users feel like they matter. Almost nobody left Twitter when they started screwing over their API developers, almost nobody switches away from iOS when Apple controversially rejects an app, and almost nobody stopped going to your corner deli after they raised the price of your favorite Thursday sandwich.

They’re not all evil or mean — business owners often need to make decisions that anger some people. That’s the nature of business, government, parenthood, and life. Facebook and Google need to collect more of your personal data and keep you on their sites longer so they can keep increasing their ad revenue. Twitter needs to take control of its product and its users’ attention away from third-party clients so it doesn’t become an unprofitable dumb pipe like AOL Instant Messenger. Apple needs to keep the App Store locked down so people feel safe buying apps (and more iOS devices) and developers are forced to use Apple’s services, APIs, and stores. Your corner deli needed to raise the price of your favorite Thursday sandwich because their health-insurance premium increased by 10% this year. The deli’s health-insurance company needed to raise premiums by 10% because that’s the most that New York State would permit, and how would the insurance company’s CEO justify not taking that opportunity for more profits to the board and shareholders?

That’s business.

Google Keep will probably get as many users as Google’s other low-priority side projects: not many. They’ll probably shut it down within two years. A few people will complain then, too, and they’ll be powerless then, too, but they’ll keep using Google’s stuff after that, too.

Users need to be less trusting of specific products, services, and companies having too much power over their technical lives, jobs, and workflows.

In this business, expect turbulence. And this is going to be increasingly problematic as (no turbulence pun intended) we move so much more to “the cloud”, which usually means services controlled by others, designed to use limited or no local storage of your data.

Always have one foot out the door. Be ready to go.

This isn’t cynical or pessimistic: it’s realistic, pragmatic, and responsible.

If you use Gmail, what happens if Google locks you out of your account permanently and without warning? (It happens.) What if they kill IMAP support and you rely on it? Or what if they simply start to suck otherwise? How easily can you move to a different email host?2 How much disruption will it cause in your workflow? Does your email address end in What would have happened if we all switched to Wave? What happens if Facebook messages replace email for most people?

Proprietary monocultures are so harmful because they hinder or prevent you from moving away.

This is why it’s so important to keep as much of your data as possible in the most common, widespread, open-if-possible formats, in local files that you can move, copy, and back up yourself.3 And if you care about developing a long-lasting online audience or presence, you’re best served by owning your identity as much as possible.

Investing too heavily in someone else’s proprietary system for too long rarely ends gracefully, but when it bites us, we have nobody to blame but ourselves.

  1. Has an online petition ever effected change? (The vague, unquantifiable, feel-good fallback of “raising awareness” doesn’t count.) ↩︎

  2. This is why I don’t use Gmail↩︎

  3. I don’t mind using Dropbox because it’s compatible with responsible practices. If Dropbox goes away, you still have a folder full of files, and there will always be other ways to sync folders full of files between computers. Even if Dropbox’s client somehow screws up and deletes all of its files, you can just restore them from a backup, because it’s just a folder full of regular files on your computer.

    When most “cloud” companies or proprietary platforms cease to exist, they fall out of the sky like a plane without power, and everything is lost. Dropbox failing or ceasing to exist would be more like a train losing power: it stops moving, but everything’s still there and everyone’s fine, albeit mildly inconvenienced. ↩︎

Reading devices

Nick Bilton reports that the FAA plans to permit reading devices during takeoff and landing:

According to people who work with an industry working group that the Federal Aviation Administration set up last year to study the use of portable electronics on planes, the agency hopes to announce by the end of this year that it will relax the rules for reading devices during takeoff and landing. The change would not include cellphones.

Any progress would be nice, but this is a weird distinction: “reading devices” are OK, but phones aren’t? The huge-phone/small-tablet markets are converging as we speak. Are 5-inch “phablets” considered phones or reading devices?

Is the Kindle Fire a reading device since it’s named “Kindle”, even though it can do a lot more? Are iPads reading devices? How about an iPad Mini with an LTE radio? I assume iPhones would be prohibited as “cellphones”, but what about iPod Touches?

This silly distinction will only cause problems. Why attempt to confusingly and ineffectively draw that line?

If the distinction is about cellular radios, what about Kindles and iPads with 3G? And if the distinction is to prevent passengers from annoying each other by talking on the phone, does it also prohibit using Skype or FaceTime on a non-“phone” device?1

Why call out the use-case of “reading”, specifically? What about gaming devices? Media players? Can I read on a laptop if I don’t use the tray table? If devices with keyboards aren’t allowed, would a Surface Pro be permitted? Are flight attendants prepared to enforce and keep up with these distinctions?

If you’re using an iPad, must you be reading during taxi, takeoff, and landing instead of watching a movie or playing Super Stickman Golf 2? Am I allowed to listen to Phish in my headphones while I’m reading? If not, are audiobooks or screen-readers allowed, or are we discriminating against the visually impaired?

Would I be permitted to be productive at all, or is only consumption allowed? Could I write? Code? Draw? Compose? Run some reports? Reboot a server? Why specifically make an exception for reading with everything our modern devices can do?

Last year, the agency announced that an industry working group would study the issue. The group, which first met in January, comprises people from various industries, including Amazon, the Consumer Electronics Association, Boeing, the Association of Flight Attendants, the Federal Communications Commission and aircraft makers.

Oh. (Emphasis mine.)

  1. If reducing annoyance is a goal, why not lock the seats and prohibit tuna sandwiches? ↩︎

The power of the RSS reader

With the decreasing use of RSS readers over the last few years, which will probably be accelerated by Google Reader’s shutdown in July, many are bidding good riddance to a medium that they never used well.

RSS is easy to abuse. In 2011, I wrote Sane RSS usage:

You should be able to go on a disconnected vacation for three days, come back, and be able to skim most of your RSS-item titles reasonably without just giving up and marking all as read. You shouldn’t come back to hundreds or thousands of unread articles.

Yet that’s the most common complaint I hear about inbox-style RSS readers such as Google Reader, NetNewsWire, and Reeder: that people gave up on them because they were constantly filled with more unread items than they could handle.

If you’ve had that problem, you weren’t using inbox-style RSS readers properly. Abandoning the entire idea of the RSS-inbox model because of inbox overload is like boycotting an all-you-can-eat buffet forever because you once ate too much there.

As I said in that 2011 post:

RSS is best for following a large number of infrequently updated sites: sites that you’d never remember to check every day because they only post occasionally, and that your social-network friends won’t reliably find or link to.

Building on that, you shouldn’t accumulate thousands of unread items, because you shouldn’t subscribe to feeds that would generate that kind of unread volume.

If a site posts many items each day and you barely read any of them, delete that feed. If you find yourself hitting “Mark all as read” more than a couple of times for any feed, delete that feed. You won’t miss anything important. If they ever post anything great, enough people will link to it from elsewhere that you’ll still see it.

The true power of the RSS inbox is keeping you informed of new posts that you probably won’t see linked elsewhere, or that you really don’t want to miss if you scroll past a few hours of your Twitter timeline.

If you can’t think of any sites you read that fit that description, you should consider broadening your horizons. (Sorry, I can’t think of a nicer way to put that.)

Some of my RSS subscriptions that my Twitter people usually don’t link to: The Brief, xkcd’s What If, Bare Feats, Dan’s Data (and his blog), ignore the code, Joel on Software, One Foot Tsunami, NSHipster, Programming in the 21st Century, Neglected Potential, Collin Donnell, Squashed, Coyote Tracks, Mueller Pizza Lab, Best of MetaFilter, The Worst Things For Sale.

Many are interesting. Many are for professional development. Some are just fun.

But none of them update frequently enough that I’d remember to check them regularly. (I imagine many of my RSS subscribers would put my site on their versions of this list.) If RSS readers go away, I won’t suddenly start visiting all of these sites — I’ll probably just forget about most of them.

It’s not enough to interleave their posts into a “river” or “stream” paradigm, where only the most recent N items are shown in one big, combined, reverse-chronological list (much like a Twitter timeline), because many of them would get buried in the noise of higher-volume feeds and people’s tweets. The fundamental flaw in the stream paradigm is that items from different feeds don’t have equal value: I don’t mind missing a random New York Times post, but I’ll regret missing the only Dan’s Data post this month because it was buried under everyone’s basketball tweets and nobody else I follow will link to it later.

Without RSS readers, the long tail would be cut off. The rich would get richer: only the big-name sites get regular readership without RSS, so the smaller sites would only get scraps of occasional Twitter links from the few people who remember to check them regularly, and that number would dwindle.

Granted, this problem is mostly concentrated in the tech world where RSS readers really took off. But the tech world is huge, and it’s the world we’re in.

In a world where RSS readers are “dead”, it would be much harder for new sites to develop and maintain an audience, and it would be much harder for readers and writers to follow a diverse pool of ideas and source material. Both sides would do themselves a great disservice by promoting, accelerating, or glorifying the death of RSS readers.