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

SLRs aren’t worth it if you’ll only use the kit lens

Glenn Fleishman urges freelance writers to take accompanying photos with better cameras than their iPhones:

The iPhone and similar smartphones with decent built-in cameras aren’t as good as a real camera when you’re taking photos to accompany reporting.

We’ve seen this a few times with The Magazine: writers take their own photos of places or events that are otherwise hard to find photos of — great! — but the image quality is so poor that we can’t use them.

It’s not just iPhones that are the problem: too many people are shooting with SLRs, but only using the kit lens.

I’d go further and suggest that you shouldn’t buy an SLR if you only ever plan to use its kit lens or an inexpensive zoom lens. Kit lenses and low-end zooms produce blurry, distorted, drab images — they can look decent on blogs or phones, but the flaws become apparent when you see them on big Retina screens or printed at larger sizes.

A decent consumer SLR body, usually $600–900, is a big investment for most people. But if you can’t also afford to buy at least one good lens with it, you’ll get better photos by going with a less expensive kit, such as a high-end point-and-shoot or an entry-level mirrorless setup.

Fortunately, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to get a great lens if you’re willing to make one tradeoff.

Good lenses have three competing factors: price, versatility, and quality. You can optimize two of them, but usually at the expense of the third.

My best suggestion for Canon SLRs is the 40mm “pancake”, which is currently just $149 — the same price as most kit lenses. It’s a prime lens, meaning it does not zoom: it’s fixed to one medium-distance focal length, and you can zoom with your feet. By using simpler optical designs that don’t need to zoom, primes sacrifice versatility but bring very good quality at very low prices.

My wife and I have a lot of fantastic (and expensive) Canon lenses, but we use the 40mm pancake most because it delivers great quality in very little size and weight.

Photo by Tiffany Arment, taken with the Canon EF 40mm “pancake” lens.

If you absolutely must have a zoom range — and please, really reconsider if you must — you’ll generally need to spend about $700 to get noticeably better optical quality than the kit lens, and it still won’t be as good as most primes.

To approach or surpass a $150–300 prime’s quality in a zoom, you generally need to go well above $1000 — pro photographers needing a general-range zoom usually use this $2100 model, or for longer range, you’ve probably seen photographers using this $2200 beast.

Starting to see why I recommend primes if you want quality?

Understandably, these requirements may drive you out of the SLR market, but that’s OK: the smaller, cheaper mirrorless market is hot right now. There are some great midrange camera bodies around $500, such as the Olympus E-PM2 or E-PL5 (don’t miss their pancake prime).

Oh, and please don’t use your camera’s built-in flash. Ever.

Free Trials and Tire Kickers

Time-limited trial or “demo” versions of apps have always been prohibited in the iOS App Store. Recently, discussions about trials have reignited in the circles I follow.

Rene Ritchie, partially in response to my paid-app market post, wrote The market for paid apps, and the sum of all compromises a few weeks ago:

Buyers want to avoid risk and expensing any more money than they have to, so they compromise on buying apps they might otherwise enjoy. Since there are no trials, absent urgent and immediate need or factors like addiction or ego-gratification, most people won’t spend any significant amount of money on apps.

This week, Dave Addey touched on a similar point in Apps Are Too Cheap:

If I purchase one app, and it doesn’t solve my problem, then I have no way to get the cost of that app back. If I try another, and the result is the same, then that’s two apps I’ve paid for that don’t do what I need. In fact, the price of the app that eventually does solve my problem is the cost of all of the apps I have to buy to find it. The result is that I’m willing to pay less for each individual app.

This is certainly a common occurrence. And the root of most of this discussion — that apps are too cheap, and everyone would be better off if they weren’t — is a real problem for a lot of developers. But Apple permitting (and technically supporting) free trials may not be the panacea to fix low app prices for everyone.

It’s not hard to imagine a world where we have free trials, because we already have such worlds: the Mac and Windows. What most mobile-app developers want is the ability to charge PC-class pricing — $30, $50, $100 instead of 99 cents, $2.99, $4.99.

But PC-class pricing would fundamentally change iOS buying habits, and we may not like the results.

Browsing the App Store and getting new apps, often spending a few bucks along the way, is a form of casual entertainment for a lot of people. This role used to be filled by movies and music. Today, it’s filled by browsing the internet and playing with mobile apps. Usually, they’re games, but not always — modern mainstream culture, especially among younger people, seems to be more interested in media and social apps than games.

This apps-as-entertainment market falls apart if app pricing rises above casual-disposable levels for most people. Few people balk at spending $1-3 for something that doesn’t end up being that great, but when someone’s $30 app is disappointing, that’s going to stick with them and inhibit future purchases.

There’s also the market of geeks, power users, and productivity users, including me and probably you. We want good apps to do the things we care about, so we’re likely to try multiple options before settling on the one we end up using (…for a while).

We’re often tire kickers:

Someone who is indecisive about purchasing a product or service, and never feels satisfied with what they are offered.

We’ll buy a new to-do app every three months because we’re never more than 80% satisfied with the one we’re using. We’ve bought seventeen weather apps, and next time Ben Brooks finds a new one, we’ll buy it, too. When we need to solve a new problem and three $1–3 apps all purport to solve it, we’ll probably end up buying all three of them to find the one that works best for us.

We’re not the mainstream, certainly, but we’re not a small market. Depending on what your app does, we might even be the majority of your market.

If you sell a low-priced app in the App Store with no free version, you make money from every tire kicker.

Even if we end up using a different app instead of yours, we still bought yours to try it out. We had to, because we couldn’t get a free trial — we paid to satisfy our curiosity of why Viticci raved about your app so much, or how a Twitter friend used your app to post that cool link, or how well you’re going to solve our most important problem right now. If the app is only a dollar or two, enough of us are OK with paying just to try it,1 even if we’re not going to end up using it every day for the next five years.

If the App Store mostly moved to higher purchase prices with trials, rather than today’s low purchase prices and no trials, this pattern would almost completely disappear. Instead, we’d get the free trials for almost everything, and then we’d only end up paying for the one that we liked best, or the cheapest one that solved the need, or maybe none of them if we didn’t need them for very long or decided that none were worth their prices.

In this type of market, the winners can make a lot more, because you can indeed charge more money.2 But the “middle class” — all of those apps that get tried but not bought — all make much less.

That’s exactly how the Mac and Windows markets, with free trials and higher prices, have always been. A few people make a lot, a few people make a living, but most people make very little.

Far more developers3 can make a living on iOS — partly because of the payment integration, partly because of the market size, and maybe also because the low prices and lack of trials boost the middle-class income from apps-as-entertainment buyers and tire kickers.

If we get trials, even if implemented very nicely, we may ruin that. Is that really what we want, as developers or customers?

  1. I believe the “paying just to try it” effect is why Instapaper’s sales saw a slight increase, rather than any decrease, after I discontinued the free edition. The only remaining option if you wanted to see what Instapaper was like was to buy the paid app. ↩︎

  2. Although how much more you can charge is debatable. Look at the Mac App Store: people can get free trials from many developers’ websites, yet we’ve still seen Mac software pricing drop dramatically since the introduction of the App Store.

    Maybe the real cause of lower Mac pricing since the App Store is that if you drop your price, you have a better chance of climbing the charts, which drives more sales and you end up grossing more overall — the main reason why iOS apps are so cheap.

    Abolishing the “top” lists from all App Store interfaces and exclusively showing editorially selected apps in browsing screens would do a hell of a lot more than trials to promote healthy app economics and the creation of high-quality software. ↩︎

  3. Not every iOS developer succeeds at making a living from it, but I’m still convinced that’s usually a matter of oversupply, not pricing or trials.

    I bet that far more developers make their living developing iOS apps than Mac apps, even if you do a per-capita-like adjustment to normalize their installed bases. ↩︎

The One-Person Product

In 2006, I moved to New York and started working for David Karp doing web development for various media companies. That fall, in a brief gap before starting a new client, David said that we were going to make a prototype of an idea he’d had for a while. He had already bought the domain:, because it was an easy platform for publishing tumblelogs.

David Karp in September 2006, a few months after hiring me to build websites with him for clients.

In March 2007, Tumblr exploded after Gina Trapani wrote it up on Lifehacker and her post made it to the Digg front page (the first Digg!).

We soon added following and reblogging, which dramatically turned this publishing platform into the social-publishing hybrid that has made it so compelling and unique.

That summer, David decided we should stop doing client work, take some funding, and take Tumblr full-time. I was nervous about the idea, but he knew it was the right thing to do — and since he had been paying me (and the hosting bill) from consulting income and his own savings until then, we’d clearly need some headroom in the budget.

On November 1, 2007, we announced the funding and launched Tumblr’s third major design with lots of new features and architectural improvements.

David’s characteristically spotless desk in December 2007.

Growth continued extremely strongly. It’s a good thing we got the funding, because we desperately needed more capacity. In what was becoming a pattern that would continue throughout our working relationship, my previous doubts and fears were proven wrong, and David was right.

David and me in February 2008. David had done some sort of interview that required a photo, so I set up a tripod and shot this with a remote trigger. We both still look pretty much the same.

David and I were like-minded in prioritizing user-, geek-, and designer-friendly needs. Our priorities, free custom-domain hosting, and full HTML-template editing made Tumblr a big hit among creative people from the beginning.

MySpace was where you went in the past, WordPress and Movable Type were where people went if they had the patience and writing output to maintain a traditional blog, Facebook was where you went to define yourself by schools and checkboxes, and Tumblr was where you went to make your own identity and express your creativity.

David and I surprise-attended the very first Tumblr meetup in February 2008 organized by Lee “Sharingtime”, left-center.

Even though Tumblr was never a one-person company, it usually felt like a one-person product.

David always had a vision for where he wanted to go next. I was never the “idea guy” — in addition to my coding and back-end duties, I often served as an idea editor. David would come in with a grand new feature idea, and I’d tell him which parts were infeasible or impossible, which tricky conditions and edge cases we’d need to consider, and which other little niceties and implementation details we should add. But the ideas were usually David’s, and the product roadmap was always David’s.

My infamous standing desk improvised from Coke cans and IKEA bookshelves, March 2008.

David always obsessed over his newest ideas, features, and designs until they were completely polished and ready to go. He’s a workaholic — he truly lives and breathes Tumblr. I’ve never even seen him show any desire to work on a side project. David is all Tumblr, all the time.

He expects people around him to be similarly into work and Tumblr, and often drove me hard with seemingly impossible demands. But David has a lot of Steve Jobs-like qualities, and like many people who worked for Steve, I look back on Tumblr’s crunch times with mixed feelings: I don’t want to return to that stress level, but David pushed me to do amazing work that I didn’t think was possible.

David working on a Dashboard redesign in November 2008.

Intense focus requires neglecting almost everything else. David’s focus on pushing the product forward meant that he didn’t want to think about boring stuff: support, scaling, paperwork, and money.

Every time we’d get close to needing more funding, I’d try to convince David to hold out a bit longer or try to become profitable, and he’d convince me that everyone was better off if we’d focus on the product instead. And every time, he was right.

Jacob Bijani joined in December 2008 as a designer, front-end developer, and wall of hair.

We tried to hold out as just two (and then just three) people as long as possible. We were scared of growing the staff, so we just put it off — for too long, in retrospect.

Eventually, David knew that we’d need to expand to handle the load, but his job never changed: rather than become a businessperson, he just hired one.

Then Tumblr began its most challenging growth: David needed to become a product manager, start overseeing a lot more people, and delegate some of the duties he really wanted to keep doing himself.

David and me figuring something out in January 2009. Most of our conversations looked exactly like this.

After a rough start, David got the hang of being a manager. But he still didn’t want to think about money — his heart just wasn’t in it.

Instead, he continued doing what he does best: driving the product forward, knowing exactly what people want from it.

I’ve only seen one other “product person” as good as David, and that was Steve Jobs. (Believe me, there are many parallels.)

David has an impeccable sense of what’s best for Tumblr, and he doesn’t need anyone else telling him what’s best for the product. Many people, myself included, have tried to convince him to go different directions, and we’ve been proven wrong every time.

Tumblr is David, and David is Tumblr.

By June 2009, the staff had grown to include (clockwise from Jacob’s wall of hair) Jacob Bijani, Jared Hecht, Meaghan O’Connell, Peter Vidani, and Josh Rachford.

I didn’t have any advance knowledge of the Yahoo acquisition — I got official confirmation this morning, just like the public. When I read the rumor a few days ago on AllThingsD, I didn’t know whether to believe it until I read this:

Sources said that as part of the deal, founder and CEO David Karp would continue to operate the business, with Mayer promising him a level of autonomy, despite the need to integrate closely with Yahoo too. He will be locked in, sources said, via a four-year deal…

That sounded like David.

Peter, Jacob, Topherchris, Andrew Terng, Matt Hackett, and I tested new shirts at Shake Shack in June 2010.

Generally, what Tumblr needs, and what Tumblr has always needed, is to get support and maintenance roles off of David’s plate so he can focus on the product.

David’s perfectly able to worry about money and operations, but I bet he really doesn’t want to. At best, it would be a tremendous waste of his time and talent.

We — internet users, creative people, publishers, socializers — will be much better served if David can focus on his product’s features, design, and messaging instead of worrying about server architecture and raising more money.

Shortly before I left Tumblr, in July 2010, the original corner of the office looked almost the same as it always had.

This is why I’m optimistic about the Yahoo acquisition.

Anyone who knows David can tell, very clearly, that he wrote every word of his announcement post. Not only did Yahoo let him end it like that, but the subhead on their official press release shows that Tumblr and Yahoo are seeing eye-to-eye on quite a lot already. In many ways, this feels more like a merger than an acquisition.

This is clearly what David believes is best for his product. On such big decisions, he hasn’t been wrong yet. This time, though, I don’t have any doubts.

Acquisitions on this scale usually work well — YouTube, for example, has gotten much better, faster, more stable, and more sustainable since Google bought it.

Buying Tumblr is a big enough deal for Yahoo that they clearly aren’t intending to ruin it or shut it down — like YouTube and Google, Tumblr will probably become an extremely important part of Yahoo indefinitely. And I believe they’ll do a good job with it. Yahoo today is a very different company than the Yahoo that neglected Flickr for years — it has extremely competent new leadership making bold changes. (Including fixing Flickr.)

More importantly, it gives David, and the rest of Tumblr’s team, the freedom to continue making the best product they can while offloading a lot of the grunt work to Yahoo’s leadership, staff, and infrastructure.

As for me, while I wasn’t a “founder” financially, David was generous with my employee stock options back in the day. I won’t make yacht-and-helicopter money from the acquisition, and I won’t be switching to dedicated day and night iPhones. But as long as I manage investments properly and don’t spend recklessly, Tumblr has given my family a strong safety net and given me the freedom to work on whatever I want. And that’s exactly what I plan to do.

Wi-Fi connections stalling on AirPort Extreme with 7.6.3 firmware

Recently, I’ve had a recurring Wi-Fi issue:

I complained on Twitter, and this sounds like a widespread issue with AirPort Extreme Base Stations and Time Capsules running the newest firmware, version 7.6.3. A number of people said downgrading to 7.6.1 completely fixed the issue for them, so I tried it.

I didn’t even know how to downgrade. Here’s how: in AirPort Utility, hold Option while hovering over the firmware version, and it becomes a drop-down menu. Pick whatever firmware you’d like and click Update. (warning: at your own risk, I don’t know, etc.)

I did this five days ago, and the problem hasn’t recurred once. A few additional people since then have reported similar results.

If you’re having this problem, downgrading to 7.6.1 may fix it.

71 Seconds

The consensus on WWDC’s sellout time this year seemed to be about 2 minutes. As one of the many people who hammered the servers trying to get a ticket, only seeing error messages until being shocked by a “Sold Out” banner far too quickly, it felt like a lot less time — the unofficial “71 seconds” time sounds right to me.

It’s a great story. Last year, WWDC tickets became available suddenly, without advance notice, and they took almost 2 hours to sell out. Even this year’s Google I/O tickets, notorious for selling out very quickly, took 49 minutes. Surely this year, in the height of Apple pessimism, WWDC selling out so much faster than Google’s conference would be a great story.

You’d think Apple might even mention it afterward — if that’s really what happened. Maybe it is. I have no evidence and haven’t heard any tips to the contrary. But I do have another hypothesis that I think is more likely.

For the last few years (since WWDC started selling out), Apple has limited tickets to approximately the same total: 5,000 to 5,500, depending who you ask. Presumably, at least a few hundred of those are allocated to press, VIPs, big partners, student scholarships, etc. that Apple can give away as they see fit, so let’s assume about 4,500 are made available for public sale.

After this year’s unexpectedly rapid, effectively random, and error-filled sellout, we started hearing about people getting calls from Apple offering them tickets. Most of these were people who successfully added the ticket to their cart during those 71 seconds, but weren’t able to complete the checkout due to server errors.

These phone calls seemed to go to a lot of people. I’ve seen at least a hundred people report that they got a call after having the ticket added to their cart but having errors with checkout. It’s likely that I didn’t see all of them, of course — I’d estimate that Apple may have called at least 500 people after the sellout who had tickets in their carts. I don’t think I’ve heard from anyone who had a ticket added to their failed cart and didn’t get a phone call from Apple within a week of the sellout. That’s a lot of extra tickets to be selling.

And that’s not all. Apple has since called many people who reached out to developer-relations contacts, offering them tickets as well. I know a lot more people who have gotten tickets this way, even as recently as this week. Apple’s still selling tickets — there are probably at least a few hundred more that have been sold this way.

So I see two possible explanations.

Apple could be selling far more than the usual number of tickets, probably by at least 1,000, because they want to please the large number of people who tried and failed to get tickets during those 71 seconds. If this is the case, it should be easy to tell: WWDC was already crowded, and there aren’t many places to hide an extra thousand people. They’ll be noticed.

Or maybe all of those server errors meant something.

My best guess: some part of the infrastructure handling the purchases mistook 4,500 connections, transactions, or sessions for 4,500 sales. And when the front-end servers collapsed under the load of everyone hitting them at once — a first this year, since the availability time was preannounced — we all started refreshing, those connections started stacking up, and something on the back-end triggered the “Sold Out” state early because it was mistakenly counting all of those failed sessions.1

Maybe the actual number of tickets successfully sold during those 71 seconds was much lower than 4,500. It sure didn’t look like a system that was successfully processing transactions and behaving as expected.2

If so, it probably took more than a few minutes to realize what happened, by which point it was too late — the press already knew, the public already knew, and the stories were already being written: “WWDC sells out in two minutes!”

Apple would be left with a choice: admit a major screw-up and go through the hassle and PR cost of scheduling another time to sell the rest of the tickets, let the conference happen with far fewer people than usual (which we’d definitely notice, and which would be a tremendous waste of opportunity), or quietly try to sell the rest of the tickets behind the scenes.3 Obviously, Apple would choose the quiet, face-saving option.

If that’s what happened, it should also be easy to tell: we shouldn’t notice an extra thousand developers in Moscone this year.

It’s an effective way to paper over an inconvenient failure. Unfortunately, this strategy could backfire: what will happen next year? Obviously, what happened this year was undesirable for just about everyone involved, so Apple will probably try to fix the system — but if they fix it, tickets will probably take longer to sell out.4 How will it look if WWDC’s sellout time increases in 2014?

  1. I’m not the first to float this idea: it was discussed on last week’s Core Intuition↩︎

  2. Many developers even reported seeing other random developers’ information in the checkout screen when refreshing. Obviously, the errors weren’t simple load throttling — things were breaking in unexpected ways. ↩︎

  3. This hypothesis also may explain why the added-to-cart people got the calls first. Apple can’t realistically call all 250,000+ registered developers. Maybe they were able to get a list of added-to-cart people from logs, so it was an obvious list of which members of the Developer Programs wanted tickets. ↩︎

  4. If everything worked properly this year and the first 4,500 people to attempt to buy tickets succeeded, I imagine the sellout time wouldn’t have been a lot longer — possibly 5–15 minutes. I don’t see any signs of weakened demand. But it will still look bad if tickets sell out in 71 seconds this year and 15 minutes next year. ↩︎

Younger Than The Xbox 360

John Siracusa’s take on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Wii U so far is worth a read. I’d like to add a bit more perspective on why this generation’s hardware design is so different.

The Xbox 360 was released on November 22, 2005, and the Wii and PlayStation 3 were released in 2006. Their hardware was presumably designed over a few years before that. To give you some idea of how long ago that was, and how much has happened in the meantime, here’s a partial list of notable things released after the Xbox 360:

And that’s just through early 2010. It was a very different world in 2005, and our current game consoles were designed without knowing any of these changes were coming.

Game consoles are being attacked and marginalized by cheaper, simpler smartphone and tablet games, and many people are reallocating former game-playing time to social networking. But consoles are also being pushed harder than ever into being media players and offering easy social gameplay, and they’ll likely remain far more popular as TV-connected computing devices than media-only boxes such as the Apple TV and Roku.

Given the dramatically different landscape today, it’s interesting to see the strategic changes made with the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Wii U:

I see problems with all three approaches. The Wii U depends mostly on casual gamers, but the best casual gaming device for most people is the iPad Mini. The PS4 might be neglecting media roles too much, although it will probably still succeed. And the Xbox One’s heavily pushed smart-TV integration features seem to be designed for an imaginary world in which people browse the web on their TVs instead of the (non-Microsoft) smartphone in their pocket. Only the Wii U’s strategy seems fatal.

I expect the PS4 and Xbox One to both sell well. But I can’t confidently predict that either will outsell its predecessor.

I Sold The Magazine, Too

I know: this is getting ridiculous.1 But hear me out.

The Magazine’s development workload was much more front-loaded than I expected. These days, 99% of the work is done by the authors, illustrators, and especially the Executive Editor, Glenn Fleishman.

The actual development required now is minimal, so I’ve been handling the business overhead of The Magazine without doing much of the kind of work I actually enjoy. I accidentally built a business that I’m not very well-suited to run. Glenn’s doing almost everything already, so I’m effectively a figurehead.

Glenn wants to put even more into The Magazine, but like renting an apartment, there’s not much he can fundamentally change about The Magazine without owning it. So we decided to fix that.

On June 1, Glenn Fleishman will take ownership of The Magazine. I’ll be stepping back to an advisory role. Here’s a press release, since Glenn knew how to write one. And here’s Glenn’s full post on it.

At first, not much will change — most subscribers won’t even notice the transition. But soon, you’ll start to see why we decided to do this as Glenn starts improving, adding to, and changing The Magazine for the better.

  1. Don’t worry, Hops isn’t for sale. ↩︎

Coffee storage

A reader asked via email:

How do you store your coffee?

I get this question a lot.

Good coffee storage needs to be airtight in one direction — for the first day or two after roasting, the beans emit small amounts of carbon dioxide, so air should be able to escape whatever the beans are in. But to prevent early staleness, outside air shouldn’t be able to enter.

My solution is quite simple: since I roast my own, I just use zip-top valve bags from Sweet Maria’s, the same place I get unroasted beans.

If valve bags aren’t your thing, I also like the Airscape jars. I suggest getting the tall “64 ounce” size, though — the short “32 ounce” jar won’t hold a full pound of beans.1

Proper storage will prevent the beans from going stale early, but they’ll still lose most of their flavor and settle into a dull, flat flavor profile by about two weeks after roasting. Refrigerating or freezing the beans doesn’t seem to extend this timeline and can introduce moisture in practice, so don’t do it — just put them in something airtight and leave them somewhere dark and dry, like a kitchen cabinet.

Because of that two-week flavor timeline, most storage tips only matter if you’re getting freshly roasted beans from home-roasting, a local roaster, or a fresh mail-order service such as Tonx.

If you’re buying beans from Starbucks or most grocery stores — yes, even Trader Joe’s (especially Trader Joe’s)2 — they’ve probably been roasted more than two weeks ago, so the flavor has already become dull, and it doesn’t really matter what you put them in. Use whatever’s convenient.

  1. Airscape’s sizes are misleading: my “32 ounce” jar does indeed fit about 32 ounces of water, but only with the lids off. If you actually want to attach both lids to make the proper seal, the usable volume drops to about 20 ounces. Still, I like the Airscape — the short one just holds less than I expected. ↩︎

  2. The easiest way to cheat the two-week flavor deterioration is to roast extremely dark. The burnt-ash flavor lasts much longer than the flavors you get with more reasonable roasts… but it tastes like burnt ash. Customers think dark roasts are the only way to achieve “strong” flavor because they’ve usually never had fresh roasts, so they think all coffee is “bitter” and “burnt”, but it’s actually just a cheap trick to extend the shelf-life of perceived flavor and strength.

    Starbucks leans on this trick a bit, but nobody does it like Trader Joe’s and their extremely dark roasts that retain their strong burnt-ash taste for many months. ↩︎