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Allen Pike

A feed by Allen Pike


Bright Side of the Moon

Permalink - Posted on 2017-09-01 03:00

Most things in our world are continuums: you can have none, a little, a lot, or the whole thing. A few things are binary – it’s either there or it isn’t. A total solar eclipse is one of those binary things. Even when the the moon has covered 99% of the sun, our star is still blindingly bright and indistinctly shaped. When you get to 100%, then bam: you can behold the sun’s corona with the naked eye, one of the most beautiful things there is to see.

We often think of life as one of those binary things – either somebody is alive, or they aren’t. Terribly, many illnesses don’t really work that way. Symptoms appear, they’re eventually diagnosed, and over time they wear a person away. The processes can be long, disrupting and eventually ruling lives, before they actually run their course.

That’s been my fear since last April, when my mother-in-law, Ann, was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. There is always grief when you learn you’ll lose somebody you love, but once you absorb that and come to accept it, there’s the second round of grief about how much somebody you love is going to suffer.

While that is where a lot of our minds went, Ann was smarter than that. She knew that a life is better spent looking at the bright side. She took her diagnosis as a challenge: what can I do with the time I’ve been given? She travelled the world with my father-in-law Brian, going on one new adventure after another. They saw New York, Louisiana, the Shetland Islands, and more.

One adventure they were looking forward to was seeing the total solar eclipse in Oregon. Brian has long been an astronomy and photography enthusiast, and this year’s eclipse was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Even when her condition’s progress made it clear she wouldn’t be well enough to make the trip, Ann insisted he go. He was hardly keen to be away from her, but protesting would surely elicit the response, “Och away, don’t be daft” – which roughly translated from Scottish means “Stop arguing, you’re going to go see a total eclipse”.

Doing that trip in one night is almost possible, but the drive from Vancouver is more than 7 hours each way – a bit too much for for one driver over one night. So, I offered my assistance. Brian and I would head down, take turns driving, and be back the next day.

That Sunday morning, we filled the car with snacks and camping supplies, and headed for the town of Madras in the high desert of central Oregon – arguably the best place in the world to see the eclipse. The trip was long and traffic was slow, but late that night we made it to our makeshift campsite, in a makeshift parking lot in a dusty field. It wasn’t much, but surrounded by thousands of other eclipse-chasers, it felt like something special.

The next morning we set up our tripods to take some photos, commiserated with the crowd, and watched the desert grow dark. Then, all at once, the sun was gone – replaced by the blackest black you’ve ever seen, surrounded by an otherworldly crown. The crowd cheered, the stars twinkled, we both cried, and some smart-ass a few rows over played Dark Side of the Moon.

Photo: Brian Ferguson.

As breathtaking as it was, we wanted to beat the rush getting back. You see, Madras has a population of 6,000 people. In the preceding days 100,000 tourists had filtered into town for the eclipse, and were all now considering how much longer they wanted to hang out in the middle of nowhere. Once the sun burst through on the other side, we finished packing up and started our journey back home. We drove roughly 100 feet before the parking lot came to a standstill.

And there we remained for the next seven hours.

Yes, I spent seven hours of my life waiting in line to leave a parking lot. I’ve been in bad traffic before, but I don’t think I’ve ever been in traffic so bad that people actually pulled out camping chairs and set them up in the shade of their car.

When you’re stuck in a desert parking lot for 7 hours, a lot of questions go through your mind. Early on, there are logistics. Did we bring enough water? How long can we run the AC before we run out of gas?

Then, worrying. Is Karen okay taking care of both the baby and her mom? What if something happens to Ann while we’re stuck here?

Then, desperation. Could we tape a road map to the windshield to create some shade? (Turns out, yes.) Would restarting my phone again get me a reliable signal? (Turns out, no.)

Around dinner time we made it out of the parking lot, and eventually we made it to the back roads of Washington State, following a long line of Google Maps devotees down the least-bad route home. After 1300km of driving and a rest stop in Tacoma, we finally made it home the following day, photos in hand and memories in heart.

In life, one constant is that you never know. While Ann had recently received a prognosis of months, later that night she passed away – peacefully, and surrounded by family. We like to think she was holding out for us to get one last trip under our belts – a gift to us.

Thanks Ann.

Developing for iPhone Pro

Permalink - Posted on 2017-08-01 03:00

Yesterday, Steve Troughton-Smith made a fascinating discovery: the long-rumoured iPhone Pro will have a resolution of 1125 x 2436. There have been rumours of an all-screen iPhone for years, but now that we have the resolution, we can finally consider: what does it mean for developers?

This resolution is 375 x 812 points rendered @3x – exactly the same logical width as the iPhone 7, but 22% taller. Great so far: this width will Just Work™ with any existing app. But are we really going to be displaying apps at 812 points tall?

The mockups out there assume yes: the iPhone Pro will be almost entirely screen, apps will fill that screen, and the Home button will be relegated to the back of the phone. Which is possible, I guess, but pretty awful. What could be more important than the Home button? Most people press it dozens of times a day. With no Home button on the front, an iPhone laying on a table would be hobbled. Sad, really.

There’s a reason no phones have their home function on the back. The back of a phone might be tolerable for a fingerprint sensor, but not the Home button.

Home Sweet Home

So, after ten years, the Home button is going virtual. Our beautiful new 812pt OLED display will have a function area carved out of the bottom, with Home in the middle. There are many things Apple could put on either side of the Home button – Android-like multitasking buttons I suppose – but iOS 11 gives us a giant clue.

On either side of the Home button will be your app’s navigation items.

You see, iOS 11 made some visual tweaks. Most were nice refinements, but two system-wide changes seemed arbitrary.

  1. They shrank the size of the signal strength indicator to make room for the “peninsula” at the top of the iPhone Pro.
  2. They created the “Large Title” navigation style because… reasons.

The Large Title in particular looks just plain weird on current hardware. Instead of putting titles in the center of your navigation bar, iOS 11 prefers titles outside of navigation bar, leaving the middle of the screen really empty. Really weirdly empty.

To me, the only way these weird navigation bars make sense is if the iPhone Pro is doing away with navigation bars as we know them. For example:

The mockup above is what happens when you dedicate the bottom 66pt of the iPhone Pro’s resolution to what we currently know as a navigation bar, but replace the title with the home button. Clean, tidy, and surprisingly easy to implement in UIKit: apps’ default interface to navigation bars just specifies left and right items, rather than explicitly laying things out at the top of the screen. A lot of apps could work this way with just a recompile.

Of course, tidiness isn’t enough. Getting 44pt of additional space for content is nice too, but to change navigation this dramatically, it has to also be better to use. Considering how much easier it is to reach the bottom of the screen than the top of the screen, you better believe it’d be better. In May, crackerjack designer Brad Ellis wrote:

Expect to see more apps move functionality to the bottom on the most reachable part of the screen.

I think he was right, but not in the way I expected. Rather than thoughtfully evaluating how we can shift navigation to the bottom of the screen app by app, we’re going to be pulled into the future all at once on Jony’s Fun Train.

Isn’t it beautiful? Instead of the Back button being located in literally the least convenient place on the screen, imagine it right under your thumb, nestled right beside our old friend the Home button. Maybe they’ll even let Jony put a little clock face in there. It’s going to be wild, people.

Hold on to your butts.

What Your Career Wants to Be

Permalink - Posted on 2017-07-01 03:00

This week we released Bluejay, a simple Swift framework for Bluetooth hardware communication. This was fun, but also weird. You see, we learned Bluetooth by accident.

Bluejay logo, with remixes by Soroush Khanlou and Matthew Panzarino.

Four years ago, a company got in touch looking for fixes to a Bluetooth app. My initial reaction was skeptical: we design and develop polished app UIs – what do we know about Bluetooth? That’s not our thing. Still, we took a chance to learn something new.

And learn we did. We learned about the weird and wonderful mistakes people make when building Bluetooth apps – first by fixing existing problems in the app, then by making a couple of our own mistakes. We learned about background restoration, firmware updates, and the joy of debugging sync issues you can’t reproduce. At first it was annoying. Then it was fun. Before long, we’d shipped an app that talks to real live hardware. The experiment was complete.

Then something odd started happening. Every time I’d talk to a potential client who mentioned Bluetooth, I’d say “Oh great, we just shipped a Bluetooth app,” and they’d sort us to the top of the pile. While we may sign 50% of the typical project proposals we send out, suddenly we were signing 100% of the Bluetooth projects. Before long, hardware startups were knocking on our door. Our virtual door that is – client leads who knock on our literal door universally turn out to be bad leads and are treated with the strained politeness they deserve.

Seriously, sometimes people just randomly show up and say, “Uh yeah… I have an idea for an app, so…” It takes all the Canadianness in my body to not just respond, “Sorry, we don’t work on ideas here, only products. Goodbye!”

In any case, by venturing out of our comfort zone, we learned a skill that turned out to be both in demand and enjoyable. Before we knew it, we went from “that’s not my bag baby” to a third of our projects being that exact bag. And now I’m the product manager for a series of mobile apps and an open source Bluetooth framework. It’s weird but cool.

Catching the current

Sometimes creation is about precision. Apple machines beautiful products out of aluminium at magnificently tight tolerances. Structural engineers go to great lengths to ensure bridges will endure through their design lifetimes, defining exactly to what specifications they will be constructed.

More often though, creation is about flexibility. It’s about adapting as you go and making use of what you learn. There’s a saying among people who work with wood and other natural materials: “It will tell you what it wants to be.” You can’t just CNC a piece of driftwood into an ultrathin MacBook enclosure. Ignore the grain and nature of the wood, and you’ll just waste a wealth of potential. Though I suppose it would make for the hipsteriest MacBook a hipster ever hipstered, until it split open catastrophically.

My point is that building a career, a company, or a life is like working a natural material. It’s about finding opportunities, and discovering what it wants to be. Sages like Stephen Covey exhort us to “begin with the end in mind”. This is great for daily or monthly tasks, but in our industry it breaks down at the scale of a career. 20 years from now, our world will be wildly different. By the time I retire, UI will be VR, apps will be brainwaves, and likes will be florps. Or maybe they won’t be, but we sure won’t be doing the same jobs we are now.

So here’s your regularly scheduled reminder to try new things. The great things you do probably won’t come from persevering on your current grand plan, but rather from a thousand little plans, taking chances, and recognizing which are working.

And it turns out, Bluetooth works. Who knew?