88: Genesis of the Touch Bar

Since the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar was announced a couple weeks ago, there's been plenty of speculation on why exactly it exists and what role it will serve in the Mac lineup of the future. The same kind of questions arose when the Force Touch trackpad was added to the MacBook Pro a couple years ago. There, the answer to "why this?" seemed fairly simple: as a non-moving part it eliminated internal space and made better use of its ever-increasing surface area, since an equal amount of force registers a click on any part of the trackpad.

The answer for the Touch Bar isn't so obviously pragmatic. It doesn't save space, as it occupies the exact same area as its predecessor function keys; the low end model that retains those keys reflects that exactly. And since the machines still aren't even in the hands of reviewers, the jury is still out as to whether the touch interface features will make the Mac more of a joy to use. Nobody knows if the Touch Bar will be liberated from the MacBook enclosure and put in standalone input devices, like when the Force Touch trackpad became the Magic Trackpad 2. (And unlike the Magic Trackpad, given the components involved, it seems nearly certain that a standalone Magic Keyboard 2 with Touch Bar will not be a $0 build-to-order option with the iMac of the future.)

Nevertheless, I think that Touch Bar technology will spread to all Macs, even if it comes at a cost to consumers. The reason is the problem that I believe served as the entire genesis of the Touch Bar technology: someone inside Apple looked at the glyphs on their function row keys and said "why do we keep letting these become obsolete?"

There was once a time when that wasn't a concern; Apple's desktop and laptop keyboards just had plain, numbered function keys. This was even the case when Apple started assigning essential features to them, like when Exposé was introduced in Panther. Its features were originally mapped to the blank F9, F10, and F11 keys, and I learned to use them by feel on my 2003 PowerBook G4. (It was super easy, as the function keys were physically grouped into F1–4, F5–8, and F9–11.) But the next wave of Apple hardware brought dedicated media playback keys in the function row, and they landed on the only glyphless function keys available: F9–11.

Nothing to see here, move along.

Nothing to see here, move along.

Obviously my keys didn't change overnight, but their associated actions did. Software "broke" perfectly good hardware. And other mismatches constantly arose. Hardware keyboards could easily outlive the features printed on them. Until just last year I was still using a keyboard that had a Dashboard key on it (yes, Dashboard is still technically alive, but just barely). And uniformity is impossible, as today's laptop keyboards with backlight controls put them on F5 and F6, while Apple's standalone keyboards — designed to work with any Mac — just offer blank space there. "This keyboard doesn't have backlighting, so, I dunno, have a couple extra buttons." It's inefficient design.

So rather than scrap the function keys as hopelessly broken, Apple is trying to turn a weakness into a strength. The function keys keep changing every couple years, and it's a problem. Instead, make them change every couple seconds and it's a delightful solution. Maybe someday the Touch Bar will vanish into a fully interactive keyboard. After all, the original Mac keyboard had no function row and neither does the iPad Smart Keyboard. iOS goes as far as dropping number keys, hiding them in a separate mode. I can't predict the future of Apple's input devices beyond the Touch Bar, but it seems a safe bet that they'll be capable of changing — quickly.

87: Apple's emoji – one font fits all

I've been considering my thoughts on the progress of emoji since Apple released the first iOS 10.2 developer beta several days ago, setting off a flood of new emoji screenshots in my Twitter timeline. I'm glad that I delayed a bit, as this weekend was Emojicon. I follow three(!) people who were in attendance, so my timeline filled with smart thoughts (not just hot takes) about the past, present, and future of emoji.

Of course, there was discussion of the role of platform vendors in shaping style, use, and even meaning of emoji, and Apple is a major player. If that wasn't obvious years ago, it became so this summer when the iOS 10.0 betas kicked off the squirt gun / pistol controversy. The debate then centered on miscommunication — an innocuous symbol on iOS could appear as a violent one on Android, Windows, or the web. It also served as a crash course for many in how emoji actually work.

There's very little magic to emoji (setting aside ZWJs): the Unicode Consortium releases a specification that says what codepoints correspond to what characters. They provide reference descriptions and examples but they don't provide the actual glyphs. That's up to font makers to do for anything specified in Unicode, from the Latin alphabet English uses, to Cyrillic, to Japanese kanji, to emoji. That allows for considerable variation and stylistic choice.

Font design is not unfamiliar territory for Apple — it's one of the things that set the original Mac apart. Even working within the limits of ASCII encoding, there were emoji-like glyphs in Susan Kare's Cairo font that shipped in 1984. Recently, Apple has taken typography seriously by developing the (2014) San Francisco typeface and making it a hallmark of the Mac and iOS experience. I'm sure people complained when it replaced Helvetica on iOS, but nobody complained that it hindered their ability to express themselves.

Changing the system font or default font for iMessages should never prevent someone from sending a message today that they would have in the past. But some emoji have gained lives beyond their Unicode specifications. Here in Michigan, PART ALTERNATION MARK 〽️ looks enough like a yellow block capital M that it's become a stand-in for the University of Michigan's logo. Infamously, the cleft in the peach emoji has made enough people think it looks like a butt that 99% of its use does not represent fruit.

This is where Apple's emoji design can have weird ramifications. The change from a revolver that fires lethal bullets to a squirt gun that fires only water is a deliberate, possibly political change. But erasing an entire class of emoji use just by making a piece of fruit more photorealstic is something that might not have crossed the mind of an Apple designer. It seems like it's time to open up choice of emoji to users, especially when differences in emoji design are just a font away.

Unfortunately, Apple has largely locked down the ability to choose fonts on iOS. The iWork apps only offer a handful, unless you rely on third party apps like AnyFont to shoehorn new typefaces into iOS. Even in Notes, which has gained lots of rich text capabilities, the font has to be chosen on an application-wide basis. But such an option could be opened up for Messages, ensuring that "legacy" emoji meanings could be preserved by those who want them. This isn't antithetical to Apple's vision for Messages, considering that it's opened up third-party sticker pack creation to anyone with Xcode and a folder full of images.

If emoji don't fit people's needs, perhaps they will turn to stickers, but that would be a loss; the power of emoji is in their universality — their shared cultural currency wouldn't have the same value if iOS and Android had never adopted them. Users recognize the value of emoji, and they're open to expansive change. (I'm sure I'll send and receive lots of bacon and avocado emojis in the future.) But changes that limit utility are hard enough for people to adapt to when its just pure software. Emoji aren't a language, but they're part of modern communication. I hope Apple and all platform vendors will understand the monopoly power they hold and wield it carefully, so all their users can speak freely. 🍑

86: Picomac, season 2

A lot has happened since August.

August was when I put Picomac on hiatus. Taking one week to travel after a death in my family spread into two, and then a month, and then more. Daily writing and recording was excellent practice but also draining, so it was a welcome respite. But I never intended it to turn into a cancelation — so thanks to all who stayed subscribed to the feed.

Meanwhile, Apple was busy. iOS 10 went from early public beta to GM to final release. The iPhones 7 were announced and went on sale. There are new Watches, weird new TV features, and finally a slot on the MacRumors Buyer's Guide that doesn't say "DON'T BUY".

In my own Apple world, I finally bought a new iPad (a 9.7" Pro replacing a 3rd generation), waffled on ordering a jet black iPhone, and my iMac is celebrating its first birthday. I've more than acclimated to the features of iOS 10; I've come to rely on them daily, even without 3D Touch. There's so much wild and wonderful Apple stuff that I want to talk about, and I've repeatedly found myself back in the dilemma that led to Picomac in the first place: tweets just don't cut it.

So I'm treating this as Picomac, season 2. As a listener and/or reader, you can expect things to pick up largely where they left off. The most noticeable change will be to the schedule: expect multiple updates per week, but not daily. (You may have noticed that the tagline has changed accordingly.) In compensation, I'm also not going to stick to the 500-word hard cap I used to impose on each update. Things will decompress a bit, but still be bite-size.

It feels fitting to make this change on the eve of NaNoWriMo, one of my initial inspirations for Picomac. I should be on pace to hit 100 updates and 50,000 words by the end of 2016. I may not have time to write and record every single day, but there's always something to talk about. So, how about that new Touch Bar…?

85: Adjusting photo timestamps with Exiftool

The nicest camera in my house is a Canon T3i. It's about five years old and for my needs it still takes fantastic pictures. One thing it doesn't do is keep accurate time. That's not its purpose; it's precision optics, not a precision chronograph.

But photo timestamps matter, and I always forget to check my camera's clock before going on a big trip. A week later, I have 1500 photos from the T3i that don't line up with the 100 or so photos I took on my phone (largely panoramas, something the iPhone does really well and SLRs don't handle). If the camera kept good time, this wouldn't happen, or at least the solution would be simple.

Most photo organization apps, like Lightroom, which I use, have the ability to batch correct photo timestamps — if you forgot to adjust your camera's time zone. I was in California, so I had that problem, but correcting three hours westward wouldn't solve it; my timestamps were some 3 hours and 18 minutes off from my iPhone photos.

I suspected my solution would lie on the command line — spoiler alert: it was — but I searched for a GUI tool designed for this task. An $8 mini version of A Better Finder Attributes claims to be a timestamp unitasker, but I couldn't sort out the ABFAX demo's interface. HoudaGeo, primarily designed for geotagging, will tackle the problem, but at $40 it's priced for users who will take advantage of all of its features.

So I turned to Exiftool, an omnibus photo metadata munger for the command line. It was quick to install with Homebrew, and I found the one-line command I needed in its documentation. (I had to run it twice on the first batch of photos, because I adjusted 18 minutes in the wrong direction!) Adding a simple Bash for loop blasted through 1200 more photos in no time.

for d in 2016-08-*; do exiftool "-DateTimeOriginal-=0:0:0 0:17:32" $d; done

Another loop removed the archived originals that Exiftool thoughtfully creates…although that can amount to gigabytes of extra storage when processing lots of photos.

Even after that, my photos weren't sure what time zone they were in. Lightroom displayed the unaltered iPhone photos in what would be Eastern Standard Time, even though we're currently observing Daylight Saving Time. I gave up on aligning them to a "true time" as long as SLR and iPhone would happily interlace. And they did, except for the iPhone videos (7 hours off) and some iPhone shots identified as coming from an "Unknown Camera" (5 hours off). But with a few tweaks, all is in order. Now, thanks to a little command line magic and some persistence, I can relive my trip in order.