The Stochastic Game

Ramblings of General Geekery

Missing The Point

It’s September 2016, and Apple showed once again some pretty cool hardware: dual cameras, clever asymmetrical core design, water resistance, blah blah. I’m not interested since I already have the very recent 6S (I’m not that rich or desperate) but it’s a very nice piece of technology.

The change that will create the most ripples on the rest of the market however is the removal of the headphone jack, I think. Actually, scratch that. The removal in itself is not that important – it’s what they replaced it with that’s important. Yet, 90% of the press gets hung up on the removal.

I think they’re all missing the point.

Comparison

The matter of the jack port removal is temporary. It’s going to be very annoying for those of us whose audio needs are not limited to “one phone and one pair of headphones”, but it will be temporary. Hopefully.

I don’t imagine Lightning port headpones will take off – as a manufacturer you’d have to be crazy to invest in a proprietary connector for which you need to pay licensing fees, which is something you didn’t have to do before, and which would also prevent you from selling your products to half of your market. Plus, even low-cost manufacturers are already able, to some degree, to produce relatively cheap Bluetooth headphones. So that’s where the market will go, and where Apple wants to go anyway.

AirPods for cheap

The real problem is that in my opinion Apple opened a can of worms with their wireless headphones: they run with a proprietary “secret sauce” layer on top of Bluetooth. Some people are worried about the potential for DRM but I’m mostly wondering if we’ll see some kind of “wireless protocol war” starting in the next couple years.

Right now, Apple’s “secret sauce” is supposed to be backwards compatible with normal Bluetooth devices, but you know how these things go. The proprietary layer will get bigger with each new release – I’m even expecting that you’ll have to download firmware updates for your headphones on a regular basis soon – but all those cool features will create envy. You can bet that someone like Samsung will come up with their half-assed version of another proprietary layer on top of Bluetooth, as a “me too” feature. Maybe there’s going to be a couple of those out there. Some of those implementations may have some kind of DRM, added under pressure from the movie or music industry, in exchange for some short term IP, marketing, or financial boost.

Eventually the Bluetooth SIG will try and draft some new version of Bluetooth that tries to fix all the basic problems that really should have been fixed before anybody decided to remove the jack port… and meanwhile, Apple has a 5+ year lead on wireless technology, keeps growing their accessory licensing revenue, and is laughing at how everybody else is still having trouble pairing headphones correctly. It’s like the dark ages of the W3C all over again, for audio.

So yeah, Apple is really clever here. I’ve got no doubt iPhone users will be buying increasingly more “W1” enabled headphones from approved manufacturers… it’s a smart move. But not a courageous one. Courage would be to open-source their Bluetooth layer. Courage would be to work with the Bluetooth SIG (which they’ve been a member of since last year) to improve wireless audio for everyone.

Hopefully Apple finds some real courage soon.


PieCrust 2.0rc2

PieCrust 2.0rc2 was published a couple days ago, and it’s mostly a bug fix and clean-up release, as you might expect. Run your pip install piecrust --pre -U to update, or whatever you do usually. More info after the jump.

Pie

Read more...

Wireless is better than wired

Gruber, about Apple probably removing the jack and maybe shipping wireless earbuds by default with the next iPhone:

[…]not that one port is better than another, but that wireless is better than wired.

It’s not that wireless is better than wired – it’s that Bluetooth (as it’s widely speculated that Apple would still stick to that technology) is a far better alternative than something proprietary like the Lightning port. The complete absence of the “proprietary vs. compatible/open” considerations from the Apple bloggers is not only baffling but incredibly worrying to me. If Apple was to use, say, AirPlay, that would still be a terrible choice.

A transition towards Bluetooth as the replacement to the venerable jack port would be tolerable in the short term, and would maybe (hopefully) drive improvement on how OSes and devices work with it – for instance, the experience of switching your wireless headphones between devices is far from ideal, and that’s a very common scenario for me, almost on a daily basis. But frankly, I’m not looking forward to having to manage yet another battery level, and having headphones become obsolete with wireless protocol updates.


Baking faster with hoedown

Update: the times reported by the Bench utility are CPU times, i.e. they represent the time spent working by your various CPUs. The “real/wall” time, i.e. the time you effectively have to wait as a user, is usually a third less than that. So the “real” time for my blog went roughly from 7 seconds to 5 seconds.

In a previous blog post about PieCrust performance, I mentioned how static site generators are dependent on the performance of their formatting and templating libraries. One of the most common formatters are Markdown formatters and, by default, PieCrust uses Python Markdown. It’s the easiest one to install and use, but it’s far from the fastest one.

As far as I know, the fastest one that’s still maintained is Hoedown, for which some Python bindings exist. And if you have a recent enough version of PieCrust, there will be support for a Hoedown formatter, as long as you install Hoedown. You can do that by running pip install hoedown.

Once installed, you can make replace Markdown with Hoedown by writing this in your config.yml, or in a config variant:

site:
    default_format: hoedown
    auto_formats:
        md: hoedown

Any extensions you have declared for the Markdown formatter generally also translate directly to Hoedown:

hoedown:
    extensions: [fenced_code, footnotes, smartypants]

The performance increase can be pretty noticeable. For instance, on my ancient MacBook Pro (2.4GHz Core 2 Duo), this blog takes almost 9 seconds to bake1:

Markdown benchmark

With Hoedown, the time goes down to 7.2 seconds:

Hoedown benchmark

Pretty worth it if you ask me! Now most of the time spent baking happens during templating with Jinja2… time to look for a faster alternative?


  1. I used the Bench tool to generate those reports. 


Apple Headphones

The “Apple removing the headphone jack plug” story is warming up again.

The 2 best arguments against removing the jack plug in favor of a digital port, in my opinion, have been put forward by Patel and Streza in the previously linked articles:

  • Opportunities for audio DRM.
  • Necessity to move the DAC and amp into the headphones – which will most probably sound worse than before on average, or raise the price of headphones in general.

I can add one more that I haven’t seen yet:

  • A shared connector like Lightning or USB (as opposed to a port dedicated for headphones) means a connector that will change in a few years. Some of us buy expensive headphones that we expect to last for 10 or 20 years – well below the life expectancy of those digital ports.

The interesting thing though is that pro-removal people often make a weird logical leap. For instance, Gruber:

Should the analog headphone jack remain on our devices forever? If you think so, you can stop reading. If not, when?

He does his best to compare the jack plug to floppy disk drives, and how eventually it will all work out and Apple will once again be proven right in their forward thinking awesomeness… but the floppy disk drives weren’t replaced with a proprietary Apple device. They were replaced with USB sticks and downloads, all of which are superior in every way to floppy disks. It’s definitely not the case for the Lightning port – to quote OSNews’ Thom Holwerda: “as far as I can tell, there are only downsides”.

The whole point isn’t whether the jack plug is up for grabs or not – it’s debatable whether it should be right now, but nothing is sacred in technology. The whole point is that the replacement needs to fulfill the basic requirements that we expect from something to use headphones with. The Lightning port fails so many of those requirements (“standard” being probably the most important one) that it’s a really bad and, yes, user-hostile choice.

It’s a great choice for Apple however. It grows their accessories revenue, strengthen their hold on their users, and generally speaking puts them even more in control. It’s such a great idea for Apple that I can actually totally see them doing it. A lot of people will complain, but pretty much everybody will put up with it, as the cost of switching is much higher than the cost of tagging along. And what does it matter if it splits the audio market in two because of the proprietary port? It’s not like Gruber and other Apple bloggers are very sensitive about life outside of the walled garden anyway.