Thursday April 17, 2014

• The Microsoft of Things

Two weeks ago I went through a familiar set of steps. I took a cab to the airport and got on a plane to San Francisco. I tweeted jokes about the absurdity of air travel. I met up with my friends John Gruber and Brent Simmons. We had a great dinner, maybe one drink more than was advisable, and woke the next morning to walk over to Moscone to attend a conference.

A Microsoft conference.

When I was 13 my mom bought a 486 with Windows 3.11. I wanted to get a Mac like the ones at school, but she was studying computer science. It didn’t really stick. I, on the other hand, became obsessed with that computer and ended up doing a fair bit of her homework. She eventually dropped the class, which explains why I’m such a lousy programmer.

When I ran up the hourly(!) AOL bill and lost my access, I opened a phone book(!) and discovered a local BBS. It had a surprisingly active chat area. I wondered how many modems the BBS had. Talking to the people in the group, I asked where everyone was from. Not one of them was even from my state. It turns out what I had connected to was IRC, and with that one step I had discovered the depth and scope of the connected world. My mind was blown.

For years after that, I obsessed over technology. I built my own computers from parts I bought online. I stalked the aisles of CompUSA. And like any impressionable youth in the ’90s I began to experiment with Linux. We all knew Microsoft was evil; one of the first websites I ever visited was a page with animated gifs of Bill Gates as Satan. I read entire books in the hopes of getting Linux to run on my computer. I succeeded to various degrees, but at no point my life have I ever felt I had Linux running at 100% on a desktop computer. Free as in beer, free as in speech. Whatever. Really I just wanted something that wasn’t Windows.

For so much of my digital life Microsoft has been a necessary evil; an empire so vast and omnipresent that we couldn’t survive without its wares. For all the promise of Linux, I always ended up back on Windows for one simple reason: it worked. Photoshop ran on Windows. Games ran on Windows. AIM ran on Windows. Microsoft was an inescapable fact of life.

I remember the first candy-colored iMac. I laughed at it. I laughed at the tangerine iBook. Mac users were so dumb, man. You know? Those things were for idiots and old people.

First, I bought an iPod. Then I downloaded iTunes. Then before I knew it people I respected were using Macs. Wait, it runs on UNIX? Like that 486 years before, I became obsessed. Eventually I bought an iPhone, and before long I was designing apps for it. At some point along the way, I stopped caring about the technical details. I forgot about specs. I forgot about the days of staying up late at night reading tutorials on how to overclock my CPU or recompile my libs. I forgot all about Linux, and I forgot all about Windows.

Except for my Xbox 360, of course. I’m not the gamer I once was, but I’ll still take a week off of work when an Assassin’s Creed or Arkham game comes out. For my money (and I mean that literally) the Xbox is the most human product Microsoft has ever made, and for years it’s sat below my TV as a monument to the company that could have been. The underdog product built from the ground up by a company that wanted to be the best at something.

When I say that walking around the floor of Microsoft’s Build conference was weird, I don’t mean that from the perspective of an iOS designer who crossed enemy lines. I felt more like some kind of war-torn refugee, returning to find that home had been rebuilt into a palace. For all the years I spent trying to escape from this company, the place seemed friendly. Bright colors, poppy music, happy people. Tones of Microsoft’s trademark dorkiness, for sure. But cut with a new sincerity.

Tellingly, the look-under-your-seat give-away for this developer conference was an Xbox One. Not a Windows 8 phone or a notebook or a Surface or anything else you’d expect developers to want to write apps for. The game console. The most human of the Microsoft products. It feels aspirational. “Here, developers. We got this one right. Let’s do more like this.”

I spent some time playing with the Surface tablets and Windows phones and was surprised by the little things I liked. Looking at anything Android, it’s hard not to be cynical about the copy-whatever-Apple-did nature of smartphones these days. Microsoft is smartly following the scent of their Xbox success, looking for the things that allow the Xbox to resonate with people. Time will tell whether or not this approach results in products people want to own and use, but the trajectory is promising.

As a designer, the smart play for me is to watch this different approach closely. If there’s something to be learned from Microsoft’s ideas, I want to learn it. I won’t be getting rid of my iOS devices any time soon, but it’s sure interesting to see Microsoft as the underdog. It suits them.

Support Driven

I’m the guest on the latest episode of Support Driven, a podcast about software support. I talk about Vesper, and how I see helping customers and answering questions as part of experience design.

Skala Color

An elegant new Mac color picker from Bjango.

Tuesday April 15, 2014

Cancer is Like Christmas

My friend Alex King finally appears on Unprofessional. The results are every bit as awkward as you’d hope.

Sponsored by Briefs.

Monday April 14, 2014

Unlucky Numbers

It’s easy to make the joke that Vesper’s sync solution would be done if Brent would just stop blogging so damned much. Entry #13 of his sync diary is a great example of Brent’s stream-of-consciousness writing style, which I believe to be one of his greatest assets as a developer.

Some of you will note that the number I chose is the maximum value of a 64-bit integer. The problem occurs with sufficiently large integers. Here’s the deal: JavaScript numbers are 64-bit floating point numbers, which means they don’t have enough precision for very large integers.


I’m writing this up as soon as I learned about it. I have to figure out what to do.

The first thing: user IDs might as well be 32-bit integers. (JavaScript can handle 32-bit integers accurately.)

Before we get anywhere near 2147483647 (max for 32-bit integers), we will have hired a team of the brightest server-side programmers in the world, and they’ll figure out what to do.

I don’t want to ruin the ending for you, but there’s no hurry to hire that team of server-side programmers.

Sunday April 13, 2014

[Sponsor] Briefs

Build professional quality prototypes from mockups and wireframes using this powerful Mac application. Built for designers, a brief is easily shared and can be deployed to iOS and Android devices. Great for quick demos and helpful for clients who want to feel the design in their hands.

You can try out Briefs for free today by going to or purchase directly on the Mac App store.

The beta of Briefs very fortunately coincided with the early days of Vesper’s design, which meant that I got to kick the tires exactly when I most needed a prototyping tool.

Friday April 11, 2014

The Record — Nat Irons

If you work in the Mac or iOS business, you owe it to yourself to check out Brent Simmons and Chris Parrish’s show The Record, a fantastic chronicling of our industry. The current guest is my friend and former co-worker Nat Irons.

A Watch for Blind People

They could have gotten away with making it ugly, but they didn’t. I love everything about this story.

The watch has a stark, circular titanium face. There are no hands. There are no numbers. Around a groove in the centre a ball-bearing rotates to mark the minutes. Around the edge of the watch, another ball bearing rotates to tell the hours.

The Bradley was designed for the use of blind people, the latest in a long line of efforts to help those without sight efficiently tell the time.

And shockingly inexpensive.

Wednesday April 9, 2014

Comic Neue

A redesigned Comic Sans, by Australian designer Craig Rozynski.

Comic Sans wasn’t designed to be the world’s most ubiquitous casual typeface. Comic Neue aspires to be the casual script choice for everyone including the typographically savvy.

Still not something I would personally use, but I admire the thought and earnestness that went into this. Scroll to the bottom to see Vincent Connare‘s opinion.

(Via Fernando Rodríguez)

LEGO Game of Thrones Minifigs

Only $220. Get ‘em before the lawyers do.

Learn SICP, Make Friends

Speaking of Understudy, Ken Ferry has posted a great writeup of what the app is all about over at the Understudy blog.

Like private music lessons, a personal trainer at the gym, or an interested friend at work, having someone else aware and invested makes it enormously more fun to keep at whatever you’re doing.

Tuesday April 8, 2014


Really great educational app from my friends Ken Ferry and Bridger Maxwell, both of whom left Apple to build Understudy.

The idea is simple in execution but tricky to explain: Understudy offers two courses — computer science and drawing — based on popular, proven books. When you sign up, the system pairs you with a mentor who is a little further ahead of you. As you spend time doing FaceTime-with-whiteboard-style sessions with your mentor, you’ll also do similar sessions mentoring someone else. A scientifically proven formula for making information stick. You can also use it, as I do, for freestyle whiteboard collaboration.

Full disclosure: I had a hand in design, and appear in one of the App Store screenshots making a stupid face.

Design Reviews

I have a few spare days coming up before the launch of Vesper’s sync update, so I thought it would be fun to open that time for another round of design reviews. If you have an iOS or Mac project that could use some polish, I’ll poke at your app for one to three days (your call) and walk you through a report on what you could do to take things up a notch. $1,000 per day, flat rate. If you’re interested, get in touch.

[Update: Let's do this more often.]

Major Spoilers

Lex Friedman returns to Unprofessional this week to talk about the conclusion of How I Met Your Mother. It was a little like getting the band back together.

Monday April 7, 2014

John and Brent on Azure

A longer version of the Vesper video that was featured in Microsoft’s Azure keynote last week. Watch as John Gruber misses his train because he was looking at his phone.