funwithstuff, a blog by iain anderson
25Nov/14Off

No more DPS apps for indie authors

Summarising the issue:

  1. Digital Publishing Suite is an Adobe-hosted service that allows you to build apps in InDesign.
  2. You can build single-issue iPad apps for free as part of Creative Cloud, or multi-issue apps for a recurring monthly fee and per-download fee.
  3. Adobe's removing the free single-issue service from May next year, meaning that updates to apps built with DPS will no longer be possible.
  4. InDesign's EPUB3 Fixed Layout export is new, has serious bugs regarding embedded animations, and makes ebooks, not apps. I believe these bugs can largely be worked around, but right now the process is tricky and pretty specific, relying on beta software from third parties. It's not mature yet.
  5. The one silver lining of the improved EPUB export is that Android support will be possible, though of course that will make testing much harder.

Of course, the news that just came out regarding Digital Publishing Suite (single edition has been discontinued from May 2015) is pretty disappointing for independent authors and consultants like myself.

Effectively, I can no longer make content-heavy apps for clients who don't have the money (around $5000/year) for multi-issue Digital Publishing Suite apps. EPUB isn't a true replacement, because EPUBs aren't apps. While the difference between apps and ebooks can be explained — you view them in iBooks instead — not all clients are going to happy or willing to make the change. They, or their customers, may well prefer to have apps.

Even for those clients happy with EPUB — it's not ready yet. Just last night I found a workaround for a bug regarding embedded HTML animations, and the built-in InDesign animation support is only about two months old.

Worse, six months is far too short a time to turn many projects around; if you're in the middle of a large single-issue project, you've just had the rug pulled out from under you. It would be crazy to release a product which could stop working forever with a future iOS update, but that's exactly what we're looking at. (Recently, I had to re-issue all my DPS apps for iOS8.) Luckily for me, my next major project was due to start early next year, and we will no longer be using DPS. Also luckily, my next major client's content is fairly book-like, and I don't think EPUB will be a bad format for it. Those pushing the boundaries of app/book design will have a harder time not being apps any more.

It's a real shame that this happened, and a big reminder that relying on hosted services always carries the danger that they can be discontinued. Standalone software that's discontinued is painful enough, but at least you can keep using it; cloud software that someone else holds the keys to is quite another.

Given the existing anti-subscription sentiment online, I don't see Adobe coming out of this unscathed — and that's a shame. Ideally, the service would stay and continue to be supported. At the very least, we need more notice.

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2Jul/14Off

What if digital books came first?

Many people seem resistant to the idea of reading books on something other than paper. And that's OK, but there's a quick thought experiment to figure out just how much of this is "what we're used to" and not "what's best".

Imagine if books on tablets (iPad, Kindle, whatever) had been invented first, and a salesperson was now trying to introduce a newfangled paper book.

Paper Book Salesperson: "You can read in the bath, and you can sell it when you're done with it!"

Digital Book Fan: "Well, I don't want to read in the bath or sell it when I'm done. And hang on, you mean it's only one book, not all my books, so I can't carry all my books with me all the time? And I need a lamp to read in bed? And I can't change the font, or font size, or zoom in on it, and it's not interactive at all? And I can't get the definition of a word I don't understand without another heavy book? And I'll need to dedicate a large part of my house to storing these paper books, on some kind of shelves, which will be a total pain when I move house? And I won't be able to buy these books after a few years if they're not popular, because they'll run out of copies? And colour books will cost a lot more to print than black and white? And what about the environmental impact of printing and shipping all these paper books around?"

Paper books wouldn't have a chance. It's all about nostalgia and inertia.

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28Jun/14Off

On the ridiculous state of PC gaming

So I bought Brothers for PC in the Steam sale. Looked like something interesting.

  • I have three different controllers, two generic PC controllers and a PS3 controller.
  • None work. Apparently only X360 controllers are reliable and you need to make other controllers emulate them. OK then.
  • I try playing the game with keyboard. It’s tricky, and one part really feels like it’s buggy with the keyboard — do I really need to hold these keys down while my on-screen characters move very slowly for at least 30 seconds? The controller is a big part of this game, as you control each of the two characters with one of the analog sticks.
  • So, trying again for joystick support.
  • Solutions online point to x360ce for generic controllers and motioninjoy for PS3.
  • I find x360ce, but it doesn’t initially launch.
  • Motioninjoy’s site is down with a 502 error.
  • I find a semi-dodgy looking copy on a third party download site. It’s got lots of ads, and still doesn’t work. Giving up on the PS3 controller.
  • Downloading an older beta of x360ce.
  • It at least launches, my joystick is detected, I’m able to configure it, and then the newer version will launch.
  • I read online that x360ce needs to be launched from the game directory itself.
  • Of course it does. It didn’t bother to tell me, though.
  • I move it there, launch it, I get a couple of errors, and… the game won’t launch at all; it’s now missing a DLL.
  • I go through Steam’s local integrity check, and it finds a missing file, which it says it will reacquire.
  • Game won’t launch.
  • Go through Steam’s local integrity check again. Nothing wrong.
  • Game won’t launch.

Oh, and Sleeping Dogs? Doesn’t work. Won't launch at all, but it played through the first few minutes of the game several times before crashing, which is even more tedious. Other people have the same issue, but tech support won’t help because a Mac running Boot Camp is apparently an unsupported platform, even though it’s got a PC graphics card.

Seriously? No, really, seriously? Why do people actually put up with this? I've been mucking around with computers since I was six and I've had enough. To be fair, not everything's had the same issues. Skyrim's mostly worked, and it was fantastic. Alan Wake might not be a great game, but it launched and hasn't stuffed itself up. Most things have been OK, but the exceptions have been the most spectacular failures.

I don't think it's unfair to expect that joysticks just work. I don't think it's unfair to expect that games just work. You shouldn't have to Google, you shouldn't have to install weird crap from weird sites. Until it all just works, all the time, PC gaming can never go mainstream.

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19May/14Off

On politics

You know what they say — never talk about politics or religion? I’ll leave religion out of this one, but the current situation is too pungent to leave it unmentioned. Not trying to offend anyone, but it’s quite possible. (If you’d rather read a more economy-focused take on why a surplus isn't necessary right now, Glen Murray has an excellent article here.)

I’m not a member of any political party, and don’t ever expect to align my beliefs fully with any one party either. There’s no chance of a party sharing all my views being elected anyway — except maybe in the Senate, where anything goes, right? — so I’ll have to vote for the option that offends least, as we all do. By writing this, I hope to nail my colours to the wall, provoke some thought, and prod a few minds into action.

What’s the purpose of government? Local government is easy: bins and dogs. Bigger than that? For starters, building things we all need which are too important to leave to private industry. Government needs to fund health, education, police, transport and much else besides. They need to regulate areas they can’t fund themselves and try to steer the country in the right direction by encouraging some investments and discouraging others.

A main purpose of government is to make sure nobody falls through the cracks left by our free market system. Unchecked, monopolies would bleed us all dry, and people who can’t afford the necessities would suffer without them. Health insurance and higher education are already getting very expensive, and if you let the market decide every price, they’ll decide on a higher price than that which is actually good for the country, and a lower wage than is actually good for its workers.

The American system is much more closely wedded to the free market, with an abysmally low minimum wage that can never lift you out of poverty, higher degrees for six figures, and the possibility of an illness sending you bankrupt. Money is blind. Incidentally, on that blind international scale of money, Australia has low debt, a AAA credit rating, and survived the GFC better than almost any other country.

Critically, governments aren’t households, and don’t need to be run in the same way. At an absolute baseline, they can print more money if they really need it — though of course too much of this can have adverse consequences. In general, most government expenditure is an investment, so a dollar which sees a return down the line was a dollar spent for good reason. Choosing simply not to spend money in order to get back into surplus is not in our long-term interests.

Unfortunately, the Commission of Audit set up by the Liberal Party (note for international readers: the Conservatives) has reported that we need to slash the minimum wage, increase taxes, raise the retirement age, charge $15 for doctor or hospital visits, and fund nannies. It’s ideology, not necessity, which drives them. The commission is staffed by ex-Liberal party ministers and owners of big business, so you couldn’t really find a group less aware of how ordinary people live. When was the last time any of them caught a bus and interacted with regular humans?

So far, the Commission of Audit report has heavily influenced Hockey’s first budget, which is pretty appalling. They’re trying: a $7 co-payment for visiting a GP (or emergency department for non-emergencies), uncapping the fees for higher education, charging research PhD students the same fees as undergraduates, killing the dole by making you wait six months before getting anything, then forcing you to work 25 hours a week for it, lifting the retirement age to 70, reducing/removing family tax benefit for many families, stripping funding from countless preventative programs and smaller investments, removing funding for non-religious chaplains in schools but more money for the others, stripped $80 billion from state health and education budgets to force them to ask for a GST increase — they couldn’t have done much worse. So what to do?

  1. Remember this nonsense next time you vote. Every election, the parties do their best to appear as similar as possible, to woo swinging voters. And each election time, someone will say “they’re all the same”. They are not the same, not even close. The ALP is hardly perfect, but their policies certainly benefit more people than the Liberal party’s policies do.
  2. Raise loud, noisy hell with your local member. Tell them very clearly that prioritising defence spending on jets the rest of the world has rejected while stopping poor people from visiting the doctor is simply wrong.
  3. If you really want to simplify things, in the goodies vs baddies style which Prime Minister Abbott himself has used, then ask yourself the question: which party is against renewable energy of any kind, against free healthcare, against public broadcasting, for mining and media billionaires, for knights and dames, against fast internet for everyone, against funding for Indigenous affairs, against funding for the disabled, against treating refugees humanely — then ask if they’re the goodies or the baddies.

Even if you really believe that everyone should support themselves (not everyone can, despite best efforts) and that everyone should pay their own way for everything (even though we all have basic needs and not everyone can afford them) then (even though that sounds pretty selfish) think about it this way. Taxes are the necessary cost of society. If you don’t provide a baseline level of support for everyone, you no longer have a functioning society. Endemic suffering leads not just to unhappiness, but to poverty, to crime, to violence, to a broken country for generations. Like Greece. Or, from another angle, like America.

To put it bluntly: if the rich keep all the money for themselves, they’ll create a country not worth living in. We are all better off if we’re all better off.

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13Apr/14Off

Simplicity

Here's a lovely post about simplicity in video design. Worth a look if you do any kind of visual presentation, though of course few of us have the budget to produce work that looks like the BBC made it.

http://www.aftertheflood.co/projects/explainers-videos/

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25Jan/14Off

My old Macs

Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the Mac, and Apple have gone all-out in a beautifully designed look back. I've been using these things for most of the time they've existed, and wanted one for longer. Before they were relatively affordable, I looked in magazine, skulked around dealers, and made a teenage nuisance of myself. To reminisce:

My first Mac was a Mac LC in 1991, and it was a revelation after years of an Apple II clone. It cost around $3000 for the pizza-size box alone, and we had a 12" screen to go with it. That 512x384 screen could show 16000+ colours at once, which was amazing for the time, but my iPhone has more pixels. When I'd borrowed a maths co-processor card, I was able to do 3D rendering, and I remember setting up a 3D scene in a text file, commenting the whole thing out, then uncommenting a line at a time, describing a frame of the animation at a time, then setting it to render a tiny frame for fifteen minutes while I watched one of the Friday 13th movies. Each ad break, I'd come back upstairs, comment out the line describing the last frame, and uncomment the next. And of course, I'd made it madly complex; a bubble rising in front of a sink (with water) and two mirrors above it. Asking for trouble, indeed. But it worked, and the camera moves were nice and smooth because the numbers describing them came from sin/cos functions. These days, you'd just move some beziérs and it would render in real time, but in those days, the Mac ran at 16MHz. The Mac I'm typing on is over 2000 times faster than that.

Anyway, I eventually got a Mac SE to stick at the end of my bed to write a thesis on, then a Power Macintosh of some kind, a Mac clone, a PowerBook G3 ($7000, cost shared with work, one of the first DVD players inside), an iMac, worked on a PowerMac G4 for a while, had a sunflower iMac (awesome looking machine) at home, then a PowerBook G4 12", a MacBook Pro 15", a Mac Pro, a MacBook Pro, a MacBook Pro 13" retina, and finally a top-of-the-line iMac 27".

While I can't recommend a Mac for every situation (specific needs can trump other considerations) they really are good computers. They aren't the cheapest thing out there, but they've never been a purchase I've regretted.

Seeing how far they've come, though — I wonder what we'll be using in another 30 years?

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1Dec/13Off

iOS vs Android stats

I've been increasing finding myself too busy to share anything but the short, sharp tidbits I've been sending to Twitter, but here are a few stats to refer back to next time I need to answer a question about Android vs iOS. Short answer: Android has minuscule tablet marketshare and far less influence in the phone space too.

Here's some data from the 2013 Thanksgiving holiday in the US. It shows that those with Android spend about 20% less money each on average, and about six times as many people use iOS for shopping as use Android. Remember than iOS is iPad + iPhone, but there's a huge gap there. There's also some more granular data in the article, showing iPhones are still responsible for about 20% more sales than Android phones, and sales from Android tablets are about 1/10 of sales from iPads.

That leads nicely into this digital publishing tale from Mumbrella. They published a weekly iPad magazine, which has just closed down after peaking at around 1000 sales per month. They started as iPad-only, and then against the advice of their digital solution provider (Oomph, a fairly big player in the Australian market) they pursued an Android version too. It apparently wasn't worth the effort, topping out at 48 downloads on Android (about 1/20 of the iPad version) and once as few as six downloads.

While the usage gap in phones is smaller, the gap between iPad and everything else in the market is cavernous. A big difference between the iPad and the web is that people actually design for the iPad's known, predictable screen size. It's like print. Designing for Android is either like designing for the web, or living with black bars on the sides. While there are plenty of reasons to embrace web-style design, many print designers simply aren't as comfortable with it, at least not yet. A known space can be fully exploited in the same way a print design can.

Today, there seems to be little reason to bother with an Android version of an iPad app. Instead, make a good website that everyone can use, and extend that experience with a more interactive iPad version. If you do produce an Android version, be ready for very few people to download it. It looks like cheap Android tablets are probably being used to watch TV and for basic web surfing — and not very much for apps.

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2Jul/13Off

Save the NBN!

Leaving politics out of the picture as much as possible, here are a few reasons why the NBN currently being rolled out (Fibre to the Premises) is vastly superior to the Coalition's proposed cheaper alternative (Fibre to the Node).

First, the Coalition's alternative is much slower, both in downloads, how quickly you can receive a file, and in uploads, how quickly you can send one. That means that not only will you wait longer, but you simply won't be able to do useful things like backing up your entire photo and music libraries online, or transformational things like remote medical diagnosis. Fast internet is not just about faster movie downloads. Universally fast uploads can enable new collaborative working and education practices, sharing anything you make with anyone you want, and never losing files again.

Second, it's not much cheaper. It's (at least) 75% of the cost for (at best) 10% of the speed — topping out at 100Mbps versus 1000Mbps — and even less upload speed. We shouldn't be investing in an already outdated Fibre-to-the-Node system — one that New Zealand installed and is now upgrading to a Fibre-to-the-Home system — when we can do the job properly instead. Finally, the current NBN is forecast to offer a return on investment of 7.1% over its life; the alternative has not yet been costed.

Third, the Coalition's plan doesn't offer everyone the same speeds. Instead, it varies based on the quality of your wiring and the distance to your nearest node, using the ageing, unreliable copper network from Telstra. Because copper will always be slower than fibre, speeds only just faster than current ADSL2 technology are guaranteed. Some cable services offer 100Mbps download speeds today, but that service is not available to most people, and upload speeds aren't nearly as good as they should be.

So, the Coalition's alternative is slower, both up and down; not much cheaper; and gives inconsistent results. Something as important as decent internet is worth investing in, and like healthcare, it's much cheaper if we all pay for it. Please, even if you don't care about any of the politicians involved, vote for the NBN that's already being built, and don't tear it down for the sake of politics.

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29Jun/13Off

Writing for Europe

This hit me the other day, as I was delivering a session on digital publishing to a very nice group of designers. They currently create iPad and Android tablet versions of some of their publications, and while they'd prefer to focus on iPad, someone will inevitably ask about Android support. In some ways, it's a fair question, and in other ways, it's completely unfair.

If you were writing a document in English, then you might have to make a few small changes to support the world's different kinds of English speakers, in the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. Turns out that maps pretty well to the iOS ecosystem, with the different, yet similar users on iPad 1/2/3/4/mini running iOS 4/5/6/7. There are differences, but they're pretty minor — especially as the vast majority of users are on the latest OS. All these devices have the same aspect ratio, and there are only two resolutions in play across all of them.

Yet, when someone asks about developing "the Android version", it's like they've just asked you to write a document "for Europe", in French/German/Italian/Dutch/Flemish/Romansch/Ukranian/Russian/Bulgarian/etc. There is no one "Android" version. Instead, there are a multitude of different devices, with different resolutions, different aspect ratios, running different versions of the operating system. Even if you can produce an app that runs on all or most of them, you've still got to test.

The only two ways forward that make sense:

  • If you want to fix the aspect ratio for a more print-like design with limited interactivity, use PDF.
  • If you want a more free-form layout to take best advantage of each device, use HTML.

At the end of the day, if you need to support Android, build a good website. Desktop and mobile users can use it, and it can form the core of an app for any devices that aren't better served with another solution like Apple's iBooks Author or Adobe's Digital Publishing Suite.

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22Jun/13Off

Busy!

Blogging is fun, but other things have been successfully competing for my attention. Coming soon, if you want to take a sneak peek, is filmeverywhere.com, which features just about all my video work that's online. Plenty of new pieces recently for QUT up there too, and some just about breakfast, or timelapses of the Gold Coast, and my favourite pub. But don't tell your friends until I've had a chance to write something about it. :)

Also: an app I made for Caravanning Queensland, and the ever-growing collection of articles I've been writing for macProVideo.com. Happily, the ever-widening range of things I do continues to widen. Living in interesting times needn't be a curse.

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