UKIP reminds me of an election fought by schoolchildren—literally

As a child, I went to a well-meaning but mostly awful primary school. It was very modern, with a huge conservatory, fish pond and aviary, but the teaching staff and methods didn’t exactly set you up for a strong shot at success in secondary school. Our final year largely involved us spending an awful lot of time learning about the Hebrews from our ageing and ferociously religious battle-axe teacher, the net result being that most of us subsequently aced Religious Studies the following year, but had no idea how to properly punctuate in English.

The school was also very big on assemblies, having 200 or so kids sit on a hard dining room floor, mumbling some hymn or other while a teacher almost exploded with joy, hammering away at a piano. Occasionally, though, teachers would try something a bit different, and one day we were told we would be having an election.

Our class was split into groups, to form political parties. We were told we’d have to campaign, win over the electorate, and then the winners would be announced in a subsequent assembly.

My memory’s fuzzy on precisely what we were taught regarding the basics of politics, but my guess is not a lot. Instead, our ten- and eleven-year-old brains fired up, figuring out the best way to win. Each team’s tactics, it seemed, were very similar: make a load of promises and attempt to bribe the electorate. Breaktimes became a flurry of snacks (and, unless I’m misremembering, small amounts of money) being foisted on younger voters, while the promises became ever more elaborate. Post-PE showers (which, depressingly, the school didn’t offer)! A special pupils-only telephone (this was, note, 1986)! Longer break-times!

On election day, everyone got their chance to spell out their manifesto one final time, and sing a catchy election song, further ramming home the promises. Then it was time for the vote. Our party won, largely on the basis of making the most outlandish promises (although we were, it has to be said, not the best bribers—our baking skills didn’t match those of our rivals). Boom! Victory!

But any period of joy was short-lived when it suddenly became very clear we couldn’t fulfil anything we’d promised. Not only did we have no power, but the school didn’t have any extra money nor any interest in putting such promises into place. Time in the playground for a while involved attempting to placate angry voters, while our smug teacher helpfully noted that we were getting precisely what we deserved. We’d had a lesson in politics after all, and were learning the hard way.

In today’s British political landscape, I can’t help thinking that Nigel Farage and his UKIP chums were somehow taking notes the day of our election, but didn’t stick around for the aftermath. His party appears to simply suck up every policy the electorate responds negatively to, spin it and spit it out again. It’s the common-sense party, despite having no substance; and every attack on said lack of substance is waved away as some kind of coordinated smear campaign by a ‘LibLabCon’ cartel.

At tomorrow’s European elections, the party’s predicted to perform very well, despite frequent alarmingly racist comments from its members, outbursts that border on fascism, questionable activities regarding expenses, and the party leader disowning his own 2010 manifesto as “drivel”. I hope enough people vote for politicians who want to do better—and who can do better—but I’m fully expecting to be disappointed with a bunch of MEPs being elected who, if anything, have less political promise than children had that day at my old school.

May 21, 2014. Read more in: Politics

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Number crunching iPhone 6 screen resolution rumours

So 9to5 Mac’s going with the argument Apple’s next iPhone will have a 1704-by-960 display. The report might well turn out to be right, but there are some curious arguments within the text.

Apple claims that a display density over 300 PPI is considered “Retina” quality

Apple’s played fast and loose with what it deems a Retina display, and as Richard Gaywood pointed out long ago, high-res displays are reliant on context. Larger screens tend to be used further away, meaning they need a lower ppi to be considered Retina. The iPad Air, for example, clocks in at 264 ppi, but Apple’s hardly shied away from saying that device has a Retina display, despite the screen’s pixel density being lower than an iPhone’s. On that basis, there’s no reason Apple couldn’t keep much the same resolution as on the current iPhone, but just make the screen bigger.

9to5Mac, however, argues that we’re going to see 1704-by-960, and it rationalises this on the basis that it’s akin to a 3x mode; the logic is iOS has a base resolution (568-by-320), and existing Retina devices are 2x (1136-by-640). The suggestion is that in merely adding another ‘x’, things will be relatively easy for developers:

According to sources familiar with the new iPhone displays in testing, if an unoptimized iPhone 5 app is run on the iPhone 6, the app will fill the entire screen but the non-3X images within the app will be blurrier. Troughton-Smith’s applications scale well because they were built with vector graphics. This transition from 2X to 3X will be reminiscent to the transition from 1X to 2X when the first iPhones with Retina displays launched in 2010.

This seems hugely optimistic. The shift from 1x to 2x was relatively simple, in that apps could simply be doubled and still look reasonably OK. Today, however, all apps must be Retina, or they’re likely to be rejected from the App Store. Support for 1x is therefore now pretty ropey.

When it comes to 3x, then, we’d not see sharp but jagged upscaling from 1x, but a blurred mess as apps designed for existing Retina screens are upscaled to 150 per cent. Perhaps this is what Apple has in mind, but if so, countless games and apps are going to look like absolute crap on such a display. And even with iOS 7’s design dialling down reliance on texture-heavy raster-graphics, adding yet another resolution and, potentially, another scaling factor is something likely to have developers headdesking until their foreheads bleed.

May 14, 2014. Read more in: Apple

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Amazon’s Fire TV shows it’s time for the Apple TV to embrace gaming

My latest piece for Stuff explores why it’s now time for Apple to get serious about gaming on the Apple TV. Amazon’s Fire TV is a bold play for the living room, and although everyone won’t be lobbing their consoles out of the window to embrace a cheap-looking controller and ported 99-cent mobile titles, the market is wide. Amazon with its latest black box could grab that sector of the market looking to extend their telly, access digital content, and play the odd game here and there.

Apple had mobile gaming sewn up a couple of years ago. At the time, it seemed like it would never be caught. Now, the store is mired in clones, Apple’s gaming direction is messy and unclear, and the Apple TV barely plays a part, with even AirPlay to the device having perceptible lag. Perhaps the company genuinely doesn’t care, but it probably should. Gaming drives a lot of purchasing decisions, and Apple could soon find itself losing ground to rivals in spaces it should be dominating.

April 24, 2014. Read more in: Apple

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Apple’s accessibility strides, ‘hidden’ settings, and the dev response we need

I’ve written another piece for The Guardian on iOS accessibility. This concentrates on motion sickness issues and affordances. In the latter case, Aral Balkan weighs in on the new Button Shapes feature, which lurks in Settings > Accessibility. It adds a grey background to some buttons and hypertext-like link underlines to others. It seems a bit of a mess and strikes me that Apple still hasn’t really figured out how to make interactive components in iOS 7 both beautiful and usable. Hiding away a means of making controls more intuitive also seems perverse on a platform that, as Balkan notes, prides itself on being intuitive.

Apple’s direction in terms of balance accessibility is far better. Back in September, the system was making people sick, and I was fortunate enough to report on this for both Stuff and The Guardian (the Stuff piece being, as far as I know, the first of its kind for any major publication). Although Apple’s inclusive stance regarding accessibility was working well for motor, vision and hearing problems, it seemed balance had been ignored entirely—something I’d also found problematic with OS X. Although I had reason to be cautiously optimistic this would change, I was surprised it took Apple under a month to address the biggest concerns.

With the latest fix, the vast majority of nausea and vertigo triggers are now gone, but that’s not really the end of the story. The buck is now passed to developers, who need to do more to make their apps inclusive. Where Apple provides the tools, developers should ensure their apps are suitable for people with vision, hearing and motor problems. Where Apple doesn’t provide the tools, settings should be supplied accordingly. It’s all very well having bits of interface bouncing around playfully, but also consider an option to turn that off. By default, nothing will change, but the upshot is people like me and possibly millions of others will be able to use your app without accidentally triggering vertigo symptoms that could last for minutes, hours or even days.

March 13, 2014. Read more in: Apple

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Who cares about Office for iPad?

According to the rumour mill, Office for iPad will land this July. Unfortunately for Microsoft, not July 2010, when it might have mattered.

John Gruber explains the problem:

From what I’ve heard, Office for iPad is impressive. It’s been held up chiefly by internal politics.

Expanding on that a little, Microsoft has two major products: Windows and Office. For a long while, it wanted Office everywhere, but then for its own products unwisely forced Windows everywhere. The two collided, resulting in Microsoft holding back Office for iOS in order to use it as a differentiator for its own tablet devices.

This was a spectacularly dumb move, because it merely trained people that they didn’t need Office. Apple’s suite of office apps suffices for the most part on the iPad, and many people have also gravitated towards the free Google Docs, which works pretty well on tablets. But had Office arrived within months of the iPad’s release—or even a year—it could have been a game-changer and a cash-cow for Microsoft.

Even today, I don’t doubt that Office for iPad will sell to some extent. But I’ve a feeling it will—regardless of quality—in many cases sell to people who think they need it, but then don’t actually use it. In plenty of cases, though, I suspect people just won’t buy it at all, especially if it’s tied to a subscription service.

Still, at least Office for iPad will stop people arguing the iPad can’t be used for serious work—although they’ll no doubt smugly use the headline “Now Office for iPad is here, the iPad can finally be used for real work”, thereby leading them to be strangled with a spare iOS device charging cable.

February 19, 2014. Read more in: Apple

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