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Brent Simmons’s weblog.

Apple Privacy Changes 4 Jul 2020, 2:24 am

I was actually surprised at the changes Apple is making to stop tracking. It’s not enough to stop tracking on the web, and it’s not enough to stop tracking in iOS apps — which is happening probably way more than you think it is — so Apple did both.

While I know that Apple takes privacy seriously in a way other large tech companies don’t, I still didn’t expect them to go this far. I’m glad they did.

My pet theory is that this set of changes is the most important thing to come from WWDC this year. These privacy changes will, I think, have far more impact on the tech industry, on society, and on our lives, than SwiftUI or a new processor for Macs or anything like that. (As fun as those things are.)

It’s always going to be an arms race, I suppose — see this press release from Kochava:

Options exist to perform identity resolution using hashed-email-to-device linkages, device connections by household, and other first-party identifiers key in solving for identity resolution and attribution.

[…]

Further scarcity of the IDFA forces greater reliance on attribution by fingerprinting. Fingerprinting is a probabilistic method of attribution based on device IP & user agent that’s less precise than deterministic attribution based on the globally unique IDFA. Nonetheless, a high degree of accuracy is still maintainable with fingerprinting…

IDFA stands for “identifier for advertisers.” One of the changes Apple is making is that when an iOS app asks for the IDFA, the system will ask the user to consent to being tracked. When consent is not given, the IDFA will just be a string of zeros.

It’s self-evident that pretty much everyone will say no, which makes the IDFA useless. App makers will want to avoid even the shame of asking for consent.

Kochava is saying — and I’m betting they’re not the only company saying this — that they’ll find a way around the IDFApocalypse to identify users. They will probably succeed, too, at least to a certain degree.

However, Apple has shown that it has a mandate to fight, and the will, and it doesn’t mind dropping down some very large technical hammers to protect our privacy.

* * *

It’s important to note — before people get stigmatized unfairly — that most of the tracking and metrics collected by various websites and apps is done so with innocent motives. Marketers want to know which campaigns are more effective; they want to get the most bang for their buck. Product designers want to know which features are more popular; they want to know what’s working for people and what isn’t. Publishers want to know which pages people visit and how they got there. Engineers — like me — want to be warned of potential problems.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting those things! The people who want those things aren’t trying to snoop on people or anything — they’re using data to do their jobs better.

The problem is that the tech industry, in order to serve these needs, did what it always does: code up the thing, take the biggest bite it can, and hope to make enough money, and amass enough power, to be able to repel any future ethical distractions. So now we have mass surveillance.

But Apple recognizes that there’s still a need to know, for instance, which of your ad campaigns is doing best — and so there’s SKAdNetwork, which is a thing I don’t totally understand yet, but I get that it answers marketing questions in the aggregate (which is all marketers should want) and doesn’t violate privacy.

I like that Apple knows that it’s not enough to just shut down the bad actors — people who have questions to answer, but who have no interest in violating privacy, need solutions.

PS See the WWDC 2020 video Build trust through better privacy for way more about all this.

I Had Been Worried About the Mac 3 Jul 2020, 5:19 am

I spent the month or so before WWDC like you — suffering through a pandemic, outraged by violent racism, worried about democracy. Heartsick and appalled, mad and sad.

Nothing has changed since WWDC, either. Except for one thing. A small thing in comparison, but important to me — I had been very worried that Apple would, as part of the ARM transition, lock down macOS so that only Mac App Store apps would be permitted.

That didn’t happen. And Apple employees explained that it’s not going to happen — and, given that it didn’t happen this time, given that they had this chance, I believe them.

I understand adding security features to the Mac. But to take away our freedom to create whatever Mac apps we want, and distribute them without Apple’s, or anyone’s, seal of approval, would be to take the heart out of my career.

But that’s not what happened! I feel great about this. I’m going to stop worrying about the Mac.

The New Way of Making Apps

I’m excited about the new features in SwiftUI this year. This reminds me of the early 2000s when I switched from writing Mac Toolbox apps to Cocoa apps. It was a whole new way of writing apps, and it was so much better.

I jumped right on it, back then — and I feel no less enthusiastic for this new new thing than I did for Cocoa almost 20 years ago.

Apple has essentially said, I believe, that the way we’ve been making apps is all legacy. AppKit and UIKit both. SwiftUI is the future.

NetNewsWire and SwiftUI

We re-jiggered the NetNewsWire roadmap somewhat.

  • Mac/iOS 5.0.x: bug fix releases
  • Mac 5.1: Feedly, feature parity with iOS
  • Mac/iOS 5.5: iCloud sync, other integrations and features
  • Mac/iOS 6.0: SwiftUI, features tbd

The thing to call out here is NetNewsWire 6.0. We’re already at work building a SwiftUI app where Mac and iOS share as much UI code as possible.

The work is going very quickly: I’m amazed. If you want to follow along, or even help, take a look at the swiftui branch.

I’m super-psyched for this. If it means Mac and iOS can share most of their code, and we can add features more quickly (because SwiftUI makes for so much faster development), then we can ship more and better versions of NetNewsWire more often. I want that!

Reporting in After More Than a Month at Audible 3 Jul 2020, 2:20 am

I’ve been reluctant to write about how my new job is going — I don’t want to look like the guy who drank the kool-aid, and I certainly don’t want to be the guy who couldn’t read the room during our new multi-crisis normal.

But, maybe, some good news, even if for just one fortunate person, is okay to write about? I’m not even sure. But some of my friends have suggested I write it up, so I am.

* * *

Anyway. It’s going well! I love the job and the people and what we do.

Telling stories by way of human voice is among the most elemental and powerful of arts, and I believe that stories transform lives. My work at Audible is motivated by the same thing in me that makes me make NetNewsWire (an RSS reader), that made me create MarsEdit (a blog editor), that makes me write this blog.

Audible acts like a company with a mission. It seems like every company claims solidarity and support these days, and most of these claims are shallow and opportunistic. But Audible is committed to revitalizing Newark, NJ — from hiring locally, to Newark Working Kitchens, to Newark Venture Partners, and plenty more — and it’s helping, for real. This is not some new face for the current moment: it’s part of the company’s DNA and history.

And if you read the Audible blog, you’ll find that the company is dedicated to bringing us the stories that need telling and that urgently need to be heard.

It’s a good place that’s doing good, and I am proud to work there.

* * *

I’m on iOS. I’m senior enough not to be embedded in a scrum team, but I’m an individual contributor, not a manager. My job, broadly speaking, is to help the team increase velocity and quality. (My job isn’t strictly limited to iOS, but that’s where my focus is.)

My first month was spent meeting people (over video; via Amazon Chime) and learning things. The largest company I’ve ever worked at had about 100 people: Audible is much larger — 20 times larger? I’m totally just guessing — and that means I’ve had to learn about the ways of large companies. (Also remember that Amazon is part of this, usually in the background.)

I’m starting to be able to contribute a little — just recently I committed my first code. In any given month I might be writing a ton of code, or hardly any, or somewhere in between. While writing code is important, my job is more about things like architecture and best practices — it’s about finding ways to make the team better.

My background leading the NetNewsWire open source project is very relevant here. I learned, while running the NetNewsWire project, that people will rally to a higher standard if you can show them that it’s possible to reach it and then lead them there.

During my first month I felt like a detective from an Agatha Christie book, interviewing people and taking notes — What happened? How did we get here? What the heck is an ASIN? Those were the easy things to learn, and the hard lessons, where I learn how to take my experience and help lead us to that higher standard, are to come.

But that’s also the challenge! And the fun. It’s why I signed up.

* * *

I love this job every day except when I have to get up early due to time zone issues. Sheesh! (This happens just once or twice a month, seems like, so it’s not at all bad. It’s fine. But I Am Not a Morning Person.)

* * *

I haven’t noticed that the people I work with have a lot of public social media presence. (Maybe I just haven’t gotten clued-in yet?) But here’s Jeff Merola, the engineer I work most closely with. He’s smarter than I am, which is wonderful.

Accessibility and the Dynamic Nature of Objective-C 2 Jul 2020, 6:48 am

Doug Russell, who used to work on accessibility at Apple, writes:

some of the code that powers accessibility on apple platforms is just disgusting to look at and to work on.

most of the code that makes apple software accessible lives in what’s called an accessibility bundle. without diving into the minutia of the thing, bundles are a way to load something akin to a plugin into a cocoa app at runtime if an assistive technology is activated. it involves manipulating the app or framework class hierarchy and using objective-c dynamism to read app state and build up a usable accessibility hierarchy. insert a super class here, read an instance variable there, swizzle in a method and store the state for it in associated objects.

In other words — Objective-C and its runtime play a big role in making Apple’s great accessibility possible.

What happens when that’s not really a thing anymore?

Work at Universe 26 Jun 2020, 2:14 am

When I was looking for a job, I talked with the folks at Universe a few times. I love what they’re doing — an iOS app that helps people make websites — and I really enjoyed talking with the team. Such a great bunch.

The good news is: they’re still hiring. They have a bunch of jobs, even — iOS, Swift backend, database, product design, marketing, and support. Check ’em out!

PS Here are their key values.

Somewhat Live-ish and Around the Same Time as WWDC 24 Jun 2020, 7:33 pm

You’ll recall that James Dempsey does a benefit concert every year: Live Near WWDC.

Well, this year it’s not exactly live. But it’s still happening!

You may see me in the video. Wearing a Panama hat and dark shirt. Playing guitar and/or keyboards. But watch it anyway. 🐥🎸

WWDC 2020 and NetNewsWire 23 Jun 2020, 12:59 am

I love seeing so much attention paid to the Mac this year!

I’ve applied for a Developer Transition Kit for NetNewsWire. My thinking: since NetNewsWire is open source, other developers can, and do, look at the code to help them write Mac apps. The sooner we have NetNewsWire updated, the sooner it’s available as an example for other developers.

Other thoughts…

The new Mac operating system, Big Sur, big number 11, Onze-y-baby, has some appearance and behavior changes which of course we’ll adopt. One of NetNewsWire’s values has always been to stick pretty close to Apple’s design for the platform. We do that because, well, we figure users of a given platform actually like the platform design, and that’s why they picked it. (It also tends to mean less work, which is a good thing.)

We’ll not be switching to Catalyst. It appears to be much-improved, but standards for a good Mac app are high, and I’m skeptical that Catalyst is all the way there yet.

Instead, our plan is to converge our UI code over time by using SwiftUI. This way we can go view-by-view. (It’s worth noting that we already do share some UI code: the article view is mostly shared, for instance, even without using SwiftUI or Catalyst.)

I’m looking forward to the rest of the week. I especially want to hear more about the new outline view in SwiftUI. 🐣🐥

The App Store Doesn’t Make Apps Safe 21 Jun 2020, 9:47 pm

Another misconception about the App Store is that it makes apps secure and safe. It doesn’t.

There are things that do make apps safe. No matter how an iOS app is distributed, it runs in a sandbox. An app requires permission from the user to do things like access the address book or microphone. This is just how iOS works: it has nothing to do with the App Store.

The App Store review process probably does run some kind of automated check on the app to make sure it’s not using private APIs and doesn’t contain some kind of malware. However, this could be run as part of a notarization process — this doesn’t have to be tied to the App Store. (Mac apps outside of the Mac App Store go through a notarization process.)

Otherwise, App Store review is looking for basic functionality and making sure the app follows the guidelines.

As far as checking that an app doesn’t crash on launch — thanks? I guess? As for following the guidelines: the guidelines are about protecting Apple’s interests and not about consumers.

I would like to say that the App Store filters out bad behavior, but I don’t think it does. We’ve all seen various scam apps, and we’ve seen otherwise well-behaved apps do things like abuse the push notifications system.

It probably catches some egregious scams that we never hear about. I’ll apply the benefit of the doubt. But it didn’t catch that, for instance, Path was uploading the user’s address book. The community outside Apple catches these things, and Apple changes how iOS works so that these things can’t happen without user permission.

And, at the same time, the App Store is a magnet for scam apps. Even in a world where side-loading is possible, scam apps would stick to the App Store because that’s their best shot at getting users to stumble across them.

My grandmother

People have asked if I’d want my grandmother to download iOS apps outside the App Store. The answer is yes. That was how she downloaded her Mac apps, after all. (She was an avid Mac user.)

I’d feel secure knowing that the apps, just by virtue of being iOS apps, are sandboxed and have to ask for permissions. (I’m also imagining a Mac-like notarization step, for additional security. I think this is reasonable.)

In other words: Apple has done a very good job with iOS app security and safety. The fact that we think this has something to do with the App Store is a trick, though.

(I’m not arguing for getting rid of the App Store, by the way. I’m arguing for allowing an alternative.)

The iOS App Store Brings Users Only Because It’s the Only Choice 20 Jun 2020, 11:45 pm

One might argue that developers should love the App Store because it brings the users.

AppleInsider writes about the App Store, Hey app, and David Heinemeier Hansson:

Like any other product or service, Hey has to persuade people that they have a problem it can solve, and that it’s worth paying for. You can’t persuade people of anything, though, if they don’t know about it. And then if you do persuade them, you can’t profit without a way to get your product into their hands.

His first argument against the App Store on Apple’s cut got Hansson and Hey a lot more notice than it might have. But it’s the App Store that gets his product to people. It’s the App Store that means if he persuades people it’s worth it, they can instantly have it on their iOS device.

This is a misconception that many people have — they think the App Store brings some kind of exceptional distribution and marketing that developers wouldn’t have on their own.

It’s just not true. It lacks even a grain of truth.

Setting up distribution of an app is easy and cheap. I do it for NetNewsWire for Mac with no additional costs beyond what I already pay to host this blog. This was true in 2005 as much as now — distribution is not some exceptional value the App Store provides.

And then there’s marketing. Sure, being featured used to mean something to revenue, but it hasn’t meant that much beyond just ego points in years. To be on the App Store is to be lost within an enormous sea of floating junk. No matter how well you do at your app description and screenshots — even if you get some kind of feature — your app will not be found by many people.

Build it (and upload it to the App Store) and they will not come.

Instead, you have to do marketing on your own, on the web and on social media, outside of the App Store. Just like always. The App Store brings nothing to the table.

So while it’s true to say that all of an iOS app’s users come via the App Store, it’s only true because there’s no other option.

If I could distribute my iOS app outside of the App Store, I would. I’d switch in a heartbeat. Even though it’s free and money isn’t my issue. It would make my work as an app maker easier.

 20 Jun 2020, 8:47 pm

I can’t reconcile in my mind the tension between Apple as the think different company, the pirates, the rebels, the company at the intersection of tech and liberal arts — and Apple the company that runs this legalistic, nitpicky, greedy, inhuman, happy-face Kafka App Store.

One Advantage of the App Store That’s Gone 20 Jun 2020, 8:30 pm

The best part of the App Store, years ago, from this developer’s point of view, was that it was easy to charge money for an app. No need to set up a system — just choose the price, and Apple takes care of everything. So easy!

But these days, in almost all cases, you’d be ill-advised to charge up front for your app. You need a trial version and in-app purchasing (IAP) and maybe a subscription.

Here’s the thing: this is a massive pain in the ass to implement, test, and support — Apple does not make it easy. It could, I think, make certain common patterns basically turn-key (like trial versions + IAP), but it hasn’t.

This means that, for many developers, the very best thing about the App Store — the thing that actually helped their business — is gone.

And it’s not just gone — it’s probably actually more difficult doing this stuff via the App Store than doing the same things (trial, IAP, subscription) using non-Apple systems such as Stripe.

(And, as a bonus, Stripe isn’t going to review your app’s business model and tell you no.)

Reading, Listening 7 Jun 2020, 12:00 am

Not for the first time — but hopefully with more depth and breadth this time, and greater understanding — I’m reading and listening to Black authors and voices.

Anti-racism book recommendations are just a search away. Here’s one I found on the Chicago Public Library’s site.

Black Lives Matter.

Why NetNewsWire Is Fast 19 May 2020, 2:14 am

NetNewsWire is fast because performance is one of our core values. Being fast is part of the very definition of the app.

I suspect that it’s hard to do this any other way. If you take a month or two to speed things up, from time to time, your app will always be — at best — just kind of heading toward satisfactory, but never to arrive.

The best general advice I can give is just this: make sure performance is part of the foundation of your app. Make sure it‘s part of every decision every day.

Make sure, in other words, that performance isn’t just a topping — it’s the pizza.

Below are some of the specific reasons NetNewsWire is fast. Because NetNewsWire is — like many apps these days — basically a fancy database browser where data comes from the web, some of these will apply to other apps.

The below items are in no particular order.

Fast RSS and Atom Parsing

The most painful way to parse XML is with a SAX parser — but it’s also how you’ll get the best performance and use the least memory. So we use SAX in our RSParser framework.

On my 2012 iMac, parsing a local copy of some past instance of the Daring Fireball Atom feed — relatively large at 112K in size — happens in 0.009 seconds.

That’s fast, but we do another thing as well: run the parser in the background on a serial queue. Since parsing is a self-contained operation — we input some data and get back objects — there are no threading issues.

Conditional GET and Content Hashes

The parsers are fast — but we also do our best to skip parsing entirely when we can. There are two ways we do that.

We use conditional GET, which gives the server the chance to respond with a 304 Not Modified, and no content, when a feed hasn’t changed since the last time we asked for it. We skip parsing in this case, obviously.

We also create a hash of the raw feed content whenever we download a feed. If the hash matches the hash from the last time, then we know the content hasn’t been modified, and we skip parsing.

Serial Queues

The parser isn’t the only code we run on a serial queue. When an operation can be made self-contained — when it can just do a thing and then call back to the main thread, without threading issues — we use a serial queue if there’s any chance it could noticeably block the main thread.

The key is, of course, making sure your operations are in fact self-contained. They shouldn’t trigger KVO or other kinds of notifications as they do their work.

(A simple example of a background thing, besides feed parsing, is creating thumbnails of feed icons.)

We Avoid the Single-Change-Plus-Notifications Trap

Here’s an example of a trap that’s easy to fall into. Say a user is marking an article as read. Calling article.read = true triggers, via KVO or notifications or something, things like database updates, user interface updates, unread count updating, undo stack maintenance, etc.

Now say you’re marking all articles in the current timeline as read. You could call article.read = true for each article — and, for each article, trigger a whole bunch of work. This can be very, very slow.

We have specific APIs for actions like this, and those APIs expect a collection of objects. The same API that marks a single article as read is used to mark 10,000 articles as read. This way the database is updated once, the unread counts are updated once, and we push just one action on the undo stack.

Coalescing

We also try to coalesce other kinds of work. For instance, during a refresh, the app could recalculate the unread count on every single change — but this could mean a ton of work.

So, instead, we coalesce these — we make it so that recalculating unread counts happens not more often than once every 0.25 seconds (for instance). This can make a huge difference.

Custom Database

For an app that is, again, just a fancy database browser, this is where the whole thing can be won or lost.

While Core Data is great, we use SQLite more directly, via FMDB, because this gives us the ability to treat our database as a database. We can optimize our schema, indexes, and queries in ways that are outside the scope of Core Data. (Remember that Core Data manages a graph of objects: it’s not a database.)

We use various tools — such as EXPLAIN QUERY PLAN — to make sure we’ve made fetching, counting, and updating fast and efficient.

We do our own caching. We run the database on a serial queue so we don’t block the main thread. We use structs instead of classes, as much as possible, for model objects. (Not sure that matters to performance: we just happen to like structs.)

To make searching fast, we use SQLite’s Full Text Search extension.

I could, and probably should, write more articles going into details here. The database work, more than anything else, is why NetNewsWire is fast.

Sets and Dictionaries

We often need to look up things — a feed, given its feedID, for instance — and so we use dictionaries frequently. This is quite common in Mac and iOS programming.

What I suspect is less common is use of sets. The set is our default collection type — we never want to check to see if an array contains something, and we never want to deal with duplicate objects. These can be performance-killers.

We use arrays when some API requires an array or when we need an ordered collection (usually for the UI).

Profiler

Instead of guessing at what’s slow, we use the profiler in Instruments to find out exactly what’s slow.

The profiler is often surprising! Here’s one thing we found that we didn’t expect: hashing some of our objects was, at one point, pretty slow.

Because we use sets quite a lot, there’s a whole lot of hashing going on. We were using synthesized equality and hashability on some objects with lots of string properties — and, it turns out, hashing strings is pretty darn slow.

So, instead, we wrote our own hash function for these objects. In many cases we could hash just one string property — an article ID, for instance — instead of five or ten or more.

No Stack Views

My experience with stack views tells me that they’re excruciatingly slow. They’re just not allowed.

No Auto Layout in Table Cell Views

When people praise a timeline-based app like NetNewsWire, they often say something like “It scrolls like butter!” (I imagine butter as not actually scrolling well at all, but, yes, I get that butter is smooth.)

While we use Auto Layout plenty — it’s cool, and we like it — we don’t allow it inside table cell views. Instead, we write our own layout code.

This is not actually difficult. Maybe a little tedious, but laying out a table cell view is pretty easy, really.

I figure that optimized manual layout code is always going to be faster than a constraint solver, and that gives us an edge in smooth scrolling — and this is one of the places where an otherwise good app can fall on its face.

And: because that layout code doesn’t need a view (just an article object and a width), we can run it at any time. We use that same code to determine the height of rows without having to run an Auto Layout pass.

Caching String Sizes

Text measurement is slow — slow enough to make even manual layout too slow. In NetNewsWire we do some smart things with caching text measurement.

For example: if we know that a given string is 20pts tall when the available width is 100 and when the available width is 200, we can tell, without measuring, that it will be 20pts tall when the available width is 150.

Summary

There’s no silver bullet. Making an app fast means doing a bunch of different things — and it means paying attention to performance continuously. 🍕

Default Feeds Are Okay 19 May 2020, 12:15 am

I just heard that the default feeds in NetNewsWire are okay as-is, and I don’t need to collect permissions for Apple.

Great! I’m so pleased.

(This is a follow-up to Heads-Up to RSS Reader Authors and More on the Default Feeds Issue.)

Focusing 18 May 2020, 1:00 am

Tomorrow’s the first day at my new job. Exciting!

Starting a new job has led me to look at my entire list of responsibilities — which is too long — and figure out what I need to drop so that I can pay enough attention to the projects that need it most.

My most important projects (outside of my job) are NetNewsWire and this blog. This blog, because, well, blogging is part of how I breathe. And NetNewsWire because I love the app — and it’s a real thing in the world now, with users, a team of developers, and great features coming up.

I wanted to do another half-dozen or so apps alongside NetNewsWire, starting with Rainier, but I’m dropping development on those so I can concentrate entirely on NetNewsWire. This is personally disappointing, but it’s honest: I just don’t have time for Rainier and these other apps. Work on these would take away from NetNewsWire, and that would be wrong.

Another move I’m making: Manton Reece has agreed to take over the repo and website for JSON Feed. I’ve been the bottleneck here with a 1.1 version, and I shouldn’t be. Manton will take care of this way better than I’ve been able to. (I hope to get everything transferred over to Manton in the next few weeks.)

My New Job 12 May 2020, 7:49 pm

As of this morning the ink is all dry, and I can happily report that my new job is at Audible. I’ll be an architect on the mobile team.

I’m very excited for this job! It’s perfect for me in so many ways — not least that it’s about books.

My plan is for this to be my last job — I plan to work at Audible until I retire. I start Monday. 🐣🐥🕶

NetNewsWire 5.0.1 for iOS Released 12 May 2020, 7:37 pm

While I’ve been job-hunting, the mighty NetNewsWire team has kept rolling — and today we published the first update to the iOS app.

This update fixes bugs, makes the app faster, and adds polish. Read the (rather lengthy) change notes for the full scoop.

We did add one new feature: on the settings screen you can choose which color palette to use: go with the current system setting or specify light or dark.

If you’re already running NetNewsWire, it should update in the normal way. If you haven’t tried it yet, go get it — for free — on the App Store.

My Mac App Store Debate 12 May 2020, 6:53 pm

The question of publishing NetNewsWire on the Mac App Store won’t be decided until the minute that it’s actually published there.

If it ever is, that is. I go back and forth on it.

Here’s the thing to remember: our goal is to get as many people using RSS readers as possible. Period. Keep this goal in mind.

Seems Obvious

Publishing on the Mac App Store would mean that some people would see the app who might never have seen it otherwise.

There are also people who, due to personal or workplace policy, download apps only from the Mac App Store.

Publishing on the Mac App Store seems like a no-brainer, then. We’d get more people using RSS readers — we’d further our goal.

But it’s not so simple.

Trade-offs

As with everything else, there are trade-offs. There are costs and benefits.

The benefit is reaching more people. There are several costs.

Some are right up front: we’d have to sandbox the app and test it. We’d have to do a set of screenshots for the Mac App Store; we’d have to write the description text for the page.

But I don’t mind one-time costs that much when there’s a solid benefit.

There are ongoing costs, though: we’d have two configurations of the Mac app, one for the Mac App Store and one for direct download, and we’d have continue to maintain and test both. This is kind of a pain, but not terrible.

The Real Cost

There’s a cost that’s worse than the technical and testing costs: I would have to deal personally with the stress and uncertainty of a second App Store. The NetNewsWire team is amazing and does a ton of great work — but the team can’t do this part. It’s on me.

The issue with the default feeds reminds me that, at any time, even for a small bug-fix update, App Store review may decide that an app can’t be published as-is for some reason.

You‘d be right to think that, with an issue like this, it would come up the same on both App Stores — solve it in one place and you’ve solved it in both. It’s not like I’d have double the issues.

But sometimes the issue actually is platform-specific. For example: NetNewsWire Lite 4.0 for Mac was held up by Mac App Store review for three weeks due to a bug in WebKit. (Yes, this was nine years ago.)

This is supposed to be fun. It’s work that I love doing for a great cause. And I just keep thinking that dealing with the iOS App Store is enough to ask of me, and there’s no requirement that I go through this with the Mac App Store too. The personal cost is just too high.

Other Ways to Achieve Our Goal

We can achieve our goal in other ways: ship Feedly syncing on the Mac, ship iCloud syncing on both apps, continue making the app more appealing to more people. Do more marketing.

In other words, publishing on the Mac App Store is not the only lever we have, and I’m leaning toward just not doing it. At least not this year.

We’ve got other, better things to do — and I’ll enjoy those things a hell of a lot more, and I think you will too.

🐣🎸

On Talking with the Duet Folks 12 May 2020, 4:19 am

One of the teams I talked to during my job hunt — and that didn’t put me through a scary tech interview :) — was the folks at Duet.

They make an app where you can use an iPad as a second screen for your Mac. They also support Android and Windows. (You should check out their apps.)

I thoroughly enjoyed talking with the team, and I believe I would have been very happy working there.

They’re looking for a Mac developer. Maybe you? Get in touch via their contact page.

More on the Default Feeds Issue 12 May 2020, 3:08 am

Here’s the latest on the story from yesterday.

NetNewsWire 5.0.1 for iOS was approved for the App Store this morning, and I assumed that was the end of it. I figured this whole thing was just an error.

But later today I heard from Apple that, while this latest version has been approved, the app is now under further review for this issue.

This isn’t quite over yet — but at least we could ship 5.0.1, so that’s cool, and I’m glad.

More Details

The issue really is about the default feeds. They’re added by default on the first run of the app.

Apple suggested some options — things I could do if, after further review, they decide that I need to bring the app into legal compliance:

  • Provide documentation (to Apple) expressing permission to use those feeds as defaults
  • Have the user, on first run, pick from a list of these feeds
  • For these feeds, show only a title, and then link out to Safari

For now I’m not doing any of those things, since Apple’s review is ongoing. I’ll wait for the review to complete.

If the review completes and I do need to do something, I’ll take the first option: I’ll get the necessary documentation.

(Yes, I could change the UX instead. But I don’t want to — the app works the way I think is best. You could debate whether I’m right or wrong on that point, but there’s no debating that this is the UX I want.)

I’m Not Actually Against Getting Permission

As I wrote on the NetNewsWire FAQ about the default feeds:

We change the feeds from time to time. We don’t have any arrangements with the feed owners, though we usually ask permission — unless it’s something like Daring Fireball or Six Colors where it would obviously be no problem.

The authors of Daring Fireball, Six Colors, and a few other sites are friends, and I don’t need to bug them to ask permission. There are other default feeds where I know the people less well (or not at all), and I have asked permission from people — not because I was worried legally but because it seemed like basic courtesy. I don’t think anyone’s ever said no, but I did want to give them the chance.

But can I find all these conversations, and can I turn those conversations over to Apple without asking the other parties?

I don’t think so. So this would mean going through and getting explicit permission from a dozen-ish different people and turning copies over to Apple.

Which is fine. I can do that if Apple decides they need that documentation. It’s not onerous.

What Still Rubs Me the Wrong Way

I’m trying to figure out what bothers me. I think there are two things.

One is just that the App Store has always seemed rather arbitrary. The guidelines don’t even have to change for unseen policies to change, and it’s impossible to know in advance if a thing you’re doing will be okay and stay okay. (Recall that NetNewsWire has been doing the same thing with default feeds for 18 years.)

This gets really tiring, because every time we submit an app — even just a bug-fix release, like 5.0.1 is — I have to deal with the anxiety as I wonder what’s going to happen this time.

The other issue is a little harder to explain, but it goes like this:

If a site provides a public feed, it’s reasonable to assume that RSS readers might include that feed in some kind of discovery mechanism — they might even include it as a default. This is the public, open web, after all.

Now, if NetNewsWire were presenting itself as the official app version of Daring Fireball, for instance, then that would be dishonest. But it’s not, and that’s quite clear.

To nevertheless require documentation here is for Apple to use overly-fussy legal concerns in order to infantilize an app developer who can, and does, and rather would, take care of these things himself.

In other words: lay off, I want to say. I’m an adult with good judgment and I’ve already dealt with this issue, and it’s mine to deal with.

Heads-Up to RSS Reader Authors 11 May 2020, 2:45 am

Update the next morning (May 11): NetNewsWire 5.0.1 for iOS has been approved for the App Store — which happened before I had the chance to provide documentation. I will assume that the policy enforcement change described below was just an error.


NetNewsWire 5.0.1 for iOS is delayed due to an apparently new, or newly-enforced, issue: if an RSS reader includes default feeds, Apple will ask for documentation that says you have permission to include those default feeds.

The first RSS app that got tagged with this, that I know of, was NewsWave. We submitted NetNewsWire 5.0.1 for iOS for review a couple days ago and had the same issue.

Specifically, it’s in violation of legal guideline 5.2.2:

5.2.2 Third-Party Sites/Services: If your app uses, accesses, monetizes access to, or displays content from a third-party service, ensure that you are specifically permitted to do so under the service’s terms of use. Authorization must be provided upon request.

I need this for the default feeds. A couple of those are mine, and so I need about a dozen documents to cover all the default feeds.

I could complain about this — the default feeds have never been an issue in NetNewsWire’s 18 years of life — but I’m done and can’t even right now. I’ll do what I have to do.

I do have a follow-up question, though: could an RSS reader contain some kind of directory of feeds, in order to help people with feed discovery?

NetNewsWire of Old had this, and some kind of modern version would be a good idea. We’ve been talking about it. But if we have to get documented permission for every single feed in the directory, we probably wouldn’t do it.

PS If you write an RSS reader for Mac or iOS, and want to ask me any questions about this, feel free to email me.

The Ideal iPhone App First-Run Experience Is None At All 9 May 2020, 8:06 pm

Consider the person who finds your app on the iOS App Store. They decide they want your app: they tap the get or purchase button.

The app downloads — hopefully quickly; hopefully you‘ve made it small, because you’ve pictured this moment and you care about even this aspect of the user experience — and then the user taps the Open button.

They’ve already waited to see the app. They’re excited to see what it’s like and get started using it!

And, now that it’s here, you can put a bunch of obstacles in their way — which will cause you to lose some of these people — or you can satisfy their interest and curiosity right away by getting them into the app.

* * *

Here’s me: when I download an app with a first-run tutorial, I try to find a way to short-circuit it and get to the actual app. If I can’t, I just race through it, knowing I wouldn’t have remembered any of it anyway.

Either I can figure out the app later or I can’t.

Similarly, if an app has first-run setup to do, I try to avoid it. If it has first-run setup and a tutorial, I’ll just give up unless I know for absolute sure that I want this app.

* * *

Isn’t there some quote, maybe even from Steve Jobs, about apps early in the day of the App Store, that went something like this? “iPhone apps should be so easy to use that they don’t need Help.”

I’ve always thought to myself, since then, that if I see a first-run tutorial, they blew it. Apps should be designed so that you can figure out the basics quickly, and then find, through progressive disclosure, more advanced features.

It seems to me that the best first-run experience is to get people into the app as quickly as possible, because that’s where they want to be.

They’ve already waited long enough — finding the app, downloading it — and now you want to delay the joy even longer, and thereby tarnish or even risk it? Don’t do it!

Remember that people are busy, often distracted, and there are zillions of other apps. Your app is not the world. The person is the world.

* * *

Also:

Remember that every single thing in your app sends a message. A first-run tutorial sends the message that your app has a steep learning curve. Definitely a turn-off.

It provokes anxiety in the user immediately, in two related ways: 1) “Will I ever be able to learn this apparently hard-to-use app?” and 2) “Will I remember any of this tutorial at all? Do I need to get out pen and paper and take notes?”

And that’s the first impression. Your app makes the user anxious.

What Happened When I Looked at Two Mac Apps Today 8 May 2020, 12:40 am

I’m not going to name names here. Don’t worry. :)

I’m in the market for a Mac app for _____. It’s a not-uncommon need, and so I figured I’d have some good choices.

I’d also like an iOS app that syncs with that Mac app — but the Mac app is the more important of the two, because I sit in front of a Mac all day. (To me. Some people are iOS-first, which is totally cool.)

I downloaded and tried a couple apps. One required an account just to try the app, which pissed me off, but I did it anyway.

Window Resizing Test

The first thing I tried, with each app, was to resize the window. This is a good test because I get frustrated with sluggish apps: window resizing is a decent way to get some idea of how the app performs.

I know I’m not playing fair — I’m on a 2013 MacBook Air — but the app I write is fast on this machine, and other apps should be too.

Both apps were sluggish with window resizing. They were bad enough that I could have just stopped right there.

But it was actually worse than that.

With one of the apps, the upper position of the window could actually change during window resizing. It could even go offscreen. I don’t even know how that bug is possible.

The other app was almost as bad: the upper position of the window would sometimes jump down around 20 pixels then back up, real fast. It made the window seem to flicker. Nasty.

The basics of window resizing behavior should be impossible to mess up — AppKit should be handling this. If it’s messed up, then something in the app is fighting the frameworks. That’s a bad sign for the quality of the rest of the app.

Undo Test

I picked an action that would be 1) super-common and 2) something that every user should expect to be undo-able.

In one app, I did the thing and then chose Undo. It didn’t do anything that I could see — the Undo command was available, but had no visible effect. I did Undo again. No visible change. God knows what was happening.

In the other app, Undo just wasn’t available. This is actually better than a faulty Undo — but, still, it’s not good.

That Was Pretty Much It

I poked around a little more, enough to find some additional bugs, and then I trashed both apps. I deleted the account I had had to create for the one app.

By not paying attention to the basics of a good Mac app, each of these apps lost a potential customer who’s 1) happy to financially support app development, and 2) who has a blog that a bunch of people in our community read, where he likes to praise things that are good.

Maybe that’s not worth it? But doing a not-good Mac app is somehow worth it? I don’t understand.

Interview Loops These Days 7 May 2020, 3:15 am

As part of my job hunt — about which I have good news, but I don’t want to say until it’s really officially official — I’ve done a few interview “loops” with large companies.

I’m not going to give away anything about who the companies are or the people or teams involved, but I can talk a little about what it’s like to do these in this first dreadful half of 2020. Or at least what it’s like for me.

Everyone’s Home

The first thing is: the loop is over video. These used to be onsites, of course, and now they’re virtual. Get used to seeing people’s couches and bookshelves. The various video systems seemed pretty similar.

Instead of a whiteboard, there’s a shared text editor on a web page. Different companies use different products, but these also seem to be pretty similar. When I was typing in the editor, I didn’t really pay attention to the video, which was fine.

The video apps also had the ability to do screen sharing — so, on a few occasions, I turned on screen sharing and actually built a small app in Xcode.

The questions were otherwise about code, design, and behavior, which is no different from any other year.

The toughest ones for me are about the code — there might be a clever way to go from my simple O(n2) solution to O(n), say, but these are the kind of problems where I have to turn off all sound in the room and go distraction-free to solve. With another person or two there I freeze.

The coding questions where we built something in Xcode were much more fun. Seems like a good way to make people comfortable and let them show how they naturally work.

Each interview lasted around 45 minutes to an hour.

Some of the loops I did in a single day of five to six hours of interviews and a short lunch break. I’ve also done loops split over two days. I think I prefer the two-days approach, since by the last hours on an all-in-one-day loop I was tired.

The Last Time for Me

My hope is that I never go through another one of these again. I prepared as much as I could. I did questions on LeetCode. I bought and read all of Data Structures & Algorithms in Swift — which is a good book, and I recommend it to everybody. I did a course on interview design questions. I did a bunch of other research. It all helped — and it helped especially with confidence.

One of the things to remember, if you’re doing one of these, is that people want you to succeed. They’re hoping they can hire you. Don’t forget that.

Memory Hole 3 May 2020, 2:27 am

I knew about the 1918 pandemic — but not really. It was just kind of a fact with no details filled in and nothing important attached to it.

I’m a big fan of American art and literature of the period, and, while the war is frequently referenced, the pandemic is barely mentioned. If ever. I don’t remember it coming up in The Great Gatsby or anything else.

But wasn’t this a massive event? Wikipedia tells us it lasted at least a year, infected about a third of the world, and killed from 17 million to 100 million people.

That’s enormous — but it was basically just jotted-down and then erased from the popular memory, it seems.

* * *

I’ve already forgotten March — all I remember is that it felt like it lasted an eon. Much of April is a blur.

My theory: there will be no demand for novels or movies or TV shows that remind us of all this.

We’re living through a time we’re going to try to forget, as if we’re under some kind of anesthesia that makes us forget the operation and how painful it is.

 3 May 2020, 1:45 am

Some people are starting to act as if this whole thing is pretty much over. It has become more and more the norm to bend the rules, and there will be increased social pressure to go along.

I think this is important to note: you will feel bad, sometimes really bad, if you don’t go along.

But please remember that this is a sacrifice. Part of that sacrifice might be that you have to feel bad about not doing what your group is doing. But we have to do this to save lives.

Me and Newark, NJ 30 Apr 2020, 7:46 pm

We’ve been enjoying the HBO series “The Plot Against America.” I’m a long-time fan of Philip Roth books, though I haven’t read this one yet.

The action, at least in the first few episodes, takes place in the Weequahic neighborhood in Newark, NJ.

I recalled that my father’s mother is from that same neighborhood.

So I was doing a little research on my family connection last night, and I ran across the wedding announcement of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother, and I found it fascinating.

Here’s the headline:

Harry W. Crawford Weds Miss Marie Bertha Keer. Wedding held at the Church of the Holy Apostles, followed by a Reception at Inlet Terrace Club — will reside in Newardk after wedding trip.

Here’s the PDF — it’s from The Coast Advertiser on September 16, 1921.

The story has a lot of detail:

…she wore a gown of white satin trimmed with rose point lace. A court train of satin trimmed with tulle and orange blossoms fell from the shoulders and her veil of rose point lace was arranged in cap effect and caught on each side with orange blossoms. She carried a shower bouquet of white roses and lilies of the valley.

(It goes on.)

The story also omits a bunch of details — where did they go on their honeymoon?

To tie this back to Philip Roth: I used Maps to find out how far their house was from Philip Roth’s childhood house, presumably the location for “The Plot Against America” — just under a mile.

* * *

I knew my great-grandmother, who we called Ohma. I didn’t know my great-grandfather.

Ohma succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease eventually. But, before then, when I was quite young, she used to tell me the story of Peter Cottontail — who was me, she said, since my first name is Peter. (It is.)

For many years I’ve had a picture of her father, Ernest Keer — my great-great-grandfather — on the wall in my office. In the picture he’s doing what I do — sitting in his office at a desk, doing some reading. He was a lawyer in Newark. The picture is from April 1912.

NetNewsWire Code Layout 30 Apr 2020, 4:37 am

I don’t claim that this is a beautiful diagram, and it might scale weirdly, but it does show how NetNewsWire is layered.

When writing an iOS or Mac app — or an app that’s both, as in this case — I like to 1) break up the app into separate components, and 2) make those components depend on each other as little as possible, and 3) when there are dependencies, make them clear and sensible.

Submodules

Starting at the bottom level are the submodules: RSCore, RSDatabase, RSParser, RSTree, and RSWeb. These are built as frameworks: RSCore.framework and so on.

Each of these is in a standalone repo and is useful on its own. They don’t even depend on each other — they don’t depend on RSCore, for instance, though you might have expected that they do.

The lack of dependencies promotes reuse — not just by me, among my projects, but by other people too.

It also makes these easier to work on. I don’t have to worry that a change in one affects another one. I don’t have to pull the latest RSCore before working on RSDatabase, for instance.

In NetNewsWire we treat these as Git submodules. It would be great to switch to Swift Package Manager, but I’m not sure if that has all the features we need yet. (Maybe it does. If so, then great, but there’s no rush.)

In-app Frameworks

We continue our bias, inside the app itself, toward using actual frameworks.

The bottom layer is Articles.framework, which is the data model for articles, article status, authors, and so on. Articles depends on nothing else in the app.

ArticlesDatabase.framework and SyncDatabase.framework depend on Articles. ArticlesDatabase stores actual articles data; SyncDatabase stores data used to implement syncing.

The last in-app framework is Account.framework, and it depends on everything below it. An Account is what you think it is: it’s an On My Mac (or iPhone or iPad) account or it’s an account that connects to a syncing system (such as Feedbin or Feedly). It’s at the top of the data storage — to fetch articles for the timeline, for instance, the code asks an Account.

All of these in-app frameworks — like everything in the actual app — may depend on the submodules.

Shared Code

Here live a number of controllers that do various things like OPML import and export, downloading feed icons and favicons, rendering articles, handling user commands and undo (such as mark-all-read).

Some could be broken out into yet more in-app frameworks. (We would be more vigilant about that if we felt, at this point, that we’re losing the battle against app complexity. I’m glad to say we’re not in that position.)

UI Code

NetNewsWire is a Mac and iOS app. It’s built on AppKit on Macs and UIKit on iOS (as opposed to using Catalyst, which would have let us use UIKit for both).

As the diagram shows, there’s a lot of code shared between the platforms, but that stops at the UI code. The UI level is the top level, and it depends on everything below it.

Why use actual frameworks?

The benefits of components and being careful with dependencies are clear — but why use actual frameworks? After all, a conceptual module doesn’t have to translate to an actual separate library target.

I’ve found that it’s easier, when using a framework, to ensure for a fact that you don’t let an unwanted dependency to slip in. It’s kind of like treat-warnings-as-errors — it makes sure you’re not getting sloppy with dependencies.

Other reasons: when I’m working on a framework, I find it easier to just concentrate on exactly what I’m doing there and let the rest of the app slip from my mind temporarily. And, finally, we’re more likely to write tests for frameworks.

It may just be psychology, but it’s important anyway: smaller, self-contained (or mostly so) things are just easier to treat well.

After Two Months of Quarantine 29 Apr 2020, 7:32 pm

I went outside yesterday to bring my emptied garbage and yard waste cans back from the street.

It was a pretty nice day — not really sunny but warm enough. Lots of people were outside. The woman on the corner was talking to somebody on the sidewalk. My neighbors were out. There was a bicyclist on the street, some folks walking on my side of the street, some folks walking on the other side of the street. The guy who lives behind me was outside and playing music.

Way too many people. It felt oppressive. I beelined it back inside after taking off my gloves.

A Coding Challenge Can’t Show How I Solve A Problem 27 Apr 2020, 8:17 pm

Some number of people, on Twitter and elsewhere, have told me that it’s not about getting the right answer — it’s about showing the interviewer how you go about solving problems.

I’ve read a bunch of the advice on this, and the advice says things like: “Start talking. Restate the problem. Talk out an approach. Consider how much space/time it will use. And then start writing code.”

Which is of course not at all how I solve problems. I usually start with some hazy intuitive approach and start writing code. I code and think at the same time. I revise what I wrote, or even delete it. Then I go for lunch.

I come back to it, and if I’m still stuck I look in the documentation. Or Apple’s dev forums or Stack Overflow or Wikipedia. I might ask someone on my team or I might ask some friends on a Slack group. Or maybe I figure out an approach on my own after all, and then just do web searches to validate the approach.

And — this is critical — as I’m doing all of this I’m using the IDE I always use, with autocorrect, profiler, debugger, etc. All my tools. Where I’m used to the text editor and its syntax coloring and how it balances braces. Where hitting cmd-S — as I habitually do — doesn’t result in my browser prompting me to save the current page.

And — even more critical — I don’t have a 45-minute time constraint. Nobody is watching me type and judging. I’m writing code to solve a problem, rather than writing code to get a job.

There’s a huge difference between “solve this performance problem with a binary search” and “pass this test so you can feed your family.”

* * *

There’s a whole small industry to help people prepare for these tests — so it’s not like you’re getting the authentic programmer showing up. You’re getting the person who’s prepared for one of these.

Because of that, an interviewer is even less likely to learn how a candidate approaches solving a problem. Instead, they’ll learn how well the candidate prepared to make a good impression — which tells you nothing about how they’d actually solve a problem.

I think these end up favoring people with more time to prepare. It probably helps if college isn’t a decades-old memory — the closer you are to taking tests in school, the more comfortable you’ll be, and the less you’ll feel like this is an absurd exercise with no meaning.

Practicing the Coding Challenges 27 Apr 2020, 1:58 am

As part of my job hunt I’ve been doing some problems on LeetCode to prepare for coding challenges.

I don’t have a CS degree, but I have decades of experience — I know what a linked list is, for instance, and could write one by hand easily if called to. In a few different languages, even. I could talk about the trade-offs between a linked list and a contiguous array. Etc. I’ve got all that.

But these tests are kicking my butt a little bit. I think I’ve figured out why.

Consider a question like this:

You need to add two numbers and get a sum. But, importantly, the digits of those numbers are stored in arrays, and they’re backwards.

The return value also needs to be in a backwards array.

If inputs are [4,2,6] and [3,8,0,8], the function should return [7,0,7,8] — because 624 + 8083 == 8707.

My style of coding is to break problems into steps and make it super-obvious to other people — and future-me — what the code is doing. I like to write code so clear that comments aren’t needed.

I’d start with a top-level function something like this:

let num1 = number(from: array1)
let num2 = number(from: array2)
let sum = num1 + num2
return array(from: sum)

That’s clear, right? There are two functions referenced in the above code that are clearly transformers — one goes from an array to a number, and the other goes from a number to an array.

So the next steps are to fill those in, along with any additional helper functions.

If I were on the other side of the table, and this is what the candidate did, I would be quite happy — because they’ve achieved not just correctness but clarity. They’ve solved the problem using a coding style that I’d want to see in production code.

But that’s not what these questions want to see at all.

What the Questions Actually Want

What they want — at least in the experience I’ve had so far — is for you to have some kind of insight into the problem that allows you to solve it in a more efficient way.

You may have already figured it out for this particular question: but, just in case not, here’s the tip — the answer should mirror the way we actually do sums on paper.

Remember that we go right-to-left, and we build up the answer digit-by-digit.

   624
+ 8083
------
  8707

The arrays are already backward, even! So just write a loop that does exactly what you do when doing this by hand (including the carry-the-one part). You create the answer — the [7,0,7,8] — as you go along.

I’m Not Sure What to Think About This

In production code, if a problem like this came up, I’d ask “How the hell did we get here?” and try to backtrack and figure out what insanity caused this, because it’s just not right.

But, if this code were truly needed, I’d write code the way I normally would, with clarity in mind first.

And then, if my tools told me it was too inefficient with time or space, I’d figure out a more efficient version.

These questions, then, are able to test what you might come up with when you’re in that position.

The thing is, what I would most want to know is how people write code for the 99% of time when they’re not in that position. That’s not being tested here.

 25 Apr 2020, 1:03 am

Proposal: instead of calling these video things we do “happy hour” or “virtual happy hour,” let’s just call them “video hour.”

Here’s why: it might be the morning for some people on the video; not everybody drinks alcohol; it’s a new thing, not a replacement for an old thing.

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