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First thoughts on Stadia

I bought a Stadia Founder’s Edition because I was curious to try the final version. I’d been skeptical that they’d be able to make the service responsive enough for games to be playable, but I got a chance to try an internal dogfood version and was thoroughly impressed by the quality of the experience. Plus I figured that even if I didn’t stick with Stadia, I could use the game controller for games on my Mac, and we could use the Chromecast Ultra to push content to our TV (which we’ve already done).

In some ways I figure I’m the perfect audience for Stadia. I like playing computer games, but I don’t play that many or that often, and I’m typically a year or two behind the curve when I finally get around to trying a game. And I’ve never bothered to purchase a high-end game console, because I’ll never use it enough to justify the investment in it. But a game platform where I don’t need to invest in a console but can still play console games? That sounds promising.

So far my Stadia experience has been good; high-quality streaming and low-latency input. I’ve mostly played Destiny 2 (access is included in the initial 3 month subscription), but I did take advantage of the initial games sale. My biggest complaint so far, in fact, has been around Destiny’s 2 gameplay: they give you almost zero instruction when you first get into the game, and in fact the story campaign content is essentially hidden (I had to search the Internet to figure out how to start it). Apparently they’ve decided that anyone buying the game at this point is doing so for the multiplayer experiences, but they’ve gone so far in that direction that they’re arguably making the game less fun for new players (they start all new players off with high-powered equipment, and there’s no more need to grow your character by unlocking abilities or subclasses). Since it’s included with the subscription I don’t mind too much, but if I’d actually bought the game I’d feel disappointed.

iPadOS: no, I don’t want a new window

I’ve been less than impressed with Apple’s fall software updates. iOS 13 has been buggy, and Mail just seems to get worse year over year rather than better. I haven’t tried Catalina yet, but I generally wait for the .2 or .3 version of any new MacOS version. iPadOS is the one I have the most issues with, though. I realize Apple is trying to make the iPad more of a productivity device with increased support for window management. That’d be fine if the new capabilities didn’t interfere with my existing habits; I have zero interest in using my iPad that way, but I don’t care if they’re pushing in that direction either. But with iPadOS Apple has made it way too easy to accidentally open content in a new popover window, which is then a pain to dismiss.

One of the main things I use my iPad for is to read content (via the excellent Reeder). All I really need to be able to do it tap on articles to open them, scroll through them as I read them, and then swipe to back to the article list. Straightforward. And yet with iPadOS, I keep accidentally opening content in new windows. Typically it happens when I’m trying to scroll an article. I’ll put my finger down and drag the content, but it’ll often be over an image with an associated link. iPadOS ends up interpreting it as drag-to-open-window, rather than drag-to-scroll. And then I’m stuck with a window that I have to remember how to dismiss (swiping the window up or down, which feels natural because I dragged up to accidentally open the window, of course doesn’t work). It got annoying enough that I went looking for a way to disable drag-to-open, but I couldn’t find a way to do it.

Given that’s there’s already a way to open content in a new window (long-press and then select open in new window), I dearly hope that Apple removes drag-to-open-in-window in a future update.

iOS 13 Mail: how not to structure notifications and downloads

The Mail app on iOS 13 exhibits a behavior that drives me nuts: iOS will show notifications for new email messages, but if I actually open Mail to read those messages there will be a pause, often of 10-15 seconds, while the Mail application downloads those messages. It’s possible that iOS 12 also exhibited this behavior and iOS 13 made it annoying enough that I finally took note of it, but I suspect it’s something new. And it’s probably battery-saving related: with push notifications the phone can show that I have new email available, but to save power it doesn’t actually download the messages until I open the mail client.

Regardless, the behavior drives me nuts. The phone knows I new email available, so if it’s going to show the notification then it should have pre-downloaded the message so that I can read it immediately. I’d rather have the phone hold off showing the notification until it’s downloaded the message if it wants to save power. I don’t get email that’s so time-critical that I need notifications delivered just as soon as they’re available; that’s what messaging is for.

iOS 13 is having a pretty rocky start; it feels like Apple should maybe have skipped over 13 and gone straight from 12 to 14.

New streaming things

The end of the year is approaching, and companies are working hard to get their new offerings out in time for the holiday season. The beginning of this month brought us Apple TV+, which I’m mildly interested in but not enough to actually pay for yet. Although perhaps I should more accurately say there’s nothing I’m interested in enough to spend the time setting up Family Sharing and then actually watching; in theory my wife’s new iPhone qualifies her for a free year, and you can share subscriptions with family members.

I’m a bit more interested in Disney+, primarily because I’d like to watch The Mandalorian. I would consider subscribing immediately for that reason, but apparently Disney is only releasing one episode a week, instead of making them available all at once. So I’ll probably waiting until all the initial episodes are available and then subscribe for a month to watch them, and then ditch the subscription.

And then we’ve got Stadia coming on the 19th. I was initially skeptical; latency is a killer for interactive games, and the Internet isn’t known for providing reliably low-latency experiences. But I got to try an early version, and I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised. The success of the experience will still depend on the quality and quantity of games available, but from a purely technological perspective I’m optimistic that Google will deliver a good experience. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens on the 19th.

Facial authentication security

The Pixel 4 got dinged by the tech press for the fact that its facial authentication works if your eyes are closed. On the one hand, sure, ideally it would detect that you’re awake, alive, and consenting before it unlocks the phone. On the other hand, I wonder a bit about people for whom this is a concern. If you’re seriously worried about people unlocking your phone while you sleep, you might have bigger issues to contend with in your life.

Security driven by biometrics (face, voice, fingerprint, etc.) is always probabilistic, and the goal is to find an appropriate balance between false positives (letting the wrong people authenticate) and false negatives (not letting the right people authenticate). In practice mobile operating systems tend to err on the side of false positives; what are the odds you’re really going to go around verifying that the security is really as robust as the developers claim? While you’ll immediately notice if your phone repeatedly refuses to let you authenticate.

Apple, for example, likes to brag that there’s only a one in a million chance that someone else’s face can unlock your iPhone. Well, my wife recently got a new iPhone 11, and my daughter can reliably unlock it with her own face. I suspect it’s because they both were glasses, which complicate face recognition (my daughter can only unlock my wife’s iPhone when she’s wearing her glasses; if she takes them off it doesn’t work). Sure, she could be that one-in-a-million outlier. Or Apple could be overstating the quality of its face authentication. Finding an appropriate balance between false positives and false negatives is hard.

Our new building

Speaking of the new Android building, we moved! The Android team moved out of the central Googleplex (Building 43) into a brand new building this summer. The real estate team clearly had loads of fun with the design; the building is themed “like a California road trip”, and each floor has a different theme (the first floor with the lobby is themed like a “hip hotel”).

Overall it’s a been a big step up. There are lots of interesting indoor and outdoor spaces to work, the coffee area and cafe (which is themed like a food hall) are very cozy, and the theming is rather fun. And my desk now has a view out to the hills (which is a significant step up over my previous view of a conference room). Speaking of which, we now have plenty of meeting rooms (in 43 it was essentially impossible to ever find a meeting room on short notice).

I’ll post more pictures of the building at some point, but since we’ve finally gotten some more fall-like weather I thought I’d share one of the top-floor terrace.

The Android 10 statue

Google released Android 10 at the beginning of the month, and in the spirit of the former naming scheme held a small party with Q-named treats (the quesadillas were probably the highlight; there frankly just aren’t that many great foods whose names start with Q). During the party they unviled the latest statue, which took the form of a giant 10 with the new Android head logo peeking out of the base of the 0.

While the statue is certainly more bland than the previous dessert-themed statues, one nice thing about the change is that the white number provided lots of surface area for us to sign the statue. They had a small bucket of Sharpies handy, and anyone who worked on the platform got a chance to sign. So my signature is now on an Android statue. Of course, it’s an open question if they’re now going to put the statue out in public (where, let’s face it, we’d have people who think they’re funny trying to sign their own names or deface the statue) or keep it in a Googler-only area (it’s currently on the 3rd floor terrace of the new Android building.