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An Illusory WWDC

Random collection of thoughs from my trip to WWDC 2011:

Pre-Trip: Japantown

I always make sure to find time on San Francisco trips to visit Japantown (as I’ve noted before, I often stay in a B&B adjoining J-town). Since last time, a Daiso store has gone in and it’s probably my new favorite thing there. As I described it on Twitter, it’s “like a Japanese Dollar Tree that got drunk and doubled down on the tacky.” Everything’s $1.50, and the amount of odd novelty borders on the infinite. I grabbed my kids some arbitrary little items from here (a tiny LED lantern, mini bike reflectors, etc.) and they were duly amused.

My usual stops are Moritaya toys, Japan Video, and of course Kinokuniya books, which expanded down a floor a few years back and now has a manga department the size of a Waldenbooks. The curation is knoweldgable and thorough, highlighted by an entire shelf of Osamu Tezuka manga, probably the one place in the US where you could buy the entire 8-volume set of Buddha in its entirety. Unfortunately, the set of Phoenix on display was incomplete, likely owing to Viz’s failed release of the series and its subsequent demotion to out-of-print status. As handsome as Veritcal’s Tezuka releases are, I’m sure I’m not the only one who’d happily re-buy all of Phoenix if Vertical could get the rights to re-do it.

Hey, don’t drift off yet… I’m getting back to tech stuff. Also on display at Kinokuniya was an entire table of Hastune Miku and general Vocaloid artbooks and CDs. Miku is the name given to a synthetic singing program, based on the Yamaha “Vocaloid 2” engine. In an act of shrewd marketing, the different voices are sold as distinct characters, with names, appearances, and personalities that have been further fleshed out by a community of digital media artists who create songs and videos with the characters (a feat made possible by generous licensing terms and/or the traditional tolerance of Japanese business for fan-created works… something that would never be allowed in the litigous U.S. of A.). It’s kind of a shame there isn’t more of substance written in English about this entire Miku phenomenon and its collaborative fan-culture… the best stuff I’ve found so far are the captions to a 10-minute TV Asahi report, and the cover story to the latest Tokyo Kawaii Mag e-magazine.

And the idea of singing software that creates a vocal track by entering pitch and lyrics… am I the only person who thinks this fills an obvious hole in Garage Band, with the novelty that the Western mainstream media has no idea that Miku and her fellow Vocaloids exist? If the English could be improved (and it clearly has a long way to go), it could be a mind-blowing demo at the annual Fall Apple Event. Granted, I wouldn’t necessarily expect Steve Jobs — a guy who dated Joan Baez after all — to be OK with the idea of synthetic singing. But considering that Miku already has 2,000 songs on iTunes and 10,000 on Amazon MP3, there are clearly plenty of people who are already enamored with this non-existent pop-star. And with Vocaloid3 coming in September, the timing would be ideal.

I’m a fan, too. I grabbed “The World Is Mine” when it charted on iTunes a few weeks back, and will be picking up the full Supercell/Miku album when it drops this week. So yeah, I did indulge a $30 Hastune Miku artbook.

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The talk of the conference itself can only be hinted at without violating NDA. If you watch the video and inspect the slide for the many iOS 5 features that weren’t specifically called out in the keynote, you’ll see the term “automatic reference counting”.

You might already be aware that iOS programming involves a system of tracking memory use by counting references to Foundation objects. You might also be aware that getting this system right drives many otherwise sane developers to the brink of slitting their wrists, because it is so hard to get right. And you might also be aware that OS X has garbage collection, but that this slide didn’t say “garbage collection”, it said “automatic reference counting”.

Yeah, ponder on that for a while. Or get the docs if you’re in the developer program. If it does what the name says, it’s another fantastic illusion: the ease of a GC language, without the compromises and slop of GC.

The Core Audio book, and the other one

I had a chance to meet with Chuck and Kevin, editor and co-author respectively, of the Core Audio book. As noted in my last blog post, Pearson just did a massive drop of three new chapters to the Rough Cut on Safari Books Online. The sample code is all there too. This gives us a clean slate to get to the end (finally!). The plan from here is for me to do an iOS chapter (which will need some iOS 5 tweaks when the NDA drops… not sure how the timing will work out), while Kevin finishes up MIDI. We’ve left space for a final chapter on advanced topics, but we may not end up needing it. Kevin felt that the Audio Unit chapters went about as far on the topic as he planned or expected, and aside from custom units, the only thing I wanted to get in here is static buffering for OpenAL. So this chapter might go away, meaning that we could be in tech review by the end of the Summer. And only, what, a year late?

Oh, and there’s another book that I’ve signed, but I can’t identify the co-author and there’s not enough there to really talk about. But if you know me and made the obvious guesses, you’d have about a 50-50 chance of being right. And if I confirmed that I’m not writing a book on AV Foundation yet, the odds should go into the high 90s. Let’s just say that this is something I was more or less embarrassed into writing.

The iPad-only Experience

As mentioned before, I used WWDC as an experiment in going laptop-free, taking only my iPad and iPhone. Overall, it went about as I expected: I wasn’t able to download the iOS 5 or Lion SDKs or update my devices, but between sessions, labs, and social events, I would barely have had time to use them during my week in San Francisco anyways. I did look up some essential documentation on developer.apple.com and threw the PDF versions over to iBooks for offline reading, which is likely as much as I would have done with a laptop anyways.

The labs still had a handful of iMacs available, though most of the space was clearly set aside for people with their own laptops. I pulled down code for my never-fully-working VTM iPhone 2011 editing/effects demo as a zip and managed to not solve its problems, even with the help of two AV Foundation engineers, though they did give me some advice for some iOS 5 APIs that could perhaps diagnose the problem. I’m also thinking of rewriting my AV Foundation talks anyways, from the bland “introduction” and “advanced” to something more audacious, like “Let’s Write QuickTime Player. On iOS. In An Hour” and “Let’s Write Final Cut Pro. On iOS. In An Hour”. At any rate, between fetching code from the web and from backup zips on my iPad’s AirSharing, even lab time didn’t really require me to bring a laptop.

Where I do think working on the iPad is challenging is where it’s always a problem: when you need to manage several things at once. Writing a blog, for example, is a total hassle, because you have to switch entire apps (not just move between windows), to pick up a URL to copy-and-paste. Moving documents between applications is still touch-and-go, but by design: rather than exposing a file system, apps have to opt-in to accepting files, and many don’t.

But then again, you’d have these same problems if you were using a full-screen mode text editor on the desktop, too. Like these apps, the iPad focuses you on doing one thing at a time, and for that, it’s great. But there are times when I need more than that. Or, to use the vehicle analogy, every now and then I need a real truck, not just a car.

Also, the iPad’s battery life is insane. If we all brought iPads, Apple could have left the power strips in Cupertino. Charge overnight, pound on it all day, repeat.

The Myth of Moscone’s Miraculous Bandwidth

Something else about downloading the SDKs and betas of iOS 5. Everyone’s duly knocked out by the speed of these. What took me five hours to download over 6 MBps DSL back in Grand Rapids took most people about five minutes to download over the ethernet cables at Moscone West. Many took this as evidence of phenomenal bandwidth going through the building.

Then it hit me this afternoon: No, dumbass, they had an edge server in the second floor NOC. They weren’t sending 5,000 attendees times 10 gigabytes of data dozens of miles from Cupertino, or thousands of miles from North Carolina; they were sending it hundreds of feet, over gigabit ethernet gear that you could easily buy at Fry’s. It doesn’t prove the power of the internet, it proves the power of the LAN.

I don’t doubt that Moscone West has extraordinary internet access (people posted screenshots from SpeedTest.net to prove it)… but I also don’t doubt that they charge dearly for it. With everyone hitting the same files, Apple would be nuts to not just bring their data with them.

What would have been interesting, had I thought of it, would have been to try getting a similarly-large (multi-GB) file that’s unlikely to be on an Apple server inside the LAN, like a Linux .iso or something. If the Apple bits remained phenomenally faster, I’d take that as evidence they were already in the building.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

OK, grumpy bit: I’d never done “Stump the Experts” before, and by all appearances and accounts it has a long and hilarious history at WWDC. And a shambling mess that refuses to take itself seriously is often a grand time.

But really, this event came off as a waste of time. Organizers collected onstage a glorious assemblage of luminaries who shaped Apple’s history… and then promptly did nothing with them. Only a handful of audience questions (6, maybe?) were posed to the experts, the best of which was a rhetorical question. The experts themselves were never even identified, or given a chance to be applauded for their contributions over the years. Some of the questions asked of the audience were deviously clever, but if that’s the best part, maybe that should be the form the event takes in the future.

I’m sure it’s great. So are World Cup soccer, scripting languages, and Kate Bush. But that doesn’t mean they do anything for me.

Latin for “fail”

My goodness the nearly-vacant Metreon looks pathetic. And turning it into a Target, in the middle of the city’s convention district, is going to be just plain weird.

And that’s coming from someone who started this article talking about his affection for a virtual pop singer, so I think I know weird when I see it.

Boom?

As I’ve been writing, I got word that iOS 5 breaks my iPod sample-reading example, which apparently a lot of people have been trying out (thank you!). I’ve joined the forum thread and promised to look at it tomorrow. My first guess is just a bug and not nefarious skullduggery!… but working with Apple, you never know when you’ll be knifed in the back, so… sure, maybe.

I’m going to get some sleep and pick up on that, and client work, in the morning. Like all WWDCs, we return with much to do. A good problem to have.

Link: Using the Rock Band drum kit with Garage Band

Clever as heck idea from MacLife:
Rock Out in GarageBand with the Rock Band Drum Controller.

Makes me wish I could actually play actual instruments and use GB.