Buying Apps in the Age of Free by Simon Abrams

You know you wanna buy some apps...

You know you wanna buy some apps...

When I like stuff, I'm the worlds goofiest, most enthusiastic evangelist of said stuff. I'm always recommending an app, a restaurant, a piece of camera gear, etc.

Often, especially when I'm talking about a mobile app, I get stopped mid-spiel with the same question: "is it free?". If the answer is no, then the pitch usually fizzles shortly thereafter due to loss of interest.

So many people have a strict "I don't pay for apps" philosophy, which I really don't understand. I mean, yes, who among us couldn't stand to be a little more fiscally conservative, and even small sums add up. But on the other hand, our devices - specifically our mobile devices - are such an integral part of our daily lives now, so expecting to only ever pay once (outside of the monthly cost of whatever the carrier's charging for your plan) to effectively extend the value of those devices is perplexing to me.

Let's take a mobile app that costs $5 as an example. If you're going to balk at the cost of the app, ask yourself a few questions first:

  1. How will that $5 impact your quality of life in the forseeable future? If the answer is "dramatically", then forget it - discussion over, don't buy that app.
  2. In your day-to-day life, how many other goods or services can you name that would you spend $5 on, and expect to have support and upgrades for, continuing in perpetuity? If Chipotle changed the recipe for their carnitas burrito tomorrow, would you expect an upgrade to the one you had yesterday? Maybe a better comparison would be a Starbucks latte, since that is probably closer to $5 in value.
  3. Speaking of value, do you think you would get any value from the app in question if you bought it? How much value? Would you use it once? Daily? If you ammortize that value over the amount of uses you expect to get out of it, or over time, doesn't it seem like a better deal?
  4. Will using this app/software in any way help you to earn your income, and thereby keep the lights on and a roof over your head? Will it in any way contribute to your peace of mind? How much do you value peace of mind? How about entertainment? $5 seems a small price to pay to be entertained, even a little bit.
  5. The most obvious question to ask yourself is, if you made that app - if you had worked hard, stayed up late, researched new techniques, pulled your hair out and bashed your head against your keyboard squashing bugs and figuring out new API's and cross-platform compatibility issues, and sacrificed time spent with your spouse and kids and pets, and skipped out on going to current movies in the theater to create this app - would you not want to be compensated for your effort?

One of the reasons I don't mind paying for an app, is because part of what I'm paying for is an implicit agreement with the developer. If I'm not happy with the product, or if the quality or functionality (aka value) changes after an update, then I believe my payment for the app entitles me to voice my opinion at least a little bit. Well, maybe a little bit more than if I'm just some free user. I could be wrong though. Conversely, I feel that having paid for the app, I'm probably more invested in its continuing evolution and improvement, so I'm more likely to offer reasonable suggestions and feedback to the developer - and they will probably take me more seriously, because they realize that I'm invested. Again, I could be wrong.

I totally understand the impulse to get the free version of an app that's "just as good". If it really is just as good, then sure, why not. But a lot of the time it's not just as good. Or there are ads, or your giving up privacy in exchange for "free", or the developer might just abandon the app.

Incidentally, I guess my exception is that I will almost never pay for any of those god-awful in-app purchases for games like Clash of Clans, or even my beloved Real Racing 3, where they make the game suck and hold your fun hostage, but oh, look - if you just cough up some doough, you can play some more. Eff that. I'd rather pay for the game outright (eg. Super Mario Run).

Here's an incomplete list of apps and services that I happily pay/paid for, because when I ask myself some of the questions listed above, at bare minimum, the answer is that I would easily get value for my money, whether in the form of peace of mind (Backblaze, 1Password), or saved headaches (iCloud, or even pure entertainment (Netflix):

Of course, my financial situation is different from many people. I don't have kids, and my wife and I both work full-time jobs. Our rent is reasonable (by Brooklyn standards), and for the most part we live below our means. Being the more responsible of us, she doesn't have any credit card debt, but I'm almost there too. Her student loans are paid off, and I never had any (because, being an international student, I wasn't eligible for them - at least that's how it worked in the olden days, I'm not sure how it works now). We don't have a car either. I think the point I'm making is, the next time you come across an app or service, and your knee-jerk reaction is "It's not free? I ain't paying for that", ask yourself why.

2016 Year in Review by Simon Abrams

The crowd reacts to the Roots' performance during Advertising Week at Webster Hall.

The crowd reacts to the Roots' performance during Advertising Week at Webster Hall.

2016 was a remarkable year, to say the very least. Not only on a national and global level, with events like Trump's unprecedented election victory, Russian hacks, and the Syrian war, but it was remarkable for me personally.

My wife was diagnosed with cancer late last year, so much of the early part of this year was dedicated to her recovery. Happily, she's healthy and cancer-free now, and she'll just have to be vigilant about getting checkups regularly to make sure she stays that way.

Aside from that, we took quite a few trips this year—some smaller trips to visit family and friends in Concord, New Hampshire and Atlanta; and some bigger trips like the one we took to China to celebrate our 10th anniversary. We also did an epic 9-day road trip through Upstate New York and Niagara falls with our nieces Gigi and Leila. It was a great way to experience New York (although I still have much of the state to see), as well as a fun way to spend time with our nieces as they grow into young ladies.

Overall, I'd say it was a good year for me. Professionally, I think I need to get really introspective and answer some questions about where my career development should be headed. As a photographer, I think I need to continue to push myself to make better images, and to keep working to refine my creative voice.

I had fun looking back over the past year while making my selects for this post, and in spite of the challenges that we face with Trump's administration, I feel optimistic about the year ahead.

Happy New Year!

MacSparky on Apple AirPods by Simon Abrams

A reasoned first take on Apple's AirPods from David Sparks, aka MacSparky. His take confirms my expectation that they won't work for me, as the current EarPods that Apple ships with every iPhone fall out of my ear with the slightest movement of my head, so I never use 'em. Plus, I like something that has a little noise reduction, if not noise cancellation, so I can block out the annoying chatter on the subway.

I'm still bullish on the tech, though, specifically Apple's W1 chip, which improves pairing and wireless sound quality. I have personally tried the new BeatsX wireless headphones, which also feature the W1 chip, and will probably get a pair of those when they're available.

Phife 4 Pres by Simon Abrams


I ran into Phife on a flight to Savannah 20 years ago. I guess I hadn't mastered the indifferent-New-Yorker-that-doesn't-get-star-struck thing, because I asked him for an autograph, and he was gracious enough to sign my sketchbook.

RIP Phife.

2015 Year in Review by Simon Abrams

Who the hell does a Year-in-Review post in March? I do, that's who. 2015 was a hell of a year, with some big changes - both good and bad - for me and my family. I've referenced some of those changes here, but some of it... well, I've chosen to keep that stuff to the close friends and family.

Anyway, good or bad, my wife and I can once again look back and be thankful for the life we have, and appreciate how fortunate we are compared to so many in this world.

Happy Easter/St. Patrick's Day/whatever you celebrate in March.

Thoughts on Flash* by Simon Abrams

David Evans in an article on AdAge, once again heralding the demise of Flash:

In short, the "Flashpocalypse" is coming, and it's up to you to decide what your agency is going to do about it.

Sound familiar? This time, though, there might be something to it. Starting in September, Chrome will be the third of the Big Three browsers to idle Flash content by default on load, meaning Flash ads will be paused until the user voluntarily clicks to play them (hah!).

As one who (mostly) still keeps the lights on by creating new things with Flash, I have a couple of thoughts.

Firstly, this was only a matter of time - nobody's really shocked by this, although I think we in the advertising industry have become, as the article says, very comfortable with Flash. People have been proclaiming that Flash is "sunsetting" for years. Fine, we've all accepted that premise, and yet – during those intervening years, I’ve been an interactive/Flash developer at two premiere New York ad agencies with scores of blue-chip clients on their rosters, and I've only worked on one HTML5 banner campaign. I guess media teams just aren't buying it for desktop campaigns? Maybe that's where the education needs to be happening. Even for mobile, the default has been to deliver static images, rather than even the most basic HTML5 animation.

Say what you will about Flash, it does have the advantage of being well-known by a pretty solid number of devs, and we’ve learned to accomplish an awful lot within those absurdly archaic 40k file size specs. On the other hand, the author is right: to this day, I still can't get a straight answer as to what the file size spec is for an HTML5 banner, and you simply can’t replicate the kind of rich animation and interactivity that Flash is capable of in HTML5 in less than 100k (the latest version of jQuery alone is almost 30k, and that’s minified and gzipped).

And then there's QA. There’s no question that we have been spoiled with the ubiquity and predictability of the Flash plugin. Usually, the QA process for most standard banners is to check file size, check that it doesn't exceed the :15s animation limit, and make sure it clicks through to something. HTML5 ads bring with them all the complexity of cross-browser/cross-platform compatibility testing. Also, most of the exacting creatives I know aren't going to be satisfied with what you can get out of the existing ad building platforms (fade in, fade out, slide in, slide out...), so roll-your-own is pretty much the only real option, which means extensive QA time.

It might not sound like it, but having said all that, I'm glad this is happening. It'll force me to get deeper into the vagaries of HTML/JS/CSS, which is a good thing. And, there's really no need to shed a tear for Adobe and the Flash platform either - after all, the Flash plugin might be on its way out, but Flash Professional is still a perfectly viable prototyping tool, able to publish JavaScript animations using CreateJS, export animations as sprite sheets, produce WebGL content, and much, much more.

In short... Flash is dead. Long live Flash.

*With respect to Steve Jobs

Pepperpot by Simon Abrams

I was scrolling through some of my recent pictures on Flickr and came across this:

 Processed with VSCOcam with c7 preset

If you ever find yourself at a Guyanese restaurant and you see pepperpot on the menu, don't hesitate - do yourself a favor and get it. Rich, savory, spicy - this dish defines Christmas Morning to most Guyanese people (although it can be consumed any time throughout the year).

Preparation often begins several days in advance, and the dish slowly simmers until it is ladled out into bowls to be sopped up with fresh, crusty, warm, home-made bread.

There are cloves, cinnamon, and big, bony hunks of mostly unglamorous cuts of meat -- the ones with lots of fat and cartilage, like cow-heel. Of course, as you'd expect, given the name, there's also plenty of hot pepper. But the signature ingredient, which gives pepperpot its rich color and savory flavor is called casareep (we pronounce it "CAHS-rip"), an extract of the cassava (or yucca) root.

It's not uncommon, as the pot begins to dwindle, that it is freshened up with more meat and casareep to extend its enjoyment over the course of several days during the holiday season. It is one of my absolute favorite foods on the planet.

Note: This post would have been best shared around Christmas time, but I think I was too preoccupied with eating this than writing about it at the time.

Flash Photography techniques explained with slow-mo by Simon Abrams

This video from The Slow Mo Guys is cool and informative on its own merit, but it's also one of the best illustrations of how and why some crucial flash photography principles work.

Sync Speed

Have you ever seen a dark strip across the lower portion of your photograph when shooting with an external flash? (There's a great example on this page.) Well, that dark strip is a result of shooting above your camera's sync speed - ie, the maximum shutter speed the camera is capable of syncing up an external flash at. The sync speed varies, and and for most SLRs, is usually somewhere between 1/160th and 1/250th of a second (check your manual, or Google your camera model). Some SLRs won't even let you shoot at a shutter speed that exceeds your max sync speed, but if you inadvertently manage to make it happen, you'll know it from the nasty black bar you'll see towards the bottom of the resulting photo. That black bar is actually that same rolling shutter that's clearly visible in the video, casting a shadow as it passes over the sensor.

So what do you do if you want to shoot some high-speed action, using a flash, at a higher shutter speed than your camera can technically work with? Or if you want to shoot with a wide open aperture to get really shallow depth-of-field in lots of bright daylight? Well, many external flashes have high-speed sync mode, which lets you do just that. This flash mode doesn't actually fire a single burst of light; rather, it fires many low-powered bursts of light as the shutter passes over the sensor, thus avoiding casting that shadow. Cool, right?

That third button puts your flash in high-speed sync mode, and also toggles and 2nd-curtain sync

That third button puts your flash in high-speed sync mode, and also toggles and 2nd-curtain sync

The down side of high-speed sync is that it's not as powerful as your regular flash output, so you'll just have to move your flash closer to your subject, or use multiple flashes.

1st-Curtain and 2nd-Curtain Sync

Setting the shutter sync settings

Setting the shutter sync settings

If you've spent any time shooting with an external flash with your SLR, you might have seen these settings on your flash and not fully understood what they do. But if you take another look at that video, from the way the rolling shutter works, you can probably guess that the "1st curtain" refers to that first cluster of blades that passes in front of the sensor, and the second cluster is the 2nd curtain.

What does that mean, with respect to your flash? Well, imagine that you're shooting a moving subject: 1st-Curtain sync (the default mode of the flash) means the flash will fire freezing your subject at the beginning of the shutter's movement, leaving motion trails moving away from the subject as it keeps moving. Conversely, 2nd-curtain sync will freeze the subject at the end of the shutter's movement, with motion trails following behind your subject.

2nd-curtain sync leaves trails behind your subject, creating dynamic images

2nd-curtain sync leaves trails behind your subject, creating dynamic images

I often use 2nd-curtain sync at parties and events where people are dancing. I'll slow the shutter speed and actually move or turn the camera while the shutter is open to create light trails and blurs in the scene. No joke - it makes parties and wedding receptions look epic.

One thing I should note: all my photos, and some of my terminology might be Canon-specific, but the same principles apply no matter what camera brand you prefer.

There are plenty of articles on the internet that explain these topics in far greater detail, but this video is such a great illustration of what's actually happening in the camera, that I think it should really help to solidify your understanding of these highly useful concepts in flash photography.

Thoughts on 1Password and MacID by Simon Abrams

MacID unlock's your Mac using your fingerprint via a connected iOS device

MacID unlock's your Mac using your fingerprint via a connected iOS device

Now that I have two TouchID-enabled devices, entering passwords by typing them feels like what I imagine it would be like having to write prose with a chisel and tablet after getting used to using a pen - especially now that iOS 8 allows for 1Password integration throughout your i-device. Quick recap: 1Password is a password manager that securely stores all your passwords to everything, obviating the need for you to remember - or even come up with - any passwords except for the one that protects its database. It's cross-platform and works with all your favorite browsers. Amazing.

Anyway, before extensions allowed for 1Password's iOS integration, if you're like me, and don't know any of your passwords to anything, logging in to a website or app on an iPhone or iPad went something like this:

  1. Open site/app that asks for a password
  2. Grit teeth and sigh resignedly
  3. Go back to Home screen and tap 1Password
  4. Enter your long and secure 1Password Master Password
  5. Find password to app in question (or create a new entry in 1Password for said app, and let it generate a suitably secure password for you)
  6. Copy password
  7. Hop back over to the app in question (yay, multitasking!)
  8. Type in your username, paste the password, and try to remember that despite your current state of annoyance, we're still living in an age of technological miracles and wonders. Everything is amazing.

Now that iOS 8 Extensions are a thing, the process goes something like this:

  1. Open site/app that asks for a password
  2. Tap Share button and swipe right to 1Password extension
  3. Tap the icon, then use your finger to unlock 1Password
  4. Oh look - 1Password knows your credentials for the site/app you're trying to access. Tap to fill in your credentials, and be on your merry way.
Treehouse's app has 1Password support built-in. Amazing. More like this, please.

Treehouse's app has 1Password support built-in. Amazing. More like this, please.


It is a downright joyous experience compared to the old way, and it's no exaggeration to say that simplifies my life a lot, especially since I am doing more and more with my iPhone and iPad. I tweeted the good folks at AgileBits a few months ago, wondering if something like this was possible on the Mac - ie. could I use my iPhone/iPad's TouchID to unlock an app on the desktop. It turns out, it is at least partially possible: MacID lets you designate an iOS device as a touch-enabled "key" for your desktop machine, and unlock a password-protected lock screen when you return to your computer. Sweet!

I've only just tried it a couple of times, but from my first impressions it seems really promising. I'm not quite paranoid enough to be able to thoroughly think through any negative security implications of this. MacID never connects to the internet, so the chances of your login password getting hijacked that way are zilch. I can't wait for this to grow into a fully-supported technology that becomes something baked into iOS 9/OS X Big Sur (or whatever the next OS X ends up being called).

The current state of computing and devices still forces us to choose between security and convenience, but apps like 1Password and MacID, and technologies like TouchID are at least getting us part of the way towards the convergence of those two ideals.

Year in Review by Simon Abrams

I decided to do my own Year in Review - one that I think is a little more personal than the one that the Facebook algorithm generated for me - by selecting 24 images (two for each month) that represent my 2014.

I started off the year with a teaching gig at Miami Ad School's Brooklyn outpost, which gave me a good excuse to roam around DUMBO with my then-new Fuji X100S. In February, I went on an absolutely fantastic trip to Morocco with my wife. This trip was one of the highlights of the year for me (another great opportunity to road-test my new camera), and I can't believe it's already been almost a year.

I spent Memorial Day with my family at my sister's place in Virgina. It was right around that time that I noticed a funny, squishy bump on my elbow that turned out to be bursitis. It eventually led to me needing surgery, and being stuck in a pretty gnarly brace for a total of five weeks this summer.

I made my annual pilgrimage to the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival, which, to my chagrin, moved to Williamsburg this year. It was co-headlined by Jay Electronica and Raekwon, and featured a very special guest named Jay-Z.

In the fall, a group of us rented a place upstate via Airbnb, and went ziplining at Hunter Mountain to celebrate my good friend's 40th birthday. I was also lucky enough to take not one, but two trips to California -- one for the ADCOLOR conference, and one to reunite with my two closest friends from high school.

Overall it's been a good year, and it has ended with some promising developments (more on those later) which should start 2015 off on a strong note.

With that said, here are 24 images that recap my 2014.