Skip navigation
Help

Benchmark Capital

warning: Creating default object from empty value in /var/www/vhosts/sayforward.com/subdomains/recorder/httpdocs/modules/taxonomy/taxonomy.pages.inc on line 33.

Vexing Viewports

“The Web is Agreement.” Jeremy Keith’s eloquent statement neatly summarizes the balance that makes it possible for us to build amazing things. Each week, new devices appear with varying screen sizes, pixel densities, input types, and more. As developers and designers, we agree to use standards to mark up, style, and program what we create. Browser makers in turn agree to support those standards and set defaults appropriately, so we can hold up our end of the deal.

This agreement has never been more important.

That’s why it always hurts when a device or browser maker does something that goes against our agreement. Especially when they’re a very visible and trusted friend of the web—like Apple.

You see, Apple’s newest tablet, the iPad Mini, creates a vexing situation: Its device-width viewport tag defaults to the same values as Apple’s original iPad (768x1024 pixels), even though the Mini's screen is physically 40 percent smaller. That means every button, graphic, link, and line of text on a web page on the iPad Mini appears tiny—even when we try to do the right thing and build flexible, multi-device experiences.

Two iPads, one too small.

But Cupertino isn’t the only culprit out there. This is a problem that’s been brewing since we started using the viewport—and it has to do with not just pixels, but our own practices as well. Let’s take a step back and understand what’s really causing today’s woes—and what all of us need to do about it.

The trouble with pixels

Today’s viewport woes can be traced right back to pixels—yes, those tiny elements we work with every day.

The first pixel challenge is quantity. The more pixels in the display, the more information can be displayed. But as these are physical pixels whose number can’t be altered after the fact, a second factor comes into play: the screen’s physical size.

Imagine two two-inch-wide displays (about the width of the iPhone), as shown below.

Two devices, each with a two-inch-wide display. The one on the right, at 640x960, would pack four times as many pixels into the same space as the 320x480 screen on left.

The first is 320x480 pixels, the second 640x960. This gives the second display four times as many pixels as the first, but fits all of them into the same physical space. This smaller pixel size results in content that is also smaller—making it crisper, but much harder to read as well.

This is exactly what happened on the Nokia E60. In 2005, most mobile phone displays were about an inch and quarter wide, with an average of 176 pixels in that width. But the E60, which sported a “huge” 352x416-pixel display, crammed twice the number of pixels into a similar amount of space. The result: A gorgeous, crisp—but often hard-to-read—display.

The E60 also introduced a now-familiar problem: how users would manage to surf “big” sites on a tiny device. Nokia’s solution was a new browser, the Mini Map. This browser behaved similarly to today’s smartphone browsers by first rendering the full-sized page, then scaling it to fit the available screen size. Superimposed onto this rendering was a transparent red box that could be repositioned using the device’s joystick. Clicking the joystick would zoom the content indicated within the box.

Enter viewports

Mini Map was probably one of the first commercial uses of a dynamic viewport—a construct designed to dynamically change the size or scale of the visible screen area in order to improve the user experience. But it was far from the last.

In 2007, Apple released the iPhone, a much larger device than the E60, but one with a similar problem. Even on a “huge” two-inch display, surfing the “real web” on an iPhone meant loading large pages onto a small device. Apple chose to solve this problem through a series of carefully orchestrated enhancements.

The first was the creation of a virtual viewport similar to the one Nokia designed for Mini Map. When encountering desktop websites, the browser would render them at their full size (based on a default canvas width of 960 pixels). It would then scale them down to fit the two-inch display. Users could interact with the page to scroll and zoom in on areas of their choice.

Apple didn’t stop there. It also developed a new viewport meta tag. Sites not using the tag would be rendered using the default, legacy-web viewport of 980 pixels. But developers who opted to use the tag could declare the viewport for their sites, including setting the width to the all-important device-width value. This value tells the browser, “please pick a width that fits this specific device’s screen best.”

Other mobile browser vendors were quick to follow Apple’s lead. Nowadays just about every mobile browser supports the viewport meta tag, including the device-width value. This provides us with an even playing field: It respects the efforts of those who take the time to adapt sites for the multi-device web, while those who haven’t yet made this transition still receive a “good-enough” default experience.

Mini problems

The value device and browser vendors assign to device-width is directly related to that device’s physical dimensions. Physically smaller devices need a smaller device-width value (which will result in larger content). Set a value that’s too large, and most content will be too small to comfortably read.

And that’s why Apple’s iPad Mini has a vexing viewport. It uses the same 768-pixel device-width as the regular iPad, even though its physical size is much smaller. One would expect to see a device-width more in line with those of similarly sized tablets like the BlackBerry PlayBook or second-generation Samsung Galaxy 7″—around 500 to 600 pixels, as shown in this chart.

Because of this device-width, web pages appear 27 percent smaller on the iPad Mini than they do on the Google Nexus 7 (calculated based on the relative size of device pixels)—all because Apple decided to describe the device’s viewport as 768 pixels.

Solving for content size

One of the first places this causes problems is in text: More pixels in a smaller space means that fonts sized in pixels will look correspondingly dinky.

Of course, many of us aren’t sizing in pixels anymore—we’re using relative dimensional elements like ems, right? Only, that doesn’t quite solve the problem this time.

When we use ems, we imply a certain trust that the browser’s baseline font size at the default zoom level—1em or 100 percent in unit parlance—is sane and readable. But that’s not always the case. The browser’s baseline font-size value (1em) roughly equates to a 16-pixel square. This ratio serves as a ligament that binds absolute and relative units, but it can vary from browser to browser.

On the iPad Mini, font-size at baseline is precisely 16 pixels. That may have worked fine when fewer pixels were packed into our screens, but on a dense display with an improperly defined viewport, that’s going to be uncomfortably small.

Not all browsers toe the 1:16 em-to-pixel line, though. The Kindle Touch’s browser, for example, has a high-density viewport, but adapts by using a 1:20 ratio, kicking the default font size up a few pixels for readability.

This might not fix all of iPad Mini’s viewport problems, but at least the content would be legible.

Three seven-inch tablets. Note the difference in rendering.

So why did Apple do this?

To understand why Apple would release a product with such a vexing viewport, we don’t have to look further than our own habits.

In the wake of the iPad’s initial release, web folk worldwide scrambled to adapt sites to look good on the new tablets. Somewhere along the way many of us collectively settled upon pixel-based notions of tablet-ness, and those notions often resulted in fixed, 1024x768-pixel layouts precisely targeted at these devices.

Were Apple to decrease the device-width value for the iPad Mini on account of its smaller physical size, it would guarantee a second scramble as existing tablet-adapted sites assuming a 1024x768 viewport suddenly looked unexpectedly wretched on the new device.

The responsibility here goes two ways. Browser makers need to provide reliable baselines of viewport and text sizing, yes. But we as implementers also need to stop grasping for pixel-perfect control over our layouts (the “control” is an illusion, anyway).

A way forward

The only way for us to move forward is together. As developers and designers, we need to hold up our end of the bargain and be mindful of how we do our work—and that means letting go of the notion of pixel precision once and for all. We need to earn the trust of browser makers so they hear us out when things just frankly aren’t right. We hope this article illustrates we’re trying to do the right thing. We hope browser makers acknowledge that and follow suit.

Standards and consistency are more important now than ever before. Please let browser makers and device manufacturers, like Apple, know that we rely on consistent and reliable decisions about default viewports and their zooming. We’re willing to hold up our end of the agreement, and we need them with us.

Let’s move into the future—together.

RSS readers: Don't forget to join the discussion!

0
Your rating: None

mark zuckerberg dustin moskovitz

SAN FRANCISCO -- All eyes are on Facebook Inc., which is on the verge of a $100-billion initial public stock offering.

But the people to watch are an elite group of former company insiders. Already loaded, or soon to be, thanks to the looming Wall Street payday, these Facebook pals are furiously building the next generation of Silicon Valley companies.

And they're doing it together.

Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, the world's youngest billionaire at 27, has teamed with Facebook alumnus Justin Rosenstein on Asana, which makes online software that helps people work together more effectively.

Adam D'Angelo, Facebook's first chief technology officer, is working with Facebook pal Charlie Cheever on Quora, a website whose aim is to connect people to information.

Former Facebook executive Matt Cohler is now a venture capitalist bankrolling his old co-workers, including Dave Morin, who runs a mobile social network called Path.

"Very few people get to change the world with their friends. Now we are setting out to do it again," said Kevin Colleran, 31, Facebook's first ad sales guy, who's now an investor handing out money and advice.

Whether these Facebook friends, most still in their 20s, can deliver on these youthful ambitions remains to be seen. Silicon Valley is littered with the wreckage of onetime meteors that burned through all their hype and cash.

What's clear is that it pays to have friends like these in Silicon Valley, where it's all about whom you know and whom you work with.

Innovation, researchers have found, is an inherently social act, owing as much to these tightknit networks as the garage tinkering of individual entrepreneurs.

"The basic unit of innovation in Silicon Valley is the team," Silicon Valley futurist Paul Saffo said. "Innovation is an irrational act, and the only way to get through that irrationality is to surround yourself with other people as crazy and obsessed with changing the world as you are."

For decades, these networks have seeded Silicon Valley with breakthrough ideas and ventures. It all began with Frederick Terman, who, as a young Stanford faculty member in the 1930s, encouraged his engineering students William Hewlett and David Packard to start a company. Terman brought together young entrepreneurs and local industry, giving rise to a powerful and wealthy high-tech community to rival the East Coast.

Interlocking social networks were forged in cubicles across Silicon Valley. In the 1960s the "traitorous eight" defected from Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory to start a competing company. Fairchild Semiconductor quickly surpassed Shockley and became a training ground for engineers. When it began to stumble, the original eight founders moved on to new ventures. Eugene Kleiner became one of the region's most important venture capitalists. Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce co-foundedIntel Corp.

The most famous social network is the "PayPal mafia," a high-profile band of executives who sold the payments company to EBay Inc. They then built and backed some of the hottest companies in Silicon Valley, including Yelp, YouTube and Facebook. Facebook's first Silicon Valley investor was Peter Thiel of Founders Fund, who was PayPal's chief executive and co-founder.

Now it's the Facebook pals' turn. With social networking wired into their brains, who better to out-friend the PayPal mafia?

"We have all been through the experience of building something that had a massive, massive impact on the world. Going out a second time and starting a new company, nothing short of that is very interesting," Moskovitz said in an interview in Asana's San Francisco headquarters. "Everyone is mission-oriented. They want to do something that will touch everyone on Earth."

He and Rosenstein are building software that breaks down communication barriers so that people can collaborate more effectively. It's a labor of love that dates back to their days at Facebook. As the company grew, it became harder for Moskovitz to keep tabs on what various teams were doing.

So he built a tool to help Facebook employees organize and discuss tasks. He and Rosenstein bonded over their shared desire to create ways to work more efficiently. In 2008, they left Facebook to concentrate on building a tool to help any group of people be more productive and stay on track.

"We are focused on building a company that will last. We expect to be a $100-billion company," said Rosenstein, 28. "We run the company with the intent and the expectation to be the next in that lineage."

D'Angelo, 27, and Cheever, 30, have similarly lofty goals. Over Chinese food in Facebook's offices in the fall of 2008, they began discussing Q&A sites that enabled users to answer one another's questions. The services were wildly popular. But the answers were often wrong or useless.

D'Angelo and Cheever decided they could do better, so they started work on Quora in 2009. They rented cramped offices over an art supply store in an old building in Palo Alto, hired programming and design prodigies, and got experts to weigh in with thoughtful, authoritative answers to hundreds of thousands of questions.

Traffic grew quickly as Quora won over fans with answers that were not only smart but entertaining:

"What's the best way to escape the police in a high-speed car chase?" A former Missouri police officer responded that it's easy if you pick a jurisdiction where authorities are bound by strict pursuit guidelines to avoid liability.

"If you injure a bug, should you kill it or let it live?" An entomologist responded that insects don't feel pain the way that vertebrates do, so there's no need to put them out of their misery.

Quora landed $11 million in funding and an $86-million valuation via Benchmark Capital's Cohler and now has 33 employees.

Like others in the Facebook network, D'Angelo and Cheever seem to read each other's thoughts and finish each other's sentences. The depth of these friendships is unusual even in Silicon Valley. These Facebook pals don't just call on one another for money and advice, start companies together and sit on each other's boards. They also hook up to celebrate life's big moments.

Ruchi Sanghvi was Facebook's first female engineer and one of the first 10 hired at the company. She and her husband, Aditya Agarwal, were Carnegie Mellon graduates who came to Facebook as a couple in 2004. In 2010 when they wed on a beach in Goa, India, dozens of their Facebook friends joined them for a weeklong family celebration. Among them was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a long silk sherwani jacket.

"With this network, you are never lonely," said Sanghvi, who with Agarwal last month sold their start-up Cove to San Francisco's Dropbox. "It's not just a work fabric. It's our life fabric."

Each winter a couple of dozen of them pile into a house at a Colorado ski resort that belongs to the family of Facebook executive Sam Lessin. This snowy retreat hundreds of miles from Silicon Valley is the gathering place for the "Lothlorien Life Conference," or LLC for short. Named after the forest realm in "The Lord of the Rings," LLC is the event no one misses, a time for friends to slice down the mountain and swap advice.

That's where Morin, 31, decided to turn down a $125-million offer fromGoogle Inc.for Path. It was 2010, and he had just launched Path and didn't want to sell it, nor did he want to help Google take on Facebook. But he was under pressure from investors and employees.

Morin huddled in a quiet corner of the living room with Moskovitz and Founders Fund's Brian Singerman, both investors in Path. They talked late into the night and all the next day. Moskovitz reminded Morin about how Zuckerberg wrestled with the $1-billion buyout offer fromYahoo Inc.in the early days of Facebook.

"I told Dave he simply didn't need to do it and, even if he subsequently failed, that would be OK," Moskovitz said. "After that it was clear that a huge weight had been lifted."

Morin said he couldn't get by without that kind of help from his friends. Path has raised a new round of funding that values the company at $250 million, and it has more than 2 million users, including Britney Spears.

"We built Facebook, and it's ingrained in how we think. I think in networks now," Morin said. "It would be hard for me to think any other way."

No one in the Facebook network has any intention of cashing in his or her chips any time soon, Colleran said. Facebook's employee No. 7 left the company in July. He just signed on to a new gig as a venture partner with General Catalyst Partners in Boston.

"I believe after Asana, after Path, after Quora, there will be another company, and then another one, and another one," Colleran said.

"If we are all going to be hanging out anyway, why not be productive and change the world? It's a whole lot better than sitting around and saying, 'Remember that time at Facebook?' We're all way too young for that."

jessica.guynn@latimes.com

Please follow SAI on Twitter and Facebook.

Join the conversation about this story »

See Also:

0
Your rating: None

The Minerva Project says it’s planning to launch the first elite American university in a century. Sounds wacky, right?

But the project is starting to gather some heavyweight support: Former Harvard President and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers will chair its advisory board, and Benchmark Capital has committed $25 million, the VC firm’s largest seed investment ever.

Elite higher education is a stagnant market, argues Minerva CEO Ben Nelson. Far more people are qualified to get into top colleges than are admitted. Meanwhile, college education is too expensive and good teaching is undervalued. How can you address all that? By going online.

Unlike former Stanford professor and Google exec Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity, which started by offering a small selection of university-level classes online, Minerva plans to birth itself as a full alternative to college.

Minerva will be a virtual school, though it will encourage students to live together in dorm clusters around the world. It doesn’t plan to offer introductory-level classes — students will be expected to go to community colleges or take online courses to get up to speed.

To attract the best professors to contribute Minerva courses, the school will be paying them well and running an international “Minerva Prize” for the best college-level teaching, with a substantial cash reward.

As for admission, Minerva promises it will give “no weight to lineage, athletic ability, state or country of origin, or capacity to donate.”

Oh, and here’s the most ridiculously audacious bit of all of this: Minerva plans to admit its first class in 2014.

Here’s Nelson giving his pitch about “Taking on the Ivy League” last year at TEDxSF. Nelson was formerly CEO of SnapFish and chairman of RedBeacon.

0
Your rating: None

Y_Combinator-logo-USETHIS

The startups that presented at Y Combinator’s Demo Day last week were remarkable in their own right, but perhaps the most striking thing was the sheer number of them.

With 66 companies and 180 founders in this season’s batch, the auditorium at Mountain View’s Computer History Museum was practically bursting with angel investors and reps from every notable venture firm last week. And that was just the latest class. Since 2005, Y Combinator has since spawned more than a dozen batches of startups including Dropbox and Airbnb. The last two classes alone have created more than 120 companies.

So it raises the question of how Y Combinator has been able to grow in size while sustaining both the quality of startups it churns out and the value it provides for founders.

Essentially, how do you scale a company that creates companies?

The Strategy and Vision

“Our whole approach to scaling Y Combinator is the standard approach to scaling software,” said Paul Graham, Y Combinator’s co-founder.

There are a couple rules, he said. 1) You can’t predict in advance where the bottlenecks will be so you just keep going until you hit the next one and 2) You can always scale a lot more than you originally predicted. ”When you scale things, they often turn into other stuff that you would have never imagined,” he said.

Graham doesn’t have an exact size in mind when accepting companies for a new class. The early-stage venture firm accepts as many companies as the team thinks are worthy. Nor does Graham know how large Y Combinator should ultimately be.

“Imagine if you had asked Mark Zuckerberg that question when Facebook had just two universities,” Graham said. “A lot of what drives us is curiosity about what happens when something like this gets bigger.”

Indeed, some of the other partners liken working at Y Combinator to building a university or a new type of institution that’s never been seen before.

“If you think of YC as a corporation or a company, it has these characteristics that every big company would love to have,” said Harj Taggar, an alum who later became a YC venture partner. “It’s a bunch of smart people working on projects that they love and have upside in. But they are all linked together and get the benefits of being a part of a larger group. YC is effectively inventing a new form of organization.”

Given the scale of Graham’s ambition (which shouldn’t be surprising since he tells founders to have “frighteningly ambitious” startup ideas), we walked through some of the many bottlenecks YC has faced through the years:

Applications:

Y Combinator’s increasing cachet has brought a ballooning number of applications. Last October, Graham said that the firm was seeing about one submission per minute on deadline day for the most recent class.

Every one of the firm’s venture partners used to read every application. Now they don’t. They might read one-third of the applications. It’s the alumni who make the first pass, depending on how much time they have. Some do none while others read as many as 100 applications or more.

“We went back over the years and saw that we had never accepted a company for an interview where the alumni were majority ‘No,’” Taggar said. “This weeds out really bad applications so we can focus on the borderline ones, which take more time.”

But just in case they miss a potentially good company, Y Combinator is starting to use data mining software. They’ve fed a program all of the old Y Combinator applications to find predictors of success and apply them to new submissions, creating a backstop in case they miss something.

“There are two kinds of mistakes: funding a bad startup or missing a good one. Our biggest fear is missing a good startup,” Graham said, adding that Dropbox’s co-founder Drew Houston was actually rejected the first time around. They’ve used the program to generate a top 10 list of factors predicting the probability of acceptance. ”I don’t want to share it, but it was fascinating,” Graham said.

After they pick a cohort of companies to interview, they fly them in. They used to do a single track interview process where every single partner had to be present in the room. Last time, they did two interview tracks with half the partners in one of two rooms that went through half the finalists each. This time, they might do three tracks simultaneously.

Following the interview, the partners decide immediately within the next five minutes about whether they should accept the company or not.

“We have to be very disciplined,” Taggar said. “By the end of the day, when you’ve done twenty-something interviews, you can barely remember what happened in the first one.”

Advising:

Y Combinator’s big initial bottleneck was that there was one Paul Graham, and he only had 24 hours in a day. So the company brought on additional venture partners like Gmail creator Paul Buchheit and alumni like Taggar, Posterous co-founder Garry Tan and Aaron Iba, who successfully sold AppJet to Google. Geoff Ralston, who was chief executive of Lala, the music startup that exited to Apple in 2009, is joining as a partner for this round. Plus there are part-time partners like Loopt co-founder Sam Altman and Justin.tv founders Emmett Shear and Justin Kan. They joined YC’s original partners Jessica Livingston, Trevor Blackwell and Robert Morris.

“It turns out that this is almost perfectly parallelizable,” Graham said. “I know from experience that one partner can deal with 20 startups and if we have 66 startups, we’re at more than 2X over capacity.”

All of the partners are available for office hours and there’s an internal scheduling tool that Y Combinator uses to gauge demand and urgency from founders. Ash Rust, who co-founded SendHub, had an HR issue once. He was able to get office hours within 30 minutes and the right documentation almost immediately after that.

“I know how hard it can be to get help as a founder if you’re not the belle of the ball,” Rust said. “But I’ve never experienced that here.”

If that still sounds a little impersonal for something as unpredictable and idiosyncratic as founding a startup, Buchheit points out that YC’s alumni network is now so large that the firm is starting to have world-class experts on running companies in many areas.

“As YC gets larger, it actually gets better,” Buchheit said, pointing to the firm’s 800 alumni. ”Half the time, I’m sending founders to talk to different alumni. If you’re doing a video startup, then I know the person you really ought to talk to is Justin Kan.”

The firm taps this alumni network when it holds mini-conferences around issues like user acquisition or iOS development.

“There’s this real feeling of appreciation,” Buchheit says. “The founders are very grateful for the experience, so they have a real loyalty and want to help out other companies. There’s a little bit of a pay-it-forward model built into the network.”

Tan even built a private social networking tool for YC founders. Taggar says it’s useful for putting faces to names and that they’ll probably add a section for skills like the ability to code in Python and so on.

Y Combinator’s emerging network effects:

Not only are alumni helping with admissions and advising, they can serve as market-makers for new startups. Many of mobile payment startup Stripe’s customers are part of Y Combinator while Exec is now offering special corporate accounts to run errands for other startups.

“Y Combinator has a built-in economy,” Buchheit says. “We have this tremendous network and another YC company can be your first reference customer when others won’t take the risk.”

Then if one company isn’t quite a home run, its founders and employees will likely be able to find work at another Y Combinator startup. When Jeff and Dan Morin were considering next steps after working on event startup Anyvite for a few years, Graham paired them with another founder, Olga Vidisheva, from the most recent batch. Now they’ve rounded up funding from Greylock Capital, Andreessen Horowitz, SV Angel and Benchmark Capital to bring independent fashion boutiques online at Shoptiques.

The alumni also come back to Demo Day to angel invest in startups from later batches and companies like Parse, Carwoo and Dropbox have raised angel funding from other alums.

Demo Day and Investors:

Maybe the next big bottleneck is the most obvious one: helping investors wade through the dozens of startups it launches every half-year. The firm had to move Demo Day to The Computer History Museum because its offices no longer had space to fit the hundreds of investors. Y Combinator is also reaching the upper limit of how many startups can pitch in a single day.

Getting through 66 pitches is a slog. ”I don’t think we could handle a Demo Week,” Buchheit joked.

Taggar says he’s thinking about how to make it more efficient for investors to set up meetings with the right startups following Demo Day. Right now, the partners just have a mental map of the investor landscape and try to route the right companies to the right investors.

The week after Demo Day is an especially intense one as entrepreneurs and investors try to lock down deals. It’s kind of a weird biannual version of mating season.

With all the investor interest, the founders clearly don’t see Demo Day as the issue.

In fact, Rust had something else on his mind — how to efficiently get food on speaker nights. ”Seriously, the only scaling problem is the enormous dinner line,” he said.

0
Your rating: None

When organizing content and actions on mobile, solid information architecture principles like clear labeling, balanced breadth and depth, and appropriate mental models remain important. But the organization of mobile web experiences must also align with how people use their mobile devices and why; emphasize content over navigation; provide relevant options for exploration and pivoting; maintain clarity and focus; and align with mobile behaviors. In this exclusive excerpt from his new book, Mobile First!, Luke Wroblewski explains how to do all that.

0
Your rating: None