On The Importance of Fun (And Some Holiday Snow)

Since we’re based in (mostly-) sunny San Francisco, Flickr’s code monkeys will be away for a few days eating excessive amounts of turkey and being appropriately thankful. Before heading off with friends and family, I thought I’d share a bit of “seasonal” JavaScript we have on the site, and a few notes about its inner workings.

Fun is Good

We build a lot of “serious” stuff at Flickr HQ, but we also recognize why it’s crucial that we save some time for the small things, the goofy and occasionally-irreverent parts of the site that remind people of a playful spirit. Outside of our daily work, many of us have our own personal geekery going on. It’s no coincidence that shiny, and even silly things people tinker with and build in their own time sometimes bleed over and become features or elements on Flickr; ideally, great ideas come from all sorts of places.

Let It Snow

Lights in the Snow (with ?snow=1), by mezzoblue

Last holiday season, we got around to making it snow on photo pages – just for the fun of it. If you happen to be on a photo.gne page and add ?snow=1, it might still even work.. We’ve also used a variant of the effect in the past for beta feature sign-up sequences, complete with cheesy MIDI renderings of “The Girl From Ipanema.” Again, this was “just because”; sometimes the web is most entertaining when it’s most unexpected. If you can occasionally make your users smile, giggle and laugh when using your site, chances are you’re doing something right – or, you’re running a comedy site that’s going downhill.

Wait, Snow is Hard

The snow effect was a JavaScript experiment made strictly as a test of DOM-2 event handlers, PNG and animation performance. Or, viewed in a more-cynical light, it was an evil plot to pollute websites with falling animated .GIFs and light CPUs on fire world web-wide.

To achieve a realistic effect, each snowflake has its own size, “weight” and x/y velocity properties which can be affected by “wind”. A slight parallax effect is achieved by the notion that larger flakes are closer to the screen and move faster, and so on.

It may not be surprising to note that it’s still expensive CPU-wise to animate many individual elements simultaneously. The effect is much smoother and has higher frame-rates these days when compared to early versions from 2003, but even modern browsers will readily eat up 50% CPU while running the effect. That said, the animation is keyed off of a single setInterval()-style loop with a low interval, so it will effectively try to run as fast as it can.

Revisiting Performance

“In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.” — Yogi Berra

I had a theory that using text elements might be more efficient than image-based snow to animate, so I made the switch to using elements with the bullet entity • instead of PNGs with alpha transparency. No noticeable improvement was actually seen, despite my theories about drawing and moving images; HTTP requests were being saved, but the browser was still doing a lot of redraw or reflow work despite the elements using either absolute or fixed positioning. On my netbook-esque laptop with Firefox 3.5 under WinXP, animation would “freeze” when scrolling the window with position:fixed elements – presumably because my single interval-based JavaScript timer was blocked from running while scrolling was active.

In retrospect, what might be more efficient for overall CPU use is a number of absolutely-positioned “sheets” using a tiling background image with a pattern of snow. Each sheet of snow would move at the same speed and angle, but the number of unique elements being animated would be drastically reduced. JavaScript-based animation is not a science in any case, and having a large number of elements actively moving can significantly impact browser responsiveness. While this is not a common web use case for animation, it is interesting to note how the different browsers handle it.

Make Fun Stuff, and Learn!

Much of what I enjoy about front-end engineering is the challenge. I’ve learned a lot about browser performance and quirks just from prototypes and experiments, which can then be used in real production work.

While cross-browser layout and performance varies, it’s also rewarding to work on the occasional crazy idea or silly prototype and then refine it, features and quality-wise, to a point where it’s ready for a production site somewhere. JavaScript-based snow is at best a “perennial” feature, but the process of thinking about how to make something different and new work, and work well (theory) – and then researching, testing and hacking away to actually do it (practice) – is where the learning comes in.

Building authorized Flickr apps for the iPhone


You want to develop an iPhone app that interacts with Flickr content? This sounds pretty good. And the Flickr API provides you with an authorization workflow that is particularly adapted for this device. And Flickr members love their iPhones.

An authorization workflow you say, but why? Let me step back for a moment. First you may not need to authorize your application. This is needed only if your app needs to make authenticated API calls. That means if the users of your app access in a non anonymous way the Flickrverse: accessing non-public content, commenting, tagging, deleting, etc… In order for this to happen in a safe environment (for you and our users), a 3-way authorization needs to happen between Flickr, you and our mutual users, typical of social engineering interactions.

So how does this work?

Step 0

You need to setup your application.

  • Get an API key that uniquely identifies your application.
  • Configure your application to be web-based (yes, this can seem odd but this is the smoothest user experience on the iPhone) and specify the authorization callback URL (it will be used in Step 3.) I suggest not to use the http:// protocol reserved for the web but your own, like myapp://

There exists already a workflow explanation from developer stand point, but I’d like to add the specificities introduced by the use of a web-based authorization in an iPhone environment.

In the app, for each user you want to authorize:

Step 1

Create a login URL, specific to you application in the shape of http://flickr.com/services/auth/?api_key=%5Bapi_key%5D&perms=%5Bperms%5D&api_sig=%5Bapi_sig%5D and launch a web browser with this URL.

Step 2

Flickr will ask the user to sign-in into their account and present them with a page prompting them to authorize your application.

Step 3

If the user decides to authorize your application, Flickr will call the callback URL specified in Step 0. Here is the nice trick! This can actually launch back your application. All you have to do is to add a new entry for CFBundleURLTypes in your Info.plist:

     <string>MyApp's URL</string>

See Apple’s documentation on Implementing Custom URL Schemes for more details.

Step 4

Your application is launched back by Flickr (through the browser and the iPhone OS) with a frob as one of the argument of the URL. The app is effectively a Flickr auth handler. You can implement application:handleOpenURL: in a similar way as:

 - (BOOL)application:(UIApplication *)application handleOpenURL:(NSURL *)url
        if (NSOrderedSame == [[url scheme] caseInsensitiveCompare:@”flickrApp”]) {
                // query has the form of "&frob=", the rest is the frob
                NSString *frob = [[url query] substringFromIndex:6];

                // Keep the frob for Step 5 and schedule Step 5

               return YES;
        } else {
               Return NO;

Step 5

Your app makes an API call to convert this frob into a token. The frob is valid only for a certain time. The token will be used for the API calls that require authentication. This token is what uniquely identifies the use of your API key for a specific user on Flickr. You can save it using NSUserDefaults for next time the user uses the application without having to reauthorize the application. Even better to use KeyChain. Note that you should use checkToken to make sure the user has not de-authorized the application otherwise your authenticated call may fail for no apparent reasons.

I would like to take the opportunity of this blog post to recommend an excellent library to develop iPhone apps interacting with flickr: ObjectiveFlickr.

Have a good hack!

Jérôme Decq, from his home outside of Paris, singled handedly runs the Flickr Desktop Uploadr development, as well as hacking on making Flickr avaiable on a wide range of platforms, and photographing purple ducks.

In case you wanted to bake us a cake ….

Ian Sanchez has proposed a new geo data “test for freeness” in the spirit of the Debian project’s tests for free software.

A set of geodata, or a map, is libre only if somebody can give you a cake with that map on top, as a present. – Ian Sanchez

I mention this because the Flickr Shapefiles can be used unencumbered as a cake decoration. And we like cake. We like photos of cake as well. But we prefer cake.

Introducing The App Garden

Flickr has long had an extensive, well-documented API. Over the years, thousands of developers have taken advantage of it, coming up with some awesome apps. We love that.

We love it so much, we’ve revamped the /services/ section of Flickr, replacing it with The App Garden. What is it, you say? It’s a place for developers to promote their apps, right here on Flickr. We hope that it will make it easier for Flickr users to find the awesome apps that the Flickr API hackers have been building.

You will see that The App Garden already has some apps in it, and you might think “OOOH SHINY!!” You might also wonder how to get your app into the App Garden. I will show you!

Getting Started

We’ve tried to make things as simple and straight-forward as possible. You will find all of your API Keys under the Apps By Me page, which replaces the old API Key list. You will notice that they are all labeled as “Private” – we leave it up to you to decide when your app page is ready to be made public.

When you click on one of your apps, you will be taken to the owner view of your app page. This page is where you tell the world about your app – provide a description, link to a website, set screenshots, and add tags. When you’re ready, change the privacy setting to public. That will make your app visible to other users and allow it to show up in searches.

Managing Your Apps

Below the privacy settings, you will find the Admin section of the sidebar – your own little command center. You will find a link to a page with statistics for the app’s API Key (largely unchanged, though developers with higher user counts may notice a considerate speed up), as well as pages for disabling the key, editing the authentication flow for the key, and deleting the app altogether.

We love our API hackers and are happy to embrace them in a whole new way. We hope you like it.

More Info

App Garden FAQ
What is the App Garden?