Twitter Addressing the Dot-Reply Convention

From Twitter’s quarterly earnings (PDF):

We are going to fix the broken windows and confusing parts, like the .@name syntax and @reply rules, that we know inhibit usage and drive people away.

Replies are limited to followers of both the sending and receiving accounts for a reason: ostensibly, only those users care about both voices. But there are lots of instances where a reply should be more public and go out to all of the followers of the sender account — hence, the dot-reply syntax. These rules are too complex for many new users to understand, but I’m interested in seeing how Twitter “fixes” them without junking up everyone’s timeline.

Here Comes the Algorithmic Timeline

Speaking of Twitter, they’ve decided to expand the “while you were away” algorithmic feature introduced last year. Yoree Koh, Wall Street Journal:

Twitter Inc. is under intense pressure to figure out how to get more people to use the service. But on Wednesday it is releasing a change that is aimed at charming its most ardent fans.

Twitter said it is inserting more tweets at the top of the timeline that a user missed while they were away from the service. Since last January, Twitter has included five tweets as part of a feature called “while you were away.”

Now, Twitter says it will separately include a host of “best” tweets at the top of the timeline each time a person reopens the app or website, displayed in reverse chronological order.

I disagree with Koh’s assessment that this is meant for the biggest Twitter fans, many of which use third-party clients instead. This seems to be more for casual users who check Twitter occasionally, rather than having an app always open. It’s a good move for that group; most of those users probably follow a bunch of public figures and don’t have time to sift through their timeline chronologically. As long as a real-time option and third-party clients are still available for junkies like me, I think this move is fine.

Twitter Links to Be Fixed in Next Major Version of Safari

Dieter Komendera (via Allen Tan):

Apple just sent back my radar about urls not working in Safari, saying it’s fixed in latest 10.11.4 beta.

It’s so great that Twitter decided to shorten every link posted to their service with their proprietary one, except for when is for whatever reason unavailable and none of the links posted through Twitter works. Also, this is a ridiculous bug in Safari that only affects Twitter, and I don’t understand that.

Google Deprecated Security Questions

Elie Bursztein and Ilan Caron of Google, in May 2015 (via Michael Tsai):

[Despite] the prevalence of security questions, their safety and effectiveness have rarely been studied in depth. As part of our constant efforts to improve account security, we analyzed hundreds of millions of secret questions and answers that had been used for millions of account recovery claims at Google. We then worked to measure the likelihood that hackers could guess the answers.

Our findings, summarized in a paper that we recently presented at WWW 2015, led us to conclude that secret questions are neither secure nor reliable enough to be used as a standalone account recovery mechanism. That’s because they suffer from a fundamental flaw: their answers are either somewhat secure or easy to remember — but rarely both.

A few years ago, I began using a random password generator to create answers to security questions, if they’re required to create an account somewhere. But even that level of protection is rarely enough, especially when nefarious parties almost never attempt to brute-force a password or security question, especially when a human phone operator is so much easier to fool.

So, security questions are typically either easy to guess or hard to remember, yet it’s usually more straightforward to utilize the weakest link in the security chain — consistently people. What are they good for? Phasing them out was the right move for Google.

The Apple Watch and Mechanical Watches

Marco Arment’s Apple Watch got him hooked on mechanical watches:

Logically, I shouldn’t like these. I’m a usually-rational software developer and computer geek. Mechanical watches are ancient technology that’s outclassed in every objective metric — accuracy, reliability, simplicity, cost — by any inexpensive quartz watch, let alone the high-precision timekeeping and unmatchable connected-computer features on the Apple Watch. […]

But I simply like mechanical watches more. I’ve completely converted, and I don’t foresee myself wearing the Apple Watch much in the future — the additional functionality it offers isn’t useful enough to me (your needs may vary) to overcome the far greater joy I get out of wearing a nice mechanical watch.

Conversely, Jack Forster — the respected high-end horology journalist — can’t stop wearing his Apple Watch:

The big picture, though, is that you get something that has enormous thought put into every detail – both hardware and software – to such an extent that it would be oppressive if it weren’t in general so good. What scares me about luxury watchmaking nowadays is that it often forgets that good design, and getting the details right, still matter. Yes, luxury is storytelling to some extent, but that often turns into products and companies that over-deliver on marketing and under-deliver on product quality, and when the gap between the story and the product becomes too noticeable people simply lose interest.

I find these two articles, which were published within days of each other, completely compelling in their disagreement. Arment is a long-time tech guy who does not find Apple’s effort good enough — in many places, he sees it as unfinished. Forster, meanwhile, is someone who wrote a book on Cartier’s watches, and is used to wearing tiny lumps of metal on his wrist that are worth more than a car. Two completely opposing experiences from two totally different writers.

Press Coverage of Twitter’s Announcements From Today

“Wait, Nick,” you begin, “Twitter’s announcements? As in, with an ‘s’?”

Indeed, dear reader, Twitter made two announcements today, but if you were looking at much of the press coverage, you might have only heard about one. Ingrid Lunden, Techcrunch:

Today Twitter is unveiling a new video ad unit called First View. Advertisers opting for a First View position will essentially jump to the front of the queue in Twitter’s ad network, getting the top ad spot the first time a person opens Twitter, for a period of 24 hours.

At launch, First View will be video only — pushing Twitter’s drive to expand its offerings in rich media.

Autoplaying video placed in the first position in a user’s timeline is only slightly less intrusive than an interstitial ad, but no matter — I’m more interested in the second thing Twitter introduced today that received less coverage than I think it should have. It’s called the Trust and Safety Council; Patricia Cartes explains:

To ensure people can continue to express themselves freely and safely on Twitter, we must provide more tools and policies. With hundreds of millions of Tweets sent per day, the volume of content on Twitter is massive, which makes it extraordinarily complex to strike the right balance between fighting abuse and speaking truth to power. It requires a multi-layered approach where each of our 320 million users has a part to play, as do the community of experts working for safety and free expression.

They have a long list of advocacy and outreach organizations they’re working with to try to improve Twitter’s quality of dialogue, all of which represent topics of concern — bullying, LGBT rights, crime, youth safety, and the harassment of women. It’s a great start to tackling such vital platform-wide issues, but that it took this long to look into this shows a massive disconnect between the priorities of Twitter as a company and Twitter’s users.

A thought exercise: imagine if just half of the effort that went into developing new advertising formats instead went to combatting bullying and harassment online.

Zero Rating and Net Neutrality

Nitasha Tiku, Buzzfeed:

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has released their long-anticipated ruling on net neutrality in India. The regulators have ruled against differential and discriminatory pricing of mobile data on the basis of content.

This ruling will affect Free Basics — Facebook’s controversial plan to offer free, but limited Internet access — in India. Mark Zuckerberg has been campaigning to bring increased digital connectivity to the developing world. Free Basics, which claims to have 15 million users in more than 35 countries around the globe, is part of Facebook’s quasi-philanthropic efforts.

Klint Finley, Wired:

Verizon has confirmed that any video streamed through its new Go90 service won’t count towards the data plans of Verizon customers. That’s bad news for Netflix, YouTube, and other competing streaming video services, which will continue to count against your data cap—unless perhaps those companies participate in one of Verizon’s FreeBee program, which allows companies to underwrite their app’s bandwidth costs on behalf of users.

The practice of exempting some internet usage from a data cap is known as “zero rating,” and most major internet providers are now dabbling in one form of it or another. T-Mobile exempts video and music streaming from various partners through its Music Freedom and Binge On services. AT&T has been experimenting with various forms of sponsored data in recent years. Sprint’s prepaid service includes some zero rated content. And Comcast allows viewers to watch its Stream TV service, which it classifies as a traditional cable television service, on their computers without having it count towards data limits.

Although these services certainly violate the spirit of network neutrality by allowing providers to give certain partners or themselves an advantage over competitors, zero rating isn’t necessarily banned by the FCC’s Open Internet Order. Instead, the FCC reserved the right to address data cap issues on a case-by-case basis, and there is also a “general conduct” provision that states that bans “unreasonable interference” with internet traffic. That may or may not be enough for the FCC to end zero rating.

It’s very important to emphasize the neutrality word in “net neutrality”. Not only should providers and ISPs be prevented from punishing connections, they ought to be prevented from favouring anything, too.

This is especially important since many major ISPs, cable companies, studios, and distributors are one and the same in North America. Comcast — the ISP and cable TV provider — owns NBCUniversal, which produces and distributes television shows and movies. Time Warner used to be the holding company for Warner Communications, the entertainment company. In Canada, Shaw owns a bunch of TV networks as well as providing cable TV and internet service. Rogers and Bell do the same. There is an inherent conflict of interest in all of these cases, between each company’s various divisions.

Similarly, Facebook was providing free access only to websites and services of their choice, and who entered into an agreement with the company. This entirely undermines the spirit of net neutrality.

It’s easy to see why we might get suckered into this stuff: we like free things. But, if zero rating becomes a standard practice for ISPs and providers, it will be looked at years from now as a short-sighted deal that traded a short-term bonus for poor long-term internet policy. It creates an awful precedent, and should be abolished.

Apple TV to Gain Dictation, Siri App Store Search

Juli Clover, MacRumors:

There’s now support for onscreen text entry via dictation in countries where Siri is available. When updating to tvOS 9.2 beta 3, users will be prompted to enable or disable dictation. With dictation, Apple TV users can dictate text and spell user names and passwords rather than typing them. […]

Siri is now able to search for App Store apps, improving the app discovery process in the App Store. It’s now possible to ask Siri to search for an app or to search for a category of apps, such as games and bring up a listing.

I resist the use of the “f” word — finally — but these are two features that should not have taken several months after launch to be added. tvOS is based on iOS, which already has dictation enabled systemwide in text input fields. Whatever the case, this should solve an awful lot of frustrating back-and-forth single-line keyboard manoeuvres.

It’s the same story for App Store search. I frequently forget that I cannot find apps with Siri until I try to do it, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

As a whole, Siri on tvOS seems inexplicably weaker than it does on iOS. Last night, I was watching Law & Order: SVU on Netflix, and I forgot Ice-T’s real name. I held down the Siri button and asked what it was. Siri understood, but told me “sorry, I can’t find that information”, or something to that effect. I asked Siri on my phone, and a Wolfram Alpha result was returned. The tvOS version clearly doesn’t use the same data store as the iOS version, but I’ve got to wonder why it doesn’t, and why it can’t answer similar — and pertinent — questions.

Tangentially, I hereby declare a new barometer for password effectiveness: if you can reliably enter your password by using dictation, it’s too weak and needs to be changed.

Trusty Support

Sarah Jeong, Vice:

In a remarkable meta-commentary on Twitter’s Report Abuse system, the parody account @TrustySupport, which mocks Twitter for failing to suspend harassing accounts, was, uh, suspended. […]

This story also raises some questions about resource allocation and corporate priorities at Twitter. It’s a little weird that a parody account, whose chief criticism of Twitter is that it doesn’t do enough about harassment, was shut down because of trademark enforcement. And it’s even weirder to find out that the decision was made with apparent care and actual internal discussion at the company.

The argument is not that Twitter should suspend accounts with less oversight; it’s that they ought to prioritize which accounts are suspended. Minor trademark issues with obvious parody accounts should be of a significantly lesser importance compared to users who harass and intimidate repeatedly, and get away with it.

On the most recent episode of the Tomorrow podcast, Joshua Topolsky talks about the kind of threats he got for merely mentioning Gamergate in a New Yorker column. There is no doubt in my mind that it would have been an order of magnitude more awful were he a woman.

There’s a lot going on with Twitter, but the harassment that continues to permeate the platform and dominate so many of its discussions is, without a doubt, a problem that is absolutely critical for them to solve. The internet will always have assholes, but restricting their ability to subject others to their intolerance and abuse should be a priority of any communication platform.

Jeong’s article is admirably funny for an issue with such deep implications.

Google Cracking Down on Ad Blockers in the Play Store

Allison Schiff, Ad Exchanger:

In an episode reminiscent of Google’s removal of ad-blocking privacy app Disconnect last September, Adblock Fast got booted out of Google Play on Wednesday for violating the section of Google’s Developer Distribution Agreement that prohibits developers from creating anything that interferes with or disrupts how another app or service does business. […]

Google pays a “‘ransom’ to Eyeo, creator of Adblock Plus, “to the tune of millions of dollars a year,” Kane said, whereas Adblock Fast, which just received its Play store pink slip, declares on its website that it “doesn’t, nor do we intend … to ever, make any money. … Unlike other ad blockers, we don’t sell out to support our project.”

As of this writing, Adblock Plus was still live in Google Play.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this; Google has every right to control what they have in their store. In some ways, it matters a little less than an app being booted from Apple’s App Store as Android users can always sideload apps. But there’s a greater price paid on the developer’s reputation. Steve Troughton-Smith:

Also, Google handing out policy strikes for apps that they decide they don’t like? That’s way nastier than how Apple handles it


Tim Cook Holds Town Hall

Good report from Mark Gurman. Particularly interesting is Cook’s comment on Watch sales over the holiday quarter:

Cook also called the Apple Watch one of the “hottest” holiday gifts, and he claimed that sales of the device exceeded those of the original iPhone in its first holiday quarter in 2007.

We may not have Watch sales figures, but we can dig up those referenced iPhone sales. In the 2007 holiday quarter (“Q1 2008” in Apple’s counting system), they sold 2.3 million iPhones;1 for comparison, they sold 4.3 million a year later. So they likely sold somewhere between those figures, otherwise I’d assume that Cook would reference the second figure.

  1. And over 22 million iPods. ↩︎

Brown Note

While we’re all lamenting a noticeable degradation in Apple’s software quality, here’s Joe Rosensteel writing about the Music app on his iPhone:

Going down this rabbit hole of fuckery just made me realize how much I absolutely loathe the Music app. What was once a major strength of Apple — a simple-to-use music player and digital storefront — turned into the kind of garbage software that runs on cable company set-top-boxes. The experience has been turned into something more akin to a website for a print publication. You’re constantly jumping in and out of various things, which slide in from different directions, the stuff you want is buried several taps deep in hierarchical menus, and it’s centered around getting you to sign up for Apple Music. Full page ads are for morally-bankrupt growth-hackers. UI chrome that functions if you pay for something is a gnawing reminder of this. Even with the option to show “Apple Music” disabled, you still have have to deal with a hierarchy of icons that devotes half the persistent navbar to “Radio” and “Connect”. Radio is useless without a subscription now, and Connect is useless even if you had an Apple Music subscription.

I’m not sure I’d go as far as saying that it’s as bad as set-top-box software, but Music has become centred around Apple Music and everything that it entails, to an almost cartoonish extent: if you switch on the option to only show music available offline, you’ll get a redundant icon beside every item to let you know that it’s a local file.

Unlike Rosensteel, I don’t think the UI is bad; it feels far more organized than it has for a long time, and the “Recently Added” section across the top of the My Music section is something I’ve wanted for ages. I like that tapping on a song in the list won’t open the full Now Playing screen — the subtle “mini player” across the bottom typically reduces the amount of taps needed to change songs.

Rosensteel’s comparison to a publication’s website is absolutely apt, though, for at least one big reason: the gross interstitial ad that appears if you launch Music without having Apple Music enabled, and the tiny tap target on it to close the ad without purchasing a subscription. Interstitial ads are gross, inelegant, and completely antithetical to Apple’s design legacy.

More than that, they completely erode customer goodwill by frustrating users until they either pay $10 per month to get rid of the ad, or jump ship to another music player (or an entirely different platform altogether).

In their latest earnings call, Apple bragged about having a billion of their devices in use around the world, and they also noted that they had over ten million Apple Music subscribers. Even after accounting for devices used in regions where Apple Music is not available, devices owned by subscribers, and devices — like Macs — where an interstitial full-screen ad doesn’t appear, that still leaves hundreds of millions of devices used by tens of millions of people who see that gross interstitial ad as frequently as every single day.

Infuriatingly, Apple Music even contaminates simple things like sharing. Nearly every aspect of the interface as a share button buried somewhere in it. That’s wholly dedicated to generating links to music in Apple Music. If you try to share something purchased on iTunes, but not in Apple Music, it doesn’t generate an iTunes link, it generates nothing. It succeeds at generating nothing, which is the really wild part, since obviously, I wanted to send a completely empty tweet. That’s been like that since the beta. Brilliant work. Kudos.

If I scroll down to my “Various Artists” listing, tap on the ellipsis, and then tap Share, I’m able to send a blank tweet with no attached link. It’s like having a super-secret write-only Twitter client built into the OS. It’s also a really obvious bug.

I think Rosensteel’s critique speaks to the very public challenges Apple is facing when they play in the cloud- and internet-services sandbox. Their revenue model is shifting. They used to be able to sell hardware and make a decent profit, sell software at a lower — but not discounted — rate, and sell some optional internet services on top of it all. But the market has entirely changed over the past decade or so: the typical price of software has dropped dramatically,1 and cloud services have exploded in popularity. There is an increasingly clear disconnect between the current software marketplace and Apple’s existing business model. They’re adapting and shifting, but it takes a long time to turn a big boat.

  1. Partially helped along by free operating system upgrades, and the App Store, of course, but also by the subscription pricing model. When faced with a choice between paying a lot of money now or smaller amounts of money over time, consumers will typically pick the latter. It’s how cell phone contracts have worked for ages, for example. ↩︎

Walt Mossberg: Apple’s Apps Need Work

Walt Mossberg, in his column for the Verge:

[Most] of the time, in most scenarios, I find the core Apple apps work well enough, sometimes delightfully well. Otherwise, I couldn’t recommend the hardware. I love iMessage, the new Notes, Apple Pay, Touch ID, Safari, AirPlay, and more. And it isn’t as though the core apps made by competitors are generally fabulous.

But the exceptions are increasing. And I hold Apple to its own, higher, often-proclaimed standard, based on all those “It just works” claims and the oft-repeated contention by Mr. Jobs and his successor, Tim Cook, that Apple is in business to make “great products.” Apple’s advantage is that it designs and builds software together, so if the software isn’t excellent, it does the superlative hardware a disservice.

Mossberg goes on to list a series of ongoing and persistent issues with Apple’s software, including iTunes — pretty much just iTunes, as an entity — and ongoing iCloud issues.

I’ll add one more to the mix: since watchOS 2.0, I haven’t been able to launch native third-party apps on my Watch. Apps from TestFlight work fine, as do WatchKit apps, but native third party apps continue to experience an issue associated with the FairPlay DRM that prevents them from loading — they simply crash at launch.

I understand that not everything can take the same level of priority as the iPhone, that this is not a widespread issue, and that they’re working on it.1 But can you imagine any current Apple product launching without the ability for third-party apps to run on it for even a small number of users, especially considering that native third-party apps are a banner feature of watchOS 2.0? As an increasing number of third-party apps become native, I am able to run far fewer than I ever used to. My calendaring app of choice, some third-party email apps I’ve been testing, various news apps that I use, and my favourite public transport app all do not launch on my Apple Watch, and there’s nothing their developers can do about it.

As I wrote in one of the bug reports I filed on this, I cannot believe watchOS 2 launched in this state.

Apple Event Rumoured for March 15

Matthew Panzarino of TechCrunch:

Now, it looks like the date has solidified. March 15th is the date, according to sources, and we should indeed be seeing a rumored 4″ iPhone and a new iPad. Reports from 9to5Mac and Buzzfeed News earlier today are also marking that date and those products.

A new 4-inch iPhone sold alongside the 4.7- and 5.5-inch models might offer a glimpse into one of my favourite thought exercises: how many iOS users circa 2012 begrudgingly stick with a smaller phone because they enjoy iOS, versus how many former iOS users put up with Android just to have a larger display? Or, to make it extra complicated, how many people put up with iOS just to have a smaller display, and how many of those users might be enticed by a new small iPhone?

Oh, and Gurman’s report indicates the potential for a nylon NATO-style strap for the Apple Watch1. Two words: yes, please.

  1. I doubt it’s really a “true” NATO strap — a real one works as a pass-through loop across the back of the watch. Because the Apple Watch has sensors and all sorts on the back, it likely won’t function similarly. While the Hermès cuff-style strap runs across the back of the Watch and accommodates the sensors with a cutout, I doubt that’s in the cards for a nylon strap because it will be far more susceptible to fraying. ↩︎

Firewatch Is Now Available for Preorder

I don’t really do video games, but Firewatch looks amazing. Nathan Ditum of the Guardian got a peek into the game’s development

The outdoors in Firewatch isn’t like the outdoors in most games. It feels somehow bigger. This is a game set in Wyoming’s Yellowstone national park, a vast wilderness of lakes, mountains and hiking trails. When the sun began to set on my first day in the park – as the lead protagonist Henry, the volunteer fire lookout – it reminded me of rushing home at dusk while playing out as a kid, of escaping the dark as a small person in a big world.

This is all very deliberate. Firewatch is a relatively small and simple game, designed to engage players emotionally with a handful of basic, believable parts.

I’m excited. It’s out next Tuesday, but you can preorder it now for less than $20 on Steam.

Uber Is Paying Some of Its Workforce Less Than Minimum Wage

Dave Craige:

There is a startling new trend that is happening in the ridesharing world. Many ridesharing companies like Uber now have some of their workforce receiving less than minimum wage for numerous shifts. […]

Uber drivers are not given health insurance. Not even the drivers who are driving full time. Uber has officially gone too far. They have been cutting drivers paychecks for years (This is the third year in a row of January cuts). They have pushed this issue too much. […]

I find it disingenuous how Uber has cut the drivers’ payment while increasing their cut of the profit. They call this the “safe riders fee” and has increased from $1 to $2.30.

But they have a new logo, so it’s all good, right?

Apple Relaunches “Shot on iPhone” Campaign for the 6S

I stand behind my belief that the iPhone — like any other smartphone — is not yet a dedicated camera replacement, but this is a powerful demonstration of the (somewhat trite) adage that “the best camera is the one that you have with you”. Time has more photos from the campaign.

As best as I can tell, most of these were culled by someone at Apple searching through photos on Twitter and Instagram with the “#ShotOniPhone” (and similar) hashtag. So, if you want a shot at having your photo on a billboard, tag your photos. I’d like to think my lack of tags is the reason my ’grams aren’t featured, but after looking at these photos, I know the real reason: too many buildings; not enough babies.


Remember that graphic that circulated many years ago, showing the internet as bundled tiers? It drove home the stakes of net neutrality. Nothing inspires hatred quite so much as cable companies, and seeing a mockup of an internet that runs closer to their model is frightening.

Dieter Bohn thinks we’re reaching a point where that graphic is becoming a reality. Not because of ISPs shaking down Netflix, but because of “assistants” like Siri and Cortana:

These intelligent assistants are great. I use them every day and expect I will continue to use them for, well, ever. But there’s a problem that’s built into them: they only seem to work with certain parts of the web and — here’s the real rub — certain apps. […]

You can get Yelp results in Siri, OpenTable in Google, TuneIn radio from Alexa. But you can’t get everything, fairly and transparently ranked, the way that Google changed search on the web.

It’s a compelling first read, comparing the way search is expected to function with how it actually works in proprietary assistant software. Moreover, comparing it to discussions about net neturality — as Bohn does a little in the article — is an argument I hadn’t considered.

It would be great if there were a way for third-party developers to integrate with personal assistants. I’d love to be able to ask Siri “what’s interesting around me?” and see results from Inquire, or tell it to “play my weekly discovery playlist” and have Spotify start. There are, of course a host of UI considerations — deciding how an intelligent assistant knows which app to use for a given phrase, for example — but it would be pretty rad if it all worked right.

Upon second read, though, Bohn’s argument is, quite simply, bullshit.

Comparing assistant software to Google search? Is Bohn serious? Their search algorithms are anything but “fair and transparent”. You know: their top secret, frequently-changing algorithms that they won’t patent because then Google would have to disclose how they work? Yeah.

Bohn digs deeper into this angle:

That’s all great, but did you know that there’s no universal way for app developers to make their apps’ content readable to every company? Instead, each app maker has to create an index that Google can read, an index that Apple can read, another one for Microsoft, and so on. I’ve been told by people at multiple companies that we’re getting closer to a universal standard that will make creating these indexes less of a burden on developers, but we’re not there yet.


Web searches like Google and Bing claim to be based on impartial algorithms, not backroom deals. But the way that OpenTable and Yelp and Hotel listings appear in Siri and Google Now is much more opaque.

Okay, having to appease different companies with proprietary stuff sucks. Got it.

But remember Google’s failed “authorship” experiment, which was supposed to give a rankings boost to websites that linked their authors’ Google Plus profiles within the site’s source?

Or what about their current pitch to business owners? They’re encouraged to set up a Google Local Business page — basically, a Google Plus profile, but with business-ey things like hours of operation and industry. The business is then ranked against their competitors in that weird local search results box based on a bunch of signals, such as their Google Plus activity and how long they’ve had a Google profile. How much weight these and other factors have is, of course, a complete mystery because Google is even more cagey about how they rank local listings than they are about their website rankings.


With Google’s Pagerank, there’s at least a nominal sense that users are picking the winners and losers. I couldn’t tell you what makes app results appear inside these assistants. So far, nobody’s saying publicly how their apps figure out what to show you. I’d like to trust that none of these companies are picking favorites based on backroom deals (the kind of paid placement that led people to distrust the AltaVista search engine 15 years ago), but I’d much rather just know how Siri and Alexa and Cortana make those choices.

Google may not be picking favourites based on third-party backroom deals, but they sure were based on backroom deals internally:

One way Google favored its own results was to change its ranking criteria. Google typically ranks sites based on measures like the number of links that point to a site, or how often users click on the site in search results.

But Marissa Mayer, who was then a Google vice president, said Google didn’t use click-through rates to determine the ranking for its own specialized-search sites, because they would rank too low, according to the staff report. […]

Instead, Google would “automatically boost” its own sites for certain specialized searches that otherwise would favor rivals, the FTC found. If a comparison-shopping site was supposed to rank highly, Google Product Search was placed above it. When Yelp was deemed relevant to a user’s search query, Google Local would pop up on top of the results page, the staff wrote.

There’s more, too. Google says that you can’t buy your way to the top of their rankings, but some experts believe that domains with Google AdWords accounts get a little boost. Again, we’re dealing with Google’s “fair and transparent” ranking system here, so who knows?

Bohn concludes:

… there’s a very real chance that these bots are going to become our primary interface to the internet, the medium through which we get our information and our sweet, sweet content. So I think we should demand that the companies that helped us fight the ISP bundle don’t end up becoming purveyors of bundles themselves. We should hold them to the standard of openness that made the web so vibrant in the first place.

Sure, but why not regulate search engines at the same time? Google web search represents a gigantic share of U.S. search engine traffic, and they were found to abuse their monopoly position in anticompetitive ways. Search engines are most people’s primary interface for the web today; don’t these arguments apply similarly to them, too? I’d argue that they do. But I also wish to stress that advocating for the regulations of intelligent assistants by holding them to the standards of Google’s web search is disingenuous and callous.

The Long Goodbye for Windows Phone

Tom Warren, the Verge:

Microsoft only sold 4.5 million Lumia devices in the recent quarter, compared to 10.5 million at the same time last year. That’s a massive 57 percent drop. Even a 57 percent increase wouldn’t be enough to save Windows Phone right now.

Microsoft and Nokia have sold a total of 110 million Windows Phones compared to 4.5 billion iOS and Android phones in the same period. IDC recently reported that 400 million phones were sold in the recent quarter, meaning just 1.1 percent of them were Lumia Windows Phones.

Windows Phone has long been my favourite non-iOS platform. It may have no app ecosystem, but it had some of the most refined thought and consideration into the way we actually use smartphones. It’s really too bad — though totally unsurprising — that Microsoft could never get Windows Phone to catch up with its competitors.

USB 3 Interferes With 2.4 GHz WiFi and Bluetooth Signals

If you have a USB 3 peripheral and are experiencing Bluetooth or WiFi troubles, you’re not alone. According to Intel (via Rosyna Keller), this is a known issue:

[The] noise from USB 3.0 data spectrum can be high (in the 2.4–2.5 GHz range). This noise can radiate from the USB 3.0 connector on a PC platform, the USB 3.0 connector on the peripheral device or the USB 3.0 cable. If the antenna of a wireless device operating in this band is placed close to any of the above USB 3.0 radiation channels, it can pick up the broadband noise. The broadband noise emitted from a USB 3.0 device can affect the SNR and limit the sensitivity of any wireless receiver whose antenna is physically located close to the USB 3.0 device. This may result in a drop in throughput on the wireless link.

Intel’s white paper on this issue is nearly four years old now, so this may be old news to some of you; I, however, would never have thought to try unplugging USB devices as a troubleshooting step for poor WiFi performance.

Apple Recalls Non-US, Non-UK AC Adapters


Apple has determined that, in very rare cases, the two prong Apple AC wall plug adapters designed for use in Continental Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, Argentina and Brazil may break and create a risk of electrical shock if touched. These wall plug adapters shipped from 2003 to 2015 with Mac and certain iOS devices, and were also included in the Apple World Travel Adapter Kit.

I’ve managed to dodge every Apple recall up until this point, but my World Travel Adapter Kit is affected by this. I’m hoping that the two two-pin adapters (European/Korean and Brazilian) are better-differentiated in the new kits, too.

Facebook is Shutting Down Parse

Parse was a mobile development framework that combined a bunch of backend services that a lot of apps use. Nearly three years ago, Facebook acquired the company.

Kim-Mai Cutler of TechCrunch, quoting Parse’s announcement of the deal:

Parse has agreed to be acquired by Facebook. We expect the transaction to close shortly. Rest assured, Parse is not going away. It’s going to get better.

Today, Parse cofounder Kevin Lacker delivered the bad news:

We have a difficult announcement to make. Beginning today we’re winding down the Parse service, and Parse will be fully retired after a year-long period ending on January 28, 2017. We’re proud that we’ve been able to help so many of you build great mobile apps, but we need to focus our resources elsewhere.

According to their brag page,1 Parse’s customers included some of the biggest and most popular apps on both iOS and Android. Uniqlo, Eventbrite, Plenty of Fish, Lululemon, and more all used Parse. Stubhub? Parse. Vevo? Yep. Zoosk? HopStop? The fucking White House? Their apps used Parse. Heck, even that shelved new app Panic was working on used it.2 Developers can rely upon third-party infrastructure so long as it’s never acquired, the company never “pivots”, and there’s a reliable business model in place.

  1. I grabbed a copy of the relevant markup, since Parse has pulled it. ↩︎

  2. They dodged another bullet on that project, too. ↩︎

Anywhere But Medium

Speaking of Medium, Dave Winer thinks you shouldn’t publish there for lots of good reasons:

If Medium were more humble, or if they had competition, I would relax about it. But I remember how much RSS suffered for being dominated by Google. And Google was a huge company and could have afforded to run Google Reader forever at a loss. Medium is a startup, a well-funded one for sure, but they could easily pivot and leave all the stories poorly served, or not served at all. I’m sure their user license doesn’t require them to store your writing perpetually, or even until next week. […]

We all point to tweets, me too, because it’s too late for competition. And YouTube videos. SoundCloud MP3s. Do we really want to bury something as small and inexpensive as a web page? Is it necessary that a Silicon Valley tech company own every media type? Can we reserve competition in the middle of the web, so we get a chance for some of the power of an open platform for the most basic type of creativity — writing?

Medium is an attractive choice for lots of people — from average users to the most tech-savvy writers — because it’s straightforward and has few options, but also because it has become the platform du jour. Momentum has inherent value — just ask Google about how they tried to compete with Facebook.

I really wish there were a more turnkey solution for owning your writing. Winer advocates publishing on Tumblr, for example, but I don’t see how that’s much better. If anything, its Yahoo ownership makes me worry about its future. Even if you have a self-hosted weblog, as I do, its longevity is partly determined by which web host you choose and how their future prospects look. I don’t know what the solution is — especially for non-technical writers — but I do know that while throwing your hat in the ring with big, well-funded startups has a history of mixed results, siding with small yet noble companies often doesn’t end well.