Doom and Gloom

Web advertising technology is all broken. It tracks you everywhere you go, it makes pages slow to load, and it’s increasingly invasive. If this doesn’t sound particularly attractive to you, you can go to hell. Jack Marshall, Wall Street Journal:1

For sites that support themselves with advertising, the reason for their heartburn is clear: they are already struggling to monetize their growing mobile audiences. If millions of iPhone and iPad users can easily activate ad blocking, that will translate to fewer ads to sell and likely less revenue.

Galen Gruman of InfoWorld chose to illustrate his post on iOS content blockers with a stock photo of a battery of missiles:

Everyone, it seems, hates online ads. That hatred is fueling a technology arms race, one that Apple is joining in iOS 9 and OS X El Capitan, both due for release this fall. That arms race ultimately leads to the same kind of mutually assured destruction scenario we saw in the Cold War, with the Soviet Union and United States able to destroy the other — and everyone else — should it come to that.

Come again? The Soviet Union and the United States both had — and have — enough nuclear weaponry to eradicate all life on earth. We are still talking about shitty web ads, right?

The ad-blocking arms race now under way could easily do the same…

No. No it could not.

…destroying content-based websites except for a few hardy paid survivors that can charge and the wide range of vendor websites all too happy to promote their own reality, and nothing else, to an audience seeking independent views. Ultimately, we all lose: vendor, publisher, and reader.

I sympathize with the predicament publishers are in. It’s so hard already to maintain a decent revenue stream when readers typically don’t want to pay actual money, and web ads have provided a reasonable solution for a long time. But the web ad of today is vastly different than that of five years ago. It’s not just ads, either: tracking and analytics scripts have become pervasive in a way that they never have previously. Your favourite major publishers are probably running a dozen or more of these. Add modal dialogs and claustrophobic layouts to the mix, and it’s small wonder why readers feel justified in running a content blocker.

Web visitors have created a problem: we all want investigative reporting, great writing, professional-looking video productions, and a library of music, and we don’t want to pay a subscription to every publication and channel. Heck, many people don’t want to pay a single subscription fee.

But the solution to this is failing. It has failed. As monetization strategies become increasingly intrusive, readers feel increasingly compelled and justified in blocking them. As greater numbers of readers are blocking this crap, publications increase the quantity and intrusiveness of what they think will improve their revenue stream. And more people turn on their content blockers. And the cycle continues.

Marshall and Gruman are right about one thing: if content blockers in iOS 9 and El Capitan are used by even a small percentage of the total user base, this is going to cause a huge upset across the web ad industry and the publications that are reliant upon these ads.

Best case scenario? Doc Searls (“adtech” here refers to tracking-type ads):

However it goes down, the inevitable results will be these:

  1. Brand advertising will be seen again as the most legitimate form of advertising.

  2. Brand advertising will again be credited for doing the good work of funding publishers (also broadcasters, podcasters and the rest).

  3. Adtech, and spying in general, will be shunned, as it deserves to be.

  4. Adtech will still live on, rehabilitated and cleansed, as a trusted symbiote of users who give clear and unambiguous permission for trackers they bless to dwell in their private spaces and give them optimal personalized advertising experiences.

That’s not the most positive end game for anyone who’s hoping for the total eradication of tracking, but perhaps a renewed focus will be placed on the privacy of readers and consumers. We all have a right to it, and that should be respected, regardless of what the technology enables.

  1. One thing all of these linked articles get wrong is the role of iAd — Apple’s ad network — in this. All three claim, to some extent or another, that Apple has an inherent conflict of interest here because they’re enabling ad blockers on the web, but iAds won’t be blocked. There are a couple of things wrong with this sentiment.

    First of all, content blockers only affect Safari and web content displayed through the forthcoming Safari View Controller API. If an app uses one of the older web content APIs, like UIWebView, or displays advertising in any other way, it is not subject to content blocking.

    Secondly, iAds only appear within apps. Apple does not offer a way to embed iAds on the web. As I noted above, content blockers only affect pages in Safari and pages loaded via apps that use Safari View Controller. That’s it. ↩︎

On the Twelfth Month of Android, Samsung Sent to Me…

…fuck all. Chris Burns, Slashgear:

This week the folks at Samsung have confirmed that a relatively wide variety of Galaxy smartphone devices will be receiving an update to Android 6.0 Marshmallow. Google’s latest operating system will be delivered to the newest set of Samsung smartphones, including the Samsung Galaxy S6, the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge, and the Samsung Galaxy Note 5. You’ll also find this update coming to the Galaxy Tab A tablet and a set of devices released over the past year or two.

No, not over the past year or two. The oldest phone on Burns’ list is barely a year old. That doesn’t bode well for the regular security fixes promised earlier this year. Or four years ago, for that matter.

Recode’s Lame Reporting on Google’s Anti-Security Recommendation

I would expect this kind of stuff from general-audience publications, but a tech-centric site like Recode has no excuse. Mark Bergen:

Apple says it cares a lot about privacy. Just ask Tim Cook.

Hence, its new iOS 9 operating system will boast a new feature, called App Transport Security, or ATS, which is supposed to require iPhone app developers to use an advanced security protocol. The idea is to keep the operating system lock tight.

Google says it cares a lot about privacy, too. And it says Apple is doing the right thing.

But Google also says that not every app developer and mobile publisher will be able to work with Apple’s new standards, at least not yet. So, when those app publishers that aren’t running the protocol meet Apple’s new encryption, their mobile ads won’t run. No ads, less revenue.

Bergen makes it sound as though ATS is some sort of crazy cutting-edge encryption standard. In reality, it’s TLS — in most uses for app developers, used via HTTPS — which has been around since the ’90s. True, the cyphers Apple requires aren’t that old, which is good, but it’s not some kind of proprietary tech or anything.

That fix ticked off some people in the security world, who saw it as an attempt by Google to prioritize ads over privacy.

But it is. Or, at least, this viewpoint isn’t incorrect.

Apple Is About to Lay Down Its TV Cards

Matthew Panzarino, in a huge article for TechCrunch:

A company with a strong sense of design, the ability to craft purposeful hardware and software and a penchant for cutting through the crap to deliver something you actually want to use (mostly) — who wouldn’t want to see what it could do with the junkfest that is modern TV?

So far, all we’ve gotten is noodling. A self-professed hobby in the size of a small hockey puck that has glacially increased in usefulness and utility.

A new Apple TV is on the way, though, and it could move the needle in more than one industry. According to information I’ve been able to compile from multiple sources, Apple is about to lay down its cards.

Something that Panzarino alludes to — and has been hinted at previously — is the kind of hub the Apple TV could provide for all kinds of HomeKit- and iCloud-powered connectivity, much in the same way that Google’s OnHub surely strives to be.

Think about it: your existing TV setup is likely in some way connected to the internet, either because your ISP and cable provider are the same, or because you’re a cord-cutter. That means it’s possible to have a box that’s effectively hard-wired to the web at all times. Maybe there will be an AirPort built into the next Apple TV – it would make sense.

That gives you one centralized hub that’s always connected to iCloud, iTunes, all your HomeKit devices, and so forth. Add Siri to that mix, and you have your very own JARVIS. You could ask to see a presentation. Or you could say something like “hey Siri, get ready for dinner” and an appropriate Apple Music playlist would play while the lights dim.

This is likely farther-future thinking, but the possibility is there. Once a hub like this is in your home, it will be the nervous system of the smart home.

Reading the Apple Event Tea Leaves

Katie Notopoulos, Buzzfeed:

When Apple sends out invitations to its events, like the one coming up on Sept. 9, the tech press loves to try to “read the tea leaves” in a search for clues as to what will be announced. But what the hell do a bunch of tech bloggers know about divination? In order to find out what’s really going to happen at the Sept. 9 Apple event, you need someone who can actually read tea leaves. Professional journalists are useless at this. So I asked professional psychics.

I don’t know when Buzzfeed turned into Vice, but this is great.

Pulling a Daisuke Wakabayashi

Daisuke Wakabayashi in a post for the Wall Street Journal’s Bits blog titled “Glimmers Emerge on Apple Watch Sales, and They’re Not Pretty”, July 31:

Mark Li, an analyst at Bernstein Research, said an ASE subsidiary told investors on a conference call that it didn’t reach its “break-even volume” of two million units per month in the second quarter. The ASE unit also said it didn’t expect to reach that level during the third quarter – a busy production period before the holiday sales season – and wouldn’t commit to reaching it during the fourth quarter either, according to Mr. Li.

“The shortfall of Apple Watch is a disappointment,” Mr. Li wrote in a note to clients. “We came in with a low expectation but below break-even still surprised us.” […]

ASE’s numbers suggest that the watch is not selling nearly as well as some analysts expected.

Daisuke Wakabayashi in a post today:

Apple Inc. sold more watches in their first quarter of availability than it did iPads or iPhones. So why are people eager to call it a bust?

I don’t know why, but it should be pointed out that Wakabayashi is in control of that. He can choose to not drive the narrative that it isn’t selling very well. But he won’t, just like he blamed “the story line” for his series of articles that drove the narrative of Samsung dominating Apple, only to have to recant on that narrative shortly thereafter.

It Is No Longer Hip to Be Square


Square format has been and always will be part of who we are. That said, the visual story you’re trying to tell should always come first, and we want to make it simple and fun for you to share moments just the way you want to. It turns out that nearly one in five photos or videos people post aren’t in the square format, and we know that it hasn’t been easy to share this type of content on Instagram: friends get cut out of group shots, the subject of your video feels cramped and you can’t capture the Golden Gate Bridge from end to end. Now, when choosing a photo or video, you can tap the format icon to adjust the orientation to portrait or landscape instead of square.

As Neven Mrgan points out, this isn’t really a response to the way people use Instagram. If anything, it seems tailored for advertisers.

This sort of capitulation feels weak. I’m aware that I sound like an old man here, but the implied square format created a unique limitation for users to work within. If anything, I think Instagram should auto-detect DSLRs and other standalone cameras and block their photos.

Google Advises iOS App Developers to Compromise the Security of Their Apps in Order to Serve Ads

Tristan Emrich writes on Google’s ad developer blog:

To ensure ads continue to serve on iOS9 devices for developers transitioning to HTTPS, the recommended short term fix is to add an exception that allows HTTP requests to succeed and non-secure content to load successfully.

Publishers can add an exception to their Info.plist to allow any insecure connection.

So in a year where malware-laden ads are becoming increasingly frequent, Google’s response is not to convert their ad network to HTTPS, but rather to tell developers to reduce the security of their apps. Google has had years to make changes on their end, so this is both dangerous and outdated advice.

Amazon Scales Back Lab126 and Fire Phone Efforts

Greg Bensinger, Wall Street Journal:

In recent weeks Amazon has dismissed dozens of engineers who worked on its Fire phone at Lab126, its secretive hardware-development center in Silicon Valley, according to people familiar with the matter.

The layoffs were the first in the division’s 11-year history, these people said. But the precise toll on its roughly 3,000-person staff couldn’t be learned, in part because Amazon typically requires employees to sign a nondisclosure agreement in exchange for severance payments.

The company also has scaled back or halted some of Lab126’s more ambitious projects—including a large-screen tablet—and reorganized the division, combining two hardware units there into one, people familiar with the matter said.

Any job loss is awful, and I hope these displaced workers find new employment soon. But the Fire Phone does demonstrate that Amazon’s internal culture doesn’t always produce results. Amazon is not always making the best products or services, despite the mistreatment of their staff.

What Happens When You Cross the Legendary Customer Service and Monopolistic Business Practices of an Airline With the Legendary Customer Service and Monopolistic Business Practices of a Cellular Company?

You get in-flight WiFi. Sam Grobart, Bloomberg:

Since pioneering the in-flight Internet business, Gogo has dominated, commanding about 80 percent of the market. And as often happens with near monopolies, Gogo has become a name people love to hate. “So, Gogo is officially a joke at this point, right?” is the title of a well-commented-on thread on the road warrior site FlyerTalk. “They’ve got a monopoly, and they just don’t care,” says pharmaceutical executive and frequent flyer Keith Lockwood.


Apple’s Next Media Event Rumoured to Be Held at the Bill Graham Auditorium

I’m not sure if you’ve seen the Bill Graham on Google Street View, but it’s enormous. The Yerba Buena Theatre, where Apple frequently hosts press events for iPhone and iPad launches, has a seating capacity of about 750. Apple’s own auditorium, where the “S” variants of iPhones have usually been announced, has a seating capacity of about 300, while the Flint Center, where Apple launched the iPhones 6 and the Watch, holds over 2,000.

The Bill Graham can seat 6,000 or more, depending on configuration.

Don’t read too much into this yet. The venue is just a rumour right now, though the secretive quality of the building permits and MacRumors Hoodlines’ source lend credence to this being Apple’s next venue. If it is, that’s a lot of space to fill. The rumours and pattern right now would suggest the launch of the iPhones 6S, a new Apple TV, iOS 9, and watchOS 2. There’s nothing on that list that screams that it needs nearly three times the seating capacity of last year’s event. What am I missing here?

Update: I’ve seen some chatter suggesting that Apple doesn’t necessarily need to fill all 6,000 seats, which is true enough. The balconies, for example, don’t need to be occupied, which could be as much as 2,000—3,000 seats. But that still leaves a venue much larger than any others they’ve used before. And anyone who’s ever been to an arena-sized rock show in time for the opening band knows that a half-filled venue sucks the vibe right out of the crowd.

Update: Confirmed.

A Newborn, Cancer, and Employment at Amazon

Julia Cheiffetz concludes a heartbreaking story of navigating combined medical and parental leave, and the complexities of dealing with medical insurance, thus:

Jeff: You asked for direct feedback. Women power your retail engine. They buy diapers. They buy books. They buy socks for their husbands on Prime. On behalf of all the people who want to speak up but can’t: Please, make Amazon a more hospitable place for women and parents.

As Gabe Weatherhrad said, even the fact that Bezos sent a company-wide email on a weekend sets the tone for the kind of working culture Amazon expects. They have a lot of changes to make.

Samsung on Galaxy Note 5’s Broken Stylus Slot

Vlad Savov, the Verge:

With the iPhone 4, the joke was “You’re holding it wrong.” With the Note 5, it’s apparently “You’re sliding it in wrong.” Either way, it’s not very funny.

Except with the iPhone, it was a temporary signal drop in weak signal areas. With the Note 5, it’s a full hardware failure that requires replacement.

Best Buy Sales Are Up With Apparent Help From Apple

Phil Wahba, Fortune:

The largest U.S. electronics retailer reported a rise in domestic comparable sales of 3.8% for the second quarter, well ahead of Wall Street’s expectations, and posted a better than expected profit. While Best Buy has helped its cause by cutting costs and adding floor space to growing categories like smart homes, home theaters, and shops-within-a-shop for top brands, it has also been getting a lot of help from Apple and its roster of red-hot products.

“Demand for Apple Watch has been so strong in the stores and online,” Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly told Wall Street analysts on a conference call. The retailer expects to be selling the device, which hit the market in June, at all of its 1,050 big-box stores by the end of September, he added. Initially, Best Buy had planned to have watches in 300 stores by the holiday season. (It started selling the watches in early August.)

Must be unprecedented for a “flopped” product to be so resoundingly successful.

Google Now’s Staff Exodus

Interesting report from Mark Bergen at Recode:

Google teased [Now on Tap] with some fanfare in May, at its I/O developer conference, as a breakthrough iteration of Google Now, its personal assistant and one of the twin bedrocks for CEO Larry Page when he returned as executive in 2011.

What went unannounced was that most of the original team that built Now had departed, many of them just before I/O, according to multiple sources. Some had grown frustrated that the product, born within Android, was shuttered into search inside of Google, they said. And Sundar Pichai, Google’s SVP and incoming CEO, did not prioritize the product as much as Page.

Google could be increasing the priority of Now and they feel as though making it a core component of their search product is the best way to do that. But the article by Bergen paints a picture of a frankly brilliant product being eroded to fit within the confines of Google’s core business model. This is particularly intriguing as Apple is weeks away from unleashing their take on predictive search with iOS 9’s Proactive. As Apple increases their focus on predictive search, Google appears to be reducing theirs somewhat. Peculiar.

Advertising Malware Rates Have Reportedly Tripled in the Last Year

This report-cum-content-marketing comes from Cyphort, an enterprise-level anti-malware software company, so take it with the appropriate level of skepticism. But if 0.4% of the sites you visited now serve malware-laced ads, as is claimed by the report, that’s one in every 2,500 domains. You probably visit more websites than that every week, perhaps even more frequently, given the amount of iframes and other embedded content on typical web pages today. The nature of web ads has truly changed in the past five years or so, and with every report like this, content blockers are increasingly appealing.

Uber Lame

Johana Bhuiyan reports for Buzzfeed:

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick often talks about his dream of the perfect Uber trip. “It’s the perpetual trip, the trip that never ends,” he said at the Digital-Life-Design conference in Europe last October. “The driver picks one passenger up, picks another passenger up, drops off the first passenger, but then picks up passenger number three and drops off passenger number two.”

What would be even better is if the driver could use a really big car to hold more than a handful of people. That kind of scale could allow Kalanick to set a flat rate so it becomes affordable to lower income passengers, who perhaps need to live outside of the city centre and use it for their work commute. And perhaps this would become such a valuable piece of infrastructure that he could sell it to municipalities who could then subsidize the cost to users through taxes.

What I’m getting at is that Kalanick’s perfect Uber is a bus.

Update: Via Ben Sargent, the songthaew is fairly similar as well:

Songthaews are used both within towns and cities and for longer routes between towns and villages. Those within towns are converted from pick-up trucks and usually travel fixed routes for a set fare, but in some cases (as in Chiang Mai) they are used as shared taxis for passengers traveling in roughly the same direction.

Twitter Kills Project That Saved Politicians’ Deleted Tweets

Twitter attempted to justify this decision:

“The ability to delete one’s Tweets – for whatever reason – has been a long-standing feature of Twitter for all users. We built into our Developer Policy provisions a requirement that those accessing our APIs delete content that Twitter reports as deleted or expired,” a spokesman for the company said.

“From time to time, we come upon apps or solutions that violate that policy. Recently, we identified several services that used the feature we built to allow for the deletion of tweets to instead archive and highlight them. We subsequently informed these services of their noncompliance and suspended their access to our APIs.

How does this square with the numerous public records laws around the world?

Keep It Steady…

You know that scene out of the beginning of GoldenEye, where James Bond drives a motorcycle off the edge of a cliff1 to chase after a plane that’s in a dangerous dive? Here, it’s Tim Cook instead of James Bond, an email instead of a motorcycle, and Apple’s stock instead of a plane. Tim Bradshaw, Financial Times:

After the company’s stock started the week 10 per cent down following a “Black Monday” for Chinese equities, Apple’s chief executive insisted in a rare intervention that consumer demand in Apple’s most important growth market remained “strong”.

The world’s most valuable company clawed back $78bn in market capitalisation it had lost earlier in the day.

Apple’s stock works with bigger numbers than anyone else’s. Therefore, even a tiny blip in their share price can wipe billions of dollars in value from the company. A much larger drop, like today’s, wipes a lot more, and erodes investor confidence. This, by the way, is probably the dumbest time for that to happen, as we’re headed into Apple’s new product season through September and October.

Update: Yeah, I thought the SEC might have a problem with this email.

  1. Which is — inexplicably — at the bottom of a mountain range. ↩︎

Write Better Markdown

In a nut, if you can hand your Markdown file in its plain text format to someone who’s never read it before, and that person can read the file without difficulty, it’s good Markdown. I disagree with one of the things Brett Terpstra advises:

Markdown allows either inline ([text](url)) or reference format links. Either will work anywhere, and my personal preference is usually determined by the length of the document. Short documents get inline links. Longer ones get blocks of reference links. The readability is the determining factor.

I’ve switched to reference format links permanently; I think inline links are unreadable in almost every circumstance. Even using numerical reference links ([link text here][1]) is preferential to inline links, because [link text here]( really breaks this paragraph up, doesn’t it?

Beautiful Pixels Picks Their Favourite Apple Watch Apps

I’ve tried about half of the apps on this list and, while they’re good representations of what a Watch app should be in theory, the speed limitations imposed by watchOS 1 really hamper the “quick use” concept. That is, it’s rather difficult for developers to produce apps that feel like information that can be digested in a few seconds when it takes twenty or thirty seconds for the app to load. Some semblance of relief should arrive with apps optimized for watchOS 2, because they’ll be able to run logic on the watch itself instead of on the connected iPhone. I’m curious to see how much of a difference it makes to the way I use my watch.