All Aboard the Ghost Train

Amanda Ruggeri of the BBC:

The train that cuts across the West Yorkshire countryside from Leeds to the small town of Snaith departs just once at precisely 17:16, Monday to Saturday. Return trains depart twice: one at 07:16, one at 19:01.

Given these infrequent departures, you’d expect packed carriages. But on a recent Friday rush hour – when Leeds train station, the second-busiest in the UK outside London, is swirling with commuters – no one, aside from me and my companions, remains on the line for more than a few stops. Soon, one carriage after another becomes completely, eerily empty. You could cartwheel down the aisles.

The Leeds-Snaith line is what rail enthusiasts call a ghost train; Snaith station, a ghost station. The webpage about Snaith on ticket sales site TheTrainLine.com warns that ticket machines are not available at the station. Nor is there a ticket office, taxi rank or cab office.

I love stuff like this.

Google to Demote Websites That Display Modal App Download Prompts

Google engineer Daniel Bathgate:

After November 1, mobile web pages that show an app install interstitial that hides a significant amount of content on the transition from the search result page will no longer be considered mobile-friendly. This does not affect other types of interstitials. As an alternative to app install interstitials, browsers provide ways to promote an app that are more user-friendly.

Thank you.

Don’t Say “Bubble”

An amazing article from Nick Bilton, writing for Vanity Fair:

One Thursday morning in early June, the ballroom of the Rosewood Sand Hill hotel, in Menlo Park, was closed for a private presentation. The grand banquet hall appeared worthy of the sprawling resort’s five-star designation: ornate chandeliers hung from the ceiling; silk panels with a silver stenciled design covered the walls. Behind a stage in the 2,800-square-foot room, a large sign bore the name of Andreessen Horowitz, one of Silicon Valley’s most revered venture-capital firms. […]

[A] presentation, which adhered to a16z’s gray-and-deep-orange palette, seemed to have an ulterior motive. [Managing partner Scott Kupor], his hair neatly parted, was eager to assuage any worry about the existence of a tech bubble. While he conceded that there were some eerie similarities with the infamous dot-com bubble of 1999 — such as the preponderance of so-called unicorns, or tech start-ups valued at $1 billion and upward — Kupor confidently buoyed his audience with slides that read, “It’s different this time,” and charts highlighting the decrease in tech I.P.O.’s, the metric that eventually pierced the froth in March of 2000. Back then, a company went public almost every single day; now it was down to about once per week. This time around, he noted, the money was flowing backward. Rather than entering a company’s coffers in the public markets, it was making its way to start-ups in late-stage investments. There was little, he suggested, to worry about.

And then, toward the end of his reassuring soliloquy, the ANDREESSEN HOROWITZ sign fell from the wall and landed on the floor with an ominous thud.

Eleven and a Half Seconds

Ricardo Bilton, DigiDay:

Vox’s seven sites took an average of more than 23 seconds to load, far longer than competing publishers such as Mashable and The Huffington Post. Vox’s engineers had declared “performance bankruptcy.”

A few months later, the situation has improved. Vox has managed to cut its sites’ average page load time to around 11.5 seconds, thanks to a combination of smaller and larger tweaks.

It used to take me eleven and a half seconds to load a webpage on a 56K modem. Now, it takes eleven and a half seconds to load a webpage on a 50Mbps broadband connection. Good stuff, Vox.

Google Has a New Logo

I’m sure this is the first you’re hearing of this — I’m always breaking the news, aren’t I? — so it’s really important that I get this critique right. Google’s new logo is like taupe paint, Virgin Cola, or the “modern art” that hangs in the waiting room at a dentist’s office: it’s inoffensive to the point of being bland. It’s almost a generic redesign: take the existing logo and typeset it in a geometric sans-serif, dust your hands, and call it a day.

Google makes a pretty big deal about the font they’re using, too:

In tandem with developing the logotype, we created a custom, geometric sans-serif typeface to complement the logo in product lockups and supporting identity materials. We call it Product Sans. The typeface design takes cues from that same schoolbook letter-printing style, but adopts the neutral consistency we’ve all come to expect from a geometric sans serif.

The logotype is decidedly not custom – it looks an awful lot like Red Rooster’s Relish Pro, though the tail on the lowercase g is longer on Google’s version. The sans-serif they’ve come up with to brand each of their products looks more custom, but it’s also a bit of a Frankenfont: the uppercase M looks like it’s straight out of Univers, while the alternate lowercase a looks a lot like Proxima Nova’s very distinctive a. Some of the other letters — the p, the s, and the c, in particular — look quite a lot like Avenir. It’s not bad; it’s just not very pretty to my eye.

There are plenty of other components to Google’s new identity, too. I absolutely love the animated dots that Google has come up with to communicate ways of interacting with different features:

A full range of expressions were developed including listening, thinking, replying, incomprehension, and confirmation. While their movements might seem spontaneous, their motion is rooted in consistent paths and timing, with the dots moving along geometric arcs and following a standard set of snappy easing curves.

These dots are joyous. In a screenshot, they’re dull and lifeless, but the animation that Google’s designers have conjured makes them feel alive.

Keep your eyes peeled on Brand New, too; their review will be posted tomorrow morning.

Android Wear Won’t Be Integrated With HealthKit on iOS

Stephanie M. Lee, Buzzfeed:

The steps, heart rate, and other fitness metrics tracked by Android Wear for iOS won’t appear on Apple’s health dashboard for iPhone, Health. Instead, they’ll be routed to Google’s competing health dashboard, Google Fit.

I’m entirely unsurprised to see this kind of platform antagonism from Google. Most of their existing iOS apps are presented through an interpretation their Material design language on iOS. It looks awkward and disjointed, but it gives them their only “in” with bringing Google-y things to iOS.1 Would it hurt them to send Android Wear data to both HealthKit and Google Fit? Probably not in any way meaningful, but it would give users another reason to stick with iOS. Best keep their data as much in Google’s control as possible.


  1. Apple does pretty much the same thing with iTunes’ UI on Windows, but they don’t make the claim that they’re open with their apps’ information. ↩︎

Google Abandons Location-Sensitive “Here” Service

Erin Griffith, Fortune:

[People] familiar with the project say it was shut down for two reasons: Google Here was potentially too invasive, and the company wasn’t sure if many retailers would want it. […]

Some examples of how Google Here might have worked: If you walked into a Walgreens, your loyalty card could automatically appear on the lock screen of your phone. If you walked onto a train platform, a notification could tell you when your train is due to arrive. If you parked your car, you could tap to pay the specific parking meter. If you walked into Starbucks, your phone might buzz to offer a discount if you download the Starbucks app.

Some of these are things iOS does today, and has done for a while. When I go by a Tim Hortons or a Starbucks, I see my related Passbook card on the lock screen. Similarly, if you walk into a retailer and you don’t have their app installed, iOS places a prompt to download it in the lower-left corner. It’s pretty wild to me that something is too invasive for Google, yet not at all so for Apple; this is a turn I’m not particularly jazzed about.

A Meta Review of the Google OnHub

Glenn Fleishman looked at a bunch of the first reviews of Google’s new OnHub WiFi router for TidBits. Some were positive; others were a little more cautious. But not one of them clearly tested the OnHub’s most significant feature:

What I didn’t realize from Google’s announcement was that the OnHub’s 13th antenna and software check for network or signal congestion, and then dynamically switch the OnHub to a new channel without rebooting. There’s a huge problem with this approach. The basic Wi-Fi spec doesn’t let a base station tell a client adapter to change channels.

This could definitely cause issues across the spectrum of devices that could be connecting to the router, particularly if you don’t live in a household that always has the current product generation.

Even my beloved Wirecutter — who had, by far, the most comprehensive review — did not test the interoperability of this functionality, probably due to their inability to get it to work as advertised:

One of the OnHub’s 13 internal antennas is supposed to survey your wireless environment every five minutes and switch over to a less-crowded Wi-Fi channel if it exists. This didn’t work for us. When we set up the OnHub in the same room as our R7000 and switched the latter to use the same Wi-Fi channel as the former, the OnHub never deviated from the crowded channel—even after we ran it overnight and flooded the R7000’s Wi-Fi network with traffic.

Bizarre.

Malware Infecting Jailbroken iPhones Stole 225,000 Apple Account Logins

Dan Goodin, Ars Technica:

KeyRaider, as the malware family has been dubbed, is distributed through a third-party repository of Cydia, which markets itself as an alternative to Apple’s official App Store. Malicious code surreptitiously included with Cydia apps is creating problems for people in China and at least 17 other countries, including France, Russia, Japan, and the UK. Not only has it pilfered account data for 225,941 Apple accounts, it has also disabled some infected phones until users pay a ransom, and it has made unauthorized charges against some victims’ accounts.

Jailbreaking your iOS device these days seems like an open invitation for malware. It’s hard to pin the blame on users, though, when most popular jailbreaking software doesn’t fully advise users of the risks involved, or what jailbreaking actually does: exploit security holes to disable internal protections.

Android Wear Now (Kind Of) Works With iOS

The integration between iOS and Android Wear is necessarily different than the integration between Android and Android Wear. Presumably, it taps in to notifications in a similar way as the Pebble, so iMessages, for example, probably aren’t very workable on Android Wear. The devices it works with are still extremely large and incredibly gross, too.

I have doubts that this will affect Apple Watch sales. There are other third-party smartwatches that work with iOS, like the aforementioned Pebble, and they have similar capabilities, though without Google Now support. My hunch is that iPhone users who buy Pebble and Android Wear smartwatches will do so because they’re kind of interested in smartwatch-y things; Apple Watch buyers are probably more interested in the seamless ecosystem.

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 Digits 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

Instagram:

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.

Delightful.

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.