February 5, 2016

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


February 4, 2016

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. ↩︎

February 3, 2016

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.

February 2, 2016

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?

February 1, 2016

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.

January 29, 2016


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.

January 28, 2016

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.

Oracle Discontinuing Their Java Web Browser Plugin

Oracle’s Dalibor Topic sounds really bitter about it:

By late 2015, many browser vendors have either removed or announced timelines for the removal of standards based plugin support, eliminating the ability to embed Flash, Silverlight, Java and other plugin based technologies.

Cry me a river. I’m sure Oracle loves it when people think of Java and malware in the same context, though, to the extent that anyone still thinks about Java.

With modern browser vendors working to restrict and reduce plugin support in their products, developers of applications that rely on the Java browser plugin need to consider alternative options such as migrating from Java Applets (which rely on a browser plugin) to the plugin-free Java Web Start technology.

Java Web Start is basically a way to wrap a Java-for-web app in a desktop application frame. Gross. The sooner this thing dies, the better.

Update: Reader “Alo” makes a good point:

It may die on the open web, but it’s not going anywhere. [I’ve] got multimillion-$$$ equipment with Java/JWS interfaces.

As long as enterprise — generally speaking — remains stodgy, so will their software. Not coincidentally, corporate espionage remains a significant problem.

January 27, 2016

Drone Voyeur

The New York TimesNick Bilton had weird experience recently:

I was sitting in my home office, working on this very column about neighbors getting into arguments over drones, when I heard a strange buzzing sound outside. I looked up, and hovering 20 feet from my window was a black drone with a beady-eyed camera pointed at me.

At first, I was upset and felt spied upon. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to the opposite conclusion. Maybe it’s because I’ve become inured to the reality of being monitored 24/7, whether it’s through surveillance cameras or Internet browsers. I see little difference between a drone hovering near my window, and someone standing across the street with a pair of binoculars. Both can peer into my office.

This reminds me a lot of the legal and ethical questions surrounding Arne Svenson’s exhibition “The Neighbors”, as described by David Walker for Photo District News:

The New York photographer who provoked controversy by photographing his neighbors through their apartment windows and exhibiting the images in a show has fended off lawsuit for invasion of privacy.

New York State court judge Judge Eileen A. Rakower dismissed the claim against photographer Arne Svenson, ruling that the photos in question were protected by the First Amendment. She also ruled that the images did not violate New York State civil rights laws, as the plaintiffs had claimed.

There’s clearly something very uncomfortable about the idea of being photographed by someone else while in your own home, where the expectation of privacy is far greater than in almost any other space.

However, in parts of the United States, it’s generally legal to photograph almost any space if it’s visible publicly, especially if the subject cannot be identified (though this is not legal advice — I am not a lawyer). Someone inside their home has a reasonable expectation of privacy, but if they leave their curtains open, there is an implicit sense of permission granted. Per the court’s opinion in Foster v. Svendson:

To be sure, by our holding here — finding no viable cause of action for violation of the statutory right to privacy under these facts — we do not, in any way, mean to give short shrift to plaintiffs’ concerns. Undoubtedly, like plaintiffs, many people would be rightfully offended by the intrusive manner in which the photographs were taken in this case. However, such complaints are best addressed to the Legislature — the body empowered to remedy such inequities. […] Needless to say, as illustrated by the troubling facts here, in these times of heightened threats to privacy posed by new and ever more invasive technologies, we call upon the Legislature to revisit this important issue, as we are constrained to apply the law as it exists.

I’m not advocating voyeurism here; I don’t think you should take pictures of your neighbours, because that’s pretty creepy, and quite possibly illegal in your region. But Bilton’s article and Svenson’s work and associated court case raise captivating questions about the nature of our expectations of privacy, and the implicit permissions we give others.

The 2015 Panic Report

Cabel Sasser:

Shelving a New App. One of our interesting app experiments — an app to share and discover music — was 95% done, had a beautiful interface and some interesting ideas, plus a complete server-side component… then got shelved. It wasn’t an easy decision. It was mostly worries about revenue — it doesn’t seem possible that you can charge money for a social app in 2016, since mass adoption is critical.

I cannot imagine getting that close to a finished product only to axe it. That’s a decision that’s impossible to make lightly. I hope Panic can find a compelling business model to ensure its release — it sounds like something I’d be interested in.

iOS Revenue. I brought this up last year and we still haven’t licked it. We had a change of heart — well, an experimental change of heart — and reduced the price of our iOS apps in 2015 to normalize them at $9.99 or less, thinking that was the upper limit and/or sweet spot for iOS app pricing. But it didn’t have a meaningful impact on sales.

More and more I’m beginning to think we simply made the wrong type of apps for iOS — we made professional tools that aren’t really “in demand” on that platform — and that price isn’t our problem, but interest is.

This is a recurring comment from developers and power users alike. The iOS App Store continues to be a race to the bottom.

January 26, 2016

Apple’s Q1 2016

In a nut, Apple is a really big company getting even bigger. Federico Viticci and the rest of the MacStories team have full coverage:

Apple has just published their financial results for Q1 2016 for the quarter that ended in December 2015. The company posted revenue of $75.9 billion. The company sold 16.1 million iPads, 74.8 million iPhones, and 5.3 million Macs, earning a quarterly net profit of $18.4 billion.

iPhone sales were basically flat, with Mac sales down a hair and iPad sales down about 25% compared to the year-ago quarter. However, revenue from services — iTunes, App Stores, iBooks, Apple Music, Apple Pay, and so on — is up dramatically, as is revenue from the “other” category, which includes the Apple Watch. Though sales were flat for the iPhone, the average selling price actually shot up.

This is the first Apple earnings report that I can remember which includes “supplementary material” (PDF). It’s a lot of non-GAAP stuff that illustrates the impact that currency fluctuations have had on the reported figures. Depending on whether you’re writing for Forbes or AppleInsider, the report makes Apple look like they performed better than they did, or the currency fluctuations make it look as though Apple did worse than reality. Whatever the case, it seems to have placated investors — after-hours trading is basically flat.

Hi, I’m Nick, and I’m a Very Unimportant Twitter Person

Peter Kafka, Recode:

For the past few months, the social media company has stopped displaying ads, or has dramatically reduced the number of ads it displays, to a small group of some of its most prominent and active users. […]

Twitter sources say the company doesn’t select the no-ad or low-ad group purely by star power, but by a variety of criteria, including the volume and reach of the tweets they generate.

I have about 70,000 followers, and I appear to be in the no-ad group. So does my boss, Kara Swisher, who has more than a million followers.

People don’t simply dislike ads — I think people specifically dislike Twitter’s ads. Considering the way they squeeze advertising into every nook and cranny, I’m not surprised.

Happily, I have been enjoying Twitter’s ad-free experience. Am I secretly a Twitter celebrity? No. I am merely one of Twitter’s many Very Unimportant Persons, but you, too, can enjoy the ad-free life by using any number of third-party apps. I like Tweetbot.

January 25, 2016

iPhone 5SE Rumours

Last week, Mark Gurman published what he’s heard about the forthcoming “iPhone 5SE” (I’ve trimmed his list):

Sources have provided the following list of “iPhone 5se” upgrades over the 5s:

  • The chamfered, shiny edges have been replaced with curved glass like on the iPhone 6 and 6s lines

  • The same 8 megapixel rear camera and 1.2 megapixel front camera systems from the iPhone 6

  • The A8 and M8 chips from the iPhone 6

  • Live Photos from the iPhone 6s

This seems like a strange blend of features, like the lovechild of all three iPhone model lines currently on sale. Rounded edges mixed with the 5S’ existing hardware seems a little weird, as does the inclusion of Live Photos — perhaps the iPhone 6 could see a software update that enables Live Photos for it, too.

But the waters became even murkier today with Gurman’s latest report:

We’ve now learned that the iPhone 5se is more likely to include variants of the A9 and M9 chips instead of the A8 and M8 lines.

Because the iPhone 7 will include a faster chip potentially known as the A10 processor, Apple likely does not want its new 4-inch iPhone to fall two processor generations behind in just six months. Another benefit of the M9 chip from the iPhone 6s is always-on Siri activation. This feature allows a user to say “Hey Siri” and launch Siri on their iPhone without the device being plugged in. Given the large performance leap, we are told that the “5se” will likely replace the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus in the iPhone lineup this fall when the iPhone 7 is introduced.

This sounds decreasingly like an upgraded iPhone 5S and more like a scaled-down 6S. I’m not surprised that a refreshed four-inch iPhone is rumoured, but this spec sheet is peculiar. Not unlikely, but not what I was expecting.

Collector Edition iPods

Stephen Hackett:

The Harry Potter Collector’s iPod was originally released in 2005, as a 4th-generation iPod with color display to mark the release of the debut of Harry Potter audiobooks on iTunes.

The iPod was engraved with the Hogwarts crest on the back, and was revved to a 30 GB, 5th-generation iPod shortly after release.

Coincidentally, I remembered just recently that this particular special edition iPod existed. It carries model number MA215LL/A and only occasionally seems to crop up on eBay. I could find very few photos of it, one of which is on a fantastic Polish “iPod museum” site, and another in a MacRumors thread.

In trying to find photos of that, I came across some more collector edition iPods which are arguably even harder to find, each engraved with the signatures of Beck, Madonna, or Tony Hawk. There was even one engraved with the No Doubt logo.

I don’t know anyone who bought any of these special edition iPods, aside from one friend who bought a U2 one because it was the only way to get a black iPod at the time. I imagine that only a handful of any of them were produced.

As best I can tell, the celebrity engraved set of iPods were all made available only around Christmas in 2002. But Apple didn’t give up on limited editions with those ones, or the Harry Potter ones, or even the U2 model. The most recent special edition iPod that I can find is the stainless steel Shuffle, released in 2009. And if you have one of those and kept it in good condition, you can sell it for a mint on eBay — I’m seeing prices starting at nearly $800 Canadian. For what it’s worth, that’s about a seven-fold return on investment, performing about twice as well as Apple’s stock in the same timeframe.

January 23, 2016

An Unusual Commission, Indeed

Last month, Kickstarter hired Mark Harris to investigate the circumstances around the failure of the most-funded European project in their history: a drone called Zano to be built by a company called Torquing. It’s the evergreen story of a lack of understanding conflicting with the ambition and creeping scope of the product:

On 18 November, the axe fell. Torquing announced via a Kickstarter update that it was entering a creditor’s voluntary liquidation, the UK equivalent roughly of an American “Chapter 7” bankruptcy filing. It appointed a liquidator who would bring its business operations to a close and attempt to sell the company’s remaining assets to pay its outstanding bills. Legal documents show that Torquing had not only burned through the £2.5m from its Kickstarter campaign, it had run up another £1m in debt. It was Kickstarter’s most spectacular flame-out to date.

No more Zanos would be made or sent out. Staff were sent home, and Torquing’s supercomputer was switched off and would be sold for parts. Because the Zano drone checks in over the internet with Torquing’s servers each time it powers up to retrieve calibration data and updates, the few drones in the wild were instantly and permanently grounded, like a dastardly robot army foiled in the last reel of a bad sci-fi film. After an abrupt final post on Kickstarter, Zano’s creators retreated offline and refused to engage with either backers or Kickstarter itself, contrary to the platform’s policies for failed campaigns.

It’s long — Medium estimates a 53 minute read time — but it’s worth spending some time with. Terrific reporting and storytelling make for a compelling autopsy.

Localized Hardware

From an older Apple support article titled “Earth‘s Magnetic Field Affects Performance” (via Michael Tsai);

Monitors based on cathode-ray tube (CRT) technology, including those found in iMac computers, use precisely controlled magnetic fields to direct the flow of electrons to the red, green, and blue light emitting phosphors on the monitor. The earth’s magnetic field varies in intensity throughout the world, which can affect the path of this electron beam. During manufacturing, CRT-based monitors are aligned in special areas called helmholtz cages that simulate the magnetic field the monitor is being aligned for. Monitors are typically aligned for the Northern Hemisphere or the Southern Hemisphere, and sometimes for the equatorial region.

A CRT-based monitor purchased in the Northern Hemisphere may not perform correctly if it is moved to the Southern Hemisphere. The reverse is also true because the earth’s magnetic fields are not the same in each hemisphere.

I had no idea this was the case. I have no reason to post this, other than it’s one of the most interesting things I’ve read all week. I couldn’t find any photos of a helmholtz cage as used for manufacturing a CRT display, but they look pretty wild.

January 22, 2016

Anandtech’s iPad Pro Review

From a near-perfectly calibrated display to monstrous SoC performance, the iPad Pro seems to be in a league of its own. The Pencil, in particular, is extremely impressive:

After a few trials I measured an approximate latency for the iPad Pro of roughly 49ms or 3 frames of delay, while the Wacom Cintiq in this configuration had roughly 116ms or ~7 frames of delay. It’s worth mentioning here that the camera I used was recording at 240 FPS, so these figures could be off by around 4ms even before accounting for human error. Although the Cintiq 22 HD does have higher latency, I wouldn’t put too much into this as it’s likely that a more powerful computer driving the display would narrow, if not eliminate the gap entirely. […]

To give an idea for how much the application has an effect on latency, the Apple Notes app has roughly 38 ms or around 2 frames of latency from when the stylus tip passes over one point to when the inking reaches the same point.

Caveats aside, 38 milliseconds of latency is astonishing, and something you can really feel. The hardware, then, is extremely impressive; the software, on the other hand, still leaves a lot to be desired.

Google Reportedly Employs Over a Thousand People to Fight “Bad” Ads

Liam Tung, ZDNet:

Google says last year it eliminated 780 million “plain bad” ads carrying malware, promoting fake goods or leading to phishing sites. […]

To prevent bad ads from harming internet users and threatening Google’s multi-billion dollar ad empire, Google ads and commerce SVP Sridhar Ramaswamy says the company has now hired more than 1,000 people across the globe whose sole purpose is “fighting bad ads”.

In their latest count, Alphabet has around 60,000 employees.

AT&T CEO Says U.S. Congress Should Determine Encryption Policies

Rebecca Blumenstein and Jason Anders, Wall Street Journal:

Congress, not companies, should determine U.S. policy on access to encrypted data on cellphones and other devices, AT&T Inc. Chief Executive Randall Stephenson said in an interview.

“I don’t think it is Silicon Valley’s decision to make about whether encryption is the right thing to do. I understand Tim Cook’s decision, but I don’t think it’s his decision to make,” Mr. Stephenson said Wednesday in an interview here with The Wall Street Journal at the World Economic Forum.

Oh, the same Congress that unblinkingly passes surveillance bills? That one?

At the moment, the laws that require access for law enforcement only apply to telecommunications services; iMessage and FaceTime do not fit the description established by those laws. As a result, any Silicon Valley firm can make that decision, unless the law is changed.

The AT&T chief said his own company has been unfairly singled out in the debate over access to data. “It is silliness to say there’s some kind of conspiracy between the U.S. government and AT&T,” he said, adding that the company turns over information only when accompanied by a warrant or court order.

It’s not a conspiracy theory. AT&T and the NSA love each other so much that they literally got a room.

January 21, 2016

Billion Dollar Baby

Joel Rosenblatt and Adam Satariano, Bloomberg:

Apple received $1 billion from its rival in 2014, according to a transcript of court proceedings from Oracle Corp.’s copyright lawsuit against Google. The search engine giant has an agreement with Apple that gives the iPhone maker a percentage of the revenue Google generates through the Apple device, an attorney for Oracle said at a Jan. 14 hearing in federal court.

A billion dollars a year represents only a tiny portion of Google’s revenue. However, if they’re also splitting what is presumably advertising revenue, that could be a significant amount — Goldman Sachs estimated that 75% of Google’s 2014 mobile search revenue came from iOS devices, and the share of their revenue coming from mobile is only growing.

I only have my own anecdotal experience, but I’ve been using Spotlight far more since iOS 9 was released. Between the functionality on the home screen and suggestions provided in Safari, I’ve gone days without seeing a Google search results screen.

If this pattern holds for more people and Apple keeps improving their ability to index the web, it’s a classic move. Not only are they attempting erode Google’s revenue, they’re cannibalizing some of their own. Not much, probably, but some. And they’re protecting users’ privacy along the way.

“Kind of Unwelcoming”

Vauhini Vara, Bloomberg:

In the fall of 2013 a young software engineer named Charles Pratt arrived on Howard University’s campus in Washington. His employer, Google, had sent him there to cultivate future Silicon Valley programmers. It represented a warming of the Valley’s attitude toward Howard, where more than 8 out of 10 students are black. The chair of the computer science department, Legand Burge, had spent almost a decade inviting tech companies to hire his graduates, but they’d mostly ignored him. […]

Despite the apparent progress, Burge was circumspect when I called in September 2015 to ask about the companies that had started approaching Howard: “‘Started’ could mean many things,” he said. Howard was showing up in tech companies’ news releases, but it wasn’t yet clear how Burge’s students would benefit. Facebook, Dropbox, and Pinterest hadn’t yet hired any graduating seniors for a full-time position. In 2015, Google hired just one. This year, out of the 28 seniors in his department, Burge knows of only two who’ve lined up a Silicon Valley job: one at Google — its second Howard hire — and another at Pandora. “There’s a big disconnect,” Burge said.

January 20, 2016

Apple Releases iOS GarageBand Update and New Music Memos App

Music Memos looks like a pretty fun little app. Unlike the built-in Voice Memos app, Music Memos saves uncompressed audio, so it can continue to be used right through the production chain without sacrificing quality. Jim Dalrymple went hands-on:

Music Memos analyzes the recording for tempo and chord changes for guitar and piano. It places the chords you played right on the waveform so you can see them instantly.

The brilliance of the app is that Apple built-in a drummer and bass into the app. Simply tap on those instruments and you can hear your song idea with a full band. Like Drummer in GarageBand or Logic, you can choose a different type of drummer, go half time, or any number of other options.

Since Music Memos analyzed the audio track you recorded, it follows along with you, even if you sped up or slowed down during the recording.

I know what I’m doing as soon as I get home to my guitar.

Apple also released an update to GarageBand for iOS today, with iPad Pro support, a rad looping feature, and 3D Touch support. That no iPad yet has a 3D Touch screen seems even crazier now.

Extending the Life of an iPod Mini

Riccardo Mori:

… while the easiest way to repair a third-generation iPod is to find another small-sized Toshiba hard drive for it, the iPod mini is notoriously easier to upgrade. These iPods used MicroDrives as internal storage solutions, and they are essentially small hard drives with the same dimensions (and most importantly, same connection) as CompactFlash cards. Which means that you can replace them with CompactFlash cards and enjoy a few advantages in return.

The very first Apple product I bought with my own money was a silver first-generation iPod Mini. When I attempted to perform the same upgrade as Mori a few years ago, I didn’t consult a disassembly guide and therefore didn’t know that the white plastic caps on the top and bottom are glued to the internal metal frame. I snapped both in my attempt to pop them off. It’s a shame; the Mini remains one of my favourite products I’ve ever bought. I wish I had kept it.

January 19, 2016

What Three Words

Frédéric Filloux, writing for Quartz:

On Nov. 16 in New York, at the Next Billion conference, Chris Sheldrick, the CEO of What3Words, captured his audience with strong arguments: 75% of the earth population, i.e. four billion people, “don’t exist” because they have no physical address. […]

This is one of the world’s largest slums in the world, the Rocinha favela: 355 acres (143 hectares) of intertwined sheds hosting 70,000 people. Translated into density, this amounts to a staggering 120,000 persons per square mile (48,000 per square km). Now try to figure out how to deliver a package, or simply how to provide the most basic administrative assistance such as monitoring health or education.

Sheldrick’s company — What3Words — seeks to resolve that by assigning three unique words for every three-by-three-metre square of land in the world. An absolutely terrific and intriguing project. You can pop in your own address, and there’s even a developer API.

DRC Cobalt Linked to Battery Suppliers for Major Companies

Amnesty International:

The report documents how traders buy cobalt from areas where child labor is rife and sell it to Congo Dongfang Mining (CDM), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chinese mineral giant Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Ltd (Huayou Cobalt).

Amnesty International’s investigation uses investor documents to show how Huayou Cobalt and its subsidiary CDM process the cobalt before selling it to three battery component manufacturers in China and South Korea. In turn, they sell to battery makers who claim to supply technology and car companies, including Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, Daimler and Volkswagen.

This is heartbreaking, and I hope that the companies implicated in the report will put pressure on their battery suppliers to rectify this.

You may be wondering how this could happen, considering that tech companies have, for a while, been posting supplier codes of conduct. Apple has one (PDF), as do Samsung and Microsoft, and they all state that they require suppliers not to use conflict materials at any point of the supply chain. This is required by U.S. federal law per Dodd-Frank. However, the only “conflict minerals” disallowed by Dodd-Frank are tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold — cobalt is not subject to these or similar federal regulations. Ideally, all raw materials could be amended to these regulations to prevent the use of anything that benefits child labour, war criminals, and the like. As the U.S. consumer electronics market is the world’s largest, this would effectively require the supply chain to be provably conflict free.

Apple Releases Latest EEO-1 Diversity Report

Sai Sachin R, Reuters:1

Apple Inc has made progress on boosting gender and racial diversity in its U.S. workforce, a regulatory document filed by the iPhone maker showed. […]

Apple added 1,475 black employees in the thirteen months ended Aug. 1, 31 percent more than a year earlier, the filing showed on Tuesday.

The company added 24 percent more Hispanic workers and 29 percent more Asians, compared with numbers reported in a July 2014 filing.

These numbers, while not spectacular, represent progress nevertheless. The EEO-1 is a confidential document; Apple is one of very few tech companies to make it public. And they’re getting shit for their results.

A couple of things do stand out, though. First, there are the numbers for women and executives:

About 30 percent of Apple’s U.S. employees were females as of August, compared with 28.7 percent.

Of the 103 executive and senior management positions, 86 were held by white employees, 12 by Asians, 4 by black employees and 1 by a hispanic, the document filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission showed.

That’s not brilliant.

Additionally, there are discrepancies between the EEO-1 figures and Apple’s self-reported numbers. Megan Rose Dickey, TechCrunch:

What’s odd is that, according to Cook, Apple hired more than 2,200 black employees in the U.S. over the last year, but the EEO-1 report says otherwise.

Recall that the EEO-1, as reported above, listed 1,475 black employee hires. It’s not an isolated case, either – Apple says that 28% of their executive employees are women, but their reporting shows that just 18 executive positions were held by women (PDF), or about 17%.

On their self-reporting page, Apple explains this discrepancy:

We make the document publicly available, but it’s not how we measure our progress. The EEO-1 has not kept pace with changes in industry or the American workforce over the past half century. We believe the information we report elsewhere on this site is a far more accurate reflection of our progress toward diversity.

They would not provide further clarification to Dickey, nor anyone else I could find. As the discrepancies are so significant, I hope for an official explanation as to how Apple’s counting differs from the required reporting standards. For women in leadership roles, it could perhaps be as simple as Apple counting retail managers while the federal standards may require those roles to be reported differently.

  1. Does Reuters’ internal style guide equate sentences with paragraphs? ↩︎

January 18, 2016

App Store Prices to Increase in Many Countries

In what is starting to feel like an annual tradition, Apple is set to increase the price of apps in several countries. Joseph Keller, iMore:

App Stores affected by the change will be those in Canada, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, and South Africa. Those using in-app subscriptions in Russia and South Africa will need to resubscribe.

These sorts of adjustments are not uncommon. The changes in pricing are expected to take place across these countries in the next 72 hours, according to an email sent to developers by Apple.

The new pricing hasn’t been announced yet, as best as I can find, but I’m guessing that $1.19 apps in Canada (the equivalent of a $0.99 app in the US) will increase to $1.29.

In the email to developers, Apple notes:

Two new low-price tiers will be available for the Canadian and New Zealand App Store: Alternate Tier A and Alternate Tier B. We’ll automatically update the prices for existing apps and In-App Purchases that already use the Alternate Tier A and Alternate Tier B price tiers.

I’m pretty sure it’s not a badge of honour for my country to have an exchange rate so shit so as to create two new lower-priced tiers.

Wikipedia Turns 15

I’m not sure if you can recall what it was like before Wikipedia, but I can. I remember doing web searches for basic information on a subject and coming across a hopelessly-outdated, subscription-only Encyclopædia Britannica article. Now, up-to-date information that’s pretty accurate can be found for free on subjects far more comprehensive than any printed encyclopædia could ever hope to cover. Wikipedia is one of the best things the web has ever produced.

Update: Apparently, Portuguese Wikipedia users are particularly interested in paper sizes, and Chinese users in Tiananmen Square.

Apple’s Diversity Distraction

Alice Truong, Quartz:

[…] ahead of a shareholder meeting in February, Apple’s board of directors is recommending that investors vote against a proposal to increase the diversity of its board and senior management. […]

The proposal by investor Antonio Avian Maldonado II criticizes Apple for being “painstaking slow” to increase representation of minorities in its leadership and board.

The proposal reads (PDF), in part:

Shareholders opined that companies with holistic comprehensive diversity policies and programs, and strong leadership commitment to implementation, enhance their long-term value; reducing the Company’s potential legal and reputational risks associated with workplace discrimination and build reputations as a fair employer. Equally, shareholders opined that the varied perspectives of a diverse senior management and board of directors would provide a competitive advantage in terms of creativity, innovation, productivity and morale, while eliminating the limitations of “groupthink”, as it would recognize the uniqueness of experience, strength, culture and thought contributed by each; strengthening its reputation and accountability to shareholders.

Therefore, shareholders ask the Company to assist investors in evaluating the company’s effectiveness in meeting its commitment to equal opportunity and diversity in senior management and board of directors, in any meaningful way that would not cause the company to breach the assurances of confidentiality and privacy that it has made to its employees.

Apple’s response, from the same document, is:

This proposal would require the Board to adopt an accelerated recruitment policy for increasing diversity among senior management and the Board. We believe that the proposal is unduly burdensome and not necessary because Apple has demonstrated to shareholders its commitment to inclusion and diversity, which are core values for our company.

Jason Snell:

Apple’s “ongoing efforts” are funding college scholarships at historically black college and universities, providing technology to underserved schools, and sponsoring other pro-diversity events. […]

[…] writing checks to good causes won’t change the composition of Apple’s board and senior management — only action will.

Apple’s board and executive staff are, indeed, changing for the better. In July 2011, for example, there was only a singular nonwhite, non-male person — Andrea Jung of Avon — among their board and executive team. One wishes that it would improve faster, and that’s what this shareholder proposal encourages. Steps have been made, but the proposal seeks to understand the effectiveness of those steps, and throwing money at the problem isn’t entirely enough. Neither, for what it’s worth, is changing the homepage.

January 16, 2016

The New Way of Bypassing Gatekeeper: The Same as the Old Way

Hey, remember that crazy simple Gatekeeper exploit from September?

The hack uses a binary file already trusted by Apple to pass through Gatekeeper. Once the Apple-trusted file is on the other side, it executes one or more malicious files that are included in the same folder. The bundled files can install a variety of nefarious programs, including password loggers, apps that capture audio and video, and botnet software. […]

“If the application is valid — so it was signed by a developer ID or was (downloaded) from the Mac App Store — Gatekeeper basically says ‘OK, I’m going to let this run,’ and then Gatekeeper essentially exits,” Wardle told Ars. “It doesn’t monitor what that application is doing. If that application turns around and either loads or executes other content from the same directory… Gatekeeper does not examine those files.”

Apple said that they patched the problem after it was discovered, but they did a lousy job. Dan Goodin, Ars Technica:

Patrick Wardle said the security fix consisted of blacklisting a small number of known files he privately reported to Apple that could be repackaged to install malicious software on Macs, even when Gatekeeper is set to its most restrictive setting. Wardle was able to revive his attack with little effort by finding a new Apple trusted file that hadn’t been blocked by the Apple update. In other words, it was precisely the same attack as before, except it used a new, previously unblocked Apple-trusted file.

“Your vault is really insecure with all of those wide open windows. Let me show you by pointing to this one right here.”

“Okay, we’ve closed that one. Job done.”

January 15, 2016

Next Year Is Perpetually the Year of Linux on the Desktop

John Moltz reacts to Dan Gillmor’s piece on switching to Linux:

Every year I try Ubuntu and every time I find it an excessively fiddly environment that gives you all the tasteless design choices of Windows with all the confusion of why your sound card isn’t working that you got installing your own Sound Blaster in 1995. […]

I get the arguments against Microsoft and Google and even Apple (although Gillmor can never seem to bring himself to mention Apple’s push back against back doors). But I guess I just don’t want to pay for them all day long by using a phone and computer I just don’t like working with.

There’s something to be said for the nebulous quality that is niceness. It’s impossible to quantify, yet completely noticeable when it’s lacking. I’ve spent a far amount of time with various operating systems, but I consistently find OS X and iOS to be nicer than competing OSes — niceness is the reason I’d pick Windows Phone over Android.

In a similar vein, I think some of the “low-hanging fruit” spotted in iOS and OS X recently is due to a decreasing feeling of niceness in both OSes. For my tastes, they’re both still better than the competition, but there has been a noticeable reduction in just how nice they feel to use every day. The significant introductions sprinkled throughout 2015 — a new Apple TV, Apple Watch, the iPad Pro, and the MacBook — makes it feel as though Apple has laid the groundwork for their near future, however. I’m looking forward to 2016.

A Fix for Malfunctioning Twitter URLs in El Capitan Is in the Works

After upgrading to El Capitan, I noticed that any address — including shortened links — would regularly fail to load. This issue occurred only for Twitter, only in Safari, and only on my Mac; any other combination of URL, browser, or device would be fine. I thought that I was both alone in this and that I was going nuts, until I saw a tweet from Michael Tsai:

Can’t quit Safari to make those links load because Xcode is downloading.

Anyone who’s found a bizarre bug like this will identify with my relief that someone else was experiencing the same problem. Happily, Timothy Hatcher has some good news:

We have a Radar and a fix identified. It is lower level than WebKit.

I’d love to know what this issue is caused by and how it’s going to be fixed. Such a mysterious bug.

January 14, 2016

Political TV Ad Archive

The Internet Archive is launching a new project that will document political TV ads on American networks, typically on smaller local stations. Paul Sawers, VentureBeat:

One of the core problems, according to [Nancy] Watzman, is that local TV stations are frequently used to air political ads, yet these same stations provide little extensive reporting. So, in effect, the ads are used as propaganda tools, presented with little to no scrutiny. “The new Political TV Ad Archive will help reporters stop the spin cycle by providing contextual data and information to evaluate ads,” said Watzman.

The new archive project is using “experimental audio fingerprint technology” to track TV in 20 markets across eight states, and will cover the likes of Sioux City, Des Moines, and Cedar Rapids in Iowa. Journalists will be able to embed videos of the ads and download relevant data, such as the date the ad aired and who sponsored it.

The Internet Archive is making a big contribution here, but it’s up to journalists to do the fact-checking legwork. To that end, it appears that they’ve partnered with PolitiFact and, both of which — I assume — will be very busy this year.

No Backdoors

Jenna McLaughlin reports for the Intercept:

The Washington Post reported in September that the White House had decided not to pursue legislation against unbreakable encryption. But the intelligence community’s top lawyer was quoted in an email saying that that the administration should be “keeping our options open … in the event of a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement.”

And [FBI Director James] Comey has been urging technology companies to voluntarily alter “their business model” and stop offering end-to-end encryption by default.

Despite the growing pressure tech companies are feeling from governments worldwide to stop letting terrorists take advantage of their services, [Tim] Cook has continued to defend the importance of encryption in protecting all digital transactions — from text messages and emails to bank information and medical records.

Apple — and Tim Cook, specifically — is the only major tech company currently defending encryption against intrusive surveillance to this degree. Every other company is either open to compromise publicly, has privately compromised, or has failed to take a firm stand.

Jon Ronson on Monocle

Speaking of Monocle, that company’s broadcasting arm recently interviewed Jon Ronson about the writing process that produced his newest book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”. Well worth a listen, especially as it’s just thirty minutes long.

January 13, 2016

Josh Topolsky Rumoured to Be Launching a Media Startup

Noah Kulwin, Recode:

According to sources, Topolsky aims for the new business to be akin to luxury lifestyle brand Monocle, which publishes a magazine 10 times a year and a website as well as producing a radio show and events. The editor wants to build an audience with the wallet and sensibility of old media prestige brands like the New Yorker or Vanity Fair, they say.

Josh Topolsky:

Monocle is a little slow for my taste, just saying

I’m a longtime reader and fan of Monocle and I think that Topolsky is a uniquely interesting figure in the tech and media landscape, so I’m pretty excited for this. For what it’s worth, he owns, in addition to the more sedate

Update: Probably a good time to re-read Topolsky’s post-Bloomberg post:

The reality in media right now is that there is an enormous amount of noise. There are countless outlets (both old and new) vying for your attention, desperate not just to capture some audience, but all the audience. And in doing that, it feels like there’s a tremendous watering down of the quality and uniqueness of what is being made. Everything looks the same, reads the same, and seems to be competing for the same eyeballs. In both execution and content, I find myself increasingly frustrated with the rat race for maximum audience at any expense. It’s cynical and it’s cyclical — which makes for an exhausting and frankly boring experience.

I think people want something better, something more meaningful. Something a lot less noisy.

Well said.

Update, January 14: Topolsky is disputing some of the style and format associations rumoured by Recode:

I have no interest in doing anything like [Monocle] at any point. @recode is way off on that.

And, in reply to the assertion that he “wants to build an audience with the wallet and sensibility of old media prestige brands like the New Yorker or Vanity Fair”:

yeahhhhh not quite

If anything, I’m even more intrigued.

Apple Rumoured to Be Stepping Back From In-House iAds

John Paczkowski for Buzzfeed:

Multiple sources familiar with the company’s plans tell BuzzFeed News that Apple is getting out of the advertising-sales business and shifting to a more automated platform.

While iAd itself isn’t going anywhere, Apple’s direct involvement in the selling and creation of iAd units is ending. “It’s just not something we’re good at,” one source told BuzzFeed News. And so Apple is leaving the creation, selling, and management of iAds to the folks who do it best: the publishers.

If it’s getting gutted to this extent, I’m surprised Apple would continue running iAd in any capacity. Why wouldn’t they get out of advertising almost entirely, with the exception of ads running on Apple Music?

Update: By “Apple Music”, I meant iTunes Radio, but that’s neither here nor there:

As part of the winding down of its iAd platform, Apple today sent out a notice to customers who listen to its radio service letting them know the radio feature is being discontinued at the end of January.

In the email, Apple says that Beats 1 radio will be the only free listening option available to those who do not subscribe to the Apple Music service. Customers who listen to radio stations sans ads with an iTunes Match subscription are also receiving the emails and will no longer be able to listen to radio stations as an iTunes Match perk.

Michael Tsai:

Apple’s advertising page currently mentions ads in News, “offers” in Wallet, ads in apps, and ads in Apple Music. So, as far as regular ads, it sounds like this leaves only News.

This jives with Paczkowski’s claim that publishers will be taking over. I’m not surprised Apple’s bowing out of advertising; I am surprised that it has taken this long.

Twitter’s Brainstorming Notes for Potential New Features

Jonathan “Jomny” Sun, writing for McSweeney’s:

How about a “Super Like” function where you can show you really, really like a tweet, but you only get one “Super Like” every day?

See, this is a great idea. If only Tinder hadn’t beaten us to it. We don’t want to seem too desperate to copy other apps. Except Instagram. Do we have any ideas that make us more like Instagram?

Ability to rate tweets on a 5-star scale instead of a 1-heart scale.

Actually, this works great for Yelp. Let’s do that. Let’s be the Yelp of opinions from random people on the Internet.


January 12, 2016

Hi, I’d Like to Add Myself to the New Yorker

Frank Chimero:

There is a seedy underbelly of prospective New Yorker caption writers, and they have been working for years to define the ultimate caption, one that works for all New Yorker cartoons, ever.

Their efforts have delivered two famous über-captions. First, there is the descriptive, “What a misunderstanding!” by artist Cory Arcangel. Next, the suitably dry, “Christ, what an asshole!” by Charles Lavoie. Some other wooden options linger around the internet, but they lack the humor and timeliness of a great New Yorker caption. The über-captions on record are blissfully unaware of selfie sticks. They have no ennui about our hyper-connected society, no opinion of Drake. Clearly, we can do better.

I gave this situation about twelve seconds of thought, and stumbled upon a universal caption of my own.

Chimero’s caption doesn’t just work for New Yorker cartoons, either.

iCloud Sync Outside of the App Store

Kevin Hayes of AgileBits:

At the last WWDC, Apple announced some changes to CloudKit, the technology that enables an app to sync with iCloud. As many of you know, it was previously impossible for non-Mac App Store apps to sync with iCloud. The changes that Apple made to CloudKit have opened up some really exciting possibilities, and today, we’re happy to announce that we have been able to implement iCloud sync in the AgileBits Store version of 1Password.

That’s pretty open for an Apple framework. What’s the catch?

Dave DeLong of Apple clarifies:

The policy is that you can use the WS [web services] as long as you have a comparable app in the stores.

So not entirely open, but arguably open enough. This doesn’t appear to be platform-dependent; that is, you could conceivably have an iOS app available and use CloudKit web services to sync to a desktop app not available in the Mac App Store. But one could not use CloudKit for syncing with, for example, a Mac-only app that doesn’t have an App Store version.

AgileBits says they’re going to ship a developer-friendly implementation, and it appears to be quite clever. Hayes again:

In order to talk to Apple’s servers, we needed a mediator. Adam Wulf and I created a class that takes native CloudKit API calls, translates them to web service API calls, and translates the responses back to native Cocoa code. The 1Password sync code is now completely ignorant as to whether it’s connecting to native CloudKit or CloudKit web services. This means that 1Password can find your data in iCloud, whether you’re using the Mac App Store version or the AgileBits Store version.

I know a lot of developers who are going to be pleased with this, especially considering the current state of the Mac App Store.

January 11, 2016

Fifteen Years of iTunes

Summarized neatly, in a single paragraph, by Kirk McElhearn writing for Macworld:

iTunes initially came into existence because of “a music revolution” guided by Steve Jobs, who, as we know, loved music. Over the years, as digital content matured, iTunes became the hub for all that content. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself; lots of people love to call iTunes “bloated,” but I disagree. The problem now is that those who want to use iTunes for its original purpose, music, find themselves stuck in a morass of features designed to sell, sell, sell product from the iTunes Store.

I am a longtime, traditionalist, boring iTunes user. I have an enormous collection of painstakingly-catalogued local files and not much else in my library. For my use, iTunes has become steadily worse over the years, as I’m regularly pushed to purchase more from the iTunes Store and place all my music in iCloud. Neither of those things appeals to me. Yet, I’m compelled to continue using iTunes partly because I sync my iPhone in the old-fashioned way, and partly because I’ve never found a compelling replacement for it.

There is a part of me that hopes I never find a replacement; I simply wish for a vastly-improved iTunes. I have a hunch that I’m not exactly the target demo any more, though.

Apple Previews iOS 9.3

Lots of really nice features coming to iOS, particularly for educational iPad users. Stephen Hackett, quoting Apple’s education preview page:

When a 1:1 student-to-iPad ratio isn’t possible, Shared iPad offers an elegant solution that lets students enjoy the benefits of having their own iPad in whatever classroom they’re in. They simply log in to any iPad, and their content is ready to go.

I have a million questions about this. My assumption is that the students’ “home folders,” to borrow a Mac phrase, are being loaded onto the iPad on-demand, but it’s unclear at this point from the public webpage. I’m sure Caching Server is playing a big role here.

I’d love to see some of these features be available on iOS in a broader way, especially the multi-user support.

This seems like a halfway point between the single-user iOS of today and a multi-user option for, say, iOS 10. Multi-user support isn’t new to mobile operating systems, but the way Apple has implemented it here appears very clever, including providing younger users with a simple four-digit PIN to memorize instead of a username and password.

Federico Viticci previews some changes to the Health app:

… iOS 9.3 will include third-party app recommendations in the Health app, where users will also be able to see move, exercise, stand, and goal data from a paired Apple Watch. In the individual category pages, Health will highlight apps for tracking specific metrics – such as weight or steps – linking to the app’s product page on the App Store.

The Activity integration in Health looks a lot like an embedded Activity view, and the Activity app itself gained a specific Workouts view in addition to History and Achievements. But those could easily be added to the Health app, leading me to question why both apps exist. Activity is Watch-specific, but I’m not sure I understand why it needs to be, or why Health should be treated separately; the distinction seems fuzzy.

Apple will also Sherlock f.lux in this update, which should appeal to those who hate seeing things with the correct colour palette.

There will also be new companion versions of tvOS (9.2) and watchOS (2.2) available approximately alongside iOS 9.3.

The Speed of Life

The world is a little bit worse today, with an empty hole in place of David Bowie. The speed of life would always have arrived too soon for an artist that was constantly reinventing himself and exploring new ground. What an irreplaceable talent.

Despite my longtime love of his music, I never knew about BowieNet. Keith Stuart of the Guardian:

In the summer of 1998, a strange press release made its way out to technology and music publications throughout the world. David Bowie, the legendary musician and cultural provocateur, would be launching his own internet service provider, offering subscription-based dial up access to the emerging online world. At a time when plenty of major corporations were still struggling to even comprehend the significance and impact of the web, Bowie was there staking his claim. “If I was 19 again, I’d bypass music and go right to the internet,” he said at the time. He understood that a revolution was coming.


January 8, 2016

There Sure Is a Lot of Smoke Coming From This Headphone Jack Rumour

Remember that Macotakara report from November that ignited the headphone jack removal rumour?

Apple seems to plan removing the headset jack from the next iPhone 7, according to a reliable source.

Screen shape such as radius will be kept, however, it will very likely be more than 1 mm thinner than the current model.

Supplied Ear Pods will equip a Lightning connector, which means a DA (Digital to Analog) converter is required. The DA will be built in the Lightning connector without sacrificing the size, according to the source.

As I pointed out at the time, Macotakara’s singular source would have had to be a very senior Apple staffer to know all of the details of this move, which made the entirety of the report untrustworthy. But the thrust of it — that Apple was removing the headphone jack from the next iPhone — seems to be gaining momentum.

Mark Sullivan of Fast Company said yesterday that one of their sources also confirmed the removal of the headphone jack. However, John Gruber noted that Sullivan’s report breaks down when it comes to the details:

Some media reports have suggested that Apple will include a set of Lightning-connected EarPod earphones in the box with the iPhone 7. It’s more likely, our source says, that Apple will sell a more expensive pair of noise-canceling, Lightning-connected, earphones or headphones separately — possibly under its Beats brand.

This is madness. Beats will almost certainly sell a wide assortment of Lightning headphones if the iPhone goes Lightning-only, but Apple has to include a pair of Lightning or Bluetooth earbuds in the box. It would be madness not to.

Unlike Sullivan, Mark Gurman has a reputation for accuracy and detail. He reports:

As has been previously rumored, sources confirm that the iPhone 7 will not include a standard headphone jack and will instead require headphones to connect via the Lightning connector or wirelessly over Bluetooth. The ability for headphones to connect over Lightning has been included in iOS since 2014, and new EarPods will support this.

This is already causing ripples among my shit-disturbing acquaintances, but I don’t expect it to be an issue in the real world — most iPhone users that I know use Apple’s EarPods anyway.

I, however, do not. And, much as I had hoped that Apple’s replacement for the headphone jack would not be a proprietary solution, I knew deep down that it would be. At the very least, that presents an opportunity for Apple to redesign their surprisingly good IEMs, as well as introduce something new. Gurman, again:

With its resources from the 2014 acquisition of headphone maker Beats Electronics, Apple is prototyping a completely new set of Bluetooth earphones with the potential of launching the accessory alongside the iPhone 7 this fall. The new earphones are said to be completely wireless, which is to say that they do not even have a cable connecting the left and right ear pieces.

I’ve promised myself not to form any opinion on these until they launch.

Update: Another good article from Peter Kirn at Create Digital Music:

There are two common misunderstandings of the news. One reading (from Apple critics) assumes this locks you into proprietary Apple headphones. It doesn’t. The other (from Apple fans who don’t know that much about audio) assumes higher audio fidelity from “digital” headphones. It probably doesn’t mean that, either (there are some benefits to putting the digital-to-analog converters off the device, but no indication yet that will necessarily mean better sound).

I wonder what will become of the headphone jacks inside Macs, too. Do they get a Lightning port?

January 7, 2016

Remember Jelly?

Biz Stone, writing on Medium, explains the new Jelly, which is a lot like the old Jelly except, somehow, newer:

Twitter has always inspired me when it highlights the fundamental goodness in people. Jelly is born of this inspiration. We have an audacious grand plan—the complete reimagining of how people get answers to everyday stuff. (For anyone who remembers Jelly, yes, we took a break but we’re back 100%. Silicon Valley types might call this an, “un-pivot.”)

No, you might call this an “un-pivot”. I call it “a spectacular PR strategy for a reboot of a long-forgotten product”.

It looks like this new version is going to behave more like a search engine, and it’s going to work on the web in addition to having smartphone apps. I liked the original Jelly, despite — or, perhaps, because — its lack of a business model and generally subdued user base. I hope this is more of the same.

NYPL Puts 180,000 Public Domain Images Online

Shana Kimball of the New York Public Library (via Kottke):

Today we are proud to announce that out-of-copyright materials in NYPL Digital Collections are now available as high-resolution downloads. No permission required, no hoops to jump through: just go forth and reuse! […]

To encourage novel uses of our digital resources, we are also now accepting applications for a new Remix Residency program. Administered by the Library’s digitization and innovation team, NYPL Labs, the residency is intended for artists, information designers, software developers, data scientists, journalists, digital researchers, and others to make transformative and creative uses of digital collections and data,and the public domain assets in particular.

Huge move from the NYPL, with some breathtaking and legendary photos from the Farm Security Administration and Bernice Abbott. The residency that the library is offering looks like a fantastic opportunity; if you’re an artist, you should apply. I would, but I can’t be in New York for the duration of the residency, sadly.

January 6, 2016

Tinkering and Repairing

Julia Bluff of iFixIt:

In New York City, a student at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School (ECFS) stuck his head through the doorframe and gave Jeannie Crowley, the school’s Director of Technology, an inquisitive look. “I heard you guys are fixing phones,” the student said. “No,” Crowley replied. “You’re fixing the phone — but we provide parts and support.”

The student’s face lit up. “Really? I’ve always wanted to be able to do that,” he said. “But I’ve been too nervous to do it on my own.”

I think most kids would have their eyes opened at just how straightforward it is to snoop around inside many of today’s tech products. I replaced the SSD in my MacBook Air this past weekend and was pleasantly surprised at how much easier it was than replacing the hard drive in my mid-2007 MacBook Pro. It took just ten screws to remove the back panel and a single screw to remove the drive, as opposed to the far more screws and clips required to remove the top case of the Pro.

But, while iFixIt’s wish that everyone can swap parts well into the future is well-meaning, it’s sometimes at odds with technological progress. I don’t mind that the RAM in my Air is soldered onto the logic board — even though it prevents it from being upgradable, it reduces the likelihood of clips or mechanisms breaking inside, and allows it to be thinner and lighter — all important things in a daily-carry laptop.1

Likewise, while I think that it should be fairly simple to replace a smartphone’s display, I disagree with their negativity on laminated display glass — users should not have to put up with a sub-par display in the off-chance they break its cover glass. I’m also not disappointed by the merging and reduction of device components; the smaller the device, the more it requires consolidation.

More kids should try opening up their devices and peeking inside. It somehow makes it both less and more magical — less, because all of the components are laid bare; and more because a CPU looks much smaller in real life than in pictures, and it’s baffling to consider how much happens inside of that little chip.

  1. And, as I explained earlier this week, computers have gotten way faster while we’re largely doing the same stuff with them. I’m editing HD video in Final Cut on my Air right now and it only gets painful when there are multiple background rendering threads. Otherwise, it’s pretty smooth. ↩︎

Meanwhile, on Apple’s Other App Stores…

Compare and contrast Graham Spencer’s five-year Mac App Store retrospective with the numbers in this press release:

In the two weeks ending January 3, customers spent over $1.1 billion on apps and in-app purchases, setting back-to-back weekly records for traffic and purchases. January 1, 2016 marked the biggest day in App Store history with customers spending over $144 million. It broke the previous single-day record set just a week earlier on Christmas Day.

“The App Store had a holiday season for the record books. We are excited that our customers downloaded and enjoyed so many incredible apps for iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch and Apple TV, spending over $20 billion on the App Store last year alone,” said Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing.

That works out to over $14 billion paid to developers in the last year alone. Wild. That’s a collective number; I’d be very interested in seeing a breakdown by product.

Five Years of the Mac App Store

Graham Spencer, MacStories:

In the years since 2012, about the most newsworthy events that took place relating to the Mac App Store were the announcements from high profile developers that they were removing their apps from the Mac App Store (a few listed below). […]

Apple has let the Mac App Store stagnate and become a second class citizen to the iOS App Store and too many developers are leaving or avoiding the Mac App Store. When important apps leave the Mac App Store, it makes the store as a whole less enticing and customers have one less reason to open the Mac App Store.

High-profile developers like Microsoft, Adobe, and Panic can sell apps themselves and don’t need the App Store. Valve’s Steam store has become synonymous with gaming, and EA’s Origin is doing much of the same. Even lower-profile developers can sell their own apps fairly flexibly with the proliferation of content management systems that support selling stuff. The Mac App Store simply doesn’t compete.

That’s a sad reality, especially when it would be preferable to restrict less experienced users’ GateKeeper access to App Store apps only — that way, it’s analogous to their iPhone or iPad and their system is bound to be secure. But when few high-profile apps are available from the Mac App Store and the Store is cluttered with lots of really crappy apps, it’s hard to recommend it.

January 5, 2016

Twitter Reportedly Considering Much Longer Character Limit in Tweets

Kurt Wagner, Recode:

Twitter is building a new feature that will allow users to tweet things longer than the traditional 140-character limit, and the company is targeting a launch date toward the end of Q1, according to multiple sources familiar with the company’s plans. Twitter is currently considering a 10,000 character limit, according to these sources. […]

Twitter is currently testing a version of the product in which tweets appear the same way they do now, displaying just 140 characters, with some kind of call to action that there is more content you can’t see. Clicking on the tweets would then expand them to reveal more content. The point of this is to keep the same look and feel for your timeline, although this design is not necessarily final, sources say.

Apple has Apple News, Facebook has Instant Articles, and this product feels like it will be in the same vein. Twitter is, after all, uniquely journo-friendly in a way that Apple and Facebook are not.

On the other hand, why not just buy Medium?

Update: Jack Dorsey has confirmed that this is something they’re working on, but that they’ll still be “focusing on conversation and messaging”.

In a broadly-unrelated aside, I’ve long harboured a hunch that they’re working on a DM-only messaging app, too.

January 4, 2016

Picking Apples

Stephen Hackett:

With the grid of four main products, it was easier to decide which machine was right for you. Do you need a portable or prefer a desktop? Need all the horsepower you can get, or is budget a bigger factor? Depending on those answers, it was easy to walk into a store and buy an iBook, PowerBook, iMac or Power Mac.

Just looking at the Mac, that’s not as clear cut as it used to be. The Mac Pro is more marginalized than ever, allowing the high-end iMac to become the default desktop machine for a lot of consumers and professionals. On the notebook side of things, its just as confusing. While I need the power of a MacBook Pro when editing audio, lots of people with similar needs can get by on i7 MacBook Air easily.

I think Apple’s computer lineup has remained fairly — even remarkably — simple, considering that its growth has consistently outpaced the rest of the industry for the past several years or more. It’s no longer the simple four-cell grid of consumer vs. professional and desktop vs. portable, but it’s not much more complicated than that. I would argue that it has simply gained a column: it’s now consumer, professional, and specialist, the latter of which contains the Mac Mini and the 12-inch MacBook.

The overlap in functionality, meanwhile, is not an entirely new issue. The iBook and PowerBook both did everyday computing tasks, and you could run some of Apple’s pro apps — like Logic — on an iBook. Not well, mind you, but you could.1 This overlap has been exacerbated by technology’s relentless strides in capability compared to what we’re actually doing on our computers: we now have way faster computers but we’re still editing HD video, for the most part.

The iPad lineup follows a similar formula: the iPad Air is the consumer device, the Pro is the professional product, and the Mini is the specialist product.

But throwing a wrench in both of these lineups is the continued existence of legacy products. For the Mac, it’s the ongoing sale of the 21-inch non-Retina iMac and the bafflingly-popular 13-inch 2012 MacBook Pro, the “TI-83” in the lineup.2 On the iPad side, it’s more confusing because the iPad Mini 2 and iPad Air (1) are not visibly different than their newer successors, nor are they named differently.

All of this is a roundabout way of getting to Hackett’s main point:

Like some others, the inner nerd in me is uncomfortable with the problem of choice Apple’s given us. There’s part of our community who can’t believe someone would cool on the Apple Watch, or not be excited about the 12-inch MacBook. However, the reality is that Apple has grown, its audience has as well. The company must offer a wider range of products to sustain its size.

The Apple of today provides more choice in device types, but I’m not sure it’s become more difficult to make a decision for iPhones, Macs, or Watches. All of them perform broadly similarly to each other as far as average consumers are concerned, so they’re going to pick mostly on price and form factor. For iPads, it’s only more complex because of the similar naming and form factors.

Us nerds are overthinking Apple’s lineup. I doubt most people compare Macs or iPads on the same parameters as we do; those that do compare on specific functionality usually already know what they’re looking for.

Ultimately, Hackett is right: Apple’s lineup is broader and, therefore, fewer products will likely appeal to a given person. And that’s okay.

  1. Incidentally, the Macintosh lineup in 2005 contained the Mac Mini, eMac, iMac, and PowerMac. It was arguably more complex than it is today. ↩︎

  2. If Marco Arment’s mentions are any indication, it’s similarly popular in education circles because of its low price and DVD drive. ↩︎

December 30, 2015

The New Twitter for Mac Doesn’t Support Twitter’s Latest Features

Federico Viticci has collected some reactions to the new Twitter for Mac client and it’s not brilliant:

I’ve seen dozen of other people lamenting poor performance, odd behaviors on OS X, and random bugs with Twitter accounts. That doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, especially after you read that the app was apparently outsourced to developers outside of Twitter. Even more baffling: Twitter Moments – one of Twitter’s biggest product releases of 2015 that got its own (confusing) TV commercial – aren’t supported in the new Mac app.

Outsourced where, you ask? The Verge reports — and it was previously hinted to me — that Black Pixel was behind the new client. They have a pretty good reputation, but their updates to beloved apps (NetNewsWire, and now Twitter) leave much to be desired.

“Hold on there, Nick,” you complain, “you’re saying Twitter for Mac was ‘beloved’?”

Indeed, I am. A long time ago, in a version far, far away, there was an excellent Twitter for Mac client made by Loren Brichter. Not only was it functionally complete, there were little transitions and animations everywhere that made it feel joyous to use.

But now, in the fourth version of Twitter for Mac, changing each view is accompanied by a fade so short as to be perfunctory. Images simply pop open in full size. Locations are not aligned to dates. Selecting a DM thread and then going back to the DM thread list will return it to the top scroll position. It’s rough around the edges, yes, but also devoid of personality. In a way, it’s the perfect client for today’s Twitter, Inc.

Me, though? I’m sticking with Tweetbot. At least, until Twitter fully pulls the rug out from third-party clients.

December 29, 2015

“Placebo-Based Demand Is Still Demand”

Marco Arment:

Selling snake oil to audiophiles is not only a very profitable business, but one could argue that it isn’t even usually a scam — in most cases, both the sellers and the buyers believe in the benefits being sold. Placebo benefits are real to their observers, and placebo-based demand is still demand.

While audiophiles who demand high-resolution formats are a tiny fraction of all Apple customers, they’re probably a much bigger portion of those who buy a lot of music.

Arment is, of course, right: audiophiles will spend more on music that they perceive to be of a much higher quality. The iTunes Store could have $0.99 tracks for us plebeians with normal ears, and $1.99 tracks for those who believe they have superhuman hearing. Apple could gobble that market up.

If Apple thinks this is worthy of their attention, it ought to be more than just a financial opportunity. I think this rumour has some of its roots in Steve Jobs’ vinyl record collection, and I’m sure there are other audiophile-types among Apple’s executive ranks. At least, I hope there are, because Apple’s side projects are rarely as good as offerings from competitors who live and breathe the product.

That’s not to say that I’m suddenly a convert to 192/24 audio woo. I still think it’s a waste of money to build an audio system to support an audio format with no perceptible improvements. But if Apple wants to cater to people who do believe they’re hearing a difference, they need to treat it better than they currently do their music offerings.

Boy, was that ever a disappointing sentence to write.

Apple Watch Revisited

Casey Liss:

I really like my Apple Watch. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I love it, but I like it enough that I don’t plan to stop wearing it anytime soon. I’m very curious to see what the next revision brings to the table wrist. I don’t suspect I’ll be itching to upgrade… until I hear how much thinner and faster it is. (In this case, Apple should be trying to make things thinner.)

And, I would argue, faster — a device that’s supposed to be used in bursts of seconds at a time shouldn’t contradict that with slow loading times.

I’ve worn my Watch every day since I received it in June, and I’ve found it both fun and useful, despite it not being essential. I swam with it in Bali, and cycled with it in Calgary; I’ve responded to texts and calls while cooking or washing dishes, and set timers while doing the same; I’m also more aware of my daily physical activity. I’ve spent less time directly on my phone as I know which emails and texts I need to deal with now versus those that can wait.

After spending that kind of time with it, I’ve realized just how much I like it. It’s occasionally frustrating in the way a first-generation product often is,1 but it’s well-considered overall, in the way that Apple seems to excel at.

If I were to rewind to June, would I click the “buy” button again? Absolutely. I might have even sprung for the stainless steel model, though I’m not sure I would have gone too far up the pricing brackets — the Sport Band really is that nice.

I’m not sure whether I’m upgrading to the second generation next year, largely because I’ve no idea what it will bring. But next year’s model doesn’t have to convince me and the other early adopters to drop $400+ on the latest model; its job will be to further convince those who are on the fence that it’s a valuable, if inessential, device.

  1. I’m currently one of what I gather is a small amount of people who are affected by a rather irritating bug that prevents some third-party native apps from launching, too. ↩︎

On Juniper’s Backdoor and the NSA’s Role

Great post on the Juniper backdoor from Adam Langley:

Again, assuming this hypothesis is correct then, if it wasn’t the NSA who did this, we have a case where a US government backdoor effort (Dual-EC) laid the groundwork for someone else to attack US interests. Certainly this attack would be a lot easier given the presence of a backdoor-friendly RNG already in place. And I’ve not even discussed the SSH backdoor which, as Wired notes, could have been the work of a different group entirely.

It’s probably necessary to read Langley’s post to fully comprehend this, but here it is in a nut: the NSA compromised Dual-EC which allowed them to potentially predict numbers generated by a “random” number generator. And Juniper used Dual-EC as part of its security efforts, but not in the recommended (read: backdoored) way.

Maybe this infiltration would allow the NSA to monitor data sent over Juniper Networks’ hardware, or perhaps it’s unrelated to them. But the very introduction of any backdoor has significantly depleted the security of Juniper’s hardware.

Some may feel that it’s in the U.S. government’s best interests to be allowed to monitor secure connections for possible illegal activity, but it is technically impossible to create a system that only permits connections from American intelligence agencies. If the U.S. is allowed access, why not China? Does that make U.S. intelligence agencies squirm?

Good. That’s how the rest of the world feels.

December 28, 2015

The New iPod

As the Apple Watch functions largely as a companion product to the iPhone, it’s hard to use a spike in downloads from most apps as an indicator of the Watch’s popularity. But Craig Hockenberry’s Clicker app doesn’t function on anything but the Watch, making its holiday spike much more telling.

December 27, 2015

China Passes Far-Reaching Surveillance Bill

Chris Buckley, New York Times:

Critics had said that the draft version of the law used a recklessly broad definition of terrorism, gave the government new censorship powers and authorized state access to sensitive commercial data.

The government argued that the measures were needed to prevent terrorist attacks. Opponents countered that the new powers could be abused to monitor peaceful citizens and steal technological secrets.

In the end, the approved law published by state media dropped demands in the draft version that would have required Internet companies and other technology suppliers to hand over encryption codes and other sensitive data for official vetting before they went into use.

Buckley’s reporting runs counter to Ben Blanchard’s, for Reuters, who says that the passed bill does require tech companies to hand over encryption keys. Regardless, this bill doesn’t swerve too much from laws already in place in the United States, especially after CISA was snuck into the budget bill recently signed into law.

Tech companies’ reliance upon China’s manufacturing infrastructure isn’t a problem per se, even in light of this legislation, but even if they were, they wouldn’t necessarily gain an advantage by making products in the U.S. If anything, the troubling details of the initial drafts of this bill and the reception it received from the White House paint a contradictory position to views previously espoused by this and previous American administrations. It’s apparently alright if the U.S. wishes to snoop on the world, but if China does it, it’s a national crisis. There’s only one antidote to that viewpoint, and it’s to cut it off at the source: mass surveillance is not — and should never — be considered okay, by anybody.

December 23, 2015

An Exploration of the Revised Multitasking UI in iOS 9

I’m a little hesitant to post this because it’s in Korean — most of you speak English — and I can’t track down the author’s name. But I think this is one of the most interesting explanations of the iOS 9 multitasking interface. Per Bing’s translator [sic]:

Why, then, do the same in the plane of the app is not listed in the GUI switch to overlapping method applied with perspective? This leads to can be found in the 3D touch itself. Light objects than when moving heavy objects might have more power when you move, Apple apps screenshots page in-app has given a “heavy” feeling than a page remains to be seen. This is the sense of the weight of the user for the hierarchical levels in the structure in-app screenshots of the app itself rather than the page, the page higher stage allows us to know intuitively that there is. In other words, Apple has introduced a touch gesture iOS a new level of intensity over from 7 to more users by easy to understand and to be able to experience the UI changes.

If I’m reading this right, what the author is saying is that the 3D Touch feature of the iPhone 6S makes it feel like you’re pushing older apps back and away from the display, granting them “weight”.

This is worth taking a look at if only for the excellent diagrams.

Netflix’s New Video Compression Scheme

Don Melton:

Anyway, Netflix is talking about the bitrates for their 1080p videos soon being as low 2000 Kbps for the simple stuff. That’s down from the 4300-5800 Kbps range they’re using now. And I’m sure they can do that on the low end without any perceivable loss of quality while streaming.

But can Apple and Amazon sell 1080p videos — averaging about 5000 Kbps now — at bitrates as low as 2000 Kbps — less than half that average size — without a perceived loss of value?

I don’t see why they couldn’t. From my experiences with a non-technical crowd, they don’t care about video bitrate, likely because video isn’t marketed on bitrate but size.1 As long as it says “HD” and it looks “HD”, most people probably won’t care whether the file is 2,000 or 5,000 Kbps.

  1. I also know of a lot of people who rip audio from YouTube, transcoding an already poor-quality MP3 track into an even poorer-quality file. ↩︎

December 22, 2015

Audio Files

John Gruber, quoting Macotakara:

…[Apple] has been developing Hi-Res Audio streaming up to 96kHz/24bit in 2016.

The Lightning terminal with iOS 9 is compatible up to 192kHz/24Bit, but we do not have information on the sampling frequency of Apple Music download music. […]

Yet another indication that the analog headphone jack might be a goner.

In my commentary on this rumour, I pointed out the lack of perceptible differences between lossy and lossless audio, but I didn’t address the Lightning connector or this rumour’s intersection with the also-rumoured removal of the headphone jack.

These rumours are easily conflated for lots of reasons, but I think the main one is because of how confusing the world of digital audio is. There are myriad combinations of file types, compression formats, sampling rates, and bit depths, and that’s without exploring the various factors in between the sounds leaving the device and reaching our ears. Clarifying this rumour, however, needs some explanation.

Generally speaking, most music you have on your computer is likely to be in 44.1 kHz, 16 bit files, regardless of whether they’re lossy or lossless. The frequency rating, in kHz, is the sample rate. It partially determines the highest pitch the file can reproduce, which is precisely half the sample rate — a file with a 44.1 kHz sample rate can store frequencies up to 22.05 kHz. This is well beyond human hearing, which ranges between about 20 Hz and 20 kHz.

With age and noise exposure, the human ear’s sensitivity to high frequencies begins to deteriorate. You can test this by using Audacity and generating sine waves beginning at 20 kHz and reducing by 500 Hz or so until you can hear the tone. I’m 25; the upper bound of my hearing is about 19 kHz, which is pretty much normal. An older person who has spent a lot of time surrounded by loud noises — a musician whose career began in the ’60’s, for example — will have a much lower sensitivity to higher pitches.

Then there’s bit depth; typically, 16 or 24 bits. This determines the dynamic range of the recording — in simple terms, the difference between silence and the loudest non-distorting sound. When the volume is increased of a recording with a reduced bit depth — say, 8-12 bits — the “noise floor” will become more noticeable. The pervasive hissing sound you heard when playing cassettes? That’s the noise floor creeping in on an analog format similar to a low-bitrate digital recording.

In recording studios, 96 kHz or even 192 kHz sample rates and a 24 bit depth is not uncommon because recording engineers, mixers, and producers want the most dynamic range to play with, even if they don’t use it all. That gives them freedom to boost the volume of too-quiet recordings, mix loud and soft sounds together without hearing background hiss, and generally muck around as much as they like. It’s similar to how professional photographers use uncompressed RAW files while shooting and editing, so they have a maximum amount of flexibility and freedom.

Human ears can’t tell the difference between lower sample rates and much higher ones. As we’ve discussed, the sample rate affects the maximum frequency; as the standard 44.1 kHz sample rate of most recordings allows for the reproduction of sounds beyond the upper bounds of human hearing, the effects of significantly higher sample rates aren’t going to be audible.

Bit depth, on the other hand, has more noticeable real-world effects. A 16 bit recording allows for a 96 decibel dynamic range, but the upper (and very painful) limits of the human ear are around 140 dB. As dB is a logarithmic measurement, that’s far louder than 96 dB, and increasing a 16 bit recording to 140 dB would produce a noticeable noise floor. By contrast, a 24 bit recording allows for somewhere between 110 and 120 dB of dynamic range, which allows for more room between softer, quieter sounds and silence. Most popular music doesn’t utilize the full dynamic range of what 16 bit recording allows, but jazz, classical, and folk recordings tend to benefit from the increased range of 24 bit audio.

Of course, once you have a high-res audio recording, you need to play it, and this is where it all comes back to the Lightning port. There is no limit on what an analog audio port — like the headphone jack — can send, but there is a limit to the headphone jack in the iPhone. This is determined by the digital-to-analog converter, or DAC.

The one in the iPhone is, as best as anyone can guess, a 16-bit DAC and it probably supports a maximum sample rate of 44.1 kHz. Regardless of the audio format on the device, it’s going to pass through a DAC that supports CD quality audio, but no greater. The HTC One, on the other hand, has a 192 kHz, 24-bit DAC that outputs through the headphone jack.

I explained everything prior to that last paragraph first because I think it’s important to understand what those two measurements mean. As Macotakara points out, 192 kHz, 24-bit audio is already supported via the Lightning port, but it’s probably intended to facilitate better support for iOS devices as recording and mixing platforms. They might wish to expand its use and make lossless tracks available, which should appeal to jazz and classical fans unrepresented by other major music services.

But high-res audio formats do not necessarily foretell the demise of the headphone jack, nor are they something most people will be able to perceive. I really care about audio quality, but I keep virtually all of my music in high-quality lossy compressed formats because the difference is imperceptible. A 24-bit standard would be appealing, but only if modern recordings were mixed and mastered to expand their dynamic range and take full advantage of it. Maybe this is another push towards the demise of the loudness war, but I doubt it will make a difference. And, as I said previously, the loudness of modern recordings is what makes them sound like crap, not the format they’re in.

December 21, 2015

Lossless Files Rumoured to Be Coming to Apple Music


According to several insiders familiar with Apple, whose products are exhibited at PORTABLE AUDIO FESTIVAL 2015, the company has been developing Hi-Res Audio streaming up to 96kHz/24bit in 2016.

The Lightning terminal with iOS 9 is compatible up to 192kHz/24Bit, but we do not have information on the sampling frequency of Apple Music download music.

As Eric Slivka of MacRumors points out, this isn’t the first time we’ve heard this rumour:

A year and a half ago, music blogger Robert Hutton claimed Apple was working to roll out high-resolution audio for the iTunes Store, and Mac Otakara made similar claims about an HD Audio format and new hardware being planned for release alongside iOS 8 later that year.

If much of the Apple Music catalogue will be offered in a lossless format, that solves the availability problems of high-res audio. However, it’s still pretty much impossible to distinguish between high-quality lossy and lossless formats, at least as far as most people and most kinds of music are concerned. When paired with Apple’s EarPods, there’s probably no way anyone can tell the difference.

Music often sounds like crap today because producers and mastering engineers mix for volume rather than dynamics, not because songs are typically played in lossy compressed formats. That’s the problem that needs solving, and Apple has influential employees within their ranks who could begin solving it by, say, doubling-down on the Mastered for iTunes program. One problem: they are victims and perpetrators of the loudness war, too.

Update: Lossless audio, being an archival format, seems ill-suited for streaming. Perhaps lossless audio becomes the purchasing option, while lossy formats will prevail for streaming?

Unwrapping the Mast Brothers

Those of you who have spelunked through my list of recommended reads might remember the incredible takedown of Noka chocolates by Scott Reitz, written nine years ago.

Well, Reitz is back, this time with an alarming exposé of Mast Brothers chocolates. You’ve probably seen this chocolate in your local specialty food store or similar, where they claim to make it “from bean to bar”.

Is this worth reading because the Mast brothers are being publicly shamed? No. It’s worth reading because it’s a nice four-part bit of solid investigation and journalism.

December 18, 2015

GeoGuessr App Now Available for iOS

My favourite game is now available as a native app on iOS. It’s not feature-complete — you can’t log into a GeoGuessr account within the app, for instance — but I couldn’t be happier. The world map is free, and individual maps are unlocked by playing the game or in-app purchase. You should totally download it. They didn’t pay me to say this; I just love the game.

Apple’s In-House Chip Edge

Tim Bradshaw, Financial Times:

The fact that Apple was able to create custom-designed hardware for just a single feature [the front-facing flash] of the iPhone 6S highlights the expertise it has built in chip design, a technology that has traditionally been the preserve of specialist companies such as Qualcomm or Intel.

Apple shone a spotlight on that capability this week when it promoted Johny Srouji, head of its team of silicon engineers, to its executive ranks, as part of a wider management reshuffle.

This article focuses heavily on the iPhone, but Apple’s rising expertise in chip design has enabled the existence of products like the Apple Watch and the iPad Pro. But their chip designs are still prototyped and made by Samsung and TSMC. I think it’s a question of when — not if — Apple begins fabricating its own chips, and I think that’s going to be sooner rather than later.

Clones and Licensing

After I linked to Jack Wellborn’s article on Microsoft’s growing hardware business, Jonas Wisser sent me a text, which he’s given me permission to quote here:

Kinda surprised you didn’t make the connection between licensing killing a quality OS problem and Old Apple.

There are two really good points here: first, that the degrading of Microsoft’s reputation due to licensees making crappy products is similar to Apple’s situation in the mid-’90’s with the Macintosh clones; and, second, that it’s surprising that I didn’t make that connection.

He continued:

The problem for Microsoft is that they _can’t_ win back control of their consumer product the way Apple did.

Their enterprise and embedded footprint is way too big.

IMO, the only way they could do it would be to turn Windows into a legacy product and ship their own hardware running a new OS.

I think this is a really intelligent point, but there is one niggle I have: Macintosh clones were never really big business:

Hard numbers are not available for most brands of clones, but it’s generally estimated that they accounted for about 15% of all Mac OS computers sold in 1997…

As numbers are hard to come by, it’s conceivable that Macintosh clones could have accounted for a much larger percentage of Mac OS sales at their peak. I doubt, however, that they ever had a market share as great as Windows licensees enjoy today.

December 17, 2015

The Evolution of Autoplay

Over the past year or so, I’ve noticed a marked increase in the number of websites that have autoplaying videos. I thought I was completely imagining this, but it turns out to be true. Tim Carmody for the Nieman Journalism Lab:

Video autoplay on the web has been around in different forms for years, but its embrace by Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and other platforms in the past year is changing its economics and user’s expectations. Many people dislike autoplay — quite a few hate it — but it’s a powerful tool to capture and hold viewers’ attention, it’s a perfect medium for advertising, and it generates huge impression numbers for platforms and publishers. It’s not going away. For video, it’s the vector to the future.

Autoplaying video is loathsome, especially if it includes audio. It’s as unexpected and user-hostile as those websites that had background music fifteen years ago,1 it’s inherently interruptive, and it increases costs for mobile users. If publications thought user backlash was strong after shoving intrusive ads in their faces, just imagine the reaction to this trend.

  1. Remember that crappy MIDI version of a Blink 182 song you’d hear on every other GeoCities page? ↩︎

Apple Promotes Jeff Williams, Adds App Stores to Phil Schiller’s Responsibilities

Everything I’ve heard about Jeff Williams paints him as Tim Cook’s Tim Cook, keeping a close eye on Apple’s supply chain. I didn’t realize that the company hadn’t had a COO since Cook was promoted to CEO, but now they do again.

This, though, is very intriguing:

With added responsibility for the App Store, Phil Schiller will focus on strategies to extend the ecosystem Apple customers have come to love when using their iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch and Apple TV. Phil now leads nearly all developer-related functions at Apple, in addition to his other marketing responsibilities including Worldwide Product Marketing, international marketing, education and business marketing.

App Store duties were previously Eddy Cue’s purview, as they’re part of Apple’s internet services. Placing their management under Schiller signals, to me, a realization that App Store issues should be grouped with the rest of Apple’s developer relations; they are dissimilar to cloud, media, and payment services. Schiller has a very good relationship with the Apple developer community, and I think — or, at least, hope — that this bodes well for the future of the App Stores.

December 16, 2015

iCloud Music Library’s Metadata Isn’t Getting Better

Even though I could now go whole-hog on iCloud Music Library, I’m not touching it yet. It’s still failing to provide correct metadata for songs from Apple Music, not just ripped or third-party tracks. It’s too bad, because a lot of Apple Music’s features — like offline playback and playlist creation — require an iCloud Music Library subscription.

My metadata system isn’t complex, but I worry that any cloud service will attempt to “correct” it. Worse, I’m scared that it’s going to treat different versions of a song as the same. I’m not prepared to roll back its changes because I don’t know how much effort it will take to recover my library even if I have a local backup.

That hesitance, I think, indicates that iCloud Music Library is a significant blemish on Apple’s record. Their web services are rarely class-leading, but they should not be this far behind.

The Roaring ’20’s

An anonymous contributor to Vice attended Yahoo’s end-of-year party (via John Gruber):

The rest of the cavernous room was filled with even more chandeliers and urns and a vintage Rolls Royce. Swinging flapper aerialists pouring champagne towers and Gatsby-esque costumed actors walking around like vintage cigarette girls (but peddling only candy) were everywhere. […]

The theme? “The Roaring 20th.”

Given another few years, this party’s theme might be rather prescient.

December 15, 2015

More Responsive Taps in WebKit on iOS

Wenson Hsieh of Apple’s WebKit team:

WebKit on iOS has a 350 millisecond delay before single taps activate links or buttons. WebKit has this delay because we also allow users to double tap to zoom, which is a great way to zoom in on content that is well-sized for large desktop displays, but appears too small on mobile devices. However, when a user has tapped once, WebKit cannot tell if the user intends on tapping again to trigger a double tap gesture. Since double tapping is defined as two taps within a short time interval (350ms), WebKit must wait for this time interval to pass before we’re sure that the user intended to tap only once. […]

On web pages optimized for mobile viewports, elements such as links and form controls are scaled to fit well on smaller screens. As such, double tapping on these elements increases the page scale by only a small amount. Since double tapping provides little value on these web pages, we’ve implemented a mechanism for removing the delay for single taps by disabling double tap gestures.

Clever. This should mean no hacky JavaScript workarounds, which is pretty nice, and should make Safari feel a bit snappier in day-to-day use, considering how many websites are now mobile-optimized.

HIV-Positive Dating App Leaked User Data

Stephanie M. Lee, Buzzfeed:

The leaks, which were both repaired as of Monday, are believed to have left the personal information of Hzone and iFit users vulnerable since at least late November and last week, respectively, according to the cybersecurity blog, which first reported them. […]

In the case of Hzone, such information included names, email addresses, birthdays, relationship statuses, number of children, sexual orientation, sexual experiences, and messages like this, according to “Hi. I was diagnosed 3 years ago now. CD4 and Viral Load is relatively good. I’m therefore not on Meds yet. My 6-monthly blood tests are due in June. Planning to go in meds. I’m worried about the side effects. What kinds of side effect have you experienced? Xx.” As many as 5,000 users appeared in the breach.

That’s not as many affected users as the 13 million exposed by MacKeeper, but the information collected by Hzone and iFit is far more sensitive and personal. It’s unconscionable that these apps are practically unregulated; even if they were subject to HIPAA requirements, that law largely protects information subject to doctor-patient confidentiality, not medical information itself.

December 14, 2015

Reference Design

Jack Wellborn:

As a long time Mac user, I have no qualms saying that Windows has gotten leaps and bounds better in the last 5 years, but those significant improvements have been largely erased by mediocre hardware, penny pinching IT departments, and the continued horrible practice of crapware. I am sure no one is more frustrated by this fact than Microsoft, who I believe has been desperately trying to elevate the PC back to respectability. I think the Surface exists as part of that strategy to help the rest of PC industry with a unique reference model not entirely owned by PC’s oldest and now biggest competitor.

This observation is nearly entirely echoed by Consumer Reports’ findings as to why Apple’s MacBooks are far more reliable than their Windows-based counterparts. Robin Harris, for ZDNet:

When I left Silicon Valley for the mountains of northern Arizona 10 years ago, I was startled at how differently “everyday” people saw computers. It’s binary: work; or, not work.

They don’t say – “oh it’s a hardware problem, no bad on Microsoft.” No, they say “my Windows notebook stinks ’cause it broke.” CR is doing the absolute right thing. […]

If I were running Microsoft’s Windows customer sat group, I’d be on this like a dog on a bone. MS is only supplying the software, but their OEMs are killing the MS brand with reliability that is half of what Apple achieves.

The prose is worse than Wellborn’s, but the sentiment is the same: by choosing to license their operating system in a loose way, Microsoft places the reputation of their software in their licensee’s hands. Those licensees are part of what is corrupting Microsoft’s reputation, and the Surface partially exists for Microsoft to gain greater control of that.

On Intersectionality in Tech

Smart article from Megan Rose Dickey at TechCrunch:

The intersection of racism, sexism, transphobia and other oppressive institutions influence perceptions and experiences of people in the tech industry. It also serves as a potential barrier to those who want to enter tech but can’t because the industry isn’t built with intersectionality in mind. In fact, the tech industry seems to turn a blind eye to it.

It’s worth noting that the vast majority of the world is not white, and certainly not white and male. The tech industry impacts the entire globe, but is designed and created by a body of people that is not representative of those it affects.

December 12, 2015

Being a Better Ally to Women and People of Colour in Tech

Really great article from Victoria Kirst, writing for Ntrsctn:

… ‘Are you sure it was sexism?’ is a pointless question because the answer is always the same: No, I’m not sure. I can’t be sure. It’s impossible to be sure.

Engineers solve technical problems at work every day, so it’s tempting for us to solve all of life’s problems using the same approach. But it’s ridiculous to apply engineering techniques to social problems, where it’s impossible to get the evidence we would normally demand to solve them. We need a different approach.

Empathy is a very powerful tool here. The better we understand the abuse, discrimination, and oppression that women and people of colour face — often daily — the better we can be an ally. The only way we can even begin to understand this, though, is to listen, and that’s something we’re not doing very well right now.

December 11, 2015

Apple Is Placing Popup Ads for the iPhone 6S in the App Store

Roger Fingas, AppleInsider:

The ad presents a graphic with the slogan “ridiculously powerful,” and highlighted options to “learn more” or “upgrade now,” according to posts on sites like Twitter and Reddit. An option to skip to the regular App Store interface is found in the upper-right corner of the screen.

The pop-ups appear to be targeted at people using an iPhone 5s or earlier, and may have been enabled with Tuesday’s release of iOS 9.2.

Interstitial advertising is obnoxious, and Apple is already too keen on self-promotion in iOS for my liking — you can’t hide the Watch app if you don’t own an Apple Watch, for example. But, at least, the Watch app’s presence doesn’t interfere with the functionality of the phone. This ad does. It’s gross.

Probably Not Wright

Unmasking Satoshi Nakamoto is the media world’s objet petit a, at least for now. Many have tried and failed, the latest being Andy Greenberg and Gwern Branwen of Wired, and Sam Biddle and Andy Cush of Gizmodo. Both exposés are brimming with confidence — Greenberg and Branwen’s is titled “Bitcoin’s Creator Satoshi Nakamoto Is Probably This Unknown Australian Genius”, while Biddle and Cush’s includes this passage:1

Writing about Satoshi Nakamoto, the Bitcoin originator’s pseudonym, is a treacherous exercise. Publications like the New York Times, Fast Company, and the New Yorker have taken unsuccessful stabs at Satoshi’s identity. In every instance, the evidence either hasn’t added up or those implicated have issued public denials. And then there was Newsweek, whose 2014 story “The Face Behind Bitcoin” is easily the most disastrous attempt at revealing the identity of Satoshi. The magazine identified a modest California engineer, whose birth name was Satoshi Nakamoto but who went by Dorian, as the creator of Bitcoin. The story resulted in a worldwide media frenzy, a car chase, and — after Dorian’s repeated denials and legal threats — a great deal of embarrassment for Newsweek.

I’m not sure if these exposés surpass Newsweek’s, in terms of how embarrassing they are, but it’s close. First, there’s the little matter of the PGP keys, so critical to both stories. Sarah Jeong, writing for Vice:

Both Wired and Gizmodo outline Wright’s qualifications and accomplishments in detail, aside from pointing to emails and other documents that seem to nail Wright as once-and-future Bitcoin king Satoshi Nakamoto.

A lot of this evidence isn’t authenticated, so there’s that. But there’s one really big problem with the case for Craig S. Wright as Satoshi: at least one of the key pieces of evidence appears to be fake. The “Satoshi” PGP keys associated with the Wired and Gizmodo stories were probably generated after 2009 and uploaded after 2011.

That seems fairly problematic for documentation that was apparently created in 2008.

Today, Gizmodo and Wired have each published separate stories acknowledging that their exposés were likely wrong; they’d been duped. Andy Cush of Gizmodo:

Since our story was published (along with subsequent profiles of both Wright and Kleiman) things have only gotten weirder. Wright’s home was raided by police due to an investigation by the Australian Tax Office that’s reportedly unrelated to Tuesday’s articles. Wright himself has pretty much disappeared. And several outlets have done even more digging to try and figure out whether Wright and Kleiman were, in fact, closely involved in creating Bitcoin.

Andy Greenberg, Wired:

Wright’s colleague Ian Grigg, a financial cryptographer whom Wright has cited as writing a paper that helped inspire Wright’s bitcoin work, wrote Wednesday on Twitter that he’d learned Wright had been hacked and extorted for money, and that the extortionist had given documents to the media (presumably meaning Wired and/or Gizmodo).

Embarrassing for the two publications that broke the news, and the countless more that failed to do their own research or verify the stories.

But this could turn out to be a far more bizarre, interesting — and, perhaps, darker — story than initially reported. Unmasking a pseudonymous bitcoin creator satisfies a small amount of our curiosity, but telling the story of someone who has claimed to friends that he created bitcoin and conning a bunch of reporters into believing it, despite not doing so? That’s an angle worth exploring.

  1. Biddle was very confident on Twitter and in Marketplace, but also admitted that it could be a long con. ↩︎

Young ‘Digital Natives’ Naïve About Internet Advertising

Henry Mance for the Financial Times:

In Ofcom’s research, children were shown a list of search results for the term “trainers”, and directed towards the top two results — which were in an orange box with the word “Ad” written in it.

Only 31 per cent of those aged 12 to 15 identified the sponsored links as advertising. Among those aged 8 to 11, the proportion was even lower — 16 per cent.

Google ads are looking more like native advertising with each iteration. Older results pages used to separate the ads and more clearly delineate what was sponsored and what was organic. Google has slowly but deliberately eroded that line by making ads look more like native search results, and by manually promoting its own products.

I wonder how these findings will affect the pending E.U. anti-competition case.

Slide Camera

Fun new app from William Wilkinson and Deepak Mantena that allows you to create a pseudo-3D looping GIF of a subject just by panning your phone through the scene. Don’t miss the FAQ. If you’d like to buy it and have Apple give me a share of their 30% cut, you can grab it here for about a toonie.

December 9, 2015

A New Remote App Is Coming

The tvOS 9.1 update released yesterday added support for the iOS Remote app. Joe Rosensteel:

For me, the Apple TV was recognized by the Remote app on my iPhone 6 and I was able to use direction, menu, play/pause, and — most important of all — the iPhone’s virtual keyboard. This does not cover the full range of features that the Siri Remote can handle, and there are interface bits that the 4th generation Apple TV does not support (the options element does nothing).

Nice. But:

There was no update at all to the Remote app. Not even for branding. As Robb Lewis pointed out on Twitter, this is rather absurd and unhelpful. Instructions for pairing are different for the fourth generation, and the icon the iTunes is even 3 years-old. […]

Also, since it’s not an updated Remote app, there are several things it can’t do that your Siri Remote can do:

  • Use Siri to do searches or control the TV.

John Paczkowski reports for Buzzfeed:

“We’re working on a new Apple TV remote app that will give you the full functionality of the Siri Remote on your iPhone,” [Eddy] Cue said. “We’re hoping to ship that in the first half of next year.”

Good stuff. Here’s hoping for dictation on the Apple TV’s keyboard soon, too.

U.S. Senator Pursues Legislation to Cripple Encryption

Patrick Howell O’Neill, writing for the Daily Dot:

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that she would seek a bill that would give police armed with a warrant based on probable cause the ability “to look into an encrypted Web.” […]

[FBI Director James Comey insisted] that the encryption debate is “not a technical issue” because “there are plenty of companies today who provide secure services to their customers and still comply with court orders.”

Oh, Comey: this is a technical issue. The only way this is possible is with a mandated “back door”, and the minute one of those is added, the encryption becomes meaningless. It’s only a matter of time, effort, and means for an unauthorized person or party to use that back door. This is counterproductive, especially considering Feinstein previously argued for more robust electronic security protections.

December 8, 2015

Apple Releases iOS 9.2, OS X 10.11.2, tvOS 9.1, and watchOS 2.1

Some good updates all around: tvOS now supports Siri for controlling Apple Music and the iOS Remote app, and Mac OS X, iOS, and watchOS include lots of bug fixes.

I’d like to draw your attention to one bug in particular that was marked as fixed. In the watchOS 2.1 release notes, Apple says:1

Addresses issues that could prevent third party apps from launching

This isn’t fixed for me; I am unable to launch any third-party native watchOS app from the App Store, and this has affected myself and others since watchOS 2 was released. It’s a bug in the handling of Apple’s FairPlay DRM that’s somewhat similar to the corrupted App Store binaries issue from three years ago.

Here’s what it looks like in the console when I launch a native watchOS 2 app:

Dec  8 22:55:48 Nicks-AppleWatch kernel[0] <Notice>: AppleFairplayTextCrypterSession::fairplayOpen() failed, error -42004
Dec  8 22:55:48 Nicks-AppleWatch gizmoappd[92] <Warning>: plugin com.flexibits.fantastical2.iphone.watchkitapp.ext interrupted
Dec  8 22:55:48 Nicks-AppleWatch[1] (com.flexibits.fantastical2.iphone.watchkitapp.ext[235]) <Warning>: FairPlay decryption failed on binary.

Depending on what the system feels like doing, this either causes an immediate crash of the app, or the loading indicator spins within the app for about a minute before it crashes.

I didn’t notice this while watchOS 2 was in beta because this doesn’t seem to affect apps distributed via TestFlight, nor does it affect WatchKit apps. As more of my favourite apps have been updated to become native, fewer of them remain functional, and it’s driving me crazy.

I filed this as a bug with Apple a couple of months ago. It was marked as a duplicate.

Update: Michael Tsai:

iOS 9.2 unfortunately doesn’t fix the three most annoying iOS 9 issues for me: […]

I could swear this was fixed in one of the 9.2 betas, and then was un-done in the final release.

  1. Release notes for updates must be put together by a bunch of different departments. They use both “fixing” and “fixes” to start sentences, and are inconsistent with the use of a hyphen in the phrase “third party”. ↩︎

Confidential and Proprietary

Really interesting article from Yoni Heisler at BGR, listing and explaining all of the very confidential and proprietary stuff made public during Apple v. Samsung. I have to wonder how difficult it was for Apple’s top executives to reveal parts of their secret sauce, how valuable they consider the information they provided, and whether the litigation was ultimately worth it. To my eyes, there’s not a lot here that’s valuable in isolation; everything is ultimately dependent upon talent and execution.

Apple Says That Its Maps App Is Used Three Times as Often as Google’s on iPhones

Someone in Apple’s PR office1 gave Anick Jesdanun of the Associated Press a bit of information:

Apple says its mapping service is now used more than three times as often as its next leading competitor on iPhones and iPads, with more than 5 billion map-related requests each week. Research firm comScore says Apple has a modest lead over Google on iPhones in the US, though comScore measures how many people use a service in a given month rather than how often.

I have no doubt many of the built-in location-based features in iOS 9 help more users (re)discover Apple Maps, and I don’t doubt that it has gotten better.

But I have this test that I run every time I hear about an improvement to Maps, and Apple Maps still fails. Here’s the test: I search “wine market” and note the results list. There is a store called “Kensington Wine Market” just a few hundred metres from my apartment, yet the top result in Maps has always been a restaurant in Baltimore, which makes no sense. Unless I’m searching a region, city, or an address, Maps should always prioritize local results. By contrast, Google Maps suggests a search for “wine market calgary” as the top result. Tapping “Search” used to perform flawlessly, but now also zooms to the restaurant in Baltimore.

Your results will vary greatly depending on where you live. In Indonesia, Apple Maps was barren while Google returned plenty of local landmarks and points of interest. Apple seems to have improved their mapping technology in Canada, the U.S., and China, but I’m not sure about the rest of the world.

  1. Or, perhaps, Greg Joswiak — he’s quoted in the article. ↩︎

December 7, 2015

Low-Hanging Fruit

Brent Simmons, closing out a short list of fairly basic bugs:

So we have Apple Watch and Apple TV now. What I’m hoping for — what I’m nearly begging for, more as a user than as developer — is that Apple spend a year making things better. Nothing new. Just make things work better.

Even the new Apple TV and Watch have obvious shortcomings. The former has a bright white UI, which is pretty blinding in the kind of darkened room many people watch movies in. Siri also fails in places where you’d hope it would work, there’s no dictation for the keyboard, and the keyboard itself is an awkward long strip.

The Watch, meanwhile, doesn’t launch either first- or third-party apps fast enough to entirely work as a “glanceable” device.

Meanwhile, on my Macs at home and at work, and links regularly fail to load in Safari. It’s only those URLs, only since upgrading to El Capitan, and only in Safari — Tweetbot works fine. Baffling.

But I hold out hope. Earlier this year, Apple released an update to iTunes that made any database edit last about a minute. Change a straight prime to a curly quote? That’ll cause iTunes to hang for a minute. Making sure A$AP Rocky is listed as “ASAP Rocky” by editing the sort artist? Another minute of hanging. Deleting a track? That’ll cause another hang. Though this bug is at least five months old, I was very happy to discover this weekend that it has been fixed.

Similarly, I’ve found Mail on Yosemite and El Capitan to be way better than previous versions, and iOS 9 fixes a lot of the issues I ran into on iOS 8. I know not everyone’s experience has improved, but mine certainly has across all of my Apple devices.

My pet theory is that Apple is seeing fewer bug reports and support calls these days than, say, five years ago, but the bugs users are running into are more noticeable. I’m guessing the fallout from discoveryd didn’t spike Apple’s bug reporting system that much, but the issues it caused were infuriating, considering just how much of our computing is dependent on an internet connection.

Facebook Shutters Creative Labs

Sad news from Facebook, too: the part of the company that was responsible for a bunch of fairly unpopular but rather nice apps has been shut down. Most notably, Creative Labs is behind Paper, which has always been a far better Facebook experience than the official Facebook app. It was last updated in March, yet it still doesn’t support interactive notifications or any other recent iOS features. It doesn’t support many of Facebook’s most recent features, either, like Instant Articles.

Facebook has pulled a bunch of Creative Labs’ apps from the App Store, but Paper remains. I don’t think it’s going to last much longer.