May 24, 2016

Meet VocalIQ

VocalIQ was a small Cambridge-based startup launched in 2011, which specialized in natural speech recognition and conversational interactions. From their website, circa August last year:

Every time your application is used it gets a little bit smarter. Previous conversations are central to it’s [sic] learning process – allowing the system to better understand future requests and in turn, react more intelligently. As a developer, you have the ability to change your system’s interpretation or behavior directly in your app.

And from a Times article published in June:

“The internet of things won’t be possible without a simple way to interact with all of these devices,” Vishal Chatrath, of VocalIQ, says. The Cambridge-based start-up has developed an alternative to Apple’s Siri that engages the user in conversation. The company is releasing a trial app next month.

The ambition does not end there. “One of our key projects is to develop a car that can talk to you, like in Knight Rider,” Mr Chatrath says. “That’s the level we’re targeting.”

Compelling, right? Turns out that Apple acquired them in October. And Brian Roemmele has been following along with VocalIQ for a long time:

If Apple utilizes just a small subset of the technology developed by VocalIQ, we will see a far more advanced Siri. However I am quite certain the amazing work of Tom Gruber will also be utilized. Additionally the amazing technology from Emollient, Perception and a number of unannounced and future Apple acquistions [sic] will also become a big part of Apple’s AI future.

By “Perception”, Roemmele likely means the automatic photo classification startup Perceptio. Apple confirmed their acquisition of the company just three days after they purchased VocalIQ.

So, who’s excited for WWDC?

Apple Reportedly Working on Siri API, Hardware Companion

A well-timed leak that should assuage recent concerns about the state of Siri indicates that Apple is, predictably, working on a Siri API and a hardware companion to compete with Amazon’s Echo.

Juli Clover of MacRumors summarizes what Amir Efrati originally reported for the paywalled Information:

Citing a source with direct knowledge of Apple’s plans, the report suggests Apple is working on a Siri-based device that would include a speaker and microphone that could be used for features like listening to music, getting news headlines, and more.

In addition to developing such a device, Apple is planning to improve Siri by opening the voice assistant up to outside developers. Apple is said to be preparing to release a Siri software development kit that would allow developers to make their apps and their app content accessible through Siri voice commands. Apple plans to require developers to use the tool responsibly.

My first thought for the form factor of the always-on hardware companion for Siri was the Apple TV;1 my second thought was the AirPort base station.

But nothing in this rumour really addresses Siri’s reliability which, I believe, is currently its single biggest hurdle. Most of the time, it’s pretty fast and much more accurate than before. Yet it still occasionally gets confused by homonyms, can’t handle some accents, loses context, and sometimes silently fails for no obvious reason. Last night, I asked Siri on my Watch to remind me about something, and it “thought” for a while before telling me it couldn’t connect. I tried again on my phone and it worked perfectly.

Some of these issues could be mitigated by simply providing a textual interface for Siri. And I’d probably feel much more comfortable using it, to boot.

  1. Wouldn’t it be great if the iOS 10 update simply enabled this on existing fourth-generation Apple TVs? As Apple is still a hardware-centric company, this is unlikely to happen, but one can dream. ↩︎

Twitter Officially Announces Changes to Character Counting in Tweets

In a letter to shareholders earlier this year (PDF), Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey previewed some adjustments to the way replies would work in the future:

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

The future is now, and Twitter is preparing to roll out some changes to replies and character counts. Ironically, for a company built on direct communication, Twitter’s explanation for these changes is rather longwinded and confusing:

We are simplifying the way that replies and attachments work on Twitter by moving some of the “scaffolding” of Tweets into display elements so they no longer count towards the character limit within the Tweet.

  • Replies: @names that auto-populate at the start of a reply Tweet will not count towards the character limit (but new non-reply Tweets starting with a @mention will count, as will @mentions added explicitly by the user in the body of the Tweet). Additionally, new Tweets that begin with a username will no longer have to use the “.@” convention in order to have those Tweets reach all of their followers.

  • Media attachments: A URL at the end of Tweets generated from attaching photos, a video, GIF, poll, Quote Tweet, or DM deep link will also not count towards the character limit (URLs typed or pasted inside the Tweet will be counted towards the character limit as they do today).

This poor explanation has generated some misleading comments and poor articles that attempt to report on Twitter’s changes, and inciting worries that these changes will dramatically increase spam and harassment on the service. These changes are neither as straightforward as they should be, nor as confusing as Twitter makes them out to be.

In short, anything Twitter adds to a tweet — including URLs for images, polls, and quoted tweets — is not counted against the character limit; most things you add to a tweet do count.

For example, in this tweet:

.@ashleyfeinberg wrote 3,500 words on whether Trump has a weave.

both the @ mention and external URL — condensed into a address, of course — would be counted against the character limit because they were both added manually by the user. This tweet was surfaced in my stream by Christina Warren, who retweeted it. If I were to reply to it, I am presented with this starting point:

@noahshachtman @ashleyfeinberg @film_girl

These three @ mentions would not count against the character limit because it’s a reply to a tweet containing all three user handles. I would still have 140 characters to write my reply, not the 98 of today. If I were to then write something like this:

@noahshachtman @ashleyfeinberg @film_girl Looks like Gawker is about to hit a Fuckface von Nervestick, right @TheDailyShow?

My comment and my additional mention of the Daily Show handle would count against the character limit, but the quoted tweet URL would not. If that URL were instead pointed to, say, the Daily Show video clip, it would count against the limit.

Twitter is limiting the total number of accounts in a reply to fifty, but — as we’ve seen — this doesn’t mean users can mention fifty accounts per tweet. Whether this will impact spam or abuse on Twitter remains to be seen, but it looks these changes have been more thoughtfully designed than many headlines are making it out to be. That said, Twitter absolutely needs to take greater steps to curb harassment.

And you still can’t edit tweets.

Update: Where it gets confusing and weird is that a straight-up mention like this:

@TD_Canada Give me Apple Pay convenience or give me death.

looks identical to a tweet that’s a reply to, say, this tweet:

@TD_Canada Give me Apple Pay convenience or give me death.

Yet, in the latter, the user handle is not counted against the character limit; in the former, it is.

May 23, 2016

Machine Learning Bias

Julia Angwin and Jeff Larson of ProPublica:

We obtained the risk scores assigned to more than 7,000 people arrested in Broward County, Florida, in 2013 and 2014 and checked to see how many were charged with new crimes over the next two years, the same benchmark used by the creators of the algorithm.

The score proved remarkably unreliable in forecasting violent crime: Only 20 percent of the people predicted to commit violent crimes actually went on to do so.

When a full range of crimes were taken into account — including misdemeanors such as driving with an expired license — the algorithm was somewhat more accurate than a coin flip. Of those deemed likely to re-offend, 61 percent were arrested for any subsequent crimes within two years.

We also turned up significant racial disparities, just as Holder feared. In forecasting who would re-offend, the algorithm made mistakes with black and white defendants at roughly the same rate but in very different ways.

After collecting and assessing unprecedented amounts of data, we’re rapidly accelerating the rate at which we believe that computers can make decisions on our behalf. We’ve never before, in the whole of human history, had access to this much information, and we now believe that it can effectively tell us what to do. It’s happening on a smaller scale with virtual assistants and bots. But, while it’s a little irritating when they get a command wrong, it’s nothing on risk assessment scores, which can fuck up someone’s life.

May 20, 2016

Streaming Apps

Jen Simmons of Mozilla:

This idea that the web sucks. And apps are awesome. And the web can only be ‘saved’ by making it more like ‘apps’.


This bothers me.


It’s not that I think *no* one should create a website that’s “app-like”. It’s that I think this pressure for *everyone* to is dead wrong.

It’s not that streaming apps that don’t require installation are not clever, it’s that apps are not necessarily the correct solutions.

From an iOS perspective, the ironic thing about the post-shit sandwich app situation is that Mobile Safari has become a vastly more powerful development platform while being de-emphasized as such.

There truly is an xkcd for everything.

Illegal Numbers

Chris Baraniuk for the BBC:

Jon Johansen’s program worked. The Norwegian teenager watched as it downloaded 200 megabytes of a recently released movie, The Matrix, from a DVD onto his computer. The program that he and two anonymous others had created that year, 1999, was called DeCSS. But their project was about to cause something of a ruckus. DeCSS allowed people to unlock content on commercial DVDs without the publisher’s permission, so it instantly became the subject of legal objections from the movie industry.

What happened next likely took the lawyers at a number of big movie studios by surprise. Johansen was later acquitted, but wrangling over DeCSS turned into a debate about the essence of computing and what things could logically be banned. The contention right at the heart of this was the fact that any computer file or program could be represented by a number. Could you really make numbers illegal? And if so, what did that mean for the control of information?

In the midst of the debate over whether encryption should — or even could — be made illegal, as it’s simply a series of mathematical equations, this article notes some instances of numbers that are illegal.

May 19, 2016

Allo and Duo

Google debuted two new cross-platform messaging apps at yesterday’s I/O kickoff: Allo, for text-based conversations augmented by search, and Duo for video calls.

They look like fine apps, aside from Allo’s poor security defaults — they might even be brilliant apps. But Casey Newton of the Verge points out why they’re always going to be flawed:

Three years ago, Google set out to fix its chaotic messaging strategy with a single app. This summer, getting the full Google messaging experience will mean downloading as many as four apps: Hangouts, Allo, Duo, and Google Messenger, for sending SMS messages on Android.

That list doesn’t include Who’s Down, their quietly-released private chat app for meeting up with friends, nor does it include the text capabilities in Google Voice. All of these apps are currently being developed.

I don’t see why Google felt the need to separate chat functionality into six different apps. It’s overcomplicated and messy.

New Union Square Apple Store Opening on Saturday

This is a brand new store to replace the famous but crowded Stockton Street location. Apple PR:

Apple Union Square’s glass doors open the store to Post Street and Union Square. The building’s unique position connects San Francisco’s most famous square to a rejuvenated plaza to the north, creating a beautiful gathering place for the community. The art-filled plaza offers seating, public Wi-Fi, a 50-foot tall “green wall” and regular acoustic performances. The store is powered by 100 percent renewable energy, including power produced by photovoltaic panels integrated into the building’s roof.

It’s a testament to how iconic these retail stores are that they no longer feel a need to put an Apple logo anywhere on the face of them. They’ve been doing this for a little while with the newer stores,1 and I think it looks great.

Rene Ritchie was invited to the press preview today, and he has some photos of the impressive new space.

By the way, those glass doors will sure be nice for rolling cars in and out of the store, don’t you think?

Update: Jim Dalrymple was also at the press preview:

Ahrendts said the company even thought about how sections of the Apple stores were named, like the Genius Bar. The word “bar” brings up thoughts of a busy, noisy space—not really what you’re looking for when trying to talk to an expert about your problems.

Apple renamed it the Genius Grove and added trees and seating, which gives it a more relaxed look and feel. It’s calming.

How does this scale to smaller mall stores?

  1. Speaking of which, Apple is also opening a new store in Jinan this Saturday. ↩︎

A 1-Million-Site Measurement and Analysis of Online Tracking

Steven Englehardt and Arvind Narayanan of Princeton University measured the third-party tracking scripts on the top million websites as ranked by Alexa. Some findings aren’t surprising — of the top twenty third-party domains, for example, twelve are owned by Google.

But there are some fairly new styles of tracking out there. For example:

Firefox’s third-party cookie blocking is very effective, only 237 sites (0.4%) have any third-party cookies set from a domain other than the landing page of the site. Most of these are for benign reasons, such as redirecting to the U.S. version of a non-U.S. site. We did find a handful of exceptions, including 32 that contained ID cookies. These sites appeared to be deliberately redirecting the landing page to a separate domain before redirecting back to the initial domain.

I’ve previously discussed how Criteo and AdRoll engage in this behaviour.

The HTML Canvas allows web application to draw graphics in real time, with functions to support drawing shapes, arcs, and text to a custom canvas element. Differences in font rendering, smoothing, anti-aliasing, as well as other device features cause devices to draw the image differently. This allows the resulting pixels to be used a part of a device fingerprint. […]

We found canvas fingerprinting on 14,371 sites, caused by scripts loaded from about 400 different domains.

That’s nearly 1.5% of the top million websites, from about 0.5% of all third-party trackers in the study.

Steven Englehardt followed up on Princeton’s Freedom to Tinker blog with one particularly new way a small number of websites are tracking visitors:

[…] One of our more surprising findings was the discovery of two apparent attempts to use the HTML5 Audio API for fingerprinting.

The figure is a visualization of the audio processing executed on users’ browsers by third-party fingerprinting scripts. We found two different AudioNode configurations in use. In both configurations an audio signal is generated by an oscillator and the resulting signal is hashed to create an identifier. Initial testing shows that the techniques may have some limitations when used for fingerprinting, but further analysis is necessary.

Expedia,, and Travelocity are all prepared to use audio fingerprinting, but have not actively implemented it.

It feels like those of us who value a modicum of privacy online are losing a battle against advertising and marketing technology companies. Users are overwhelmingly distrusting of the handling of their personal information by Google and Facebook; imagine how they’d react when they find out that a bunch of smaller companies they’ve never heard of are also collecting vast amounts of data.

These smaller companies are held to a different set of standards than a giant like Google because almost nobody knows they exist. What websites they’re on, what information they collect, and how that information is used often remains a complete mystery. These companies will tell critics that users can always opt-out, but it’s hard to opt out of something when its existence isn’t disclosed.

We need a stronger set of rules regarding the collection and use of personal information. Automatic opt-in should not be the default, and the ability to know what information is collected and how it’s being used ought to be significantly easier.

May 18, 2016

Google Assistant

I followed along with the Verge’s liveblog of today’s Google I/O opening keynote and, for my money, the standout announcements of the day were Home, an Echo-like always-on hardware bot, and Assistant.

Assistant looks less like a new product and more like a refinement of Google’s other voice-query virtual assistant products, but that’s setting a significantly higher bar than much of the rest of the industry. From the Verge’s liveblog:

In the US, 1 in 5 queries are voice queries. “And that share is growing.” […]

There are over a billion entities in the Knowledge Graph, Google’s super database of stuff that it understands. […]

140 billion words translated per day

It’s that kind of scale that allows Assistant to be as accurate and fast as I saw in the demoes. If you feel comfortable with the privacy tradeoffs of a product like this, it has the potential of becoming indispensable in a way that Siri wishes it were if you’re the sort of person who likes speaking with devices.

I think there are a lot of people — myself included — who will see this as a glorified phone tree, but a super-reliable always-on virtual assistant is a boon from an accessibility and general usability perspective.

One thing remains clear: there is no company that can automatically interpret words and phrases like Google can. They are setting the high watermark and, believe me, it is very high.

On the Female Gendering of Bots

Mandy Brown:

Notably, Amazon’s Alexa,’s Amy, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana have something else in common: they are all explicitly gendered as female. […] The neutral politeness that infects them all furthers that convention: women should be utilitarian, performing their duties on command without fuss or flourish. This is a vile, harmful, and dreadfully boring fantasy; not the least because there is so much extraordinary art around AI that both deconstructs and subverts these stereotypes. It takes a massive failure of imagination to commit yourself to building an artificial intelligence and then name it ‘Amy.’

Google’s Assistant, announced today at I/O, is does not have a gendered name, but the voiceover is still decidedly female.

A Collection of iTunes 12.4-Related Links

James Pinkstone, who wrote that post earlier this month about Apple Music erasing his iTunes library, was visited at home by two senior Apple engineers to try to diagnose the bug:

In the days leading up to our face-to-face encounter, they’d earned more of my trust when they acknowledged that A), they’d read the phone transcripts, and although they maintained that she was mistaken, they did not dispute my account of what Amber had told me, and B), they, too, were convinced this was not user error. […]

One of the things on which Tom, Ezra, and I seemed to agree was that Apple is not off of the hook yet. Their software failed me in a spectacular, destructive way; and since I rang that bell, many people have come forward with similar stories. Some may be a result of user error, but I have a hard time believing all are. I think Apple does, too; which is why, as of this writing, they have stated they are currently working on an iTunes update with additional safeguards added.

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch:

The iTunes update that aims to correct this problem is version 12.4, released just yesterday, TechCrunch has confirmed with sources familiar with the matter.

What’s odd is that Apple has not been able to cause music deletions to happen in internal testing. Without being able to reproduce the problem, it’s unclear at this time if the fix being shipped will actually solve this issue for good. It’s also unclear whether the issue is tied to Apple Music’s subscription service, as suspected, or if it could affect regular iTunes users as well.

In non-song-deletion news, Doug Adams of Doug’s AppleScripts for iTunes notoriety says that iTunes 12.4 includes AppleScript additions. In 2016. Miraculous.

Kirk McElhearn:

As timmorrislw points out in the comments, there’s a new iCloud Status of No Longer Available. This shows tracks that you added to your Apple Music library that record labels are no longer allowing to be streamed. It’s interesting to create a smart playlist with this condition, to find how many tracks have been removed. Previously, I had, as the comments said, a smart playlist excluding all the other statuses. Out of 16,000 tracks in my Apple Music library, 843 are no longer available.

And people wonder why I still prefer my local library.

The Ironic Loss of the Postmodern Best Store Facades

Really fascinating article from a couple of years ago, but which was surfaced this week by Vanessa Grall. Margaret McCormick writing at Failed Architecture:

In the mid 1970s, the Lewis Family (the owners and operators of catalogue company Best Products) hired Sculpture In The Environment (SITE) to create a series of facades for nine showrooms across the US. Regardless of the project’s relative financial benefits, the clients gave SITE the one thing all designers crave and fear: full creative reign. […]

What made the Best Showrooms so successful as architectural statements was the balance of spite and sincerity. SITE at the time had all the swagger and irony, but without contempt for the users or client. Going by the old Mel Brooks dogma of really loving the object of your mockery.

You just have to see the photos in the post, and more over on SITE’s website. It’s rather disappointing that such outstanding examples of architectural ingenuity and carte blanche brilliance have vanished.

‘You Were Born Here; You Bought This; You Made This; You Posted These’

Miranda July — who you may know as the creator the We Think Alone series — and Paul Ford — the amazing technology journalist responsible for What is Code? — teamed up for this year’s Seven on Seven conference. Whitney Mallett of Vice was there:

The last team to take the stage at this year’s iteration, July and Ford began telling a story with an incantatory second-person refrain. You were born here. You bought this. You made this. You posted these — all with corresponding cell phone photos, videos and screenshots projected behind them.

Mostly, though, the content was spoken. “Congratulations on learning Debussy’s Clair de Lune,” July intoned, her voice at once steady and melodic. “I think we can all agree with your mother when she says, ‘Makes me want to move the piano out in the field so you can play by the light.’”

When a crappy cellphone video of a waitress singing happy birthday played, I realized these were not fictional characters but real people. Slowly, it dawned on us who “you” was.

I found this an extraordinarily powerful meditation on what we choose to share. Our guard is slowly but certainly coming down, and we’re more comfortable than ever sharing intimate details and moments. This performance is haunting, concerning, invasive, and poetic, all at the same time.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Yourself

Jason Kottke:

I wonder if Snapchat’s intimacy is entirely due to the ephemerality and lack of a “fave-based economy”. Blogs, Flickr, Twitter, Vine, and Instagram all started off as places to be yourself, but as they became more mainstream and their communities developed behavioral norms, the output became more crafted and refined. Users flooded in and optimized for what worked best on each platform. Blogs became more newsy and less personal, Flickr shifted toward professional-style photography, Vine got funnier, and Twitter’s users turned toward carefully crafted cultural commentary and link sharing. Editing worked its way in between the making and sharing steps.

Snapchat feels, to me, a lot like Twitter in its earliest days, despite operating at a scale many times greater than that. It feels lithe and quick. You share things either publicly — to the “Story” — or privately with a handful of people, and doing either feels completely effortless.

But I see all of these social networks as places to be yourself. You don’t have to refine your tweets or hone them for what drives engagement — *sigh* — or tweak your blog posts so they’re “newsy”. It’s totally possible to be entirely yourself everywhere; I feel that I am. And, if you’re as guarded as I am, the “editing” part of the equation never leaves. Everything you publish is yourself, selectively. I don’t see Snapchat as inherently more intimate, but I do see it as more nimble, with every photo feeling like it has the same amount of mental weight as it does physical weight: zero.

May 17, 2016

MCX Postpones Rollout of CurrentC

A year and a half after its debut, CurrentC still hasn’t see a proper launch. And, as Ingrid Lunden reports for TechCrunch, it’s unlikely to do so in the future:

Merchant Customer Exchange (MCX) today announced it would postpone a nationwide rollout of CurrentC, a smartphone payment initiative originally conceived as a mobile wallet rival to smartphone-led services like Apple Pay and Android Pay. As a result, MCX said it would lay off 30 people as it shifted its focus to working with financial institutions.

So far, CurrentC was deployed to just nine retailers in Columbus, Ohio.

The accompanying statement from the CEO of MCX Brian Mooney was squirrelly enough to get a fresh PR-speak translation from John Gruber:

Utilizing unique feedback from the marketplace and our Columbus pilot, MCX has made a decision to concentrate more heavily in the immediate term on other aspects of our business including working with financial institutions, like our partnership with Chase, to enable and scale mobile payment solutions.

CurrentC is a complete and utter failure.

In a nut, yeah.

AnandTech’s iPhone SE Review

Speaking of the iPhone SE, Brandon Chester has just completed his in-depth review of the iPhone SE for AnandTech. There’s obviously a lot to digest here, but I want to highlight two sentences in particular:

It’s probably no surprise at this point, but the iPhone SE is going to be a familiar phone. With essentially the same chassis as the iPhone 5s, the iPhone SE marks the first time that Apple has used the same design in three generations of an iPhone.

I wonder if the SE is Apple’s way of setting an expectation for three generations of iPhone using the same chassis.1 Current rumours regarding this year’s big iPhone models indicate a hardware design that’s largely consistent with the current iPhone models.

  1. As far as I’m concerned, Apple can keep issuing new phones that look like the 5, 5S, and SE. What a classic piece of industrial design. ↩︎

‘Shrink It and Pink It’ Done Right

Adrianne Jeffries of Vice used the iPhone SE for a few weeks in lieu of her usual Android phone:

Using the smaller iPhone SE was delightful. My current Z5 Compact and the Z3 Compact I had before it were both excellent, premium phones, and waterproof to boot. However, the iPhone is a luxury by comparison. It was nice to use a luxury phone in my size. If I were in the market for a new phone right now, I’d seriously consider buying one. It is the only truly small high-end smartphone.


There still isn’t much choice when it comes to size for top-shelf smartphones. I’m crossing my fingers that the success of the SE turns the hypetrain the other way.

Every time I head into my local Apple Store, I fiddle around with one of the SE models on display, if I can get my hands on one — the table is often pretty full. I’m always struck by how right it feels. The display of my 6S is vastly better and I love 3D Touch, but I’ve heard of a lot of people switching back because of its size. It’s awfully tempting to do the same.

Roughly thirty million four-inch iPhones sold in 2015 should give Apple a pretty good reason to consider updating the SE (or a comparable model) annually.

May 16, 2016

Even Neil Young Isn’t Using Pono

Longtime readers will know that my favourite celebrity-driven lossless streaming pet project is not Tidal; it’s Neil Young’s Pono. Debuted in 2012 but not released until 2015, the Pono Player was Neil Young’s attempt to rescue the world from the supposedly muddy waters of other streaming music services. And, I’m just guessing here, it hasn’t been a rousing success. Christina Warren, Mashable:

But now, in an ironic twist, the first track off of Young’s latest album, EARTH, isn’t available on Pono. The track is a Tidal exclusive.

First, I’ll note that Warren’s source is Digital Music News, which we’ve briefly discussed as being, uh, unreliable. But this isn’t a rumour about Apple coming from them; it’s just news.

Second, Tidal does accomplish many of the goals with which Young launched Pono: the tracks are lossless, and the service is artist-centric. However, it isn’t available at the mega-high bit depths and sample rates as Pono, which makes it — by his own marketing — unlistenable.

Dark Patterns

Natasha Singer, New York Times:

Harry Brignull, a user-experience consultant in Britain who helps websites and apps develop consumer-friendly features, has a professional bone to pick with sites that seem to maneuver people into signing up for services they might not actually want.

He even has a name for the exploitative techniques: “dark patterns.” To him, these are debased versions of the typical sign-up, sharing, shopping, checkout and download processes that are standard practice online. […]

There’s the “sneak into basket” technique, where a retailer automatically adds products — like a magazine subscription or travel insurance — to consumers’ shopping carts and makes it hard for them to remove the unwanted items. There’s the “roach motel” or “walled-garden” technique, in which sites offer fast-and-easy sign-up processes but make it much more cumbersome for consumers to close accounts.

I, too, dislike it when companies allow you to register for or subscribe to something online, but require you to opt-out by phone or mail.

Twitter to Stop Counting Photos and Links in Character Limit

Sarah Frier, Bloomberg:

Twitter Inc. will soon stop counting photos and links in their 140-character limit for tweets, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The change could happen in the next two weeks, said the person who asked not to be named because the decision isn’t yet public. Links currently take up 23 characters, even after Twitter automatically shortens them. The company declined to comment.

Strangely absent from this scoop: any mention of also discounting @-replies and user handles. Sometimes, discussions can become deeply nested with many participants, and the character count can impede the discussion,1 particularly if it involves people with longer handles.

A counterpoint to this might be that not including user handles in the character limit could allow some jackass to spam lots more accounts at one time. I think this could be solved by limiting the number of users anyone is allowed to mention — perhaps seven to ten might be a good maximum.

  1. It’s reasonable to ask whether Twitter is a suitable platform for that kind of discussion, to which I would answer “not really, but that’s how it’s being used and Twitter’s best changes have always been driven by the community”. ↩︎

Apple Releases OS X 10.11.5, iTunes 12.4

Looks like the 10.11.5 update fixes some of the same enterprise bugs as iOS 9.3.2, while iTunes 12.4 has a slightly refreshed UI. Here’s hoping the update also fixes some of the myriad bugs I’ve filed against iTunes 12 since it was launched, though it doesn’t appear to change the integration of Apple Music much, if at all.

Update: No word on whether iTunes 12.4 includes a fix for the disappearing media bug.

Update: iTunes 12.4 fixes a bug where the Albums view would jump back to the topmost position when selecting an album if the Recently Added section was visible. It resolves this by — get this — moving the Recently Added section out of the Albums view and into its own view. I guess that’s technically a fix.

Apple Releases iOS 9.3.2

Remember that FairPlay bug that was preventing me — and, presumably, at least a few other people — from using native watchOS apps? You probably remember it as the thing I kept mentioning until Apple paid attention to it. Well, this is a bug fix nearly a year in the making: iOS 9.3.2 resolves it. And they don’t even mention this in the release notes.

For those of you with an iPhone SE, or if you want to use Night Shift and low battery mode at the same time, this update fixes issues there too.

Update: Mayur Dhaka:

Meanwhile launching the camera still pauses your music. One would think it isn’t a complicated fix.

One day, listening to music while taking a photo will once again be possible. I have hope.

Update: Apparently, this update is bricking some 9.7-inch iPad Pro models with an “error 56” message. Out with one debilitating bug; in with another.

May 15, 2016

Jason Scott Is Archiving Thousands of Hip-Hop Mixtapes

Jason Scott:

There’s parody, there’s aggrandizement, and there’s every attempt to draw in the listeners in what is a pretty large pile of material floating around. I can listen to some of it, but not really much before I ‘get it’.

But it’s not about my personal preferences in music – it’s about the fact this whole set of material has meaning, reality and relevance to many, many people.

The web is old enough that links regularly rot,1 but young enough that we haven’t quite figured out how to deal with preserving this data. The Internet Archive is an invaluable resource that comfortably, if unofficially, fills this gap.

  1. Slide “Contempt for the Past”. ↩︎

May 13, 2016

When Worse Is Better

Good post from Daniel Jalkut, on how Amazon’s relatively limited feature set for the Alexa family makes it less susceptible to disappointment than Siri. He compares it to the handwriting recognition software that was in the Newton and Palm Pilots in the ’90’s:

By dramatically diminishing the magic of its handwriting recognition technology, Palm dramatically increased its reliability. Users seemed to appreciate this compromise, as Newton sputtered, and Palm Pilots went on to define the whole genre of hand-held digital assistants.

It’s like the uncanny valley, but in terms of capability rather than human likeness. Unfortunately, once the threshold has been crossed, there’s no place to go but up. Apple isn’t going to strip functionality from Siri; they now need to make it vastly more capable and reliable at the same time. It’s a good thing third-party developers will soon be able to help them out with that, so I hear.

Apple Has Dramatically Reduced App Review Time

Federico Viticci, MacStories:

Apple appears to be shortening review times for new app and update submissions to the App Store. According to data collected by independent app review tracking website AppReviewTimes and as reported by Bloomberg today, review times have approached 2 days as opposed to the 7-10 days it took Apple to review apps in the past.

If this keeps up, there are going to be some happy developers at WWDC this year.

May 12, 2016

Apple Invests $1B in Didi Chuxing, China’s Uber

Yeah — a billion dollars, with a B. Julia Love, Reuters:

The investment gives Apple, which has hired dozens of automotive experts over the past year, a sizeable stake in Uber Technologies Inc’s chief rival in China. [Tim] Cook said in an interview that he sees opportunities for Apple and Didi Chuxing to collaborate in the future.

“We are making the investment for a number of strategic reasons, including a chance to learn more about certain segments of the China market,” he said. “Of course, we believe it will deliver a strong return for our invested capital over time as well.”

A casual observer of Apple-related rumours will remember their ongoing electric car project, and could potentially see some good tie-in here. Maybe a way to mass-test electronics or some sort of automated hailing service.

I have no On the other hand… speculation. That’s pretty much it, plus a way to gain some major brownie points with China’s regulators.

Automattic to Offer .blog TLD

Mark Armstrong of Automattic:

Automattic — the parent company of — secured the rights to oversee and operate the sale and registration of .blog domains, a new and never-before available top-level domain. You’ll be able to purchase a .blog domain at or through our partner domain name registrars. And again, the .blog domain will be available to everyone, regardless of what kind of site you have or who hosts it.

ICANN’s decision to allow private companies to own and control generic top-level domains was incredibly short-sighted. I think it will backfire in the not-too-distant future.

That said, I’d rather Automattic control .blog than Google. I linked to a great article by Drew Crawford last year, but it’s just as relevant today:

My point is that if you think Google is some kind of Patron Saint of the Open Web, shit son. Tim Cook on his best day could not conceive of a dastardly plan like this. This is a methodical, coordinated, long-running and well-planned attack on the open web that comes from the highest levels of Google leadership.

Google was planning on using .dev for internal Google use alone, and making .blog available exclusively to Blogspot users. At least Automattic allows anyone to register a domain, regardless of their platform choice.

On Using Digital Music News as a Source

Remember yesterday? Remember that weird rumour that said that Apple was planning on killing iTunes music sales within a couple of years? Michael Rockwell looked into the source:

I did some digging on a few Apple rumor sites — MacRumors, AppleInsider, and 9 to 5 Mac — to see how accurate Digital Music News’ reporting has been on companies’ future plans. I was only able to find three instances of original reporting from the site. The published rumors pertained to Spotify and Apple, but none of these stories were proven true.

Digital Music News can sit conveniently next to Digitimes both on an alphabetic scale, and a reliability scale.

Mistrust of Facebook’s Trending Topics

Facebook is having a bit of a rough week. On Monday, Michael Nunez of Gizmodo published a report in which a former Facebook employee alleged that the company actively suppressed conservative topics:

This individual says that workers prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential section, even though they were organically trending among the site’s users.

Several former Facebook “news curators,” as they were known internally, also told Gizmodo that they were instructed to artificially “inject” selected stories into the trending news module, even if they weren’t popular enough to warrant inclusion—or in some cases weren’t trending at all.

This has made some waves, to put it mildly. There are two different stories here: that news stories of interest to conservatives are deliberately being omitted, and that non-trending stories are manually being included. Happily, they can largely be addressed together thanks to a great scoop for the Guardian’s Sam Thielman:

Leaked documents show how Facebook, now the biggest news distributor on the planet, relies on old-fashioned news values on top of its algorithms to determine what the hottest stories will be for the 1 billion people who visit the social network every day. […]

[The] documents show that the company relies heavily on the intervention of a small editorial team to determine what makes its “trending module” headlines – the list of news topics that shows up on the side of the browser window on Facebook’s desktop version. The company backed away from a pure-algorithm approach in 2014 after criticism that it had not included enough coverage of unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in users’ feeds.

Facebook’s statement that they “do not insert stories artificially into trending topics, and do not instruct our reviewers to do so” is, therefore, wrong. According to this document, there is near-constant manual human intervention to blend similar topics together, add topics to the list, remove topics when they become stale, and make all kinds of adjustments.

But are they suppressing conservative news? The document obtained by the Guardian doesn’t say that, but it does clarify a topic’s eligibility for newsworthiness:

You should mark a topic as ‘National Story’ importance if it is among the 1-3 top stories of the day […] We measure this by checking if it is leading at least 5 of the following 10 news websites: BBC News, CNN, Fox News, The Guardian, NBC News, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Yahoo News or Yahoo.

That list of websites is pretty old-guard, and there’s nothing to suggest that it’s deliberately omitting conservative viewpoints or news. As Fusion’s Kashmir Hill says, it might simply be a quality barrier:

Regarding these particular topics being omitted by curators, New York Magazine’s Brian Feldman writes, “Given that list of overlooked topics, which range from IRS conspiracy theories, to an unreliable news aggregator, to a brutally unfunny conservative comedian, can you blame them?” […]

[What] that suggests is that Facebook preferred that news come from non-biased sources. Which is not a crazy thing to do. And it suggests that the bias might exist for news from the other side of the aisle as well, but it seems that Gizmodo didn’t rigorously assess whether liberal news and news sources were ignored by curators.

This story has understandably riled up reliably conservative media personalities, but it’s only newsworthy if Nunez did his due-dilligence to examine whether conservative stories were singled out.

Whatever the case, it’s clear that what remains unanswered is Facebook’s responsibility for its new status as one of the top referrers to any major news site. Brian Stelter for CNN:

Facebook has a unique ability to turn on a firehose of traffic — and the ability to turn it off. Publishers may not live or die by Facebook alone, but they certainly thrive or struggle based on the company’s decisions.

So Gizmodo’s recent reports about the production of Facebook’s ‘trending” stories have gained a ton of attention. Journalists, academics and some average users want to understand how and why Facebook does what it does.

This isn’t exclusive to Facebook; Google, Twitter, and Apple all have their own ways of displaying ostensibly algorithmically-determined trending news stories. All of them also lack transparency in how these stories are determined.

Update: Facebook has officially published the 2016 version of the document leaked to the Guardian. There are some redactions, but they appear to be nothing more than internal points of contact. Meanwhile, Sarah Emerson of Vice ponders whether Facebook lied in its earlier press statement.

The Natural History of Palatino

Jennifer Kennard (via Coudal Partners):

The Book Club of California has announced the release of a definitive account of Herman Zapf’s enduring typeface Palatino, written and designed by Canadian poet, historian, linguist, typographer, and book designer, Robert Bringhurst. Published nearly a year after Zapf’s death at age 96, Palatino, The Natural History of a Typeface, explores the evolution of his most ambitious design project; from his original sketches in 1948, to the first trial cutting of Palatino roman at the Stempel Foundry in 1949, and to the last authentic digitally drawn members of the family which Zapf himself carefully supervised just ten years ago.

Palatino is one of my favourite type families; I even used it on this very website at one point. The book isn’t inexpensive, as you can imagine, but it looks absolutely tremendous. It’s going on my wish list.

May 11, 2016

Emoji, Racism, and Entitlement

There’s a chain of articles that I stumbled through today with all the grace of someone falling down a flight of stairs, angrily cursing with each bounce.

An article by Andrew McGill of the Atlantic was the originator:

When they were first launched in 2015, emoji skin tones corrected an obvious wrong. Previously, if a black man or a Latino woman wanted to text a friend the thumbs-up emoji on an iPhone, a white hand would show up. The Unicode Consortium’s solution made the new default color a Simpsons yellow and allowed users to tint certain emoji with one of five skin tones, ranging from “pale white” to “darkest brown.” […]

But as emoji with skin tones spread to Twitter, Facebook, and workplace chat applications like Slack, I noticed something I hadn’t expected: While I saw plenty of Thumbs up and Thumbs up, almost no one I knew used the lightest skin tone, or even the second-lightest. Indeed, as a white man who tends to be either pale or sunburnt, I had never considered using it myself. When I did switch briefly to the lightest tone at work, it felt… weird. […]

Perhaps the squeamishness on the part of whites has more to do with the acknowledgement that only white people hold this special privilege; to use the white emoji is to express a solidarity with people of color that does not exist.

So far, this makes sense: depending on the context, using white emoji can either feel like a way to represent your own skin tone, or it can feel oppressive for the reasons elucidated by McGill.

Here’s where this whole thing breaks down:

When white people opt out of racemoji in favor of the “default” yellow, those symbols become even more closely associated with whiteness — and the notion that white is the only raceless color.

Eli Schiff adds:

It follows that in using a yellow emoji, a white person is presuming whiteness as a default, and therefore reinforcing racist prejudice by preferring whiteness to be the default signifier.

And John Gruber, too:

I’ve been wondering about the decision to use yellow ever since iOS started supporting the skin tone variants. It still seems “sort of white”, in a way that a Smurf-y blue or Hulk-y green would not.

I’ve never questioned the choice of yellow as the default emoji colour primarily because it’s the generic colour assigned to little smiley faces since we called them “emoticons” or “smileys” back in the days of iChat, AIM, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger.

Andrew Yang:

That white people think yellow emoji are white seems more a problem of entitlement and appropriation than of yellow emoji.

Perfectly said. In no sense is the colour yellow presumed to be representative of whiteness, or even race as a whole. It is cartoonishly unrealistic, serving only to enhance the emotion, not to convey any kind of racial characteristics.

Where Schiff’s post goes off the rails — and why I’m surprised Gruber linked to it — is where he paints white people as being oppressed by all this:

It is therefore quite strange that yellow (white) emoji were set as the default, given that not assuming all users to be white was the entire premise behind making the new diverse set of emoji. In this way, the Unicode Consortium’s efforts to achieve a more inclusive solution only served to doubly reinforce a racism of defaults. […]

It is not simply that it is problematic for whites to use the white emoji, but so too is it racist for them to use the brown shades and the yellow default. In sum, it is racist for whites to use any emoji.

There are two choices going forward: either white users should refrain from using emoji, or an alternative default must be drawn. Perhaps green, blue or purple would be an ideal choice as they don’t have racial connotations.

What utter horse shit.

The initial emoji spec was white-only, and the change to yellow as a default and the addition of other skin tones was an inclusive move. The idea that white people are, for some reason, racially persecuted by emoji and are left with no choice but to not use them is nonsense.

Furthermore, the universal choice of yellow is not by accident and is not defined by the spec. Microsoft’s race-neutral colour of choice was grey, but that was ugly. It could be green or blue, but that would just look ridiculous, wouldn’t it?

Use whatever you like while being cognizant of its context. And don’t be a racist dick. It’s not hard.


Update: More grey Microsoft emoji, which they’ve since updated to be — big surprise — yellow by default.

Update: The screenshot that Schiff includes purportedly showing that the default yellow left-facing hand is considered “white” by Unicode was taken out of context.

Update: Per Ken Weingold in a Slack chat, the yellow smiley face originates with Harvey Ball in 1963. I’d say that the yellow instant messenger emoticons and today’s yellow emoji simply reference that, and nothing more.

Update: Fine, I’ll tackle one more thing that’s been nagging me since publishing this. Schiff closes his “Racemoji” post so:

This is an example of the meaningful political and cultural dilemmas that designers would not have had to consider 40 years ago. Back then, we had more homogenous societies, so inclusive representation was a less pressing concern. Now, designers must be more considerate and take seriously the power of defaults.

This has been biting at me since I read the initial post, but I’ve been having a hard time coming up with an adequate response.

Forty years ago, people of other races still existed; they were, however, ignored and persecuted. We should have treated everyone equally then, but we didn’t. We still don’t, as evidenced by the first white-only rollout of emoji.

It’s not “considerate” to recognize that there are non-white people in the world. It’s not even basic decency. It should be an expectation.

Schiff has updated his post to include Google’s proposal (PDF) for more gender-equal emoji, particularly in regards to the suite of characters that reflect specific professions. Again, this should have been a given. However, as tech companies remain dominated by white men, consideration of different ethnicities and genders remains an afterthought.

The Panic Sign

Cabel Sasser is rightfully proud of Panic’s new(-ish) sign. I wish the tenant on the opposite side of the street would install a webcam, though, because it would be cool to see the colours change.

Instagram’s New Icon

Now there are three words I didn’t expect to be writing before we’re all using holographic interfaces or something.

Armin Vit:

The ensuing shitstorm on the internet today will be epic. About 75% of the negative reaction will be simply to the fact that it has changed and the other 25% will be to the not-quite-fact that there is a generic aesthetic to the new icon where it could be a “camera” icon for the upcoming smart microwave from Apple or whatever other user interface you would imagine. This is not to say it’s a bad-looking icon, no… as far as camera icons go, this is quite lovely and has the minimal amount of elements necessary to be recognized as a camera BUT not the minimal amount of elements necessary to be recognized as Instagram.

I think Vit nailed it with that last sentence. While I like the icon with its insane gradient orgy,1 I’m not seeing it as Instagram — yet. It lacks any sort of tie or bond to the old icon in shape, colour, or — blessedly — style. And this is something they solved while they were working on this refresh; I grabbed this still of one of the rejected icons from Instagram’s announcement video. It feels less like an update to bring it in alignment with the rest of the icons on my home screen and more like an entire rebrand. To my eye, though, the “Instagram” script running across the top of the app remains untouched.

The app itself received a black-and-white refresh, too, and I’m a fan. After seeing that bright blue bar every day for the past five-and-a-half years, I didn’t notice how much it distracted from the photo feed until it was removed. The adjustment tool icons are particularly well-drawn.

Update: Do yourself a favour and check your push notification preferences. I found a bunch of things that I previously had switched off were back on again.

Update: If you’re wondering what the icon sounds like, I got the Yams to make me a playlist.

  1. The gradient’s palette might be a bit much. ↩︎

May 10, 2016

Criteo and AdRoll, the Web’s Cookie Monsters

If you shop on the web as much as I do and you use Safari, you’ve probably come across this notice sliding into the bottom of your browser window:

Your browser blocks some 3rd party cookies by default. By clicking on this page you allow our partner Criteo to place its cookies and serve personalized ads. You can read more or disable Criteo ads here. This notice only appears once.

I’ve seen this banner on the websites of retailers ranging in size from boutiques to major brands, and it seemed a little bit fishy to me with its super careful wording. So I did a bit of digging.

Let’s unpack that statement a little bit at a time. First, who is “[their] partner Criteo”? To get a complete picture of exactly who Criteo is and what they do, I started where anyone would — on their about page:

Unlike the vast majority of the market, we use a transparent cost-per-click model and we measure value purely on post-click sales. This demanding model is supported by ongoing, automated learning of each shopper wherever they are in mobile apps or online, along with your campaign’s performance against thousands of variations of dynamically-created ads.

Criteo are, in short, an advertising technology firm with a retargeting product. That’s nothing particularly special; there are dozens of companies that do that, as amply demonstrated by this aneurysm-inducing chart.

But Criteo has another trick up their proverbial sleeves. At the end of 2013, they got some press for a feature dubbed their “mobile web solution”. Judith Aquino of Ad Exchanger explains:

Similar to their desktop counterparts, mobile browsers handle first- and third-party cookies in different ways. Google’s mobile Chrome browser, for example, allows all cookies by default and allows users to switch to more restrictive options. Apple’s mobile Safari browser accepts cookies from sites users have visited (i.e., first-party cookies) and blocks third-party cookies by default, though users can change their privacy settings.

And while Mozilla announced early this year that it was experimenting with blocking third-party cookies from its mobile Firefox browser, the company has since delayed this plan.

[Chief product officer Jonathan Wolf] declined to discuss in detail how Criteo navigates the browsers’ various criteria but pointed out that after releasing its mobile web solution to a handful of customers in late September, the company claims to have delivered “at least two billion” mobile ads among 20 countries.

This, rather conveniently, brings me to the first sentence in that notice you see when visiting a Criteo-enabled website: “Your browser blocks some 3rd party cookies by default”. As Aquino explained, different browsers treat cookies differently by default. Safari and Mobile Safari behave a little differently than Chrome or Firefox by default, in that they disallow third-party cookies other than those from sites navigated to by the user.

For example, if you’ve never visited in Safari but you read a news site that has a Facebook “Like” button, Facebook will be unable to set its cookies. If you have visited at some point, it will be able to set cookies via that news site. Other browsers behave differently by default, insomuch as they will allow Facebook to set cookies via that news site, even if you’ve never visited Facebook.

This default setting presents a problem for Criteo. While an average user can be expected to have visited Facebook at some time in their browsing history, almost nobody will knowingly visit or their ad server addresses. Furthermore, while desktop Safari does not represent a significant share of the global web browser market, Mobile Safari does. For Criteo’s ad targeting platform to work, they need to be able to set a cookie, and Safari is configured by default to disallow this behaviour — unless Criteo somehow forces users to visit their site.

And that’s the next part of that notice:

By clicking on this page you allow our partner Criteo to place its cookies and serve personalized ads.

Criteo relies upon a couple of small pieces of JavaScript to work. As with most scripts on the web — particularly those from companies that collect and process visitor data — it’s compacted and obfuscated, which makes it a little tricky to read.

Here’s what happens: when visiting a site that includes Criteo’s scripts, a bit of browser sniffing happens. If it’s a Safari variant — and only Safari — Criteo rewrites the internal links on the page to redirect through their domain, and it looks something like this:

The user is then sent to their intended destination page, and Criteo’s cookies are allowed to be set. All that’s needed is that split-second redirect for the first link clicked on the site.

Before I continue, I’d like to be perfectly clear: there’s nothing inherently nefarious about cookies, even those from third parties. They can be used to set language settings, store shopping cart data, or provide other services on a user-specific level.

But what Criteo is doing here is in direct violation of Safari users’ browser settings, whether they’re set explicitly or by default.

If this feels like deja vu to you, you’re not wrong. Between 2011 and 2012, Google did its best to work around Safari’s default privacy settings, too, according to the Wall Street Journal:

Last year, Google added a feature to put the +1 button in ads placed across the Web using Google’s DoubleClick ad technology. The idea: If people like the ad, they could click “+1” and post their approval to their Google social-networking profile.

But Google faced a problem: Safari blocks most tracking by default. So Google couldn’t use the most common technique—installation of a small file known as a “cookie”—to check if Safari users were logged in to Google.

To get around Safari’s default blocking, Google exploited a loophole in the browser’s privacy settings. While Safari does block most tracking, it makes an exception for websites with which a person interacts in some way—for instance, by filling out a form. So Google added coding to some of its ads that made Safari think that a person was submitting an invisible form to Google. Safari would then let Google install a cookie on the phone or computer.

Google settled this case last year for $17 million and increased oversight, without admitting any wrongdoing.

Criteo is not the only company circumventing Safari’s default restrictions — indeed, the Journal report cites a few other advertisers that used similar methods as Google. The comparison is particularly strong; Criteo also appears to explicitly target Safari users. I disabled third-party cookies in Chrome and Firefox, then visited sites known to incorporate Criteo. I was not presented with the banner notice.

All of the above is applicable to AdRoll’s retargeting scripts as well; they have a comparable method for evading Safari’s restrictions on third-party cookies. (AdRoll competes with Criteo in the retargeting space. Though lots of companies might have similar behaviour, I’m picking on these two because they’re pervasive and growing.)

The difference between what Google was caught and fined for doing and what Criteo and AdRoll are doing today is that the latter present users with a notice. However, I don’t think it’s as forthcoming as they make it seem.

For one, it’s hard to say whether the technical knowledge of most users is adequate enough to make an informed decision about first- and third-party cookies. In most cases, I do not believe users have enough information to make a decision.

Second, the opt-out setup that both ad tech companies have created — like other Ad Choices opt-outs — requires a cookie from those providers. When it expires or you clear your cookies, it will be assumed that you’ve opted back into their tracking. Update: Peter Clark at AdRoll has asked that I clarify that the banner will appear again, rather than immediately opting you in.

To make matters worse, a service both companies promote is their cross-device targeting feature “across browsers, devices, and apps”. The message is simple: Criteo will follow you everywhere, so be sure to opt out on every device and browser you regularly use.

And then there’s the implied message of the banner notice: you can either opt into retargeted advertising, or you can fuck off. Oh, and — as the banner says — the notice only appears once. Blink, and you’ll miss it.

Happily, there is a solution to this and other deceptive cookie practices. In your browser’s cookie settings, choose to allow cookies from the current website only. Additionally, you can block and using the JavaScript Blacklist extension for Safari, or the built-in JavaScript blocker in Chrome.

Alas, these are solutions that require a reasonably high level of foreknowledge. Most users will never know about these scripts and never understand what they do. And, as a result, two companies that most people have never heard of will amass a large amount of browsing data that most people would never elect to provide if given an honest choice.

All Five Major Canadian Banks to Support Apple Pay

Igor Bonifacic, MobileSyrup:

Early this morning, Apple significantly expanded the number of payment options Apple Pay supports in Canada, and announced that it plans to add even more Canadian banks in the coming months.


Support for Bank of Montreal, TD Canada Trust and Scotiabank debit and credit cards will be added in the coming months, according to an Apple spokesperson. […]

While TD Canada Trust declined to provide a specific launch date for Apple Pay support, the financial institution said “we mean weeks away” in an email sent to MobileSyrup.

Shit. So close, yet still so far. (I use TD.)

Launching without the initial support of TD is a little weird — so many Canadians use TD that it would be like launching without support for Chase in the United States.

Even so, this represents a huge step forward for Apple Pay in Canada, where we already have loads of contactless terminals. It’s also significant in that Apple Pay will be supporting Interac cards, our bank consortium-led debit payment system. We use Interac all the time; not supporting it would have been a notable omission.

May 9, 2016

Siri Creators Debut Viv

Caitlin McGarry, Macworld:

Right now, Viv is an iOS app, though it won’t always be. You open the app and ask the assistant questions or issue commands. These can range from basic queries like what the weather forecast looks like, which Viv quickly answers with Weather Underground data, or as complex as, “Send Adam $20 for last night,” and Venmo handles the transaction. You don’t have to have these apps installed for Viv to work on your behalf. […]

While most voice assistants or bots have to be programmed with preselected responses to specific queries and pull from one domain at a time, Viv’s software figures out the intent of your question and writes itself. In response to a question like, “Will it be warmer than 70 degrees at the Golden Gate Bridge after 5 p.m. the day after tomorrow?” Viv write a 44-point program to answer with Weather Underground data, but it can combine data from several different sources to respond to a question in seconds.

Last week, Elizabeth Dwoskin of the Washington Post got an early preview of Viv:

The two [founders Dag Kittlaus and Adam Cheyer] faced a similar choice six years ago, when Jobs offered to buy their little-known app and distribute it to millions of people. Jobs took them to his home in Palo Alto, and the group talked for three hours by the fireplace. They left his home convinced that they shared a vision. It didn’t turn out quite that way.

Today Kittlaus and Cheyer find themselves in a similar position: Do they sell to a giant or go at it alone?

If this works even half as well in real life as it does in this demo, that’s going to set a very high benchmark for other companies’ virtual assistants. But, if Viv remains a third-party app, there’s no way it will have meaningful usage when compared to first-party assistants like Google Now and Siri.

According to Dwoskin’s article, Google has already made an acquisition offer. If Apple’s not trying to get Siri to these levels on their own, they’d be foolish not to at least try to woo Viv.

Update: Apple just happened to debut a Siri-focused ad today, which opens with Neil Patrick Harris requesting that Siri read him a note in a particularly stilted voice, and closes with Harris saying “I’ll be a lot more natural”. Make of that what you will.

May 6, 2016

The Future of Food, According to Silicon Valley

Maya Kosoff of Vanity Fair:

Venture capitalists can probably see themselves purchasing a Juicero and keeping it on their countertops, just another gadget in their toy chest. A single, working-class mom in the Midwest wouldn’t see the point. The median American household income is about $53,657; if you’re buying a Juicero for yourself and using it to make one $8 green juice seven times a week, you’re spending about 7 percent of your annual income on a juicer. The $700 Juicero does exactly one thing with its proprietary bagged fresh produce: juice those specific blends of fruits and vegetables. A $50 food processor does a number of tasks at a fraction of the cost. Starry-eyed venture capitalists may think they’re revolutionizing the agricultural business, but in reality, they’re providing luxury services to a sliver of the top 10 percent of people in a handful of cities.

According to Gallup’s polling in the past ten years, between 15–20% of American adults struggled to afford food. The groups disproportionately most affected were black, Hispanic, and women.

See Also: Keurig’s struggle to make an environmentally-friendly version of their gross single-serving coffee pods.

3D Printing the Void

Evan Malmgren, writing for the Awl:

As the longtime poster child and one-time presumptive standard-bearer of small-scale “additive manufacturing” — the technical name for the process of 3D printing, which adds rather than strips away material — MakerBot’s rapid rise and equally blistering crash has mapped closely onto the public’s expectations of the technology. The desktop 3D industry is far from dead, but MakerBot’s difficulties are rooted in a broader contraction of the consumer market. The gatekeepers of viral tech-hype have largely stopped trumpeting consumer 3D printers as a revolutionary technology. Now that the dust is beginning to settle on the MakerBot saga, it seems like a good time to ask: what was all the hype about?

In some science fiction utopia, we’d create the physical objects we need from materials that were obtained in ethically-sound and environmentally-responsible ways, putting an end to rampant consumption and greatly increasing our ability to do things ourselves.

Of course, the word “utopia” has its roots in the Ancient Greek words for “no” and “place” — that is, a utopia cannot exist.

What’s the Yams?

I’ve always loved music. From a very young age, creating and listening to music has been an integral part of my life, and it remains so. So, you’ll understand if this is a bit long-winded — music matters a great deal to me.

I’ve carefully built an iTunes library from the time that I bought my first iPod in 2005 with music discovered in lots of different ways, from automated services like to personal recommendations from friends and family.

One of the services I’ve long used is Apple’s Genius feature, built into iTunes since 2008. Since its introduction, I’ve provided Apple with the entire contents of my library on a weekly basis.

So it will come as no surprise to you that I have not been entirely enamoured with the recommendations provided in the “For You” section of Apple Music. For the uninitiated, Apple Music functions entirely separately from its iTunes precursor. It uses a different library of music — though they’re almost identical — with a separate cloud storage mechanism. Even its recommendation engine is detached from iTunes, which means the past seven years of data about my library is completely forgotten.

And that, in a nut, explains why I keep seeing “Intro To…” playlists for Nine Inch Nails, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Modest Mouse, Burial, Deftones, and other artists for which I have every record they’ve made. iTunes, by way of Genius, knows this. While I have listened to every song from those records at least once, iTunes knows which songs I skip regularly and which songs I’ll listen to time and time again. But Genius doesn’t talk to Apple Music, which is why my recommendations are inconsistent and frustrating, despite tapping the little heart icon on everything I enjoy.

Other algorithm-based suggestion services have also found me wanting. Perhaps it’s because computers interpret patterns differently than you or I might, making it difficult for them to be programmed to suggest music we might like, but not necessarily in a way that’s directly related to something we already enjoy.

So I’ve been hunting for a new way to find new music, but it can be hard. Everyone has different tastes and approaches new music with different expectations. You may have a multifaceted aural palette, but you may also be exploring a genre or artist for the first time. Other people may prefer very specific sub-genres of music.

From the time I got my first iPod, I’ve been reading industry publications, scrobbling my played songs, jumped between a bunch of grey-area music blogs, and juggling a bunch of other ways of surfacing new music. But all of these things require a considerable time investment that I don’t necessarily have any more. I don’t want to have to train anything either. I just want to listen to great tunes.

There is not a universal solution, I don’t think, but I’ve found something that gets pretty close to perfection. It’s called the Yams. I’ve been using it for the past few months, I think it’s terrific, and I think you should know about it. And that worries me a little bit, for reasons I’ll get into.

I’ve said some critical things about algorithmic playlist builders, but I’ll add one more to the pile: they feel pretty anodyne. By contrast, personal recommendations from a friend or a knowledgable record store clerk feel, well, personal. These are people who know their shit, they know what you like, and they’re giving you an earnest opinion. And I love that.

Along the range of almost entirely algorithmic recommendation engines — iTunes Genius or, for instance — to completely personalized — like that one friend of yours who always knows the best new stuff — the Yams feels entirely new because of how close it gets to the latter. The user experience is what defines this; the Yams exists entirely through text message conversations with a real person.

I was introduced to one of the service operators in a welcome text. His name is Miguel, he makes music as the Miserable Chillers, and he writes for Ad Hoc.1 Good start. Here’s the first conversation I had:

What kind of music would you like to hear?

I have a varied taste in music, though I typically stay out of the top 40. I’d like to listen to more interesting rock (of all genres, with the exception of chugging post-grunge and anything much louder than Deftones or Mastodon), and more interesting hip-hop and rap (I love Kendrick, Kanye, RTJ, and Odd Future). Plus, anything experimental and weird you can think of.

Cool. We can definitely dish out some weird stuff. Do you use any streaming services?

Apple Music and Spotify.

I kind of lied here — I have a Spotify account, but I haven’t used it since Apple Music launched, and I discontinued my premium subscription as soon as I received my first bill from Apple.

Perfect. We’ll get back to you soon, Nick.

A little over half an hour later, I was sent a link to a personalized Spotify playlist: “Y.O.D. – N. Heer”.2 As it was an introductory playlist and I provided a wide swathe of genres and artists, I received ten tracks that span the gamut. A mix of bluesy rock, electronic bleep-bloop stuff, some great indie hip-hop, and a little fuzzy psychedelia played for a little over forty minutes, and it was wonderful.

Every so often since, I’ve sent Miguel a text with a request for a new playlist. Last month, I was working a little late and I asked for a playlist based on Burial. A couple hours later, I received nine tracks that were completely in the same vein. Yes, there were some gimmes in there — Four Tet and Zomby — but they also popped in some XXXY and FaltyDL, both of which I’d never heard of before and thoroughly enjoyed.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I wanted a playlist to match the weather, based on my previous requests. I got back a truly excellent melancholic playlist that was blessedly free of Bon Iver and Death Cab. Don’t get me wrong — I dig both of those artists, but I’ve heard enough “rainy day” playlists that feature them.

I think that gets to the crux what I’ve enjoyed most about the recommendations from the Yams. On other services, especially more algorithmic ones, songs and artists that are popular will tend to be recommended more often, thus becoming even more popular. The playlists I’ve received from the Yams, on the other hand, have been chock full of interesting, off-the-wall tracks that I haven’t heard before. It’s truly music discovery.

The other thing that makes it so great is the user experience. The conversational aspect of it is what helps it feel so much like asking for new music suggestions from a friend.

So why am I worried about the Yams? I have a hard time seeing how the text messaging and personalized service will scale to work with a very large user base. I want to tell everyone about it because it is truly great and innovative, but I worry that this thing that I use and love will become saturated and lose that personalized quality. In some ways, that’s already happening a little — I have occasionally felt the need to text a reminder when a playlist I requested was seemingly forgotten about.

I wanted to know more about this, so I asked Miguel who I could talk to. He suggested I email the founder and CEO of the Yams, Shannon Connolly; yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak with her by phone.

She told me that they’re structured to deal with scale. Front-line operators like Miguel, Connor Hanwick, and herself dispatch playlist requests to contributors who know what they’re talking about. Every contributor has a generally great level of music knowledge, but they all have their own areas of specialty: some are into funk and soul, while others are metalheads.

Not only does this help with scalability, it also allows for a future personalized recommendation service for pretty much anything. Want to know what book to read next or movie to watch? At some point the future, you’ll be able to text them about those kinds of media as well.

One of the things Shannon and I talked about at length was the advantage of the personalized user experience. While the Yams uses bots to automatically reply for generic messages — such as when a request is made outside of business hours — all of the interactions that occur while making a request are with an actual human being. That means that your time is not spent fighting with a bot.

The humanity of the service also creates a deeper level of interaction. Shannon told me that they’ve had users text them about specific moments in their life, like breakups, getting married, or being fired from their job. I can see another advantage to this if you want a playlist that specifically omits some songs or artists.

Aside from my concerns about scalability, the only downside I can think of is that it’s not an always-available service, as I alluded to above. It relies upon human operators, so it only really works within business hours, and it does take minutes-to-hours for a playlist to be created. So if it’s 11 PM on a Sunday, there’s little chance you’re getting that emergency study session playlist. (You can add “URGENT” to a request, but there’s no guarantee.) Their organizational structure allows them the flexibility of adding more contributors and operators around the world, so this should be alleviated.

But I think that’s okay. The Yams doesn’t feel like it’s set up to be the sole place where you find music to listen to. It’s the thing you turn to when you need something new and different. Miguel is the guy who recommends new music to me when I ask. I’ve never met him, but he knows what I like to listen to. That’s pretty cool.

The Yams is currently in a private beta, but they’re adding new users all the time. You can register on their website.

  1. The Yams has lots of contributors who actually build the playlists. Among them are: Vlad Sepetov, who has worked with a ton of great artists and designed the album covers for “To Pimp a Butterfly”, “untitled unmastered”, and “Oxymoron”; Jim Macnie, who has worked for Downbeat Magazine, VH1, and Billboard; and Peggy Wang, a founding editor of Buzzfeed. ↩︎

  2. I tapped the ‘Open Spotify’ button from the short link and nothing happened. I realized that I had deleted the Spotify app, so I redownloaded it and opened up the playlist.

    Because I no longer had a premium account, I was shown a minute-long video ad before I could play anything. Video seems a little heavy-handed, but I’m okay with ads on the free version. It’s free, after all.

    I tried tapping a song to start the playlist and then remembered that Spotify Free runs in shuffle mode only. That’s fine, I guess — I’ll just listen to the playlist on shuffle.

    Imagine my surprise when the first song that started playing didn’t seem like it fit my tastes, and I didn’t remember seeing it in the playlist. It turns out that the free version of Spotify mixes ‘suggested’ tracks with those from the playlist, even if they’re not entirely compatible.

    Imagine if you were a first-time Spotify listener, and you were exploring the various streaming music services available before committing to one. And imagine that the first song you heard on Spotify was not one in the playlist you selected, but was seemingly chosen at random. Not a good impression.

    So I added premium to my Spotify account, and tried again.3 And I was very, very happy. ↩︎

  3. Is it redundant to pay for two streaming music services? Yes, very. And I’d love to drop at least one of them. But Apple Music is integrated into iOS and if I turn it off, I’ll start seeing an invasive interstitial ad. It’s almost worth paying $10 every month simply so I don’t have to see an ad in a core app in my OS. I see that ad as one of the most inelegant and inept decisions Apple made in the past year.

    Meanwhile, I use Spotify very rarely, but as I don’t have iCloud Music Library turned on, it’s the only way I can save playlists and songs for offline listening. ↩︎

May 5, 2016

Ten Months of Apple Music

Alex Webb, Lucas Shaw, and Adam Santarino broke the news of an impending revamp of Apple Music for Bloomberg:

Apple is altering the user interface of Apple Music to make it more intuitive to use, according to people familiar with the product who asked not to be identified because the plans aren’t public. Apple also plans to better integrate its streaming and download businesses and expand its online radio service, the people said.

Mark Gurman added his own reporting:

While the most of the Apple Music service will be redesigned, much of the emphasis is on the “For You” feature, the tab that recommends songs, albums, artists, and music videos. This section will be simplified and better promoted to increase usage of the feature. While the interface will change, the functionality will use algorithms similar to today’s Apple Music recommendations engine, according to sources. The new service will also discontinue the “New” tab, which is a jumbled list of top charts, genres, featured music launches, and curated playlists. It will be replaced with a section called “Browse” which better organizes the aforementioned content. The Beats 1 Radio service is unlikely to see notable interface changes this year.

While the organization of the Music app’s interface is in need of refinements, I love the existing large artist photos and colour-matched album screens.

John Gruber:

A big aspect of iOS’s success, from day one in June 2007, is that it emphasized smaller focused apps that do less over larger monolithic apps that do more. The monolithic style leads to desktop iTunes — a single app for managing your personal music collection, buying music from the iTunes Store, buying and playing TV and movies, podcasts, iOS app purchases, and device syncing and backups. The iOS style leads to dedicated separate apps for music playback, video playback, podcasts, and store purchases. Maybe there’s a way to design “all your music in one app” that is completely clear, convenient, and obvious. But the bottom line is that a music app shouldn’t be confusing. I think that’s held Apple Music back.

Kirk McElhearn:

I’m not sure that’s the most confusing aspect of Apple Music. There are two sections, My Music – which contains music in the iTunes library connected to your device, and music you’ve added to your library from Apple Music – and the New and For You sections, which contain only music from Apple Music. You check My Music when you want to listen to music you own, or music you’ve saved, and you check the others when you want something new.


One of the problems with Apple Music is the existence of the iTunes Store. Apple can’t fully commit to Apple Music because they still need to sell music. If they didn’t have the iTunes Store, then Apple Music would have one less layer of complication.

At its core, as a pure “queue up a song I don’t own” streaming service, I have found Apple Music totally competent. However, there are lots of ways in which the service is failing to live up to the promises of last year’s introductory keynote.1

Recommendations are notoriously poor, ignoring years of Genius history and in favour of requiring the user to completely re-train its engine. iCloud Music Library is required for basic functionality like saving songs or playlists for later listening, but it’s unreliable.

Connect has not been more successful than Ping — even Drake has barely used it. This is the same Drake who appeared onstage at WWDC last year to launch Apple Music, who made his new album an exclusive to the platform at launch, and who hosts a show on Beats 1. He hasn’t posted song snippets, nor has he debuted videos of the recording process, as the keynote suggested artists might.2 Instead, his Connect account is largely a repository for music videos available elsewhere, and auto-posted recordings of his Beats 1 show. He doesn’t have time to sit around and reply to comments.

Beats 1, meanwhile, hasn’t done too badly. I and a few people I know still tune in from time-to-time, but I don’t know the schedule by heart. I’m more fond of listening to recordings of past shows on-demand.3

Despite all this, Apple Music has been a resounding success story when measured by user numbers: 13 million, as of their second quarter results. But you’ll notice that user satisfaction levels — one of Apple’s favourite metrics — have not been touted.

After reading this series of somewhat disjointed thoughts, you might reasonably conclude that Apple Music is a failed product. I do not believe this is the case. But I do think that it is unfinished, it was rushed, and it does not behave in the real world as Apple imagined it might. And, for those reasons, it is in desperate need of recalibration for how we actually listen to, discover, and share music.

Update: Mark Gurman is now reporting that the Connect elements of Apple Music will be “demoted” in iOS 10.

  1. I struggled through the Apple Music part of the WWDC keynote again so you don’t have to. ↩︎

  2. I’m not sure why this was such a focus of the marketing around Connect. I’m an artist; I’ve spent much of my life around artists. Most artists hate showing a work in progress. Trent Reznor, who narrated the introductory video, doesn’t reveal stuff that isn’t finished. Jony Ive and the rest of Apple aren’t fond of showing things they’re still working on. ↩︎

  3. As the rest of the media world moves closer to an on-demand model, the introduction of a live and time-dependent service is somewhat perplexing. ↩︎

Apple Music Isn’t Wiping Your Library

James Pinkstone found that his subscription to Apple Music and iCloud Music Library caused his local files to be replaced:

When I signed up for Apple Music, iTunes evaluated my massive collection of Mp3s and WAV files, scanned Apple’s database for what it considered matches, then removed the original files from my internal hard drive. REMOVED them. Deleted. If Apple Music saw a file it didn’t recognize—which came up often, since I’m a freelance composer and have many music files that I created myself—it would then download it to Apple’s database, delete it from my hard drive, and serve it back to me when I wanted to listen, just like it would with my other music files it had deleted.

Lucikly, he had a backup. But Serenity Caldwell at iMore disputes Pinkstone’s version of events:

In an ideal world, iCloud Music Library would work like Dropbox, or even iCloud Photo Library — whatever you upload is yours, it doesn’t get “matched” to anything, and as long as you re-download everything before you cancel your subscription, you’re fine. But DRM and downloading streaming tracks you don’t have ownership rights to mucks things up. iCloud Music Library is always going to be complicated, and people are going to make mistakes because of it. And if they don’t have backups, those mistakes might be costly.

Jim Dalrymple, writing in an “open letter” format:

I don’t mind a public beta of Apple Music that is being worked on, but don’t walk on that stage and tell me it’s a finished, working product if it isn’t.

The amount of trust and loyalty you’ll lose with another round of broken Apple Music will be mind boggling.

This is what happens when there’s a not-quite-consistent duplication of services and poorly written dialogs. Apple Music is a rental version of the iTunes Store, but its library is slightly different. iCloud Music Library and iTunes Match are effectively the same thing, except the former enables some Apple Music-specific features while the latter matches songs differently. All of these services can be combined in various ways, but it’s hard to see why this should be the case.

A simpler music offering from Apple would roll as much of this functionality into as few options as possible.

May 4, 2016

Sebastiaan De With Reviews the Leica M

Sebastiaan de With used — and I do mean used — his Leica M for two and a half years before writing this review. Much like Craig Mod’s review of the Leica Q, this is a dangerous article because it will no doubt send you to your favourite camera store, tempting you to drop a huge amount of money you might not have on a camera you don’t need because, hey, it’s a Leica.

An Interview With Matt Haughey

MetaFilter founder Matt Haughey was interviewed by There’s lots here to love, but this is important:

It’s weird that there’s a time where we envisioned MetaFilter would run like Reddit, up and down votes and we wouldn’t have to have a human component to it, but that would kill the personality and the humanity of the site. It would just be mob rule and it would have all the problems Reddit has: terrible people controlling the conversation. It’s just really hard to run a human-curated anything at scale. I think that’s why I never wanted to do anything at scale.

Thoughts on the Apple TV After Six Months

Many of Ole Begemann thoughts mirror my own, but I wanted to elaborate on one in particular:

I continue to not be a fan of voice interaction on any device. Siri is too slow and unreliable. The ability to dictate in text fields (added in tvOS 9.2) is welcome, but only semi-useful if you want to use it with multiple languages. Siri only understands one language at a time, and there is no convenient way to change the dictation language when you’re in a text field. I estimate my search queries are split about 50–50 between German and English, so it sucks either way.

I wasn’t aware of Siri’s language limitations, but so far, the Apple TV has been the best voice control and dictation experience for me. It seems more consistent and reliable than iOS or watchOS, and many of the baffling early-day omissions — lack of App Store or Music search, for instance — have been remedied.

Begemann’s annoyances with the slow system animations — particularly when resuming play from the screen saver, for which I have an open radar, #25008323 — and remote design are spot on, however.

May 3, 2016

Apple Pay and the Future of Wallets

Apple’s vision of the iPhone as a wallet is bold and ambitious, but it’s exactly the kind of thing that they’re good at tackling. There is, of course, no reliable predictor of guaranteed future success, but there are few companies who can do something like this.

And, of course, there’s the question of which company — if any — customers would trust with the contents of their wallet.

Five-Finger Education Discount

Dave Howell, as quoted by Michael Tsai:

9/14/14: Sold 500 edu copies of Air Display 2.

4/25/16: All 500 refunded.

No explanation, contact, or even customer name.

I’m guessing some school district returned its trial iPads and went Android but who knows.

Basically Apple let them use my app for free for two whole school years without even asking my permission.

A lack of decent, consistent communication is the root of so many of the issues plaguing the store, whether it’s apps being rejected for ridiculous and inconsistent reasons, or poor advice from the App Review team. Open, reliable communication between Apple and its developers has never been a strong suit for the company, but it ought to be a priority.

Still Probably Not Wright

Another year begets another media blitz purportedly revealing the identity of Bitcoin’s pseudonymous creator Satoshi Nakamoto. But there’s a surprising twist this time: it’s the same guy as last time. The other weird thing? Instead of reporters chasing the creator down or someone hacking into his email account, Craig Wright — Nakamoto, allegedly — himself is doing the unmasking. And that’s raised a few eyebrows amongst those, as they say, familiar with the matter.

Wright’s “proof”, as demonstrated to the BBC and Economist, is that he cryptographically signed a Sartre passage with a private key known to belong to Nakamoto. However, as Dan Kaminsky explains, this proof isn’t proof at all:

Wright is pretending he has Satoshi’s signature on Sartre’s writing. That would mean he has the private key, and is likely to be Satoshi. What he actually has is Satoshi’s signature on parts of the public Blockchain, which of course means he doesn’t need the private key and he doesn’t need to be Satoshi. He just needs to make you think Satoshi signed something else besides the Blockchain — like Sartre. He doesn’t publish Sartre. He publishes 14% of one document. He then shows you a hash that’s supposed to summarize the entire document. This is a lie. It’s a hash extracted from the Blockchain itself.

Robert Graham of Errata Security summarizes it in a way that’s a little more digestible:

Craig Wright magically appears to have proven he knows Satoshi’s private-key, when in fact he’s copied the inputs/outputs and made us think we calculcated them.

There’s more, too. Adam Goucher found several problems with the code and mathematical explanation that Wright posted, many of which would have been obvious to undergraduates in a cryptography or security-related field. And then there’s the lingering question of why Wright — if he is Nakamoto — chose such a byzantine method of proving his identity. He could have just spent a coin from Nakamoto’s wallet instead while the press watched.

For his part, Wright says that’s what he’s going to do to. But I’m doubtful. This feels less like a way to reveal the identity of Nakamoto and more like a misguided but so-far successful marketing strategy for Wright’s own interests.

Or, who knows — perhaps aliens invented Bitcoin.

May 2, 2016

A Mindset for Change

Steven Sinofsky switched to using an iPad Pro full-time instead of a laptop, and he’s a convert. But, as he explains, he understands that it’s not for everybody — yet:

Many people have jobs that require specific tools or work products that can’t be done on a tablet. Many are part of corporate cultures that take time, effort, and evidence before they change. My view is that this shift is now in full swing and we will very quickly see a world where many many people can and will be tablet first, or tablet only.

The biggest change that will happen is not with the tablet platform or apps. That change has happened. What needs to happen is the cultural change that will permit the technology change to happen.

I am increasingly able to do various parts of my job on iOS, but the roadblocks to being able to switch are often institutional. In the design world, there will almost always be someone at some point in the chain asking for a layered Photoshop file. There are plenty of web apps that simply don’t work on iOS, too, with no native app available either. I remain hopeful that gaps in the iPad’s role in my job vanish quickly, but there needs to be a radical shift in the developer environment on the iPad for that to happen.

The good news is that professions like mine are not necessarily representative of what most jobs require. As Sinofsky says, email is still the number one productivity tool in almost any information-based industry, and the iPad hands that with aplomb.

Historical iPhone Screen Sizes

David Smith has updated the usage statistics of his Audiobooks app and they tell a pretty fascinating tale. Most notably, the four-inch models are still leading the iPhones 6 sizes, even today. The release of the SE showed little bump in his stats, despite reportedly high demand. Now that customers have a choice of screen sizes when upgrading from a 5 or 5S, I wonder what the split will be. They’ve held onto a four-inch phone for a while; it seems likely that more of them would choose an SE over the bigger iPhones. Android switchers would likely be more attracted to the larger models.

April 30, 2016

Man Alive Again

Dr. Drang:

Yesterday, I discovered that Apple had changed the URLs of all its online man pages. Without, I should add, creating redirects so old links would continue to work. This broke all the man page links I had here at ANIAT and undoubtedly broke links across the internet.

Adding a redirect from the prior URL to the new one is old-hat basic stuff. I’d be shocked about this if I didn’t run into an issue earlier this year where I discovered that Apple News links don’t automatically redirect from the http:// version to the https:// version, and simply display a 404 error page instead.

This stuff is entry-level.

April 29, 2016

Intel’s Smartphone SoCs Officially Cancelled

Intel has been struggling. After announcing plans to cut 11% of their workforce, they’re now terminating their smartphone SoC plans, as reported by Ian Cutress and Ryan Smith of AnandTech:

Today’s big news out of Intel is along these lines, and with strategy and workforce news behind them, we have our first announcements on product changes that will come from Intel’s new strategy. In a report on Intel’s new strategy published by analyst Patrick Moorhead, Moorhead revealed that Intel would be radically changing their smartphone SoC plans, canceling their forthcoming Broxton and SoFIA products and in practice leaving the smartphone market for at least the time being.

Given the significance of this news we immediately reached out to Intel to get direct confirmation of the cancelation, and we can now confirm that Intel is indeed canceling both Broxton and SoFIA as part of their new strategy.

Intel really missed the boat on the post-PC era, as Apple likes to call it. What a shame. I hope they can get back on some more solid footing.

The Convergence of Emoji

Great post from Sebastiaan de With on the evolution of emoji on iOS, Android, and Windows Phone:

Significant design differences in emoji can be a hassle at best, but at worst it completely alters the meaning of a communication, and creates a jarring disconnect between the intended meaning the sender is trying to convey to the recipient. Imagine if the letters of our latin script varied depending on the phone you used!

The development of the Latin alphabet occurred over the span of thousands of years. We’re seeing a minor subset of that take place in real time, comparatively speaking. That’s absolutely fascinating to me.

‘Sorry, You Don’t Understand’

Bizarre back-and-forth between Piet Brauer, the developer of a GitHub app for the iPad, and Phil Schiller on Twitter, collected by Michael Tsai. In short, Brauer’s app was rejected for using a web view to allow people to sign in with GitHub because that login page — which GitHub controls — has their own registration links on it. Brauer had to inject some CSS onto the page to hide those links, and was still rejected on the same grounds:

11.13: Apps that link to external mechanisms for purchases or subscriptions to be used in the app, such as a “buy” button that goes to a web site to purchase a digital book, will be rejected

I understand why this rule is in place — Apple doesn’t want companies to subvert their 30% cut by placing the purchasing mechanism on a webpage. But this seems like a case where the spirit of the rule should apply more than the letter of it. Even App Review thinks it’s ridiculous.

April 28, 2016

Apple Announces New Apple Music API

John Voorhees, MacStories:

Today Apple announced a new Apple Music API via its Affiliate Program Newsletter. According to Apple, the API:

…allows iOS apps to directly control Apple Music playback and more. We encourage affiliates to use the Apple Music API to provide a superior user experience by integrating music into their apps.

With the Apple Music API you can:

  • See if a user is currently an Apple Music member

  • See which country the user’s account is based in

  • Queue up the next song or songs based on a song ID for playback

  • Inspect playlists already in My Music or create a new playlist with a title and description (see App Store Review Guidelines for limitations).

It’s still early days for this API. I hope the door opens soon for apps that can provide their own recommendation engines and use Apple Music for the backend; I’m not sure that’s possible with this API yet. It’s a good start.

Google Hires Motorola CEO Rick Osterloh as SVP for New Unified Hardware Division

Mark Bergen and Ina Fried, Recode:

For years, Google has struggled to get sure footing on its various hardware initiatives — moving delicately to handle partners and, at times, deliver products that consumers actually use. When one of its hardware chiefs, Regina Dugan, who ran its Advanced Technology and Project group, departed for Facebook, we reported that Google was plotting a hardware shake-up.

Here it is now. Osterloh will now oversee Google’s Nexus devices. His new hardware division also includes a suite of products called the “living room,” demonstrating Google’s priority on owning that space.

It also includes Glass. Nest will continue to live in its own little silo, working on products that directly compete with Google’s.

April 27, 2016

iPhone SE Demand Is ‘Overwhelming’

Christina Warren, Mashable:

On the earnings call, Apple tried to spin numbers about upgrade cycles and the new customer wins it’s making over Android users. And that’s all well and good. But the device that might have the biggest impact on sales in the short term wasn’t even counted in the Q2 2016 earnings — the iPhone SE. […]

The product didn’t go on sale until March 31 so none of the sales were accounted in this earnings report, but Apple made a point to say that “demand has been very strong,” adding that it “exceeds supply at this point.”

In response to an analyst’s question, Cook went further saying that “it is clear that there is a demand there even much beyond what we thought.”

Only Apple knows exactly what the sales split is between the three different iPhone sizes currently available — in fact, they announced during the introduction of the iPhone SE that they sold 30 million four-inch iPhones in 2015. That’s about 13% of the total number of iPhones sold in 2015, so it’s not a huge market, but it’s still pretty significant.

Perhaps Apple figured that the SE would retain a fairly similar share of iPhone sales — that is, that those buying four-inch models chose to do so based primarily on screen size — and didn’t factor just how many people would dump a larger iPhone or Android model. Here’s hoping this can encourage a more regular four-inch update.

Americans Are Keeping Their Phones Longer

Interesting article from Thomas Gryta in the Wall Street Journal last week:1

Since the early days of Apple Inc.’s iPhone, most customers have avoided paying for the full price for the latest model. But the success of AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. since 2013 in shifting customers into plans that force them to pay the full price for devices — and separate that cost from monthly service fees — has consumers holding on to their devices longer.

Citigroup estimates the phone-replacement cycle will stretch to 29 months for the first half of 2016, up from 28 months in the fourth quarter of 2015 and the typical range of 24 to 26 months seen during the two prior years.

Since the separation of phone and plan is fairly common throughout the rest of the world, this basically means that the American phone replacement cycle is more closely aligning with that of a lot of other places.

Perhaps that provides an incentive for Apple to more rapidly iterate on the industrial design of their flagship iPhone models instead of the tick-tock pattern they’ve held to since the 3G.

  1. Unless you have an account, you’ll probably have to do that thing where you Google the URL and click through. Sorry. ↩︎

April 26, 2016

Not ‘For Me’

One of the bright sparks from today’s Q2 earnings release was record revenue in the “Services” category (Apple Music, iTunes, the App Stores, iBooks, and so forth). On the call, both Tim Cook and CFO Luca Maestri emphasized that they’d continue to develop and improve all of their cloud services.

I certainly hope that’s the case because, as David Sparks notes, that category is in dire need. Cloud services may be generating record revenue, but they’re almost certainly Apple’s least-refined offerings:

My favorite music largely includes obscure living jazz artists and less obscure dead jazz artists. I’ve wasted hours favoriting albums and marking other “recommended” playlists as ones I don’t like. Nevertheless, I open iTunes nearly every day as I work at my iMac and get the same Selina Gomez [sic] album thrown at me in place of Theloneus Monk.

When I said that I was concerned that one of Cook’s comments on the call seemed to indicate that “shareholders come first, and Apple’s entire R&D strategy revolves around them”, this is what I meant: celebrating record revenues in a product category that is the source of many blemishes on Apple’s record. It’s an earnings call — and one in which they have to find bright spots for investors for whom $50 billion in revenue just isn’t enough — but I hope the internal discussion reinforces that financial results are not necessarily indicative of product quality or satisfaction.

Picking Apart Apple’s Q2 2016 Numbers

Apple’s thirteen year seemingly-limitless growth machine has — dare I say, finally — found its limits. In a greater context, this quarter didn’t suck: Wikipedia’s list of record corporate quarters is somewhat outdated, but Q2 2016 would easily rank among the top twenty-five of all time corporate quarters in both revenues and profits. There were plenty of high points sprinkled throughout their earnings release today, as Jason Snell notes in his wrap-up post.

But, as Snell’s year-over-year unit growth graph shows, for the first time, all of Apple’s product lines sold fewer units than in last year’s Q2. Nothing can escape that simple fact.

Additionally, Apple is forecasting a significant decrease in year-over-year revenue for next quarter: $41–$43 billion compared to about $50 billion last year.

The financial media is having a field day with this, and I’m not surprised — while Apple forecast it in their last earnings release, it’s still big news. The tech press gets to keep running clickbait “Apple is doomed” articles. But I hope Apple’s reaction to this is to dig their heels in and deliver some spectacular products.

And that brings me to a remark Tim Cook made today:1

Creating value for shareholders by developing great products and services that enrich people’s lives will always be our top priority and the key factor driving our investment and capital allocation decisions.

I get that it’s an earnings call and extremely fragile shareholders want reassurance, but I wish this was phrased differently. What I hope Cook means by this is that Apple’s top priority is to create really great stuff and provide exemplary services that they hope people will buy and love, thereby assuaging trepidatious hedge fund billionaires.

But the way it’s phrased here is that shareholders come first, and Apple’s entire R&D strategy revolves around them. I sincerely hope this is just poorly articulated, because if it’s taken at face value, it’s deeply concerning.

  1. Apologies to those of you not running a supercomputer — it’s an iMore link. Their great coverage continues to be belied by a shitty website. ↩︎

‘Your Problem Is That You Make Shit’

Kind of in line with the previous link, Joshua Topolsky on the state of big media companies:

Video will not save your media business. Nor will bots, newsletters, a “morning briefing” app, a “lean back” iPad experience, Slack integration, a Snapchat channel, or a great partnership with Twitter. All of these things together might help, but even then, you will not be saved by the magical New Thing that everyone else in the media community is convinced will be the answer to The Problem.

Beneath the Snow Falls and Facebook bots, what really makes a media company tick is its ability to deliver great stories in just the right voice. That’s why I write the way I do, and link to articles like these — I hope you, reader, see that. All of this other stuff is just stuff. It’s an extra delivery mechanism. But if all that’s being delivered is crap, the tinsel of the new hotness is immaterial.

On a related note, the Verge — Topolsky’s old haunt — launched a new gadget blog called Circuit Breaker. Its gimmick? The website is, as Nilay Patel puts it, “the backend for the Facebook mobile experience”.

Uncanny Valley

Just a taste of Anna Wiener’s brilliant essay for N+1 magazine:

An old high school friend emails out of the blue to introduce me to his college buddy: a developer, new to the city, “always a great time!” The developer and I agree to meet for drinks. It’s not clear whether we’re meeting for a date or networking. Not that there’s always a difference: I have one friend who found a job by swiping right and know countless others who go to industry conferences just to fuck — nothing gets them hard like a nonsmoking room charged to the company AmEx. The developer is very handsome and stiltedly sweet. He seems like someone who has opinions about fonts, and he does. It’s clear from the start that we’re there to talk shop. We go to a tiny cocktail bar in the Tenderloin with textured wallpaper and a scrawny bouncer. Photographs are forbidden, which means the place is designed for social media. This city is changing, and I am disgusted by my own complicity.

“There’s no menu, so you can’t just order, you know, a martini,” the developer says, as if I would ever. “You tell the bartender three adjectives, and he’ll customize a drink for you accordingly. It’s great. It’s creative! I’ve been thinking about my adjectives all day.”

This is so very, very good.

April 25, 2016

The Amazingly Underwhelming Apple Watch

M.G. Siegler:

Believe me, I too am full of Apple Watch gripes. The main issue, in my view, is that I simply never use the apps. And wasn’t that supposed to be the point of the thing? Instead, I use the device almost solely for push notifications, which, don’t get me wrong, are still useful. In fact, some, like the notification you get when an Uber is arriving, are extremely useful. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed in terms of overall experience thus far.

And yet, one year later, I’m still wearing the thing every day.

Maybe I’m delusional. But I don’t think so. I feel like I still see a ton of people wearing them around as well. And actually, increasingly so. Yes, I live in San Francisco, so maybe I’m in a bubble (but not the Bubble).

Calgary is in the middle of a recession, but I have also seen a lot more Apple Watches lately while on my commute, on the pathway system, or on the streets. There’s a lot that I’m hoping for, both in software and in hardware, but as far as “failures” or “flops” are concerned, the Watch is a long way off, and the potential is huge.

If apps loaded in a few seconds instead of the 15–30 that they take today and the side button could be reprogrammed — almost any other function would be better than the contacts wheel — that would go a long way towards making the Watch more predictable and useful.

Pegatron Allowed Bloomberg Access to a Factory

Shai Oster of Bloomberg was given a tour of one of Pegatron’s factories where iPhone models are assembled. In their latest supplier audit report, Apple says that they’ve been working hard to improve overtime compliance, and it seems that it’s working: they report a 97% compliance rate for 2015, up from 92% just three years earlier (PDF).

Worker pay is still a significant weakness for many tech company suppliers. While it has been improving, Oster illustrates how far it has left to go:

One improvement Pegatron executives were eager to share was increased income transparency. Employees can now check their hours, pay stubs, and monthly lodging and food expenses at touchscreen terminals throughout the campus. Including overtime, take-home pay averages 4,200 yuan to 5,500 yuan ($650-$850) a month. One employee, who helped workers access the automated information stations, showed her base salary was 2,020 yuan. An iPhone 6 in China costs 4,488 yuan.

For comparison, comparable factory workers in the United States, while not well-paid, earn an average of about $14 per hour.1 Assuming full-time occupation — and not the six-day workweek that contract factories consider “standard” — that works out to a wage of about $2,400 per month. The same iPhone 6 model costs just $549 in the U.S. or about 23% of a single month’s wages, compared to 81%–220% of a Pegatron employee’s monthly earnings.

Living conditions vary significantly around the world, and those for factory workers appear to have improved by leaps and bounds over what they once were, but there’s a ways to go yet.

  1. I took an average of three factory or assembly workers that would be in a comparable field. You can find them by searching the BLS’ tables for “Machine Feeders and Offbearers”, “Team Assemblers”, and “Electrical and Electronic Equipment Assemblers”. ↩︎

April 23, 2016

Fail Whale

Jon Hendren:

Usage is down not because users are tired of Twitter as a concept, they’re tired of Twitter, Inc. making 5 bad moves for every good one. As frivolous new features haphazardly got thrown on top of the pile, Twitter, Inc. neglected to address the kinds of abuse and harassment that drove existing users away for good. The apps and web interface became slower and clunkier. Algorithmic feeds and 10,000-character limits are now said to be coming down the line. Everything that first made Twitter appealing is on the way out. If I didn’t know better, it would seem like they were trying to get rid of people.

It’s amazing to think that a company whose content is provided for free, who gets free mass advertising from basically every angle, and whose only real responsibility is to Not Break Itself can’t figure out how to be sustainable. The only thing Twitter has going for it in 2016 is the fact that many users will stick around for lack of a better alternative. Whether that’s months or years is anyone’s guess.

MacOS and the ‘It Just Works’ Mantra

An absolutely essential essay from Riccardo Mori:

In the end, I think that what the next ‘MacOS’ needs most is focus. Focus on what it has historically done best — ‘just working’. I don’t think that the current problems of OS X have much to do with its old age or its old models. It’s more a matter of identity. […]

What makes people love iOS, what makes people think iOS is much simpler than OS X is, I believe, its reliability. iOS feels positively predictable, dependable. This kind of reliability should become the main focus for the next ‘MacOS’, not just a continued aggregation of old, newer, and borrowed features swept under the carpet of a translucent, attractive UI.

I’m generally wary of essays that are about what Apple “should” or “needs to” do, but this isn’t that. It’s a rational critique of the OS X of today, and thoughts on directions it could take to preserve the qualities that make it a Macintosh.

Personal Information From 90 Million Mexican Voters Was Left Online, Unsecured

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, Vice:

In the morning of April 14, Chris Vickery, a hacker and security researcher, was browsing Shodan, a search engine for internet-connected devices and servers, when he noticed an unusually large database of more than 100 gigabytes on an Amazon cloud storage called “padron2015.”

As it turned out, the database contained the personal information, including full names, home addresses, and national identification numbers, of virtually all registered voters in Mexico. The information had been left completely open to anyone, as there was no passwords or any other protection on it.

You might think that governments would be cracking down on their information security after the personal data of hundreds of millions of others was leaked recently, but I guess not.

April 22, 2016

FTC to Crack Down on Cross-Browser Tracking

Director of the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection Jessica Rich:

As I told the NAI, the disclosures and choices companies offer to people must address the many forms of tracking companies are using, including proprietary techniques that combine technologies like cookies, fingerprinting, cookie syncing, and many others. They also must apply when companies track consumers not on one, but across multiple devices. People can’t be led to believe tracking is more limited than it is, or that they’ve blocked all tracking when that’s not the case. And if the choices offered to people don’t cover all the ways a company tracks them, the company must clearly and prominently say so. I also told the NAI that these choices must be easy to understand and use, and shouldn’t require multiple steps.

I think the FTC would be shocked to find out how much information can be — and is — collected during casual browsing of the web, for which there is little way to reliably opt out. Targeted, behavioural advertising ought to be something consumers must opt-in to, not out of.

Android Attack

The Economist:

Antitrust sceptics see the Android case as yet more proof that such legal action is just not worth it in the fast-moving tech world. Even if a decision comes soon, it will take time for a remedy to change things on smartphone screens. And by then the market for mobile software may have changed completely: instant messaging apps are growing into application platforms of their own and text-based services called “chatbots” are poised to become an alternative to apps. But it is easy to forget that although in the Microsoft case, too, the remedy came late and was of limited relevance, being under antitrust scrutiny forced the company to offer competitors more room. One of the main beneficiaries was none other than Google.

Since the tech industry does move so quickly while the legal system tends to move slower — particularly for complex cases like this — decisions are often made after they’re entirely relevant. Apple’s long-running dispute with Samsung, for example, produced a list of largely-outdated devices barred from import into the United States. But cases like these can also be an attempt to put the infringing parties under closer watch, in addition to being a formal list of charges to be settled. Put another way: there’s the strictly legal rationale, and then there’s the behavioural rationale.

Prince: Technologist and Luddite

Jon Caramanica, New York Times:

Many advances in music and technology over the last three decades — particularly in the realm of distribution — were tried early, and often first, by Prince. He released a CD-ROM in 1994, Prince Interactive, which featured unreleased music and a gamelike adventure at his Paisley Park Studios. In 1997, he made the multidisc set “Crystal Ball” available for sale online and through an 800 number (though there were fulfillment issues later). In 2001, he began a monthly online subscription service, the NPG Music Club, that lasted five years.

These experiments were made possible largely because of Prince’s career-long emphasis on ownership: At the time of his death, he reportedly owned the master recordings of all his output. With no major label to serve for most of the second half of his career and no constraints on distribution, he was free to try new modes of connection.

In keeping with his complete ownership, he effectively scrubbed the legitimate web of his music over the past few years, with Tidal being the sole streaming service offering his catalogue. This wasn’t, I don’t think, a fuck you to listeners, but rather a gamble that fans would buy his music anyway.

See Also: The Daily Dot uncovered and modernized the font that was shipped to members of the press after he began using the unpronounceable “love symbol”.

April 21, 2016

Search in the App Store

Marco Arment wrote a great piece nominally about the paid App Store search rumour, and managed to deliver this searing criticism of the App Store’s search functionality in the process:

Not only is Apple searching the comparably tiny App Store, but they review every app before publishing it. With a huge staff of humans reviewing all of the input, good search should be much easier because the apps and their metadata should be relatively well-structured and regulated, and very little abuse and fraud should get through.

And yet, the App Store is still full of spam, scams, clones, and flagrant violations of Apple’s own rules, while the app-review team still capriciously nitpicks trivial and arbitrary details with the few developers who are actually trying to make good apps and represent them honestly in the Store.

I know this gets repeated ad nauseum, but it remains true: the App Store is not in good shape. A paid search placement feature dropped overtop the existing infrastructure would likely be a disaster.

Looking at the Future

Perhaps the most underemphasized aspect of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is its gorgeous new display. A few people have been writing about it — most notably, Craig Hockenberry:

I think the additional detail gives our brain a better appreciation of the image even if it can’t put things like chromatic adaptation into words.

After using this iPad for a couple of weeks, I’ve realized it’s like the advances of Retina in an important way: I never want to use a lesser display again. And as with higher density, I think it’s obvious that Apple will eventually update all its products to use this improved screen technology.

Hockenberry is currently working on a book for A Book Apart to explain colour management to developers (and, perhaps, designers as well). It’s definitely going to be worth the wait. Apple is clearly future-proofing their displays with this wider gamut standard.

Dr. Raymond M. Soneira of DisplayMate ran some fairly comprehensive tests on the iPad Pro:

The display on the iPad Pro 9.7 is a Truly Impressive Top Performing Display and a major upgrade to the display on the iPad Air 2. It is by far the best performing mobile LCD display that we have ever tested, and it breaks many display performance records.

No kidding.

Ad Tech Is Completely Broken

Melody Kramer of Poynter interviewed Salon developer Aram Zucker-Scharff about his experiences dealing with advertising on the web. In short, it’s a mess. There’s a lot that I want to quote from the interview, but this one really shows the bullshit prevalent in the industry:

I have a story about this actually, from working at a previous employer. I prefer to sit in on sales calls for contracts with ad tech because of this very problem. And we had a problem with a major advertiser. The advertiser had run their ad through an agency and the agency was telling them that the ad had 10 percent viewability. […]

So, the agency called us. And we talked to them and said they we could measure viewability on our own (which we could) and that wasn’t making any sense. So they put us on the phone with a major ad tech company that was measuring viewability for them. […]

Finally we are connected with the ad tech company and they have sent an engineer who is talking technical stuff at high speed with, in my opinion, the clear intent to confuse the people who are usually in this type of meeting — all sales people with little expertise in tech.

The thing is, I’m in the room and I’m just listening until he gets to the point which is ‘we don’t track Webkit browsers.’

At this time Webkit is the browser rendering engine for Chrome, Safari and a number of other smaller browsers.

This is a major ad tech company and they just said that they’re not tracking 70 percent of our traffic, but reporting it to the advertiser as if they were.

There’s a lot that publishers should learn from in this interview, but there’s also so much that ad tech companies need to deal with. They don’t screen ads, they allow them to run arbitrary code on websites, and they track far too much information.

Publishers are getting hammered from all sides on this. Readers don’t want to pay for individual subscriptions because they get news in small drips from multiple sources. Advertising on the web has become inherently less valuable than for any other medium, for some reason, so it’s difficult for publishers to financially justify employing a staff to do direct ad sales, particularly when it’s so much easier for a company to buy ad space on a network. There’s justification for this attitude, especially since two networks, AdSense and DoubleClick, continue to dominate the online advertising market — if a company buys advertising on both networks, they instantly have significant reach across the web.

So publishers do what they can: they put half a dozen ad spots on each page, assuming that their ad tech partners have vetted what will appear there. And then everything goes to hell because each of those ad spots drops its own cookies, spawns its own JavaScript, and generally behaves as the most obnoxious citizen of the web.

There are lots of failures of assumption here: ad tech companies assume that those buying ad space with them are not complete assholes, performing only a cursory check on — what I assume is — a small sample of the ad buys they receive. They then market their network as safe to publishers1 who simply want to stem their dwindling revenue. And then they have to put up with abysmal ad code (be careful when opening that link; it’s a lightweight page with necessarily non-lightweight copies of bad code on it).

Users hate these ads. For non-tech-savvy readers, they’re a nuisance — they don’t understand why their computer has come to a crawl just because they opened some article from their local news site, for instance. Savvier users have resorted to blocking ads, to the detriment of publications’ revenue.

In an ideal world, publications would sell their own ad space — that’s what the Economist does, for example. But that’s unlikely to happen, for various reasons, so the next best thing is for ad networks to do a better job policing their inventory.

Update: I’ve been hearing that publishers aren’t pushing back very hard against bad ad practices. Whether it’s due to technological ignorance, a lack of care, in a sense, or fear, they simply aren’t giving the ad industry any reason to improve. As with anyone, ad tech is in it for their own gain, but publishers need to fight for their say in this. They ought to demand greater standards. What I’m hearing is that they simply don’t.

  1. DoubleClick says that publishers can “[trust] performance with best-in-class malware and fraud protection”, for instance. ↩︎

April 20, 2016

San Francisco Mono

John Gruber:

Apple’s WWDC 2016 website is sporting a “source code” theme, and is typeset using what appears to be a monospaced variant of San Francisco. Looks pretty good — I hope this is something they’re going to release at WWDC. I’d wager that it is.

My silly pet theory is that this year’s marketing materials hint at the much-rumoured Xcode for iPad.

Red Lights

Just a lovely collection of photographs from Blaise Arnold of cafés and brasseries in France, lit by red neon. Via Coudal Partners.

A Blast From the Past

In 2009, Google’s then-VP now-CEO Sundar Pichai published a statement in support of the E.U.’s investigation into Microsoft’s tying-in of Internet Explorer to Windows:

[…] Google believes that the browser market is still largely uncompetitive, which holds back innovation for users. This is because Internet Explorer is tied to Microsoft’s dominant computer operating system, giving it an unfair advantage over other browsers.

Good observation.

European Commission Sends Statement of Objections to Google

From the E.U.’s press release (emphasis theirs):

The Commission opened proceedings in April 2015 concerning Google’s conduct as regards the Android operating system and applications. At this stage, the Commission considers that Google is dominant in the markets for general internet search services, licensable smart mobile operating systems and app stores for the Android mobile operating system. Google generally holds market shares of more than 90% in each of these markets in the European Economic Area (EEA). In today’s Statement of Objections, the Commission alleges that Google has breached EU antitrust rules by:

  • requiring manufacturers to pre-install Google Search and Google’s Chrome browser and requiring them to set Google Search as default search service on their devices, as a condition to license certain Google proprietary apps;

  • preventing manufacturers from selling smart mobile devices running on competing operating systems based on the Android open source code;

  • giving financial incentives to manufacturers and mobile network operators on condition that they exclusively pre-install Google Search on their devices.

The Commission believes that these business practices may lead to a further consolidation of the dominant position of Google Search in general internet search services. It is also concerned that these practices affect the ability of competing mobile browsers to compete with Google Chrome, and that they hinder the development of operating systems based on the Android open source code and the opportunities they would offer for the development of new apps and services.

After reading through the tweets linked on the relevant Techmeme entry, it strikes me that very few people seem to understand the E.U.’s objections here. The market dominance is not a problem in of itself, nor is it necessarily wrong to prejudice first-party products and services over those from third parties. The objection is that Google is combining those things. The Commission’s press release is rather comprehensive; many of the knee-jerk reactions to this feel deliberately ignorant.

The Canadian Competition Bureau recently dropped its investigation into similar allegations. In Europe, there are several investigations pending.

Option to Log in With iCloud Password Removed in OS X 10.11.4

Rich Trouton observes:

Starting in OS X Yosemite, Apple introduced a new option to log into your Mac using the password associated with an Apple ID. As of OS X 10.11.4, this option seems to have been removed from the Users & Groups preference pane in System Preferences.

A bizarre change, particularly as it isn’t fully implemented — the option still exists in Setup Assistant. I can’t work out whether this is for security purposes or just because Apple felt like it. I’ve reached out for comment and will update this if I hear back.

April 19, 2016

Apple Starts Rolling Out Web Previews for tvOS App Links

Once again today, Federico Viticci at MacStories:1

Apple has begun rolling out web links and iTunes web previews for Apple TV apps. The change, first noticed by Jeff Scott and which we were able to confirm via Safari on OS X, allows users to link to tvOS apps in a web browser, which will show an iTunes Preview with screenshots, app description, and other information.

This seemingly minor feature addition – after all, users have been able to share links and open iTunes web previews for iOS and Mac apps for years – is a notable improvement for the tvOS app ecosystem. When third-party Apple TV apps launched last year, Apple didn’t offer the ability to link to apps directly, which considerably limited a developer’s options to link to their apps from websites and social media accounts.

The craziest part for me is that those pages currently have zero functionality beyond being a preview of the app. There’s no way for someone to download the app, of course, because the Apple TV doesn’t have a web view. You can’t AirDrop the link to your Apple TV, either, nor can you take any action on the page.

I bet that changes at WWDC.

  1. Is that team great or what? ↩︎

Helena, the Mysterious Startup

Sam Biddle, Gawker:

Last week, I received a PDF presentation about “Helena,” a new startup boasting a 20-year-old Yale student CEO and connections—so they claim—to some of the most powerful and influential people in the world, from Stanley McChrystal to, uh, Selena Gomez. I spent the better part of last week trying to figure out what the company does—and I’ll level with you, man, I’m still not sure.

I highly recommend reading this pitch deck because it is amazing. It’s jam-packed with words, yet manages to communicate nothing. It is a miasma of buzzwords or, as Biddle puts it, “startup lorem ipsum”.

Really, this is the money quote:

“Will Helena generate money?” This one prompted a sarcastic reply: “When you have staff and office space you do need to fund your operation, so that’s given.”

Staff and office space!? “How will the revenue be generated, exactly?”

“I’ll put that on the list [of questions] to pass through.”


Minor MacBook Improvements

Slightly faster processors, slightly better graphics, and faster memory for the same price. Oh, and it comes in a rose gold colour now. It’s not a large update, especially considering that the MacBook was launched over a year ago, but it’s a good spec bump.

The MacBook Air lineup now has 8 GB of RAM standard across the board, too. So, that just leaves the MacBook Pro waiting for an update.

Who’s excited for WWDC?

Update: And the updated MacBook’s battery lasts even longer as well. Good upgrade.


Federico Viticci, MacStories:

Fruity Maps is a proof of concept web app made by Tim Broddin (via 9to5Mac) to demonstrate what an Apple MapKit web view would look like.

This is undocumented, but Apple is also using an embedded MapKit view on their WWDC Attending page, which seems to suggest that an announcement in June could be likely.

Interestingly, this is the third major revision that I can find to the web version of Apple’s MapKit: back in September, I noticed that they were using a 2.x version of MapKit.js on individual retail locations pages,1 while the Find My iPhone web app still uses the 1.0 version of MapKit.

After I experimented with both prior versions of MapKit last year, it seemed that it was getting closer to a public debut. The newest version is closer still — Broddin’s documentation suggests that it’s awfully close to being a user-friendly product. The question now, I suppose, is whether this is because it should be easy to use for Apple internally, or whether they plan on making MapKit on the web public at last.

  1. Click “driving directions and map”. ↩︎

April 18, 2016

WWDC 2016 Officially Announced

Apple PR:

Apple today announced that it will hold its 27th annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), hosting the creative talent behind the world’s most innovative apps, from June 13 through 17 in San Francisco. At WWDC, Apple’s developer community comes together from all corners of the globe to learn about the future of Apple’s four software platforms — iOS, OS X, watchOS and tvOS.

Pretty sure they mean “MacOS”.

Monday’s kickoff events, including the keynote address, will be held at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. The rest of the week’s conference sessions will take place at Moscone West.

This is very different. The keynote is typically held in the Presidio room at Moscone West which, in 2011, had a capacity of about 1,500 attendees. It was increased in 2013, but there’s only so much space at Moscone.

The Bill Graham, meanwhile, holds about 6,000 people, depending on configuration. Apple last used it to introduce the iPad Pro and iPhone 6S; previously, they unveiled the Apple II there, too.

The marketing materials for this year’s conference are terrific, by the way. Registration for the random ticket draw is open until early Friday morning.

NASA’s Fabled 1970s Graphics Manual Reprinted

Liz Stinson, Wired:

NASA issued the manual, developed by New York design studio Danne & Blackburn, in January, 1976. It published just 40 copies, which remain highly collectible. Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth decided to recreate the manual and raised more than $940,000 on Kickstarter last year to do the job. Its backers are just now getting their copies. For those of you who missed your chance to get in early, you can buy the manual for $79.

Long-time readers will know that this is very, very appealing to me.

Media Websites Battle Faltering Traffic

John Herrman, New York Times:

As social networks grew, visits to websites in some ways became unnecessary detours, leading to the weakened traffic numbers for news sites. Sales staffs at media companies struggled to explain to clients why they should buy ads for a fragmented audience rather than go to robust social networks instead.

Advertisers adjusted spending accordingly. In the first quarter of 2016, 85 cents of every new dollar spent in online advertising will go to Google or Facebook, said Brian Nowak, a Morgan Stanley analyst. […]

At the same time, publishers pored over a report from the analytics firm, detailing how important Facebook had become to their business: Among sites tracked by the firm, more than 40 percent of web traffic came from the social network.

See also Joshua Topolsky’s article on Facebook from last week’s edition of the New Yorker.

Facebook’s Messenger Bots Are Frustrating

Debuting last week at Facebook’s F8 conference, the initial batch of Messenger bots have not been well-received. Spencer Chen struggled to order flowers because the bot didn’t understand cancellation commands, while Mat Honan was provided a weather forecast for an entirely different city.

Buzzfeed’s Katie Notopoulos tried to purchase shoes, and came upon a realization:

Some people hate to shop. They want to look nice, but hate having to pick out their own clothes and would be grateful to be shown just three options from a trusted store. […]

However, this is NOT the customer who is buying $400 women’s shoes. The $400 women’s shoes customer most likely enjoys shopping. The same for $400 men’s shoes! The kind of shopper who is going to buy the fairly expensive kind of apparel that Spring offers is not the same customer who wants to use a bot that will show them three options.

And Darren Orf over at Gizmodo summed up the platform’s status:

But most people will likely try out these rough-cut bots and decide they’re not worth the hassle. Chatbots leave you with that same itch in the back of your mind that it’s easier to get the weather or send flowers the old-fashioned way. They’ll get better, but it’s going to take time. Right now, chatbots are a robotic wild west, and for the foreseeable future, you’re better off sticking with civilized society.

These issues are familiar to anyone who used Siri after it first launched in 2011 or, indeed, anyone who has used virtually any natural language processing software. Beyond speech recognition problems, it’s clear that virtual assistants and bots like these continue to struggle with grasping human intent. They’re only programmed to pick up on key words and phrases, and to try to follow the progression of the conversation. But the moment that something is interjected — like when Chen asked the flower delivery bot whether it was available in Canada — it doesn’t follow the flowchart, and the conversation breaks down.

If Apple is on track to debut the Siri API at WWDC, it would be helpful to third-party developers if it would assist with the interpretation and contextualization of the conversation instead of requiring developers to build their own artificial intelligence infrastructure.

WWDC 2016 To Be Held June 13 – 17

Apple hasn’t yet announced WWDC dates for this year, but Siri knows.

Update: Or, perhaps, this is simply Apple’s unorthodox announcement strategy.

Update: Link updated. Twitter’s mobile site still blows.

April 17, 2016

The App Effect

Mayur Dhaka:

Apple ran a video at WWDC last year called The App Effect. In it, Apple tries to deliver the message that the App Store is a platform that gives big companies and one-man-shows a level playing field. Case in point, the video at 1 minute, 46 seconds has Instagram’s CEO saying ‘You know it’s a testament that two guys in a room working on an idea can launch an app and instantly have hundreds and millions of people very quickly’.

The more I think about it, the more I think that the rumour of paid search results in the App Store is just one idea floating around within a small team of people. That it would improve the App Store’s profitability sounds like an interpretation of the writers of the original Bloomberg story.

What concerns me is that this story would have been immediately written-off prior to the introduction of iAd, or even just a few years ago. It is entirely unlike Apple. But recent decisions — such as the introduction of an interstitial ad displaying to users not subscribed to Apple Music, or the other interstitial ad that displayed on older iPhones after the introduction of the 6S — makes this all the more likely. That it’s even within the realm of possibility is worrying.

April 15, 2016

QuickTime for Windows Has Reached End-of-Life

It’s not every day that you get QuickTime news. In this case, it’s decidedly not good. Dan Goodin of Ars Technica:

If your Windows computer is running Apple’s QuickTime media player, now would be a good time to uninstall it.

The Windows app hasn’t received an update since January, and security researchers from Trend Micro said it won’t receive any security fixes in the future. In a blog post published Thursday, the researchers went on to say they know of at least two reliable QuickTime vulnerabilities that threaten Windows users who still have the program installed.

It’s easy enough to uninstall QuickTime, but a surprising number of programs on Windows list it as a dependency, including GoPro Studio and Cubase to run, and Premiere Pro, After Effects, and Traktor for various features. Basically, if a Windows program works with AAC or MOV, it likely depends on QuickTime.

Apple has uninstallation instructions available.

Researchers Brute-Force Shortened Links

Andy Greenberg, Wired:

The researchers’ work demonstrates the unexpected privacy-invasive potential of “brute-forcing” shortened URLs: By guessing at shortened URLs until they found working ones, the researchers say that they could have pulled off tricks ranging from spreading malware on unwitting victims’ computers via Microsoft’s cloud storage service to finding out who requested Google Maps directions to abortion providers or drug addiction treatment facilities.

In aggregate, pseudo-randomized data of any kind poses a risk if brute-force attempts are not regulated.

Around ten years ago, a bunch of URL-shortening and image hosting services sprang up — one called “idzr”, another was called “kttns”.1 These services were created in response to Twitter’s character limitations and a lack of decent image hosting at the time, and eventually beget entire companies like Droplr and CloudApp.

At the time, there was also a strong jailbreaking and customization culture for OS X, iOS, and Windows. Entire forums like Aqua Soft and Macristocracy centred around the ways in which users would tweak their home screens or modify OS X’s appearance. Many of you were probably members.

I distinctly recall someone in the #MacThemes IRC channel one day making a site that crawled a couple of these URL shortening services and displayed everything hosted on them. There was nothing particularly sensitive, as best as I can recall; occasionally, there were privately-shared icons and desktop pictures.

At any rate, the owners of the services in question quickly modified their code so that short links couldn’t be brute-forced or automatically crawled, and measures were put in place to limit access rates on any particular link.

This stuff was solved years ago on services built by a single developer. This shouldn’t be an issue at large companies like Google and Microsoft.

  1. The original, as far as I’m concerned, dznr, allowed accounts by invitation only. It was shut down in 2013. ↩︎

April 14, 2016

Motor Trend’s Fake Apple Car

Patrick George of Jalopnik:

Sadly, the Motor Trend designers’ approach to an Apple Car isn’t particularly insightful. It’s an egg on wheels! With autonomous driving technology! And lots of screens! And Apple logos! And it’s built for ride-sharing! It uses the word “mobility!” […]

Even if the final design is bad and unoriginal — and it is thoroughly both of those things — no sin is greater than misleading readers and the public into thinking they had the actual car. What could have been an interesting project is tanked by a desperate attempt for attention and relevance.

Who at Motor Trend thought this would be a good idea?

Apple Reportedly Pursuing Search Improvements in the App Store

So say Adam Satariano and Alex Webb of Bloomberg:

Among the ideas being pursued, Apple is considering paid search, a Google-like model in which companies would pay to have their app shown at the top of search results based on what a customer is seeking. For instance, a game developer could pay to have its program shown when somebody looks for “football game,” “word puzzle” or “blackjack.”

Paid search, which Google turned into a multibillion-dollar business, would give Apple a new way to make money from the App Store. The growing marketing budgets of app developers such as “Clash of Clans” maker Supercell Oy have proven to be lucrative sources of revenue for Internet companies, including Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc.

Paid search tends to help bigger companies more than it does smaller ones. I certainly hope there are plans to address the challenges that face indie developers who are making great apps but struggle to get by.

Update: Apple doesn’t need “a new way to make money from the App Store”. They need a way to get developers to make more money. They need to de-crappify the Store and improve the chances of success for smaller developers. I certainly hope that sentence is Santarino and Webb’s interpretation, because if the objective of a project like this is truly to make Apple more money, that’s extremely concerning.

The RCMP Has the Master Encryption Key for Every BlackBerry

Jordan Pearson and Justin Ling, Vice:

BlackBerry (formerly RIM) encrypts all messages sent between consumer phones, known as PIN-to-PIN or BBM messages, using a single “global encryption key” that’s loaded onto every handset during manufacturing. With this one key, any and all messages sent between consumer BlackBerry phones can be decrypted and read. In contrast, Business Enterprise Servers allow corporations to use their own encryption key, which not even BlackBerry can access. […]

According to more than 3,000 pages of court documents pertaining to the case that resulted from Project Clemenza, obtained by VICE Canada, the RCMP maintains a server in Ottawa that “simulates a mobile device that receives a message intended for [the rightful recipient].” In an affidavit, RCMP sergeant Patrick Boismenu states that the server “performs the decryption of the message using the appropriate decryption key.” The RCMP calls this the “BlackBerry interception and processing system.”

All BlackBerry devices share an encryption key? Amateur hour.

BlackBerry CEO John Chen in a 2015 corporate blog post:

We reject the notion that tech companies should refuse reasonable, lawful access requests. Just as individual citizens bear responsibility to help thwart crime when they can safely do so, so do corporations have a responsibility to do what they can, within legal and ethical boundaries, to help law enforcement in its mission to protect us.

However, it is also true that corporations must reject attempts by federal agencies to overstep. BlackBerry has refused to place backdoors in its devices and software. We have never allowed government access to our servers and never will.

While it isn’t an outright lie that BlackBerry has never allowed government access to their servers, they did turn over their encryption key to a federal agency who used it to create an interception method.

Also, how can BlackBerry promise to comply with a court order if enterprise customers are allowed to use their own encryption keys? One answer: they can’t, and Chen hoped that this blog post wouldn’t blow up in his face. Another: they can, they haven’t disclosed a true backdoor but it doesn’t seem unlikely with this Vice story, and Chen is still hoping that this blog post won’t blow up in his face.

Microsoft Sues for Right to Tell Customers When Government Requests Emails

Sarah McBride, Reuters:

Microsoft Corp has sued the U.S. government for the right to tell its customers when a federal agency is looking at their emails, the latest in a series of clashes over privacy between the technology industry and Washington. […]

Using the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), the government is increasingly directing investigations at the parties that store data in the so-called cloud, Microsoft says in the lawsuit. The 30-year-old law has long drawn scrutiny from technology companies and privacy advocates who say it was written before the rise of the commercial Internet and is therefore outdated.

“People do not give up their rights when they move their private information from physical storage to the cloud,” Microsoft says in the lawsuit. It adds that the government “has exploited the transition to cloud computing as a means of expanding its power to conduct secret investigations.”

It’s taken some time after Edward Snowden’s disclosures, but the tech industry isn’t standing for this shit any more. Good for them.

Ben Brooks on Consolidating 3D Touch and the Long Press

Astute observation by Brooks:

If you are arguing in favor of consolidating the gestures, then the better argument is just to get rid of 3D Touch. There’s no reason to have both 3D Touch and long press if they both do the same thing and since not all new [devices] have 3D Touch — 3D Touch would be the technology to be removed.

The whole point of 3D Touch is that it adds new functionality to iOS. It isn’t simply a different interpretation of an existing gesture.

When the iPhone launched with a multitouch display, there was really only one aspect of the system that required multiple touch points: pinching to zoom web pages and photos. Many years later, we now have the ability to adjust a map’s perspective, manipulate the depth-of-field in an Instagram photo, and play instruments on an iPad. All of these features — and many more — are made possible because the hardware can accept multiple touch points. 3D Touch is, I think, set to do the same thing given some time.

In some ways, I wish Apple shipped a lesser amount of 3D Touch functionality and simply waited to see how developers would interpret it. What they have shipped ultimately feels right, more or less, though.

April 13, 2016

Good News for Electronic Privacy, for Once

Two great developments lately. First, a sort of state-level version of the upcoming U.S. federal bill that requires decryption of electronic communications was defeated in California. Jeremy B. White of the Sacramento Bee:

A national debate over smartphone encryption arrived in Sacramento on Tuesday as legislators defeated a bill penalizing companies that don’t work with courts to break into phones, siding with technology industry representatives who called the bill a dangerous affront to privacy. […]

Assembly Bill 1681 would authorize $2,500 penalties against phone manufacturers and operating system providers if they do not obey court orders to decrypt phones.

And another bill at the federal level is moving forward in Congress. Eric Geller of the Daily Dot:

The House Judiciary Committee unanimously passed (28-0) the Email Privacy Act, which eliminates a loophole allowing authorities to get some electronic records without a warrant. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.), has more than 300 sponsors and is expected to sail through the full chamber.

The Email Privacy Act requires law-enforcement agencies to get a warrant in order to demand that tech companies turn over online communication records, such as emails, instant messages, and private social-media messages. It amends the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), which only required a warrant for messages newer than 180 days.

Small but significant steps. It’s progress.

FBI Reportedly Paid a Security Research Team for Vulnerability

Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post:

The FBI cracked a San Bernardino terrorist’s phone with the help of professional hackers who discovered and brought to the bureau at least one previously unknown software flaw, according to people familiar with the matter.

The new information was then used to create a piece of hardware that helped the FBI to crack the iPhone’s four-digit personal identification number without triggering a security feature that would have erased all the data, the individuals said. […]

The U.S. government now has to weigh whether to disclose the flaws to Apple, a decision that probably will be made by a White House-led group.

The correct thing to do would be for either the FBI or this security research team to disclose this vulnerability to Apple so that it can be fixed, though recent reports suggest that the flaw doesn’t exist in iPhones with a secure enclave. That would ensure better security for everyone using an older iPhone.

The likely outcome of this is that this particular flaw and anything else that allows the FBI to bypass security measures on any device will be kept very close to the vest, and perhaps used as a bargaining chip for when the “Compliance with Court Orders Act of 2016” gets introduced. We’ll turn over our records of your security vulnerabilities if you add a backdoor seems very much like the intelligence community party line these days.


It’s been a hell of a month for Nest, so CEO Tony Fadell went to a company-wide Google meeting last Friday to address the concerns. Mark Bergen of Recode quotes from a transcript of his speech:

Of course, we’re not perfect. No company is. Nest isn’t perfect. I’m not perfect. No one’s perfect. But we know what our problems are. We have been addressing them over the last two years. And, frankly, we have more room to go. […]

That said, I also want to address the whole respect thing. I do respect the Nest employees. I do respect the Google employees. I respect the Alphabet employees. We try to work very hard together and partner in many different areas around the different companies.

It’s not just recent reports that paint a picture of a toxic corporate culture with Fadell as a bullying, unforgiving leader — a 2014 post by Connie Loizos quotes several employees’ gripes about the company:

Sources who spoke to StrictlyVC and asked to remain anonymous say Fadell has fashioned a hierarchical structure reminiscent of TV’s “Game of Thrones.” […]

Another employee calls it a “huge meeting culture, to the point where anyone at the director level or up spends their entire day in meetings, many of them duplicative meetings about the same subject, over and over to the point where a lot of people have complained.”

This has been a long time brewing. I’ve little doubt that Fadell earnestly believes that he’s improving and that the company is improving, but these kinds of recurring anecdotes don’t simply appear out of nowhere.