Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Mossberg Out

Walt Mossberg penned what is officially the last column of his career for the Verge and Recode, and it’s — as you might imagine — about tech’s journey since he began covering it regularly in 1991, and where it’s going:

I expect that one end result of all this work will be that the technology, the computer inside all these things, will fade into the background. In some cases, it may entirely disappear, waiting to be activated by a voice command, a person entering the room, a change in blood chemistry, a shift in temperature, a motion. Maybe even just a thought.

Your whole home, office and car will be packed with these waiting computers and sensors. But they won’t be in your way, or perhaps even distinguishable as tech devices.

This is ambient computing, the transformation of the environment all around us with intelligence and capabilities that don’t seem to be there at all.

It sounds like Mossberg is excited about this future, if apprehensive about the lack of privacy and security regulations that surround it. While I’m sure he won’t be writing a weekly column, I’d be surprised if we never hear from Mossberg again when there’s so much to discuss.

Thanks, Walt.

These Are the Misleading and Wrong Arguments Against Net Neutrality

Devin Coldewey, writing for TechCrunch before the FCC’s proposal was released yesterday:

It is frequently said that the point is not to remove the rules themselves, just change the authority to something a little less heavy-handed.

This is a puzzling assertion to make when the proposal itself asks over and over again whether the “bright line” rules of no blocking, no throttling, etc should be removed. It’s pretty clear that proponents don’t think the rules are necessary and will eliminate them if they can. Just because they frame their preference in the form of a question doesn’t make it any less obvious.

A sort of corollary to this argument is that internet providers will voluntarily adhere to suggested practices. This is a pretty laughable suggestion, and even if it were true, it self-destructs: if companies have no problem subjecting themselves to these restrictions, how can they be as onerous as they say?

We’ll know more about what is and isn’t on the chopping block when the final text of the proposed rules is made available, at which point I’ll update this story.

That weaselly framing has, indeed, persisted in the FCC’s proposal (PDF):

In the Title II Order, despite virtually no quantifiable evidence of consumer harm, the Commission nevertheless determined that it needed bright line rules banning three specific practices by providers of both fixed and mobile broadband Internet access service: blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization. The Commission also “enhanced” the transparency rule by adopting additional disclosure requirements. Today, we revisit these determinations and seek comment on whether we should keep, modify, or eliminate the bright line and transparency rules.

Make no mistake: the FCC is seeking to hamper or eradicate these rules, as Ajit Pai suggested last month, and replace them with a pinky promise.

Device Backups in iCloud Should Be Encrypted

Rene Ritchie, iMore:

Apple has posted its Report on Government and Private Party Requests for Customer Information for the second half of 2016.

[…]

The TL;DR of it is that demands on the data being stored on our iPhones, iPads, and Macs are, unsurprisingly, up.

In this context, it’s important to remember that while Apple protects messages and other personal data with end-to-end encryption, Apple has to turn over iCloud backups when and if required to do so by law.

Unlike local backups, no option is available to encrypt iCloud backups. Possible technical hangups notwithstanding, I’m surprised that’s something that hasn’t yet been made available in iCloud. If iMessages are worth encrypting in transit, surely they’re worth encrypting in a backed-up state as well.

Update: Well this is embarrassing. Via Laurent Boileau, it appears that iCloud backups are, indeed, encrypted (page forty-one of that PDF). Past Apple documentation claimed that device backups in iCloud were encrypted, but that didn’t include some user data like Notes, iMessages, and SMS messages. I don’t know why I didn’t verify this before posting, but I apologize for the error.

Destroying Internet Freedom

The seventy-five-page document (PDF) released today by the FCC represents the clearest view yet of Ajit Pai’s point of view on what ISPs offer, how to regulate providers, and what he sees as the Commission’s role in making sure that the open web continues to thrive. And, in short, it’s a crock of shit.

I anticipate that Karl Bode and Jon Brodkin will explore this proposal — titled “Restoring Internet Freedom”, like a gigantic middle finger to anyone who truly cares about freedom on the internet — on a much deeper level than I can, but I’d like to present a few excerpts for your review.

Americans cherish a free and open Internet. And for almost twenty years, the Internet flourished under a light-touch regulatory approach. It was a framework that our nation’s elected leaders put in place on a bipartisan basis. President Clinton and a Republican Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which established the policy of the United States “to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet … unfettered by Federal or State regulation.”

During this time, the Internet underwent rapid, and unprecedented, growth. Internet service providers (ISPs) invested over $1.5 trillion in the Internet ecosystem and American consumers enthusiastically responded. Businesses developed in ways that the policy makers could not have fathomed even a decade ago.

These are the opening sentences of the proposal, and they already hint at a misleading document. In the context of this proposal, the implication is that the high investments of internet service providers in the nineteen years prior to the 2015 decision to classify providers under Title II is responsible for the rapid expansion and overwhelming success of online businesses and services. This proposal then goes on to blame Title II classification for an apparent destruction of the internet’s economy:

The Commission’s Title II Order has put at risk online investment and innovation, threatening the very open Internet it purported to preserve. Investment in broadband networks declined. Internet service providers have pulled back on plans to deploy new and upgraded infrastructure and services to consumers. This is particularly true of the smallest Internet service providers that serve consumers in rural, low-income, and other underserved communities. Many good-paying jobs were lost as the result of these pull backs. And the order has weakened Americans’ online privacy by stripping the Federal Trade Commission — the nation’s premier consumer protection agency — of its jurisdiction over ISPs’ privacy and data security practices.

This is complete myth building. ISPs themselves state that Title II has not affected their infrastructure plans, and the vast majority of publicly-traded ISPs actually saw an increase in capital expenditures from 2015–2016, compared to the two years prior. There is no indication that the classification of ISPs as common carriers has impacted either their business or the internet economy as a whole: the stock prices of all major American ISPs have increased over the past five years and, with the exception of Verizon, dramatically so. Of the ten most valuable publicly-traded companies in the world, five are American tech companies — all have a far higher valuation than they did five years ago. Put simply: the internet economy isn’t dying; it’s bigger than it ever has been, and the common carrier designation hasn’t made a dent in that trajectory.

Furthermore, the Commission’s claim that consumer privacy has been affected by the classification of ISPs under Title II is wildly misleading.

But the outright falsehoods in this proposal aren’t nearly as egregious as the way the Commission misinterprets the role of an ISP. The 2015 common carrier designation is based on the FCC’s classification of ISPs as telecommunications companies, rather than information service providers. I’ll get to the latter categorization in a moment, but first, a quick word from the Commission on why ISPs — which categorize themselves in SEC filings as “telecommunications service” companies — are not telecommunications companies:

In contrast, Internet service providers do not appear to offer “telecommunications,” i.e., “the transmission, between or among points specified by the user, of information of the user’s choosing, without change in the form or content of the information as sent and received,” to their users. For one, broadband Internet users do not typically specify the “points” between and among which information is sent online. Instead, routing decisions are based on the architecture of the network, not on consumers’ instructions, and consumers are often unaware of where online content is stored.

What a load of hot garbage. A user specifies what internet connections they wish to make by typing or selecting URLs or addresses over other protocols. That the route chosen by the infrastructure is not directly controlled by the user is immaterial.

The FCC’s argument is akin to them stating that someone isn’t driving to a specific destination because they’re forced to pass through other towns because that’s how roads work, or that FedEx isn’t a courier company because a shipper doesn’t get to choose whether their parcel goes through Memphis.

So how does the FCC define “information service provider”, and why do they think the internet falls under that categorization?

Section 3 of the Act defines an “information service” as “the offering of a capability for generating, acquiring, storing, transforming, processing, retrieving, utilizing, or making available information via telecommunications, and includes electronic publishing, but does not include any use of any such capability for the management, control, or operation of a telecommunications system or the management of a telecommunications service.”

[…]

Whether posting on social media or drafting a blog, a broadband Internet user is able to generate and make available information online. Whether reading a newspaper’s website or browsing the results from a search engine, a broadband Internet user is able to acquire and retrieve information online. Whether it’s an address book or a grocery list, a broadband Internet user is able to store and utilize information online. Whether uploading filtered photographs or translating text into a foreign language, a broadband Internet user is able to transform and process information online. In short, broadband Internet access service appears to offer its users the “capability” to perform each and every one of the functions listed in the definition — and accordingly appears to be an information service by definition.

This is the part where things get necessarily lawyerly. For that, we’ll turn to page twenty-seven of a June 2016 ruling (PDF) from the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals:

In support of its second conclusion — that from the user’s point of view, the standalone offering of broadband service provides telecommunications — the Commission explained that “[u]sers rely on broadband Internet access service to transmit ‘information of the user’s choosing,’ ‘between or among points specified by the user,’” without changing the form or content of that information. … The Commission grounded that determination in record evidence that “broadband Internet access service is marketed today primarily as a conduit for the transmission of data across the Internet.”

The Commission then cited ISPs’ marketing in defence of their position, arguing that their very own ads sell ISPs on the basis of speed and reliability of arbitrary data transfer. That is, they sell themselves as dumb pipes. The Court of Appeals held up the 2015 Title II reclassification in this and many other decisions.

But the significance of all of this is kind of moot, as Mike Masnick explains:

For Pai to successfully roll back those rules, he’d need to show that there was some major change in the market since the rules were put in place less than two years ago. That’s… almost certainly going to fail in court. Again, this is important: Pai can change the rules, but that rule change will almost definitely be shot down in court.

[…]

Congressional net neutrality haters (e.g. those receiving massive campaign contributions from big broadband players…) are well aware that Pai’s plans have no chance in court. Yet, they want there to be this kind of uproar over the plans. They want the public to freak out and to say that this is bad for the internet and all that. Because this will allow them to do two things. First, they will fundraise off of this. They will go to the big broadband providers and act wishy washy on their own stance about changing net neutrality rules, and will smile happily as the campaign contributions roll in. It’s how the game is played.

The second thing they will do… is come to “the rescue” of net neutrality. That is, they will put forth a bill — written with the help of broadband lobbyists — that on its face pretends to protect net neutrality, but in reality absolutely guts net neutrality as well as the FCC’s authority to enforce any kind of meaningful consumer protection. We’ve already seen this with a plan from Senator Thune and this new bill from Senator Mike Lee.

This is really important to keep an eye on. Because, as bad as the proposal released today is — and it’s really bad — the fight won’t be over even if these rules pass, and are then overturned. I’m not very confident that the highly divided and very partisan Congress will get this right.

There are a couple of things you can do if you’re American. First, acknowledge your support for retaining Title II classification for ISPs. Comments will be added to the public record on this, so when this proposal is passed with millions of people opposing, there’s a clear sign that it isn’t in the public interest.

The second thing you can do — if this ever becomes a Congressional issue — is call your public representatives. Urge them to keep the common carrier designation for ISPs. I get that everyone seems to be telling you to call your representatives for a laundry list of reasons, but this is really important. Most everyone seems to agree with keeping the ’net neutral if it’s explained to them, but it can be hard to explain what’s going on here and what is at stake.

And that brings me to the third thing you can do: tell your friends about this, particularly those less technically inclined. Get them engaged, and get them to call as well. Every voice counts, even when it seems like those accountable aren’t listening. They absolutely will be listening if they fuck up the ’net for a generation.

Design Before You Minify

Don Melton:

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use tactics like minification, resource concatenation, server-side compression, etc. to improve performance.

But have a strategy for performance first. Have a design. Consider whether you need all those libraries you’re tempted to include. Consider whether you need to write even more JavaScript, CSS, JSON and Christ-knows-what-all to “improve” the user experience.

Maybe leveraging those Content Delivery Networks will let you get away with it. But maybe they won’t.

Consider, too, the weight of code that isn’t being written directly, instead being added by plugins and addons. Analytics, advertising, and retargeting scripts tend to consume far too many resources each — combined, they’re a recipe for a website that’s disrespectful to its users by being bloated and invasive. That can’t be saved by code minification.

Facebook’s Been Making It Up All Along

Alex Hazlett of Mashable, reacting to the leaked Facebook moderator rulebook:

All we’ve had to go on about Facebook’s guiding principles have been generic platitudes from Zuckerberg until a few months ago, when he gave us a few thousand words of generic platitudes. The company has always clung mightily to vagueness – and secrecy. Facebook says it wants to protect free speech and to avoid censorship. But censorship is something to be avoided because it’s a mis-calibration: Something valuable was prohibited or erased. The banned book was worth reading. The activist’s speech needed to be heard. The silencing was a problem because of the values it acted against. Facebook has never understood that. They’ve operated at the level of the particular, and they have studiously avoided the theoretical that makes that particular worth fighting for.

Sure, if Facebook had decided to take an actual stand, they’d have had detractors. But if they’d been transparent about why, their users would have gotten over it. If you have principles, and you stick to them, people will adjust.

Instead, Facebook seems to change their policies based on the level of outrage that is generated. It contributes to a perception of them as craven and exploitative. This is why Facebook lurches from stupid controversy to stupid controversy, learning the hard way every. single. time.

I think Hazlett is right — Facebook ought to take some sort of stand. But I don’t think they will, because it’s too easy to coast between controversies that most people forget about after a day or two. We have regulatory bodies for a reason; without them, participants in many industries would also be briefly reactionary.

Notes From an Emergency

Maciej Cegłowski, in an infinitely-quotable transcript from a talk he gave at Republica Berlin:

The danger facing us is not Orwell, but Huxley. The combo of data collection and machine learning is too good at catering to human nature, seducing us and appealing to our worst instincts. We have to put controls on it. The algorithms are amoral; to make them behave morally will require active intervention.

The second thing we need is accountability. I don’t mean that I want Mark Zuckerberg’s head on a pike, though I certainly wouldn’t throw it out of my hotel room if I found it there. I mean some mechanism for people whose lives are being brought online to have a say in that process, and an honest debate about its tradeoffs.

Cegłowski points out, quite rightly, that the data-addicted tech industry is unlikely to effectively self-regulate to accommodate these two needs. They’re too deeply-invested in tracking and data collection, and their lack of ethics has worked too well from a financial perspective.

Cegłowski, again:

But real problems are messy. Tech culture prefers to solve harder, more abstract problems that haven’t been sullied by contact with reality. So they worry about how to give Mars an earth-like climate, rather than how to give Earth an earth-like climate. They debate how to make a morally benevolent God-like AI, rather than figuring out how to put ethical guard rails around the more pedestrian AI they are introducing into every area of people’s lives.

The tech industry enjoys tearing down flawed institutions, but refuses to put work into mending them. Their runaway apparatus of surveillance and manipulation earns them a fortune while damaging everything it touches. And all they can think about is the cool toys they’ll get to spend the profits on.

The message that’s not getting through to Silicon Valley is one that your mother taught you when you were two: you don’t get to play with the new toys until you clean up the mess you made.

I don’t see any advantage to having a regulated web. I do see advantages to having regulated web companies.

All of us need to start asking hard questions of ourselves — both as users, and as participants in this industry. I don’t think users are well-informed enough to be able to make decisions about how their data gets used. Even if they read through the privacy policies of every website they ever visited, I doubt they’d have enough information to be able to decide whether their data is being used safely, nor do I think they would have any idea over how to control that. I also don’t think many tech companies are forthcoming about how, exactly, users’ data is interpreted, shared, and protected.

Update: If you — understandably — prefer to watch Cegłowski speak, a video of this talk has been uploaded to YouTube. Thanks to Felix for sending me the link.

Facebook’s Internal Rulebook for Moderators

Nick Hopkins of the Guardian received a copy of about one hundred training manuals used to guide Facebook’s moderation policies:

One document says Facebook reviews more than 6.5m reports a week relating to potentially fake accounts – known as FNRP (fake, not real person).

Using thousands of slides and pictures, Facebook sets out guidelines that may worry critics who say the service is now a publisher and must do more to remove hateful, hurtful and violent content.

Yet these blueprints may also alarm free speech advocates concerned about Facebook’s de facto role as the world’s largest censor. Both sides are likely to demand greater transparency.

I would wager that it’s impossible to come up with a single set of guidelines that can clearly guide the moderation policy for two billion users spread across hundreds of countries. Even being more aware of their existing rulebook is unlikely to be helpful — someone acting nefariously could use them as guidance, while others will certainly see the rules as needlessly prohibitive and claim that Facebook shouldn’t censor any viewpoint, no matter how objectionable.

Facebook currently gets to decide its own level of squeamishness — they’re a private company, of course. But is there a size or scale at which it’s no longer okay for a company to create their own oversight? There has never been a single company that connects a quarter of the world’s entire population until now. Is it okay for that many people in so many places to be communicating using a rulebook developed by twenty- and thirty-somethings in California?

See Also: The Moderators.

Google’s Proprietary Fork of HTML Is Taking Over the Open Web

Ingrid Lunden, TechCrunch:

As Google looks for ways to keep people using its own mobile search to discover content — in competition with apps and other services like Facebook’s Instant Articles — the company is announcing some updates to AMP, its collaborative project to speed up mobile web pages.

Today at the Google I/O developer conference, Google announced that there are now over 2 billion AMP pages covering some 900,000 domains. These pages are also loading twice as fast as before via Google Search. Lastly, the AMP network is now expanding to more e-commerce sites and covering more ad formats.

In Google’s post announcing that AMP pages load faster — which Lunden links to — they also explain some additional capabilities offered to AMP pages:

Many of AMP’s e-commerce capabilities were previewed at the AMP Conf and the amp-bind component is now available for origin trials, creating a new interaction model for elements on AMP pages.

Forms and interactive elements were previously verboten in AMP land, but they’re now allowed through a proprietary — albeit open source — and nonstandard fork of HTML largely developed and popularized by one of the biggest web companies out there.

Scott Gilbertson of the Register:

Quite a few high-profile web developers have this year weighted in with criticism and some, following a Google conference dedicated to AMP, have cautioned users about diving in with both feet.

These, in my view, don’t go far enough in stating the problem and I feel this needs to be said very clearly: Google’s AMP is bad – bad in a potentially web-destroying way. Google AMP is bad news for how the web is built, it’s bad news for publishers of credible online content, and it’s bad news for consumers of that content. Google AMP is only good for one party: Google. Google, and possibly, purveyors of fake news.

Consider this: Google owns the most popular search engine and the biggest video hosting platform in most countries, operates one of the most-used email services on Earth,1 has the greatest market share of any mobile operating system, makes the most popular web browser in many countries, serves the majority of the targeted advertising on the web, provides the most popular analytics software for websites, and is attempting to become a major internet service provider. And, to cap it all off, they’re subtly replacing HTML with their own version, and it requires a Google-hosted JavaScript file to correctly display.

I’ve been pretty open about my distrust with ISPs. I think the FCC’s likely destruction of net neutrality legislation will be regarded as an easily-averted decision driven by dogma, and it will ruin the open web. At the same time, though, we cannot ignore Google’s slow takeover of the web. The world wide web is slowly becoming a Google product, and that’s just as fundamentally flawed as if the web were a division of Comcast.


  1. In the words of Marco Arment, an “email-like product” that doesn’t follow IMAP standards and is, in many ways, a proprietary interpretation of email. ↩︎

Disabling Slack Indexing Seems to Improve Spotlight Performance on iOS

I’ve generally had pretty good luck with Spotlight on iOS, but I’ve long noticed that results are delayed or nonexistent after not using it for a little while, particularly if I haven’t rebooted my phone recently. I thought I was losing my head a little bit, until I found a tip on Twitter from Anand Iyer‏:

Settings > General > Spotlight Search > toggle Slack off

Just like that, Spotlight seems to be running quickly again. Every query I’ve tried is fast and reliable, even if I don’t use my phone for a while. I don’t know why Slack, in particular, seems to make Spotlight perform so poorly — other apps surely index thousands of messages and require network lookups to complete — but this one weird trick seems to make Spotlight performance issues disappear.

Update: John Gruber:

Sounds like there might widespread problems with Spotlight indexing on iOS 10, because a bunch of readers have written to say they have the same problem but don’t even have Slack installed.

I’ve seen this Slack trick working for a few other people, so I wonder what the common thread is between those of us with Slack installed and those without. Perhaps there are issues with indexing large numbers of items, or perhaps toggling a setting simply rebuilds the Spotlight cache.

Update: I’ve seen reports that 10.3.2 fixes this bug altogether. Daniel Shockley says that he improved Spotlight performance by toggling languages, which makes me think that it is — or was — a bug that can be worked around by clearing a cache.

Boring Google

I only loosely followed Google I/O as it was happening, but I’m catching up on its reception. The most pervasive sentiment I’ve seen is that it was, to put it bluntly, boring.

Karissa Bell, Mashable:

That wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t that long ago when Sergey Brin enlisted a group of skydivers to introduce the world to Google Glass. Or when Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) division, the skunkworks behind moonshot ideas like modular smartphones, gesture-sensing radar, and clothing with embedded sensors, was a reliable source of shock and awe for I/O attendees.

This year, though, there was no sign of ATAP, which lost its chief visionary Regina Dugan to Facebook last year.

It’s not just ATAP, either. There was no sign of anything remotely experimental. Instead, we got to see the most polished version of Google’s augmented reality tech yet (which, by the way, started in ATAP nearly four years ago), new skills for Google’s digital assistant, VR features we don’t really need, and yet another fine, but also boring, update for Android.

I get the point that Bell is making here: Google has a reputation for having a bit of a quirky attitude that bubbles through their products and services. But I disagree — I’m glad that Google is being a bit more honest in admitting that they are a bonafide corporate entity, not a gigantic startup. Yeah, it’s a bit boring, but it’s the truth.

Of the experiments that Bell mentions, two — Google Glass and Project Ara — are officially on hold, but I wouldn’t bet on them coming out of hold any time soon. The gestural control system and connected jacket are scheduled to ship later this year, but that also seems to be the case for a lot of Google products: perpetually coming soon.

Ben Thompson:

This is why I think that Pichai’s “boring” opening was a great thing. No, there wasn’t the belligerence of early Google IOs, insisting that Android could take on the iPhone. And no, there wasn’t the grand vision of Nadella last week, or the excitement of an Apple product unveiling. What there was was a sense of certainty and almost comfort: Google is about organizing the world’s information, and given that Pichai believes the future is about artificial intelligence, specifically the machine learning variant that runs on data, that means that Google will succeed in this new world simply by being itself.

Before I/O began this year, Matt Birchler reflected on last year’s event:

Google’s I/O conference last year was big on flash, but little in substance that will actually move users away from iOS. Google Assistant has proven to be a big win for the company, as it has asserted itself as the best voice assistant out there for a lot of things. Google Home, which I don’t own yet, is a strong competitor to the Amazon Echo which has been gaining popularity.

But beyond the Assistant-related announcements, everything else was a bit of a letdown.

This year’s event was nowhere near as flashy. The Android updates seemed a bit obvious — the system now has notification badges for app icons, as an example — and that’s probably a good thing. Google’s big company reality doesn’t really match their wacky persona, and a dizzying array of new messaging apps every year is confusing in the real world. It’s boring, but it’s okay that Google is becoming more reliable and, well, normal.

FCC Votes to Begin Dismantling Net Neutrality

Karl Bode, Techdirt:

Surprising absolutely nobody, the FCC today voted 2-1 along strict party lines to begin dismantling net neutrality protections for consumers. The move comes despite the fact that the vast majority of non-bot comments filed with the FCC support keeping the rules intact. And while FCC boss Ajit Pai has breathlessly insisted he intended to listen to the concerns of all parties involved, there has been zero indication that this was a serious commitment as he begins dismantling all manner of broadband consumer protections, not just net neutrality.

Libby Watson, Gizmodo:

The commission will now consider Pai’s proposal, which would repeal the reclassification of broadband providers as “common carriers” (a little like utilities) under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. Pai’s proposed rulemaking would also “seek comment” on the so-called “bright line” rules—no blocking, throttling, or paid prioritization of internet traffic—likely meaning those rules would be watered down or even erased. We won’t know for sure until closer to the final vote, but without Title II authority, the FCC might not be able to enforce those rules anyway.

Much like a repeal of net neutrality would allow, this vote is a clear demonstration that a few powerful companies have their interests prioritized far higher than the millions of people who don’t have a boatload of cash to spare. This result may have been expected, but that doesn’t make it any less of a pile of horse shit.

Watson, again:

Meanwhile, the other Republican, Mike O’Rielly, laid the groundwork for ignoring pro-net neutrality comments that have already flooded in and will likely continue to do so before the vote, saying FCC rules aren’t decided “like a ‘Dancing With the Stars’ contest.” More than 2.1 million comments have already been filed, though as we’ve reported, hundreds of thousands of those appear to be astroturfed, possibly bot-filed anti-net neutrality comments, submitted under the names of other people. But as much as O’Rielly might want to dismiss the comment process, every comment in favor of net neutrality makes it more obvious that Pai’s proposal is something that only ISPs want.

O’Rielly’s disparagement of democracy and Pai’s refusal to take seriously the millions of comments in favour of Title II regulation says everything you need to know about what these jackasses think of Americans’ values and voices.

Cultured Code Launches Things 3

I’ve been using Things as my primary todo app for as long as I can remember, and it has always been a well-designed and thoughtful app from good people. But the last major version of Things was launched in 2012 and, any way you cut it, that’s a really long time ago for any piece of software. It’s a testament to how good the app is that I — and many others — have stuck with it for so long.

And, now, there’s a new version. I’ve been using Things 3 on all my devices for a while and it’s amazing. I can promise you that this is one of the best-designed apps to grace any Apple platform in a very long time — not just the way it looks, but what it does.

Ryan Christoffel, MacStories:

As with many other task managers, you’ll find a plus button in the bottom area of the screen to add new tasks. But in Things for iOS, that button has a special name: the Magic Plus Button.

In one of the most clever methods of task entry I’ve seen, the Magic Plus Button can be dynamically moved around the screen as a way to add additional data. While its default location will always be the lower right corner, the button can be dragged and dropped into different spaces of the app to do different things. Tap and drag the button into your list of projects to create a new project. Drop it into a list of tasks in Today to create a new task in that exact spot. Drop it into the Inbox icon that appears in the lower left corner to create the task in your Inbox. And, my personal favorite, when viewing your Upcoming list, drag and drop the button on to the day when that task needs to be acted on, and you’ve just assigned its start date.

The idea of a persistent button floating in the lower-right sounds very much like it’s pulled from Google’s Material Design guidelines, but it doesn’t feel that way. Cultured Code has clearly given a lot of thought to the way the Magic Plus Button should work, and its visual appearance is a reflection of that — not the other way around. My favourite little tip for this button: drag it to the left side of the screen within a project to create a section.

There’s lots more to love, like calendar integration and the redesigned Areas function, but at its core, it’s still Things. That means bulletproof sync, lots of little details, and a stubborn refusal to compromise their vision for what apps like this should be. I really like this set of updates.

I’ve written frequently here about supporting developers, the race-to-the-bottom of the App Store, and the lack of good apps on the Mac App Store. Cultured Code bucks the trend of reducing the price of their apps or introducing a subscription model, and these apps are better for it. Supporting good developers comes at a real monetary cost: $10 for the iPhone app, $20 on the iPad, and $50 on the Mac. But if a great task management app is what you’re looking for and you don’t want a company doing sketchy stuff with your data, Things might be worth the investment for you. I know that it is for me.

Twitter Increases Ad Tracking, Now Ignores Do Not Track

Twitter:

As we work to make our content more relevant to people on Twitter, we also want to offer the best and most transparent privacy and data controls.

Today, we’re announcing a suite of industry-leading tools to give you more access to your information and greater, more granular control over how it’s used. We’ve also updated our Privacy Policy to reflect the improvements that we’ve made to Twitter.

With such strenuous emphasis on the ways in which this update “increases transparency” and gives users more control, it’s no surprise that the meat of this post is near the bottom: Twitter will, like Facebook, be using data gathered across the web from embedded posts and sharing buttons to increase targeting options for advertisers.

Tim Peterson, Marketing Land:

At the same time as Twitter is giving people more control over how they are targeted, it is removing support for Do Not Track, which people can use to ask every website they visit not to track their behavior in order to target them with ads. Twitter made a big deal about supporting Do Not Track in May 2012, so its reversal is a surprise — unless you’ve been following the wave of major ad-supported digital platforms opting to ignore Do Not Track requests. When Hulu announced last July that it would no longer support Do Not Track, it joined nine other major digital platforms that do not respond to these opt-out requests. Now Twitter has joined that list.

As Twitter was one of very few major websites that actually honoured browser-based Do Not Track requests, this is more of a conceptual setback. Still, I liked that Twitter did bother to ask users whether they were okay with being tracked; now, they’re just burying that confirmation in the privacy policy that nobody reads.

Like Google and Facebook, Twitter is now displaying the topics it thinks you’re interested in, how old it thinks you are, and what languages it thinks you speak — apparently, I speak Estonian and Portuguese. Twitter goes one step further and allows you to request a list of which advertisers are currently targeting your profile. As of writing, 874 advertisers have included my personal account in over two thousand of their audience lists, while 102 have for the Pixel Envy auto-posting account. I’m not sure how much can really be inferred from this information, but at least I now know that 102 advertisers — including KFC and Uber — are targeting my unmonitored robot-posting account.

JSON Feed

Brent Simmons and Manton Reece:

The JSON Feed format is a pragmatic syndication format, like RSS and Atom, but with one big difference: it’s JSON instead of XML.

For most developers, JSON is far easier to read and write than XML. Developers may groan at picking up an XML parser, but decoding JSON is often just a single line of code.

Beyond developer advantages, one of the really nice things about JSON is that it’s very nearly human-readable, even in code form. Take a look at my JSON feed — the most unreadable parts of it are the raw HTML blocks; everything else is pretty self-explanatory.

WordPress support is handled by an elegant plugin, via Michael Tsai.

Panic

Panic’s Steven Frank shares some arresting news:

Last week, for about three days, the macOS video transcoding app HandBrake was compromised. One of the two download servers for HandBrake was serving up a special malware-infested version of the app, that, when launched, would essentially give hackers remote control of your computer.

In a case of extraordinarily bad luck, even for a guy that has a lot of bad computer luck, I happened to download HandBrake in that three day window, and my work Mac got pwned.

Long story short, somebody, somewhere, now has quite a bit of source code to several of our apps.

That’s the bad news; the good news is that Panic have taken extraordinary steps — steps that even they admit are probably overkill — to help ensure that no harm will befall their customers.

Beyond the situation at hand, this announcement’s honesty and transparency is admirable. They’ve created some truly innovative stuff that would likely be considered proprietary knowledge, like a wicked fast FTP engine and a ridiculous toolbar. But the Panic people are good people, and their handling of this is a model for other companies to follow should they be faced with a similar situation.

Update: I’ve been thinking about this story all day. I wanted to underscore that Panic was able to receive such an understanding and sympathetic reception to this news because they do things right pretty much all the time. They’re good people making good software. I wrote above that this is a model response for other companies, but I’m not sure many others could announce similar news in this fashion: most other companies have too much baggage and aren’t as trusted as Panic. It’s not so much that this response is what other companies should copy; it’s Panic’s entire approach.

BGR: Apple to Discontinue iPad Mini

I never link to BGR, but Jonathan Geller heard an intriguing rumour that I think such a link is worth your time and attention:

First introduced in 2012, Apple’s iPad mini was a welcome alternative to the much larger, thicker, and heavier 9.7-inch iPad. There was no 5.5-inch iPhone Plus, so the iPad mini made a great choice for light reading and effortless web browsing, email, and gaming. The market doesn’t stand still, however, and we’re now looking at a redesigned iPad Pro to be launched this summer that should offer everything the current 9.7-inch iPad features, but in a smaller footprint with a larger 10.5-inch display.

On the other side, there’s the 5.5-inch iPhone 7 Plus, which is large enough to negate the need for a tablet for many users. The device you take everywhere, that’s always with you, that has the best camera, and that has everything else you need. The device that you already own. Therein lies the problem, and that’s why we have heard from a source close to Apple that the iPad mini is being phased out.

There’s a fair amount of news to unpack here, so let’s start with the headlining item, which isn’t really a surprise when you think about it: the new 9.7-inch iPad has a starting price $100 less than the Mini, and the Mini is only available in a 128 GB configuration that’s priced identically to the 128 GB iPad. If Apple wanted to keep the Mini around, they would likely also retain its differentiated price, or at least keep the 32 GB model in the lineup.

I’ll miss the Mini, though. Quite apart from size, the weight difference between the Mini and the 9.7-inch iPad makes the smaller model so much nicer to hold with one hand. The Mini also has the highest-density display that ships in any iPad which, combined with the weight and size, makes it perfect for reading.

Geller also mentions that the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is being replaced this summer with a 10.5-inch model, a rumour which has been corroborated by multiple websites. However, no report I’ve seen yet mentions the 12.9-inch Pro, and that doesn’t make any sense to me: the 9.7-inch Pro was introduced more recently than its larger sibling and has features that the bigger model still doesn’t, like a True Tone display and higher-quality cameras. It would surprise me if Apple updated the 9.7-inch Pro first, or didn’t make a meaningful upgrade to the 12.9-inch model at the same time — yet, I haven’t seen a single rumour about the big iPad Pro. Very peculiar.

See Also: Neil Cybart’s analysis of iPad Mini sales relative to the rest of the iPad line.

Inside Apple Park

Apple is clearly excited about Apple Park; they’ve been showing it off to journalists at a regular clips. In March, they gave Steven Levy a tour, and he published his account of it today in Wired:

Of course I’ve seen images of it, architectural equivalents of movie trailers for a much-awaited blockbuster. From the day Jobs presented to the Cupertino City Council, digital renderings of the Ring, as Apple calls the main building, have circulated widely. As construction progressed, enterprising drone pilots began flying their aircraft overhead, capturing aerial views in slickly edited YouTube videos accompanied by New Agey soundtracks. Amid all the fanboy anticipation, though, Apple has also taken some knocks for the scale and scope of the thing. Investors urging Apple to kick back more of its bounty to shareholders have questioned whether the reported $5 billion in construction costs should have gone into their own pockets instead of a workplace striving for history. And the campus’s opening comes at a point when, despite stellar earnings results, Apple has not launched a breakout product since Jobs’ death. Apple executives want us to know how cool its new campus is — that’s why they invited me. But this has also led some people to sniff that too much of its mojo has been devoted to giant glass panels, custom-built door handles, and a 100,000-square-foot fitness and wellness center complete with a two-story yoga room covered in stone, from just the right quarry in Kansas, that’s been carefully distressed, like a pair of jeans, to make it look like the stone at Jobs’ favorite hotel in Yosemite.

Investors who prioritize lining their own pockets over improvements for employees are gigantic assholes, but this is a pretty indulgent project, even by Silicon Valley standards. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — as I’ve written before, it’s as much an Apple product as the stuff that you can find in a retail store, just on a vastly larger scale. It wouldn’t be very Apple-y to build their new office without considering every way of making it more elegant.

There’s an anecdote Levy shares midway through the article where he and Jony Ive are looking at the concrete structure of some of the parking garages. Ive points out that many of the utility needs — plumbing, wiring, and so on — were incorporated into the beams instead of being left exposed, as is typical. It’s the kind of detail that, when repeated across all of the buildings at Apple Park, probably increased construction costs considerably. As a result, most companies would have probably nixed it early on. But Apple’s treatment is far more considered and resolved.

I was intrigued by some of the criticisms of the building that Levy chose to include in his article:

As Apple Park inches toward completion, its critics are getting louder, and what began with aesthetic judgments of the digital renderings — the Los Angeles Times’ architecture critic called the Ring a “retrograde cocoon” — has lately turned to social and cultural critiques. That the campus is a snobby isolated preserve, at odds with the trendy urbanist school of corporate headquarters. (Amazon, Twitter, and Airbnb are all part of a movement that hopes to integrate tech employees into cities as opposed to having them commute via fuel-gobbling cars or numbing Wi-Fi-equipped buses.)

I don’t necessarily object to these criticisms, but I have three observations:

  1. The rise of employees working from home or in remote locations means that the physical location of any corporate headquarters isn’t necessarily as impactful as it once was.

  2. I live in a city with a well-defined downtown core full of office towers, surrounded by largely-residential neighbourhoods. At night and on the weekend, the downtown core can feel apocalyptic.1 Corporate campuses outside of a city centre are kind of like an inverted version of that: their employees return to the city centre on weeknights and weekends, rather than leaving it.

  3. Apple Park really isn‘t that far away from major commercial strips in Cupertino and San Jose, and it‘s surrounded by residential neighbourhoods. If employees wish, they can live within walking or cycling distance of Apple Park.

Levy also notes that Apple Park lacks childcare facilities. In a 2014 Fortune story, Apple explained that their paternity leave policies extend to a total of eighteen weeks for expectant mothers, and up to six weeks for other expectant parents. Is that really enough support for new parents?


  1. This is changing. I’ve lived in the downtown core for about three years and I’ve noticed loads more people lately spending their evenings and weekends in the commercial core than I used to see. ↩︎

Apple’s New Retail Store at Piazza Liberty

How fitting is it that sixteen years after Steve Jobs showed the world the original format of the Apple Store comes what is likely their most ambitious location yet?

Piazza Liberty will be much like their Fifth Avenue and Pudong store locations, with the actual store located underground. But instead of a giant glass-encased Apple logo sitting above the entrance, they’re envisioning a massive renovation to the square, and placing the entrance behind a water feature.

I’ve been a little skeptical of Angela Ahrendts’ proposal to overhaul the stores to become the “third place” for groups of teenagers and young adults. It seems a little strange to go hang out at a computer shop. But the Piazza Liberty location looks like it could be a completely different kind of concept, because it really uses the historical space to give a true common area that just happens to be near an Apple Store.

Sending iTunes to a Farm Upstate Somewhere

MG Siegler comments on Microsoft’s announcement that iTunes would be coming to the Windows Store:

Anyway, the jokes came fast and furious on Twitter after the news was announced. But what’s actually funny here is that the jokes are basically the exact opposite of the one Steve Jobs made. Whereas Jobs noted that many Windows users would write to Apple to tell them that their favorite software on Microsoft’s OS was iTunes, no one says that anymore. In fact, no sane macOS user, myself included, would dare say such a thing about iTunes. Because it has been awful for the better part of this past decade now.

In fact, at this point, it’s old hat to rag on iTunes. It has been so bad, for so long, that the joke is stale. And yet, somehow Apple doesn’t seem to be in on the joke. Because if they were, surely iTunes would no longer exist.

I’ve long argued against the idea of splitting up iTunes into its myriad functions. I see the value in it — iTunes has almost become its own self-contained operating system — but I’ve long felt like it could be more complicated. To buy an album, put a few tracks in a playlist, and then sync it to your iPhone, you’d have to open the iTunes Store, purchase the record, then open the Music app to add the songs to a playlist, then open the Sync app — or whatever — to pop it onto your iPhone.

Except, that’s not right any more, at least not for many customers. To add a few songs from an album to a playlist on their Mac and then sync the playlist to their iPhone, they just have to add the songs in the Apple Music view of iTunes to the playlist of choice, and then iCloud should handle the rest.

The other piece of evidence that I had for why Apple would be reluctant to split iTunes into several core apps is that it would likely mean doing the same for Windows. But that investment would be far easier to stomach if they were required to make major changes in order to release iTunes on the Windows Store.1

I can’t think of many new features I’m aching for in the next major version of MacOS. One item that has persisted on my wish list for about ten years is a totally overhauled iTunes. Maybe that’s not what’s needed; it’s time to kill it and replace it entirely.


  1. Will Apple really be paying Microsoft’s 30% Windows Store fee for songs purchased in iTunes? ↩︎

Reports of the MP3’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

You may have heard that the company that invented the MP3 codec just recently killed it off, but you have heard wrong. If anything, it’s almost the opposite: the MP3 format has been set free.

Jason Koelber, Vice:

Fraunhofer’s announcement notes that the company is “terminating” the “licensing program” for the MP3, opening the door for royalty- and licensing-free use of the format. While it’s true that there are more efficient and higher quality methods of encoding audio these days (Spotify, iTunes, and other streaming services use OGG or AAC), this means that it’s now easier to make MP3s than it has ever been.

“If you look carefully, they weren’t announcing the death of the mp3, they’re announcing the end of their licensing program,” Witt told me. “That program has been in decline for years because of streaming, but now you no longer have to go to Fraunhofer to get their permission to use it. Fraunhofer made many billions of dollars of this thing, but as a profit source for them, it’s over. Now it’s kind of free technology and free use.”

The MP3 spec represents an antiquated way of compressing audio — compared to today’s formats, it requires a higher bitrate to achieve quality comparable to an AAC file, and isn’t nearly as good at preserving anything in the extremes of the audible spectrum. But it’s not dead and, unlike AAC, a license is no longer required to encode or decode an MP3 file.

How to Accidentally Stop a Global Ransomware Attack

“MalwareTech”:

I woke up at around 10 AM and checked onto the UK cyber threat sharing platform where i had been following the spread of the Emotet banking malware, something which seemed incredibly significant until today. There were a few of your usual posts about various organisations being hit with ransomware, but nothing significant…yet. I ended up going out to lunch with a friend, meanwhile the WannaCrypt ransomware campaign had entered full swing.

When I returned home at about 2:30, the threat sharing platform was flooded with posts about various NHS systems all across the country being hit, which was what tipped me of to the fact this was something big. Although ransomware on a public sector system isn’t even newsworthy, systems being hit simultaneously across the country is (contrary to popular belief, most NHS employees don’t open phishing emails which suggested that something to be this widespread it would have to be propagated using another method). I was quickly able to get a sample of the malware with the help of Kafeine, a good friend and fellow researcher. Upon running the sample in my analysis environment I instantly noticed it queried an unregistered domain, which I promptly registered.

The key takeaway in this story is that “MalwareTech” followed their usual protocols; the effect was simply far more profound in this instance. Incredible stuff.

Today’s Global Ransomware Attack Justifies Apple’s Stance in the San Bernardino iPhone Case

Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times:

Law enforcement agencies may want a way into highly secure gadgets and apps to further their investigations — such as when the FBI pressed Apple last year to hack into the iPhone used by a gunman in the San Bernardino terror attack. But the companies have repeatedly pointed out that there’s no safe way to build an entry point just for trusted government organizations.

Though the NSA hasn’t confirmed it was hacked, the purported leak of its tools shows that even supposedly secret vulnerabilities can get into the wrong hands.

“It goes back to the mafia expression,” said John Bambenek, threat research manager at Fidelis Cybersecurity. “The only way to keep a secret is for three people to know it and two of them to be dead.”

Because the potential contents of the San Bernardino iPhone involved such a high-profile and politically-charged case, Apple’s decision sounded, to some, like they were being either insensitive or overly politically correct. Most people with a technical background could see the implications if Apple was compelled to create a special version of iOS that would allow the FBI to breach that iPhone’s passcode. However, intervening time and major security breaches have proved their stance to be correct. Good for Apple to withstand political and public pressure to do what was right.

Alexa Doesn’t Support Caller Blocking

Nicole Nguyen, Buzzfeed:

To use Alexa calling and messaging, users need to verify their phone number and import their entire address book, which a spokesperson says is stored “securely in the Amazon cloud.” Your phone number essentially becomes your username and, like on WhatsApp and Signal, anyone with your phone number will be able to contact you on your at-home Echo or Echo Dot (including, er, PR people, much to the chagrin of this reporter). The key difference is that WhatsApp and Signal allow users to block certain contacts, while Alexa does not.

[…]

There are other privacy concerns as well. There’s no password protection to use Alexa calling, which means anyone in your household can make an Alexa call using your account. They can also ask your Echo device, “Play my message” when you receive a new text or voice message (Alexa calling does not support voicemail) and listen to that message without your consent.

The worst part of all of this? You need to phone Amazon to get them to deactivate it. Yeah — you can enable it via the app, but you have to wait on hold for someone else to deactivate it. That’s atrocious.

Apple’s Long-Term Investment in Corning

With today’s news from Apple that they’re investing $200 million from their recently-announced Advanced Manufacturing Fund in Corning Glass, I thought it might be fun to revisit how Corning became such an integral part of today’s consumer electronics.

Bryan Gardiner, Wired:

From above, Corning’s headquarters in upstate New York looks like a Space Invaders alien: Designed by architect Kevin Roche in the early ’90s, the structure fans out in staggered blocks. From the ground, though, the tinted windows and extended eaves make the building look more like a glossy, futuristic Japanese palace.

The office of Wendell Weeks, Corning’s CEO, is on the second floor, looking out onto the Chemung River. It was here that Steve Jobs gave the 53-year-old Weeks a seemingly impossible task: Make millions of square feet of ultrathin, ultrastrong glass that didn’t yet exist. Oh, and do it in six months. The story of their collaboration — including Jobs’ attempt to lecture Weeks on the principles of glass and his insistence that such a feat could be accomplished — is well known. How Corning actually pulled it off is not.

Apple’s attempt to switch to sapphire crystal for the iPhone 6 is something else that has been well-documented. While it didn’t work out for them, its failure seems to have ultimately strengthened their relationship with Corning.

The Software Security Model Is Broken

Chris Baraniuk, BBC News:

A massive ransomware campaign appears to have infected a number of organisations around the world.

Computers in thousands of locations have apparently been locked by a program that demands $300 (£230) in Bitcoin.

There have been reports of infections in more than 70 countries, including the UK, US, China, Russia, Spain, Italy and Taiwan.

Many security researchers are linking the incidents together.

BBC News:

NHS services across England and Scotland have been hit by a large-scale cyber-attack, which is being treated as a major incident.

The prime minister said the incident was part of a wider attack affecting organisations around the world.

Some hospitals and GPs cannot access patient data, after their computers were locked by a malicious program demanding a payment worth £230.

The individual aspects of this story aren’t necessarily new, but the scale of this attack is, as far as I can figure out, unprecedented. And, because of how widespread this attack is, the low ransom demand also appears to be a relatively new tactic. Instead of banking on a single target paying tens of thousands of dollars, the perpetrator can assume that more people will be willing to pay just $300 to get back to work.

Some reports are framing this attack through the method of its operation: it uses a method developed by the NSA and patched by Microsoft on March 14, before being leaked by Shadow Brokers a month later.

But, while that’s interesting, I don’t think it’s the main story. This attack reveals something that’s obvious to anyone whose main role during the holidays is updating their family’s computers: the software security model is deeply flawed. There are simply too many points of failure, and all of them are human.

Developers leave bugs in the software they build all the time. Sometimes, these bugs can be exploited in a way that allows someone to gain an elevated level of permissions. These bugs are typically only found when someone is actively trying to find them. Patches can be made available, but it’s up to users to decide to update.

Users have been conditioned to be wary of installing any software updates because it’s risky: software updates regularly break applications that users rely upon. In a home environment, that’s irritating; in an enterprise environment with life-or-death consequences — like in the NHS — an incompatibility can be disastrous.

Update: This specific strain of the malware should no longer spread now that a “sinkhole” domain was registered by a security researcher, completely by accident.

Is the Gig Economy Working?

The short answer: it depends on who you ask, and for what reasons.

Nathan Heller, the New Yorker:

The American workplace is both a seat of national identity and a site of chronic upheaval and shame. The industry that drove America’s rise in the nineteenth century was often inhumane. The twentieth-century corrective—a corporate workplace of rules, hierarchies, collective bargaining, triplicate forms—brought its own unfairnesses. Gigging reflects the endlessly personalizable values of our own era, but its social effects, untried by time, remain uncertain.

Support for the new work model has come together swiftly, though, in surprising quarters. On the second day of the most recent Democratic National Convention, in July, members of a four-person panel suggested that gigging life was not only sustainable but the embodiment of today’s progressive values. “It’s all about democratizing capitalism,” Chris Lehane, a strategist in the Clinton Administration and now Airbnb’s head of global policy and public affairs, said during the proceedings, in Philadelphia. David Plouffe, who had managed Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign before he joined Uber, explained, “Politically, you’re seeing a large contingent of the Obama coalition demanding the sharing economy.” Instead of being pawns in the games of industry, the panelists thought, working Americans could thrive by hiring out skills as they wanted, and putting money in the pockets of peers who had done the same. The power to control one’s working life would return, grassroots style, to the people.

The basis for such confidence was largely demographic. Though statistics about gigging work are few, and general at best, a Pew study last year found that seventy-two per cent of American adults had used one of eleven sharing or on-demand services, and that a third of people under forty-five had used four or more. “To ‘speak millennial,’ you ought to be talking about the sharing economy, because it is core and central to their economic future,” Lehane declared, and many of his political kin have agreed. No other commercial field has lately drawn as deeply from the Democratic brain trust. Yet what does democratized capitalism actually promise a politically unsettled generation? Who are its beneficiaries? At a moment when the nation’s electoral future seems tied to the fate of its jobs, much more than next month’s paycheck depends on the answers.

This is a long article, but it’s worth spending some time with. Heller does a fantastic job of delving into the nuances of “gig economy” jobs, and how participants are frequently sold a myth. That’s not to say that these jobs can’t be good, but rather that the groups of people who benefit most are often as imbalanced as in the broader economy.

The FCC Pretends to Support Net Neutrality and Privacy While Moving to Gut Both

Kit Walsh, writing for the EFF:

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has proposed a plan to eliminate net neutrality and privacy for broadband subscribers. Of course, those protections are tremendously popular, so Chairman Pai and his allies have been forced to pay lip service to preserving them in “some form.” How do we know it’s just lip service? Because the plan Pai is pushing will destroy the legal foundation for net neutrality. That’s right: if Pai succeeds, the FCC won’t have the legal authority to preserve net neutrality in just about any form. And if he’s read the case law, he knows it.

The FCC is dearly underestimating the intelligence of American voters. Despite tens of thousands of bogus comments made on their proposal to deregulate ISPs, the vast majority of what I’ve seen of the million-plus filings indicate overwhelming support for the continued classification of ISPs under Title II.

Analyzing a Counter-Intelligence Operation

Adam Nossiter, David E. Sanger and Nicole Perlroth, New York Times:

The National Security Agency in Washington picked up the signs. So did Emmanuel Macron’s bare-bones technology team. And mindful of what happened in the American presidential campaign, the team created dozens of false email accounts, complete with phony documents, to confuse the attackers.

Gadi Evron, writing for Hacker Noon:

So Macron’s people, and specifically Mounir Mahjoubi, who I want to make sure and meet one day, claim to have fed APT28 false data in a “counteroffensive”. Maybe they have’ maybe they haven’t. Maybe they did something else entirely. Maybe it wasn’t them.

Regardless, their PR win as shown above — planned or not — with or without cyber, was in the bag.

This is an incredible story, and its lessons should ripple through the information security world. The big takeaway is that Macron’s technology group guessed — correctly — that the campaign would be infiltrated at some point, so they planned around that assumed eventuality. At this point, that should be the default security mode for any major campaign or corporation: assume that a breach will occur, if it hasn’t already.

The FCC’s Net Neutrality Proposal Is Being Spammed

Zack Whittaker, ZDNet:

So much so that more than 58,000 identical comments have been posted since the feedback doors were opened, now representing over one-in-ten comments on the FCC’s feedback docket.

“The unprecedented regulatory power the Obama Administration imposed on the internet is smothering innovation, damaging the American economy and obstructing job creation,” the comment says. “I urge the Federal Communications Commission to end the bureaucratic regulatory overreach of the internet known as Title II and restore the bipartisan light-touch regulatory consensus that enabled the internet to flourish for more than 20 years.”

The comments follow the same pattern: the bot appears to cycle through names in an alphabetical order, leaving the person’s name, and postal address and zip code.

We reached out to two-dozen people by phone, and we left voicemails when nobody picked up. A couple of people late Tuesday called back and confirmed that they had not left any messages on the FCC’s website. One of the returning callers specifically said they didn’t know what net neutrality was. A third person reached in a Facebook message Tuesday also confirmed that they had not left any comments on any website.

Several people have pointed out how similar this comment is to a 2010 CFIF anti-net neutrality press release:

“The unprecedented regulatory power the Obama Administration seeks over the Internet is both unnecessary and dangerous,” said Timothy Lee, CFIF’s VP of Legal and Public Affairs. “The type of Net Neutrality regulations the administration seeks to impose on the Internet threaten to cut off tens of billions of dollars in private investment annually, and will cost our struggling economy good-paying American jobs at a time when we can least afford it.”

I doubt the CFIF is being this campaign to discredit the FCC’s open comment process, but this looks like astroturfing by an organization that wants to undo net neutrality rules. If it is, that’s shameful. I hope the FCC ignores these clearly automated comments.

Amazon Announces $229 Box With Screen

James Vincent, the Verge:

Amazon has officially unveiled its latest Echo product: a touchscreen device with built-in Alexa called the Echo Show. The device was extensively leaked this week, but is now available to pre-order from Amazon for $229.99.

The Show has the same basic capabilities as the regular, voice-only Echo (like setting timers and listening to music) but the built-in display adds plenty of new functionality. The Show’s screen will give users more information about their Alexa queries (displaying a full weather report or the steps in each recipe, for example), and can be used to play videos, including news briefings from the likes of CNN, and content from YouTube and Amazon Video.

This sounds promising, right? Kind of like having an iPad Mini that’s always on and features a way better version of Siri. Only one small problem: it’s hideous. Nostalgia may be a powerful force, but I don’t imagine many people are nostalgic for a mid-1980s appliance. It weighs a kilo, so it’s meant to sit in one place all the time, and that place is probably going to be somewhere in the open because of the kind of device this is. People will see it.

I’m not saying that it should look like an iMac, either. In fact, I’m glad it isn’t yet another product aping Apple’s design language, because I think there are plenty of other ways to design consumer electronics. But that doesn’t mean it needs to be ugly.

This might sell well; it might sell poorly. I don’t know, and I wouldn’t want to prognosticate failure simply because the Echo Show doesn’t look good. But I wouldn’t buy this iteration of it.

Update: Perhaps the biggest Amazon news of today wasn’t the Echo Show, but the rebuilt Alexa app that is going head-to-head with iMessage and FaceTime.

Go FCC Yourself

Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica:

Comedian John Oliver has once again asked his viewers to fight on behalf of net neutrality, and the Federal Communications Commission website wasn’t able to handle the immediate influx of angry comments.

On HBO’s Last Week Tonight, Oliver yesterday announced a new URL, gofccyourself.com, that redirects to the FCC proposal to eliminate net neutrality rules. (Clicking “Express” is the easiest way to submit a comment.) The comments website promptly crashed, making it difficult or impossible to file comments last night and this morning. The comments site has started working, but only intermittently.

As of writing, approximately 140,000 people have submitted feedback encouraging the FCC to keep ISPs classified as Title II companies. Three years ago, however, about four million submission were posted for the then-proposed rules that also would have destroyed net equality. If you’re American, you should comment.

Marguerite Reardon, CNet:

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai wants a do-over of the rules governing net neutrality.

But he’s trying to keep an open mind about the proceedings.

“I don’t have any predetermined views as to where we’re going to go,” he said in an interview with CNET on Thursday. “That’s the reason that we call it a notice of proposed rulemaking. It’s not a decree.”

Later in the same interview:

“Are we going to treat this new technology as we do the water company, or the electric company, or Ma Bell from the 1930s?” he said.

The internet is not a new technology any longer, and Pai’s feigned ignorance of that makes it sound like he’s made up his mind: he doesn’t believe the internet is as much of a utility as it truly is.

“Ultimately, my hope is that a return to that bipartisan, Clinton-era light-touch approach, one that served us well for 20 years, is going to be one that finds bipartisan support again,” he said.

Pai has called the Title II classification of ISPs a “partisan” issue on several occasions — you can see another instance of it in Oliver’s piece. But net neutrality hasn’t been a partisan issue or decision until the Republican party decided to make it one by framing it as “Obamacare for the internet”. It isn’t a partisan issue, not really. It’s a power struggle between every American and a handful of corporate interests, and Pai is on the ISPs’ side.

JP Morgan: Free AirPods With the Next iPhone

Tom Sykes at the Apple Post:

Apple’s upcoming iPhone 8 is building itself up to be one of the most anticipated iPhone releases of all time, and the latest research note published by analyst JP Morgan adds to the anticipation by claiming Apple will offer free AirPods with the premium iPhone 8, music to the ears of many who are eager to get their hands on Apple’s wireless earbuds.

I’m not saying this absolutely cannot or will not happen, but why would Apple give away a product for which it is currently struggling to meet demand, and which gives them the potential of an extra $160 per iPhone buyer? The answer, of course, is that they wouldn’t, so something — or, more likely, everything — about this rumour is wrong.

iCloud Is a Magical Black Box

Riccardo Mori:

iCloud has indeed got better over time, but perhaps the main reason that’s still keeping me from going all-in with it is that the service is too out-of-the-way, too invisible to the user, while I require a certain degree of transparency from a service that’s supposed to sync a lot of my files and information over the air. Yes, it’s nice that iCloud feels like magic when everything works. The problem is that ‘magic’ becomes ‘black box’ when something doesn’t work.

I don’t frequently see errors in iCloud but, when I do, there’s virtually no way to debug them other than hitting the “Try Again” button.

I’ve told this story before, but back when I was setting up iCloud Photo Library, I ran into a strange error where none of my devices would upload my photos. Toggling iCloud off and back on would briefly show a message saying that it was waiting for an iCloud backup to complete — I don’t use iCloud backups on my phone. After toggling everything I could think of, rebooting my iOS devices and Mac several times, trying different WiFi networks, and even restoring my phone, I resorted to filing a bug report. That’s a step almost no users would take.

The nice people who handle bug reports wanted me to install a logging profile. Users would struggle with this despite Apple’s straightforward instructions.

A week later, I received an email from someone in iCloud engineering. She scheduled a call and worked on my case personally. She was able to resolve the bug on my iPhone remotely, but found that a similar bug with Photos on the web wasn’t fixed yet. She filed an internal ticket; nearly a month later, it was fixed, too.

A system like this isn’t scalable. iCloud bugs are such a mysterious black box that a technician at an Apple Store or typical phone support would not be able to assist with resolving them. A typical user would no more consider firing up Console than they would think about filing a radar, but at least the system log can assist a more advanced user with debugging on their own.

Trust in Apple’s Services

One of the most captivating story lines at Apple over the past fifteen years or so is the growth of their services business. It’s now booking over $7 billion in revenue per quarter for the company, and its tight integration with the first-party software that Apple ships on its product lines helps build a case for customer loyalty, but only if they make their cloud services truly great. And, for a long time, that wasn’t the case.

But today, Ryan Christoffel makes the case in MacStories that Apple’s services are actually, well, good:

The Apple of today has made services a core part of its business. Not only from a financial standpoint, but also in the area of user experience. The experience Apple sells is not merely one of hardware, or software – it includes services. And it’s that Apple experience that helped make the iPhone one of the most successful products in the history of the world.

[…]

You can draw your own conclusions from this story, but mine is that Apple’s services get a bad rap they generally don’t deserve; the company’s reputation for not doing services well is outdated. Are things perfect? Of course not. But they’re a lot better than the common narrative says.

Of the fourteen services Christoffel says he relies upon, I am a frequent user of eleven: iCloud Calendar syncing, iCloud Drive, Photos, Maps, Apple Pay, iTunes, Apple Music, News, iMessage, Siri, and the App Store. I also use a few services he doesn’t mention, like Reminders and Contacts syncing, and iCloud Keychain.

And, much like many of you I’m sure, I’ve had shaky experiences with pretty much all of these. iCloud Drive files take forever to show up on different devices, for example, and Maps data is still incomplete and occasionally incorrect where I live.1 iTunes preorders are still buggy,2 while Siri remains painfully obtuse when it comes to following context.3

But a few years ago, I went practically all-in on Apple’s services and I’ve reached a similar — if less enthusiastic — conclusion as Christoffel: they’ve become quite good. iMessage notifications, for example, go to the device I’m currently using without lighting up every device at once. Apple Music has performed reliably, and the For You recommendations strike a good balance between discoverability and familiarity. Much to my surprise, iCloud Keychain and Photos have been bulletproof over the past couple of years, in particular.

I don’t blame anyone for their skepticism of Apple’s cloud services offerings; for a very long time, these services were entirely deserving of their lacklustre reputation. Next to Google’s established and reliable offerings, Apple was playing a fast game of catch-up in public, and it showed. Despite their presently-good state, however, I get a wary look whenever I recommend many of Apple’s services to someone who asks. A lot of people have been burned before by bad experiences with Maps or iTunes, and are reluctant to trust in more Apple services.

And that’s unfortunate, because I’ve found that Apple’s products — much like any other tech company’s — work a lot better when you invest deeper into their ecosystem. Getting users to trust in doing so, however, is going to be as hard for Apple as were the technical improvements to their services.


  1. Recent highlights include an entire stretch of businesses that were placed on 10A Street instead of 10 Street, a car dealership marked as a golf course, and areas marked as parks contradicted by the aerial view. ↩︎

  2. When my preorder of Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.” became available for download, iTunes failed to update the tags on the lead single “HUMBLE.” for accuracy. ↩︎

  3. My girlfriend’s conversation with Siri, not too long ago:

    “Remind me to send in my application tomorrow at 9 PM.”

    Did you mean Sunday or Monday?

    “Sunday.”

    Okay, I found this on the web for Sunday. ↩︎

Microsoft Launches Surface Laptop

The long-rumoured Surface Laptop is, at last, a reality, and it looks damn good. Michael Tsai’s roundup is, as usual, a terrific summary of early media impressions.

I’d love to take a closer look at this thing. It seems to slot in between the MacBook and the 13-inch MacBook Pro, if those products shipped with Gatekeeper switched to allow apps only from the App Store.

See Also: Jack Wellborn’s excellent 2015 article on Microsoft building the reference designs for Windows OEMs.

Analysis of Internal Facebook Code Submissions Reveals Gender Bias

Deepa Seetharaman, Wall Street Journal (paywalled, but you can click through from Twitter):

Last year, a longtime engineer at Facebook Inc. gathered data that revealed a controversial finding: Code written by women was rejected much more frequently than code written by their male colleagues, according to people familiar with the matter and screenshots of internal discussions viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Julia Carrie Wong, the Guardian:

In October, Jay Parikh, Facebook’s vice-president of engineering, told engineers internally that the company had conducted its own analysis of the code review process “using confidential employee data so we could gain a better understanding of what is happening”.

The Facebook analysis took into account engineers’ “level” within the company and found “no statistically significant difference” between female and male engineers within the same level.

Parikh attributed the difference that the original analysis found to “the difference in gender distribution between levels”, meaning the fact that Facebook has more female engineers at lower levels than higher levels.

While Parikh’s comment might sound like it disputes the engineer’s analysis, it doesn’t necessarily do either and it provides support for the engineer’s claim that there is significant gender bias within Facebook — and, likely, throughout most tech companies. He’s basically saying that female engineers are not promoted as frequently as their male colleagues to higher positions within the company.

This isn’t entirely new information — a 2016 study found that female contributors to open source project on GitHub were more likely have their contributions accepted when they had gender neutral names, but less likely when they had more typically feminine names. This data lends further support to a pervasive gender bias in the tech community. A band-aid solution would be to require all code reviews to be anonymous; a more comprehensive solution is to value women.

Travis Kalanick Cancelled His Code Conference Interview

Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, Recode:

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is not the first exec to deal with sexual harassment and sexism issues. And he’s not the first to be accused of stealing technology. He’s also not the first to anger customers through cloddish statements. And he’s not the first to face significant doubts about his ability to manage a fast-growing startup.

But he is the very first speaker in the 15 years we have been putting on our tech and media events to cancel his interview due to the many embarrassing issues at his company. In this case, because the report from former Attorney General Eric Holder on Uber’s culture and management problems has been delayed until the week of Code at the end of May.

Without Swisher and Mossberg hammering Kalanick about Uber’s stormy past few months, this should alleviate a potential PR problem. Yet, the PR problem is not the concern.

‘Dok’ Malware on MacOS

Ofer Caspi of Check Point Software:

People often assume that if you’re running OSX, you’re relatively safe from malware. But this is becoming less and less true, as evidenced by a new strain of malware encountered by the Check Point malware research team. This new malware – dubbed OSX/Dok — affects all versions of OSX, has 0 detections on VirusTotal (as of the writing of these words), is signed with a valid developer certificate (authenticated by Apple), and is the first major scale malware to target OSX users via a coordinated email phishing campaign.

Once OSX/Dok infection is complete, the attackers gain complete access to all victim communication, including communication encrypted by SSL. This is done by redirecting victim traffic through a malicious proxy server.

Glenn Fleishman, Macworld:

Apple confirmed that Gatekeeper wasn’t bypassed. That developer certificate has been revoked, which will prevent it launching in the future without a warning. Apple has confirmed that it updated XProtect, its silent malware signature system, to ward it off as well. There’s no indication about how many users might have been infected, as Check Point’s research team encountered it in the wild.

The malware is only able to execute its payload by requiring the user to jump through a lot of manual steps — including, of course, typing an administrator’s password. MacOS requires administrator-level privileges on a semi-regular basis; a user might type their admin password into a prompt at least a few times every week without really thinking about it. As much as all of us are aware that we shouldn’t open sketchy email attachments, we should also be very cautious of any request for a system admin password.

Fortunately, Apple has an existing asset that would make the Mac far more secure: the Mac App Store. Apps there are vetted and, because of the store’s rules, would never ask a user for an admin password. If the Mac App Store were part of a healthier ecosystem, I think more users would see it as their first choice and, consequently, be more concerned when any app requests an admin password.

A New Vocabularity for Net Neutrality

DeRay Mckesson:

Does someone have a better name than “net neutrality” to describe the issue? It’s not resonating with people at all.

Mckesson is right: net neutrality needs a more effective name. However, more than not resonating, I think the almost bureaucratic wording of the phrase “net neutrality” has allowed it to become politically twisted and skewed. Remember this word salad tweet from Ted Cruz in 2014?

“Net Neutrality” is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.

This doesn’t even come close to making sense.

Mckesson’s followers chimed in with great suggestions for clearer and more direct messaging. “Internet freedom” and “internet liberty” were common terms, both of which sound very American. If I got to vote for a name, though, it would likely be for “net equality”. Instead of erring on the side of describing how traffic is treated, “net equality” promotes the effect of network neutrality. More than that, it makes clear what net neutrality advocates are protesting: network inequality proposed by ISPs.

Tech Companies Should Stop Hiding Behind Shady Privacy Policies

Karissa Bell, Mashable:

[…] the problem is not that Unroll.me was scraping data from users’ inboxes and selling it (in anonymized form) to third parties, but the lack of transparency that this was happening. The company’s entire business model is predicated on data collection but nowhere on the company’s app, website, sign-up page, or anywhere else was that made clear. (Hedaya has said he plans to address this.)

Even if you took the time to read their privacy policy — and, let’s be real, no one does — it doesn’t explicitly spell this out. “We may collect and use your commercial transactional messages and associated data to build anonymous market research products and services with trusted business partners,” it says. But in no way does it make clear that Unroll.me is literally in the business of selling data.

Think about the laws and common-sense ethics that are skirted when it comes to data sharing. Practically every web service stretches what they can get away with, requires opting out of practices that users may find objectionable, and only requires opting into something when it’s required by law. Just look at the super grossDark Patterns” that try to trick users into allowing their information to be shared and sold widely, with little oversight.

I can’t think of anyone who would think that this is a good idea. I can think of lots of people who see this trickery as profitable, but who actually believes that these now-commonplace anti-privacy practices are ethical, or something that they would like to be subjected to as a user?

The Circle Is Our Boring Dystopia

For Gizmodo, Christina Warren reviewed James Ponsoldt’s film adaptation of Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel:

This is a film that had the opportunity to be timely and relevant. If anything, the film didn’t go far enough, because everything seems so plausible. That plausibility — the fact that we’re already living in a world the film is trying to portray as a scary future — hurts the film. Whatever it’s trying to say, it never really lands.

While flawed, Eggers’ novel was a decent argument of our near-future dystopia. Based on Warren’s review, it seems that the amount of time between the book’s release and the film seems to have blunted much of its criticism; or, at least, what was once merely realistic has become reality. What a shame.

Twitterrific Update Rejected for Alternative User-Selectable Icons

The Iconfactory’s Sean Heber on Twitter:

Try to do something fun and get an App Store rejection for it.

[…]

We could change the app icon on each update but letting the user choose between those same icons at will is TOTALLY AGAINST THE RULES.

We could have a light or a dark icon because we have light and dark themes. And that’s it. Any other choices are right out!

To be clear, it appears that Twitterrific was rejected for using the new icon changing API to allow users to change the app‘s icon. Apparently, this is because the alternative icons are too different from the standard app icon or, in some way, are not reflective of the app’s branding.

First off, I’ve seen the alternative icons Heber is referring to here. They’re not that far off from the default — certainly not enough to cause you to confuse Twitterrific for another app. They add a nice smidgen of customizability.

Second, multiple users pointed out the inconsistency between the App Review team’s rejection of Twitterrific after approving two sports apps that allow users to change the app icon to the logo of their favourite team.

Third, I don’t see anything in the App Review guidelines that indicates parameters for what constitutes acceptable — or unacceptable — alternative icons. Apple’s guidelines might be relatively straightforward and agreeable, but without publishing them, it looks like they’re favouring gigantic enterprises over independent developers or using a different rulebook.

Update: Ged Maheux:

Hey, guess who I just got a call from? A very nice rep at Apple saying we can put the alternate app icons back in Twitterrific. Woot!!

I’m glad to hear that this has been resolved in favour of the Iconfactory, but developers shouldn’t need to deal with the confusion and ambiguity that comes from a situation like this. Rules should be clear and applied consistently to all developers regardless of size.

Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria

A fascinating pair of articles came out earlier this month on the ambition and lacklustre reality of Google Books. I’ve read them both and I’ve very little to add other than my recommendation that you read them both.

James Somers, for the Atlantic, focuses his story mainly on the lawsuit and failed settlement between the copyright holders, authors, librarians, and Google:

It was the first project that Google ever called a “moonshot.” Before the self-driving car and Project Loon—their effort to deliver Internet to Africa via high-altitude balloons—it was the idea of digitizing books that struck the outside world as a wide-eyed dream. Even some Googlers themselves thought of the project as a boondoggle. “There were certainly lots of folks at Google that while we were doing Google Book Search were like, Why are we spending all this money on this project?,” Clancy said to me. “Once Google started being a little more conscious about how it was spending money, it was like, wait, you have $40 million a year, $50 million a year on the cost of scanning? It’s gonna cost us $300 to $400 million before we’re done? What are you thinking? But Larry and Sergey were big supporters.”

In August 2010, Google put out a blog post announcing that there were 129,864,880 books in the world. The company said they were going to scan them all.

Of course, it didn’t quite turn out that way. This particular moonshot fell about a hundred-million books short of the moon. What happened was complicated but how it started was simple: Google did that thing where you ask for forgiveness rather than permission, and forgiveness was not forthcoming. Upon hearing that Google was taking millions of books out of libraries, scanning them, and returning them as if nothing had happened, authors and publishers filed suit against the company, alleging, as the authors put it simply in their initial complaint, “massive copyright infringement.”

Scott Rosenberg’s story for Backchannel is shorter than Somers’, but it’s a good overview at the myriad complications of scanning and indexing tens of millions of books, including concerns about a private tech company having so much control over information:

When Google partnered with university libraries to scan their collections, it had agreed to give them each a copy of the scanning data, and in 2008 the HathiTrust began organizing and sharing those files. (It had to fend off the Authors Guild in court, too.) HathiTrust has 125 member organizations and institutions who “believe that we can better steward research and cultural heritage by working together than alone or by leaving it to an organization like Google,” says Mike Furlough, the trust’s director. And of course there’s the Library of Congress itself, whose new leader, Carla Hayden, has committed to opening up public access to its collections through digitization.

In a sense each of these outfits is a competitor to Google Books. But in reality, Google is so far ahead that none of them is likely to catch up. The consensus among observers is that it cost Google several hundred million dollars to build Google Books, and nobody else is going to spend that kind of money to perform the feat a second time.

Tangentially, yesterday was World Intellectual Property Day, which serves as a reminder that much of the world’s information is kept in private hands for an increasingly-indefinite period of time.

FCC Chair Ajit Pai to Propose Sweeping Changes to Net Neutrality Rules

Well, you knew this was coming, and here it is. Cecilia Kang of the New York Times:

The chairman, Ajit Pai, said high-speed internet service should no longer be treated like a public utility with strict rules, as it is now. Instead, he said, the industry should largely be left to police itself.

The plan is Mr. Pai’s most forceful action in his race to roll back rules that govern telecommunications, cable and broadcasting companies, which he says are harmful to business. But he is certain to face a contentious battle with the consumers and tech companies that rallied around the existing rules, which are meant to prevent broadband providers like AT&T and Comcast from giving special treatment to any streaming videos, news sites and other content.

“Two years ago, I warned that we were making a serious mistake,” Mr. Pai said at the Newseum in Washington, where he laid out the plan in a speech. “It’s basic economics. The more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you’re likely to get.”

For once, I agree with Pai: yes, the more heavily you regulate the ways in which internet service providers can create a private rigged market that they control, the less of that you’re likely to get. For some reason, he sees that as a bad thing.

When I wrote yesterday about the creativity some startups might need to explore due to constraints in a more cautious investment climate, I was reminded by Dean Young of how important regulatory policy can be for the same reason. Strongly regulating ISPs can ultimately be a very good thing for consumers, as they’ll have to compete more aggressively on service quality, speed, and price, rather than distracting subscribers with a few zero-rated services like Spotify or Hulu. It’s telling that the only defence ISPs can muster against common carrier classification is that the law is old.

Rollin Bishop, the Outline:

It just depends on which part of the government picks up the fight, if any. If Pai and the FCC fail to scrub the 2015 order, Congress could attempt legislation to give the FCC clear rules on how to proceed, and if both the FCC and Congress fail, it’s possible that the trade associations that had litigated previously would do so again.

And that’s why, even with the odds stacked against them, advocates are optimistic. It’s a continuing fight, and there’s opportunity to influence policy at every step. Comment on the FCC public docket. Call representatives. Just participating in the fight at all is one of the biggest steps any one person can do. Public opposition is part of what killed the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in 2012 with grassroots organizations as well as companies like Google and Facebook opposing such a broad expansion of online copyright infringement policies.

I know there’s a lot going on in the United States, between attempts at undoing all sorts of protections and rules introduced by the previous administration, and new laws targeted at immigrants and women. I know many of you have been encouraged to call your representatives regularly. But, please, keep doing so. A phone call to your representative’s office will remind them that they should be listening to you.

Update: Karl Bode, Techdirt:

The problem Pai faces now is two-fold. One, net neutrality has broad, incredible bi-partisan support, and those consumers are certain to give him an earful during the public comment period that will begin after the May 18 vote. If Pai isn’t familiar with the concept of backlash and overreach, he may want to bone up on some history. Pai will also need to show to the courts that the market has changed dramatically enough since the FCC’s June 2016 win over ISPs to justify a massive reversal of the rules. If he can’t, his entire effort will be struck down.

As a lawyer Pai knows this, which is why I still think Pai’s playing a game of good cop, bad cop. Under this plan, Pai saber rattles for a few months about his intent to kill net neutrality, at which point the GOP shows up with some “compromise” legislation (likely this summer) that claims to codify net neutrality into law, but is worded in such a way (by the ISP lawyers that will inevitably write it) so the loophole-riddled “solution” is worse than no rules at all. If I were to guess, the legislation will come from Senator John Thune, who attempted to derail the 2015 net neutrality rules using a similar strategy.

Watch this space.

The Value of Twitter

Kia Kokalitcheva of Axios covers Twitter’s latest earnings report:

The company now has 328 million monthly active users, up by 9 million since the previous quarter, and growing its daily active users by 14% since the year-ago quarter.

Though it beat analyst estimates, Twitter’s quarterly revenue dropped to $548 million, down from $717 million the previous quarter, and an 8% year-over-year decrease. However, the company managed to shrink its quarterly net loss to $62 million, its lowest in the past year.

Bob Lefsetz:

So celebrate the company that is driving the zeitgeist, where all stories get started, where those addicted to news live. Newspapers come second. TV is a comparative joke. And everybody worth their salt in either medium is right there on Twitter, whether it be Rachel Maddow or Margaret Sullivan.

[…]

We want people to make us think. We want to know where it’s all going and what it all means.

And there’s no better place to do this than on Twitter.

If you’re an information junkie, there really is no better place to be today than on Twitter. In the ten years that I’ve been a member, I’ve had my constantly-updating feed always open on my desktop. It’s nothing like any other platform — including, by the way, in the amount of harassment experienced by its members.

Steven Levy of Backchannel interviewed Jack Dorsey on a wide range of topics including Twitter’s harassment problem:

We recognized that the very nature of the product was giving unfair advantage to people who wanted to harass. So we needed to change the product experience. We made it a priority last year, but to be very frank and honest, we only shipped one meaningful thing all year. So our progress is not something that we are proud of.

Why was that? Why did you fall short?

A variety of reasons. We recognized that at the end of the year, in December, and we just took on a completely different mindset. We had people drop what they were doing and really focus on this as an issue. And in the past three months we’ve been shipping every single day against this, and I think have made meaningful progress, [even though] it’s not felt as much. We also, in the previous year, put a lot of burden on the victim instead of taking the burden upon ourselves So we learned a bunch in that past year around how slow we were, and we just completely shifted our mindset.

December? December? Who would have thought that filling leadership and technical roles primarily with white men would make Twitter really bad at prioritizing and executing anti-harassment policies and features?

Amazon Echo Look

Jonathan Sawyer, High Snobiety:

First off, Echo Look takes photos and/or videos via voice command, with built-in lighting and a depth-sensing camera that allows you to blur the background of your image, further highlighting your outfit. These clean, full-length photos can then easily be shared with friends.

Style Check in turn combines the best in machine learning with advice from fashion specialists. You can compare/contrast two particular outfits, as Style Check will then give you a recommendation on what to wear, based on current trends and what looks best on you.

Jason Koebler, Vice:

Amazon store images and videos taken by Echo Look indefinitely, the company told us. Audio recorded by the original Echo has already been sought out in a murder case; to its credit, Amazon fought a search warrant in that case.

“All photos and video captured with your Echo Look are securely stored in the AWS cloud and locally in the Echo Look app until a customer deletes them,” a spokesperson for the company said. “You can delete the photos or videos associated with your account anytime in the Echo Look App.”

Motherboard also asked if Echo Look photos, videos, and the data gleaned from them would be sold to third parties; the company did not address that question.

Amazon is introducing this product two weeks after that one Burger King ad that triggered Google Home. I don’t think it’s paranoia to suggest that having a constantly-connected hands-free camera sitting where you usually get dressed is a gigantic red flag for privacy.

Silicon Valley Investors Are Getting Pickier

Eliot Brown, Wall Street Journal (bypass the paywall using Twitter):

In 2014 and 2015, mutual funds, hedge funds and other investors pumped billions into companies that they now see as overvalued, and unlikely to pull off an initial public offering. As venture capitalists became more discerning, investment in U.S. tech startups plummeted by 30% in dollar terms last year from a year earlier.

[…]

Venture-capital firms remain flush with cash: They raised $44 billion last year, the most since the dot-com boom.

But investors are staying away from scores of initially well-funded startups that once looked like relatively safe bets, forcing these companies to fight for survival as they burn through their stockpiles of cash and scramble for new money or buyers.

On a related note, everyone’s favourite story of the past month just keeps on giving with Ben Einstein’s teardown of a Juicero:

Our usual advice to hardware founders is to focus on getting a product to market to test the core assumptions on actual target customers, and then iterate. Instead, Juicero spent $120M over two years to build a complex supply chain and perfectly engineered product that is too expensive for their target demographic.

Imagine a world where Juicero raised only $10M and built a product subject to significant constraints. Maybe the Press wouldn’t be so perfectly engineered but it might have a fewer features and cost a fraction of the original $699. Or maybe with a more iterative approach, they would have quickly found that customers vary greatly in their juice consumption patterns, and would have chosen a per-pack pricing model rather than one-size-fits-all $35/week subscription. Suddenly Juicero is incredibly compelling as a product offering, at least to this consumer.

I’m not sure it’s always the case, but limitations tend to produce better solutions to complex problems. Perhaps venture capitalists’ newfound hesitance can translate into lower-cost better products that appeal to a wider customer base. Maybe there will be fewer startups trying to solve the irritations of the wealthy.

The Internet Archive and Robots.txt

Mark Graham of the Internet Archive:

Robots.txt files were invented 20+ years ago to help advise “robots,” mostly search engine web crawlers, which sections of a web site should be crawled and indexed for search.

Many sites use their robots.txt files to improve their SEO (search engine optimization) by excluding duplicate content like print versions of recipes, excluding search result pages, excluding large files from crawling to save on hosting costs, or “hiding” sensitive areas of the site like administrative pages. (Of course, over the years malicious actors have also used robots.txt files to identify those same sensitive areas!) Some crawlers, like Google, pay attention to robots.txt directives, while others do not.

Over time we have observed that the robots.txt files that are geared toward search engine crawlers do not necessarily serve our archival purposes. Internet Archive’s goal is to create complete “snapshots” of web pages, including the duplicate content and the large versions of files.

Ed Summers:

Up until now the Internet Archive have used the robots.txt in two ways:

  • their ia_archiver web crawler consults a publisher’s robots.txt to determine what parts of a website to archive and how often

  • the Wayback Machine (the view of the archive) consults the robots.txt to determine what to allow people to view from the archived content it has collected.

If the Internet Archive’s blog post is read at face value it seems like they are going to stop doing these things altogether, not just for government websites, but for the entire web. While conversation in Twitter makes it seem like this is a great idea whose time has come, I think this would be a step backwards for the web and for its most preeminent archive, and I hope they will reconsider or take this as an opportunity for a wider discussion.

I get where Graham is coming from here. The Internet Archive is supposed to be a snapshot of the web as it was at any given time, and if a robots.txt file prevents them from capturing a page or a section of a website that would normally be visible to a user, that impairs their mission.

But, much as I love the Internet Archive, I think Summers’ criticism is entirely valid: ignoring robots.txt files would violate website publishers’ wishes. It’s as simple as that. Even though I wish FFFFOUND didn’t block the Internet Archive from capturing the site, I think that request should be respected by the Archive. Robots.txt is a simple, straightforward format for publishers to designate which areas of their site are off-limits to scrapers and crawlers, and that should be respected.

Apple Cuts Affiliate Commissions on Apps and In-App Purchases

John Voorhees, MacStories:

Today, Apple announced that it is reducing the commissions it pays on apps and In-App Purchases from 7% to 2.5% effective May 1st. The iTunes Affiliate Program pays a commission from Apple’s portion of the sale of apps and other media when a purchase is made with a link that contains the affiliate credentials of a member of the program. Anyone can join, but the Affiliate Program is used heavily by websites that cover media sold by Apple and app developers.

In the four hours since I received Apple’s notice in my inbox earlier today, I’ve been completely puzzled by this move. Why drop the affiliate commission, but only for apps? Why now? Would this make more sense if we knew of any plans Apple might have for the App Store that they could unveil at WWDC?

While I’m part of the iTunes Affiliate Program, I rarely link to anything and I’ve made something like $70 in the entire time I’ve had the account. It doesn’t affect me directly, one way or another, but this sucks for any online publication with a revenue stream dependent on affiliate commission.

Update: This has been clarified by Apple, as of May 4: only in-app purchase commissions are being cut.

Unroll.me’s CEO Responds to Backlash

One more tasty nugget from Mike Isaac’s excellent profile of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has been making the rounds:

They spent much of their energy one-upping rivals like Lyft. Uber devoted teams to so-called competitive intelligence, purchasing data from an analytics service called Slice Intelligence. Using an email digest service it owns named Unroll.me, Slice collected its customers’ emailed Lyft receipts from their inboxes and sold the anonymized data to Uber. Uber used the data as a proxy for the health of Lyft’s business. (Lyft, too, operates a competitive intelligence team.)

Slice confirmed that it sells anonymized data (meaning that customers’ names are not attached) based on ride receipts from Uber and Lyft, but declined to disclose who buys the information.

Unroll.me bills itself as a way to “clean up your inbox” by bundling together bulk emails and newsletters into daily digests, which sounds just great. In order to do that, they need to be able to monitor your emails. And they’re a free service, so you can do the math on how they make their money.

Anyway, Unroll.me’s CEO Jojo Hedaya is shocked — shocked — that anyone would find this objectionable:

Our users are the heart of our company and service. So it was heartbreaking to see that some of our users were upset to learn about how we monetize our free service.

And while we try our best to be open about our business model, recent customer feedback tells me we weren’t explicit enough.

No shit. I suppose our parent company spies on your online purchases for marketing purposes is a less-agreeable tagline.

Sure we have a Terms of Service Agreement and a plain-English Privacy Policy that our users agree they have read and understand before they even sign up, but the reality is most of us – myself included – don’t take the time to thoroughly review them.

Hedaya certainly hasn’t read either of these agreements, as the Terms of Service specifically prohibits the links in his post — and, incidentally, in mine:

The Website must not be framed on any other site, nor may you create a link to any part of the Website other than the homepage.

Oops.

Hedaya again:

I can’t stress enough the importance of your privacy. We never, ever release personal data about you. All data is completely anonymous and related to purchases only.

If a company owned by one of the largest retailers in the world recorded every receipt you’d received via email, do you think that you’d be completely anonymous? That’s a false promise; much like most other “anonymous” big data sets, the combination of attributes can easily reveal individual users even without explicitly knowing their names.

A Profile of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick

Mike Isaac’s profile for the New York Times of Travis Kalanick includes some fascinating reporting, but little more is as shocking as the opener:

Travis Kalanick, the chief executive of Uber, visited Apple’s headquarters in early 2015 to meet with Timothy D. Cook, who runs the iPhone maker. It was a session that Mr. Kalanick was dreading.

For months, Mr. Kalanick had pulled a fast one on Apple by directing his employees to help camouflage the ride-hailing app from Apple’s engineers. The reason? So Apple would not find out that Uber had secretly been tracking iPhones even after its app had been deleted from the devices, violating Apple’s privacy guidelines.

But Apple was on to the deception, and when Mr. Kalanick arrived at the midafternoon meeting sporting his favorite pair of bright red sneakers and hot-pink socks, Mr. Cook was prepared. “So, I’ve heard you’ve been breaking some of our rules,” Mr. Cook said in his calm, Southern tone. Stop the trickery, Mr. Cook then demanded, or Uber’s app would be kicked out of Apple’s App Store.

Isaac explains later in the article what happened: Uber decided to fingerprint iPhones — contrary to App Store rules — to prevent a common scheme that exploited how drivers were compensated, then hid that code whenever the device was in Cupertino to prevent the App Review team from seeing it. That’s a deliberate deception. It’s a gross privacy violation of every Uber member that used an iPhone.

Yet Apple’s behaviour is also concerning. When AppGratis was found to be violating App Store rules, Apple gave them a heads-up on the Friday before the weekend during which their app would be removed. Based on Isaac’s reporting, Uber was provided with the opportunity to correct a more egregious violation of the App Store rules.

Even if you’re comfortable with the idea that big companies can have a different set of App Store rules and responses — and I’m not sure I am — I don’t think this should have remained a secret. It’s a flagrant and sneaky violation of users’ privacy. Ultimately, Uber is to blame, but Apple could have handled their discovery in a way that was more consistent with their commitment to privacy. Without Isaac’s report, this story likely would have remained secret.

My favourite sentence in this article is a parenthetical midway through:

Uber is grappling with the fallout. For the last few months, the company has been reeling from allegations of a machismo-fueled workplace where managers routinely overstepped verbally, physically and sometimes sexually with employees. Mr. Kalanick compounded that image by engaging in a shouting match with an Uber driver in February, an incident recorded by the driver and then leaked online. (Mr. Kalanick now has a private driver.)

Even the CEO of Uber doesn’t use Uber. Why should anyone else?

Update: Kate Conger, TechCrunch:

However, Uber told TechCrunch that it still uses a form of device fingerprinting in order to detect fraudulent behavior. If a device has been associated with fraud in the past, a new sign-up from that device should raise a red flag, an Uber spokesperson said. Uber suggested that the practice of fingerprinting was modified to comply with Apple’s rules rather than discontinued altogether.

If this uses the advertising identifier provided by Apple, I think that’s reasonable. If it’s fingerprinting devices through an alternative means that users cannot control, I see that as overstepping expected app behaviour.

Net Neutrality Is Alive and Well in Canada

Emily Jackson, Financial Post:

With its ruling that Internet providers can’t give free data to consumers who stream certain music or video content, Canada’s telecom regulator broke from its American counterpart by reiterating its position that carriers should simply act as pipes.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission reinforced its position on net neutrality rules Thursday with a decision that confirms Internet providers will be treated as common carriers that cannot pick favourites among the content that travels across their networks.

Michael Geist:

The impact is significant as the Commission notes that it can affect competition, innovation, consumer choice, access and affordability as well as privacy in a section of the decision that comprehensively makes the case for the harms associated with zero rating. For example, with respect to competition, the CRTC states:

The Commission considers that competition in the retail Internet access services sector is best served, and the telecommunications policy objectives set out in the Act are best achieved, when ISPs compete and differentiate their services based on their networks and the attributes of the services on those networks, such as price, speed, volume, coverage, and the quality of their networks.

The Commission also believes that differential pricing practices that favour particular services, technology, or content would generally negatively affect innovation.

This is terrific news on two fronts. First, while zero-rating sounds alluring, it creates a de facto private marketplace with little oversight or regulation. In effect, it allows ISPs to determine which companies should succeed and which should fail on their network. This decision ends that capability.

Second, Canadians pay some of the highest prices in the world for internet and smartphone service. I hope this decision will truly require ISPs to compete more effectively on price.

Sleep and the Quantified Self

Chris Matthews:

Recently, I got curious again: I was still tracking all the sleep data, but wasn’t doing anything with it. I’d gotten bored, complacent, and so the data piled up without much to say for itself. Today, in a fit of rainy day pliability, I tediously copied data into an excel sheet. This was my first gripe: Pebble doesn’t allow csv exports (but then again, hey, they don’t exist anymore). SleepNumber doesn’t allow data exports (they once did, but “retired” the feature because reasons), and their customer service reps are pretty tight lipped on why I can’t access my own data, yet their TOS says they’re allowed to sell it. Only SleepCycle lets you export and study your own data, so thumbs up to them.

SleepCycle and SleepNumber both track total sleep time, and assess a 1–100 score for the night, based on “who-knows-what-exactly”. Pebble only assesses total sleep time, no score. So I built a couple graphs using the past few months of data. The results were dreadful.

Matthews’ comparison is by no means scientific but, then again, neither are the numbers these apps and devices are spitting out: I have noticed no correlation between Sleep Cycle’s “sleep quality” value and how rested I feel when I wake up.

The Guardian Pulls Out of Facebook’s Instant Articles and Apple News

A quick followup on a story I covered last week on publishers’ growing resistance to Facebook’s Instant Articles format. I wrote:

Instant Articles was seen by many as the future of news distribution, much like Apple News and Google’s AMP Project. However, while more people have been using Apple News after its iOS 10 redesign — as the Verge noticed — and AMP has become popular thanks to Google’s promise to elevate the format in search rankings, Instant Articles doesn’t really have the same kind of draw.

It appears that not all publishers are seeing the same kind of boost from Apple News as the Verge has, as Jessica Davies explains for Digiday:

The publisher had gone all-in on Instant Articles, running every single Guardian article via the format for the last year. It was one of first U.K. media owners to adopt the Facebook format, alongside BBC News in the spring of 2015. The Guardian was also among the first publishers to join the Apple News app when it launched in the U.K. in October 2015. It ran all its articles in the app.

[…]

The publisher ceased running content through both Apple News and Instant Articles today. The move is a clear sign of displeasure in how these platform-publishing initiatives have treated the business needs of the Guardian. Many publishers have complained the money they make off visits to IA pages, for example, do not measure up to what they get on their own sites.

I’d wonder how pulling out of Instant Articles would affect the Guardian’s visibility on Facebook, but it seems like we might have an answer courtesy Kurt Gessler of the Chicago Tribune. Earlier this week, he posted some stats showing that while more people “liked” the Tribune’s Facebook page since last year, the reach of its posts has dropped:

In December of 2016, we had only 8 posts with 10,000 reach or less. In January of 2017, that had grown to 80. In February, 159. And in March, a ridiculous 242 posts were seen by fewer than 10,000 people. And while late 2016 saw record lows in that lowest quartile, that 242 is far above any prior month in our dataset. And we were seeing a steady decrease in that 25,001 to 50,000 quartile. That had gone from 248 in January 2016 to 141 in March 2017.

Facebook made major changes to Instant Articles beginning in December in an attempt to give the rather stagnant platform a nudge. This timeline seems to coincide with Gessler’s observations at the Tribune. I doubt Facebook will make any changes to increase the reach of non-promoted or non-IA posts.

As far as Apple News is concerned, I’d love to hear more from anyone who’s seeing unusual spikes or dips in subscribers or traffic. I still haven’t converted this site’s feed to the Apple News Format, so I have no reference points available.

WSJ: Google Plans Ad-Blocking Feature in Chrome

Jack Marshall, Wall Street Journal:

Unacceptable ad types would be those recently defined by the Coalition for Better Ads, an industry group that released a list of ad standards in March. According to those standards, ad formats such as pop-ups, auto-playing video ads with sound and “prestitial” ads with countdown timers are deemed to be “beneath a threshold of consumer acceptability.”

In one possible application Google is considering, it may choose to block all advertising that appears on sites with offending ads, instead of the individual offending ads themselves. In other words, site owners may be required to ensure all of their ads meet the standards, or could see all advertising across their sites blocked in Chrome.

Because they struggle with consistency, Google offers an interstitial ad unit, YouTube frequently serves up non-skippable “prestitial” ads, and there’s nothing in Google’s AdSense policies that explicitly prohibits the use of a modal overlay to display an ad. This seems a little bit like Marlboro also selling anti-smoking aids, doesn’t it?

Apple Plans to Make Devices Entirely From Recycled Materials

Arielle Duhaime-Ross, Vice:

Apple has one of the most aggressive sustainability and recycling programs in tech, but it still pulls plenty of metals and toxic rare-earth materials out of the ground to make iPhones, iPads, Macbooks and other products.

That’s about to change. The company is set to announce a new, unprecedented goal for the tech industry, “to stop mining the earth altogether.”

The announcement, part of Apple’s 2017 Environment Responsibility Report released Wednesday, will commit the company to making devices entirely from recycled materials such as aluminum, copper, tin, and tungsten. But there’s one hiccup: Apple doesn’t know exactly how it’s going to make that happen.

If they can do this, it’s going to be huge, but it’s a tall order. Jason Koebler’s reporting on Apple’s recycling practices suggests that their desire to one day quit mining raw materials will require a complete rethinking of their current disposal chain:

“Electronics recyclers are filled with heaps of broken iMacs and MacBooks, which due to economics and the requirements of certifications are most often scrapped rather than repaired or sold,” John Bumstead, a refurbisher who sells MacBooks that he salvages and frankensteins together from broken ones that he gets from recyclers that don’t work with Apple, told me.

A document submitted to North Carolina’s Department of Environment Quality in September 2016 shows that Apple’s must-shred policy hasn’t changed in recent years, even as it continues to position itself as a green company: “All of the equipment collected for recycling is manual and mechanically disassembled and shredded. The resulting fractions are sorted into plastics, metals, and glass and sold as stock feed in the manufacturing process.”

On its face, this might not seem so bad: At least these products are getting recycled, right? But in practice, the premature recycling of an iPhone or a MacBook is not ideal. Bumstead still sells computers from 2009 and 2010 for hundreds of dollars to people looking for entry-level laptops.

The saying is “reduce, reuse, and recycle”, and those words are in that order for a reason: recycling is better than creating new raw materials, but not as good as reusing what already exists. Neither of these options are as good as minimizing the consumption of new products altogether.

Obviously, Apple would prefer to sell more products, and many customers love having newer products than hanging onto the same device for five or six years. Improvements to their recycling program ought to have a significant impact on the resources required to create new devices and components. But it seems as though their desire to improve their products’ impact on the environment is contradicted somewhat by their stance against right-to-repair legislation, something Apple VP Lisa Jackson touches on in her interview with Vice:

Jackson also defended Apple’s history of making products that are hard to repair. Allowing customers to repair Apple products themselves “sounds like an easy thing to say,” she said. But “technology is really complex; it is sophisticated to make it work, to ensure that you have security and privacy, [and] that somebody isn’t giving you bad parts.”

Because of this, Apple won’t be taking a “right to repair” approach to meeting its environmental goals. “All those things mean that you want to have certified repairs,” Jackson said. “I think trying to pretend that we can sort of make it easy to repair the product, and that you get the product that you think you’re buying — that you want — isn’t the answer.”

I get the stance Apple is taking, but it seems like there could be a safe middle ground. Right-to-repair legislation might be too broad as it’s currently written, but Apple could allow authorized service centres to repair more components with certified parts instead of performing whole-device swaps. More refurbished devices could be made available to sectors where having the latest products isn’t a primary concern.

I’m optimistic that Apple’s recycling goals can be met in due time. I hope they take a more comprehensive approach to their environmental efforts, however. They’re already showing promising results: their lastest report indicates that each new product emits 97 kilograms of carbon in its lifespan, down from a recent high of 137 kilograms in 2011. But the same report indicates that 77% of the greenhouse gas emissions of a new product come from its manufacturing — something that could be cut more dramatically by reducing or reusing components and products than it can by recycling.

Update: Lisa Jackson appeared on this week’s episode of the Talk Show and dove deeper into Apple’s progress on the environment. It’s a really good episode that highlights the company’s use of sustainable forests, how they reduce and reuse materials on the production line, and Apple’s awesome Earth Day animated shorts.

Lawsuit Alleges Bose Headphone App Silently Provided Users’ Listening Habits to Advertisers

Jonathan Stempel, Reuters:

After paying $350 for his QuietComfort 35 headphones, [Kyle Zak] said he took Bose’s suggestion to “get the most out of your headphones” by downloading its app, and providing his name, email address and headphone serial number in the process.

But the Illinois resident said he was surprised to learn that Bose sent “all available media information” from his smartphone to third parties such as Segment.io, whose website promises to collect customer data and “send it anywhere.”

This doesn’t appear to be a simple case of Zak failing to read the app’s privacy policy in full. I downloaded the Bose Connect app and read its privacy policy and terms and conditions. While both explain that the app uses analytics software, nowhere in either document does it say that it will transmit listening habits.

This is alarming when you consider how unique someone’s music library and listening habits are. Ben Dodson found that apps in iOS had an unlimited ability to dump a user’s music library into a text file and upload it to the cloud. In iOS 10, Apple began requiring authentication when an app wants to access the music library.

What I don’t see in Stempel’s report is anything indicating whether the Bose app was merely using library data, or if it was sending information about the actual audio passing through the app. That makes a big difference — imagine if a Bose owner received a phone call through the headphones.

When You Think About It, a $400 Bag Squeezing Machine Is Kind of Silly, Really

Ellen Huet and Olivia Zaleski, Bloomberg:

Doug Evans, the company’s founder, would compare himself with Steve Jobs in his pursuit of juicing perfection. He declared that his juice press wields four tons of force — “enough to lift two Teslas,” he said. Google’s venture capital arm and other backers poured about $120 million into the startup. Juicero sells the machine for $400, plus the cost of individual juice packs delivered weekly. Tech blogs have dubbed it a “Keurig for juice.”

You could tell this thing was bullshit from day one — a juice making machine that only works with premixed, DRM-encumbered fruit and vegetable blends from the company that sold you the machine.

Ah, but we haven’t even gotten to what is perhaps my favourite sentence I’ve read all week:

But after the product hit the market, some investors were surprised to discover a much cheaper alternative: You can squeeze the Juicero bags with your bare hands.

Albert Burneko, Deadspin:

I like this one, too (emphasis mine):

One of the investors said they were frustrated with how the company didn’t deliver on the original pitch and that their venture firm wouldn’t have met with Evans if he were hawking bags of juice that didn’t require high-priced hardware.

When we signed up to pump money into this juice company, it was because we thought drinking the juice would be a lot harder and more expensive. That was the selling point, because Silicon Valley is a stupid libertarian dystopia where investor-class vampires are the consumers and a regular person’s money is what they go shopping for. Easily opened bags of juice do not give these awful nightmare trash parasites a good bargain on the disposable income of credulous wellness-fad suckers; therefore easily opened bags of juice are a worse investment than bags of juice that are harder to open.

As a rule of thumb, any single-purpose kitchen gadgets are a gigantic waste of money, with the possible exceptions of espresso machines, pasta rollers, corkscrews, and sushi mats. Despite this, investors spent $120 million financing a $400 — $700, before a recent price cut — WiFi-enabled bag squeezing machine.

Photographers Used iPhones to Shoot New Condé Nast Covers

Anthony Ha, TechCrunch:

Creative Director Alex Grossman said it made sense to finally put an iPhone pic out front with the May travel issue, particularly given the connection between photography and travel. The cover was shot on an iPhone 7 Plus, in the Tlacolula Market of Oaxaca, Mexico, and it combines people and food, with a woman showing off a strawberry Paleta.

You and I both know that these kinds of articles are a mix of well-placed PR and interesting news, but I’m linking to it because I really love the idea of using an iPhone to shoot a travel magazine. The context is just so appropriate. Magazine photos tend to look just a little too good to be true, especially when they’re shot with a professional DSLR or medium format rig, but a smartphone camera makes the same photos feel that much more grounded in reality.

Via email, I asked Peden and Munk — the photographers behind the Bon Appétit cover — about their shooting process, and it’s a lot simpler than I thought. They told me that they used Portrait mode with the phone on a tripod, triggered the shutter with a Bluetooth camera remote, and adjusted their selects in VSCO. Pretty remarkable.

Phishing With Unicode Domains

Xudong Zheng:

Punycode makes it possible to register domains with foreign characters. It works by converting individual domain label to an alternative format using only ASCII characters. For example, the domain “xn--s7y.co” is equivalent to “短.co”.

From a security perspective, Unicode domains can be problematic because many Unicode characters are difficult to distinguish from common ASCII characters. It is possible to register domains such as “xn--pple-43d.com”, which is equivalent to “аpple.com”. It may not be obvious at first glance, but “аpple.com” uses the Cyrillic “а” (U+0430) rather than the ASCII “a” (U+0041). This is known as a homograph attack.

Unlike Chrome and Firefox, Safari displays the punycode version of domains that use characters from the extended Unicode set — that is, instead of displaying “аррӏе.com”, it shows “xn--80ak6aa92e.com”. However, this is arguably problematic for domains that legitimately use homographic characters. The Cyrillic alphabet is full of characters that look identical to Latin letters.

The way this bug was fixed in Chromium is to see if the entire domain is a Latin lookalike and uses a TLD like .com, .net, or .org.

Update: My description above is inaccurate. Safari has a security check in place to prevent fraudulent non-Latin Unicode domains from displaying; punycode won’t display when the domain is valid and legitimate on a TLD belonging to a Cyrillic-lanaguage country. Thank you to a reader for the correction.

Today’s Next-Generation iPhone Clickbait Brought to You by Gizmodo

Alex Cranz of Gizmodo responded to Mark Gurman and Min Jeong Lee’s report about the next-generation iPhone:

The phone will be a nearly bezel-free slab of glass and stainless steel (or possibly aluminum), the home button will be dead, and a gorgeous OLED display will be the focal point.

If you’re having a sense of deja vu, that’s because the Galaxy S8 had the exact same series of redesigns from the previous iteration when Samsung announced it last month. While Apple has been popularly viewed as the big smartphone innovator, this year it’s undoubtedly chasing Samsung.

The headline for this article said it even more succinctly:

The 10th Anniversary iPhone Sounds Like a Samsung Clone

One of three things happened here. Maybe Apple has become so efficient with their design process that they went all the way back to May of last year to begin copying the Galaxy S8; or, perhaps, Samsung was aware of that rumour and rushed their version of the phone to market; or — most likely — this is a natural evolution of the smartphone form factor as every major manufacturer has been trying to reduce the bezels on their devices for years now.

The American Retail Shift

Derek Thompson, the Atlantic:

The number of malls in the U.S. grew more than twice as fast as the population between 1970 and 2015, according to Cowen Research. By one measure of consumerist plentitude — shopping center “gross leasable area” — the U.S. has 40 percent more shopping space per capita than Canada, five times more the the U.K., and 10 times more than Germany. So it’s no surprise that the Great Recession provided such a devastating blow: Mall visits declined 50 percent between 2010 and 2013, according to the real-estate research firm Cushman and Wakefield, and they’ve kept falling every year since.

Michael Corkery, New York Times:

E-commerce players, led by the industry giant Amazon, have made it so easy and fast for people to shop online that traditional retailers, shackled by fading real estate and a culture of selling in stores, are struggling to compete. This shift has been building gradually for years. But economists, retail workers and real estate investors say it appears that it has sped up in recent months.

The Times has a small photo gallery that helps illustrate the difference in scale between the operations of an online-focused warehouse-only retailer like Amazon and the space required for a mall, and it’s as dramatic as you might expect. Imagine what can be done with the space left by the hundreds of malls anticipated to close within the next ten years.

Corkery again:

Retailers have hoped that their traditional stores, by offering catchy displays and top-notice service, can lure shoppers away from their screens. Some of the best evidence that brick-and-mortar retail is still viable may be Amazon’s experimentation with operating physical stores of its own.

Something I was unable to find is a recent comparison of the retail environment in shopping malls compared to that of high streets. I do a considerable amount of my shopping online, but I still prefer visiting my local bookstores to browse what they have on the shelves. I still want to try clothes on, and see what an iPhone accessory is really like before I buy it. It looks like Amazon is counting on blending that experience with the kind of data that’s only available to one of the world’s biggest online retailers.

A Time Capsule for the Web

Tim Carmody in a guest post on Kottke:

More than ever, what the web serves up on its own is the very worst things that have just happened. It’s an active shooter livestreaming a snuff film on Facebook — or something not as bad, but not much better.

And hey, focusing on very recent, very bad news makes a lot of sense. If there are awful things happening right now, I want to know about them. If some overpaid someone wrote something stupid and everyone I know is slamming it on Twitter, I want to get in on it. We’re only human.

But sometimes, I wonder, with all the abundance and ephemerality of the web, whether we indulge the opposite impulse enough. I don’t mean sharing more new things that are funny, or heartwarming, or relatable. I mean going out and finding or rediscovering the things that are The Very Best We Have to Offer, gathering them together, and saving them, forever.

I love the idea of this project. It’s simple to participate — you just have to fill out a short questionnaire, and not every question needs an answer.

Something that Carmody hasn’t addressed, as far as I can see, is what how he’ll present the final product. I hope that the results show an earnest attempt at finding the best of the web, but I also foresee the potential for abuse. What does that editing process look like, and what is the result? I’m not being a pessimistic skeptic here; I’m intrigued.

Update: Carmody has shared a collection of the best tweets nominated by readers so far.

The Moderators

A truly heartbreaking film from Ciaran Cassidy and Adrian Chen:

In an office in India, a cadre of Internet moderators ensures that social media sites are not taken over by bots, scammers, and pornographers. The Moderators shows the humans behind content moderation, taking viewers into the training process that workers go through in order to become social media’s monitors.

This film is twenty minutes long, but it needs that kind of length to tell the story of the people who filter out the worst of the web. Many of us are so far removed from the sewage — both conceptually and physically — that we can forget how much of it has been cleaned for us from our feeds. Per one moderator in the film [sic]:

We have to maintain the speed of two thousand photos per hour, we have to moderate. 20% of that photo are vulgarity photos.

In a span of eight hours, a moderator will see over three thousand photos of various levels of offence, from using a middle finger in a profile photo, to child abuse and physical violence. And I doubt these moderators are limited to a standard forty-hour work week.

This film is, naturally, very difficult to watch. There are occasional not-safe-for-work moments throughout, and it gets particularly heavy at around 13:00. I totally get that some of you may not feel comfortable with it, but I imagine that even if you don’t see the film and just read what I’ve described here, you can empathize with how mentally-tasking a moderator’s job must be.

How to Make a Backup of a FFFFOUND Account

Andy Baio:

Next month, two seminal image-sharing communities, FFFFOUND! and MLKSHK, will close their doors within a week of each other.

[…]

These two communities shared a lot in common. Both were very creative, focused on curating imagery, but how they’re shutting down are very, very different — how it was communicated, the tools for saving your contributions, and the future of the community.

FFFFOUND provides no export or backup tools. A handful of user-created scraping scripts exist for those tech-savvy enough to use them, but in general, most users will be unable to preserve their contributions.

More upsetting is the fact that FFFFOUND only allows Google, Bing, and Yahoo to crawl their archives in their robots.txt file, which outlines which crawlers can access their site and how frequently.

I frequently used FFFFOUND between 2008 and 2013, bookmarking nearly two thousand images in that time. I somehow accumulated 703 followers on the site, and I loved its close-knit communal feeling. It was a really cool little service — like Pinterest without the commercial focus. I know a lot of photographers, designers, and other creative types who used it for collecting inspiration wherever they found it on the web. So you can imagine how much it stings not to have an export feature.

I was determined to create a backup of my collection tonight. I tried fiddling with wget first, but the site is built in such a way that scraping it is beyond my expertise — though, much to my amazement, it doesn’t appear to be against the site’s terms of service. I really didn’t want to manually create a webarchive file of every page in my profile.

Thankfully, Baio sent me links to a few scripts for saving FFFFOUND profiles. Because I’m a complete idiot when it comes to command-line software that requires a bunch of dependencies, I’ve been struggling with this all evening.

But, at last, I think I found a relatively straightforward way to archive the images in your FFFFOUND profile on MacOS:

  1. Open Safari and copy Aaron Hildebrandt’s excellent ffffind.py script.

  2. Open your favourite plain text editor and paste it into a new file. Save it as ffffind.py in the directory of your choice. I went with a new “ffffound” directory in my Pictures folder.

  3. Open a Terminal window. You’re going to download and install a copy of the Python virtualenv package by running the command sudo pip install virtualenv. You’ll need to type your administrator-level password to do this.

    I’ve found installing it at the system level is more reliable than it is at the user level, likely because of SIP in recent versions of MacOS. You can try installing it at the user level by omitting sudo, however.

  4. Once that’s installed, navigate to the folder you created earlier for this project. That’s cd ~/Pictures/ffffound for me.

  5. We’re going to set up a virtual environment. First, run virtualenv ffffind to get the basics set up. Next, type source ./ffffind/bin/activate and press return to enter the virtual environment. The command line should now begin with (ffffind) instead of $.

  6. Next, within this virtual environment, we’ll need to install the latest release of Beautiful Soup, an HTML scraper. To install it, just run pip install BeautifulSoup and wait until it confirms that it has been installed.

  7. Now, just run python ffffind.py USERNAME with your FFFFOUND user name. Sit back, because this is going to take a while.

There are, of course a few caveats with this script. First, while I don’t believe it violates FFFFOUND’s terms of service, please don’t get annoyed at me if that changes. Besides, they’re the ones who didn’t provide an export function.

Second, while this will give you a copy of every image you saved to FFFFOUND, it won’t preserve page numbers or creation dates. If the order in which you saved the images is important to you, you’ll have to try to get ffffexport to work for you. It only downloaded my most recent 32 images, and I’m not sure why.

Third, ffffind doesn’t work perfectly. I saved a few images from a museum’s search engine. Their URLs included a .exe in the string, and that made ffffind very confused, so it stopped working. The easiest way to resolve this is to open the FFFFOUND page it stalled on and save that image manually, then delete it from your FFFFOUND. Unfortunately, the ffffind script doesn’t have the provision to restart on a specific page, so you’ll have to run it again from the start.

I hope this guide is helpful if you’re a FFFFOUND member hoping to save your bookmarks from annihilation. Many, many thanks to Andy Baio and Aaron Hildebrandt.

Update: I tried to make a Workflow for this but couldn’t. Dean Young made one quickly, though, and it seems to work really well. It only scrapes the FFFFOUND-cached versions of the images, and you may wish to adjust the /post/ part of the URL to /found/ for a more complete archive, but if you don’t want to mess around with the Python nonsense above, it’s a terrific option.

iTunes Podcasts Directory Rebranded as Apple Podcasts

Jason Snell, Six Colors:

On its own this is a minor change, and one that makes sense: In its most popular context, Apple’s podcast directory is accessed from the Podcasts app on iOS. iTunes is not a brand that needs to be associated with that product at all—it was only there because more than a decade ago, Apple extended the iTunes Store infrastructure and added podcast support to iTunes on the desktop. It was a long time ago. (Podcasters can get new badges to reflect the change.)

Looking at the larger picture, though, I have to assume that this is one part of a long, inexorable de-branding of iTunes. It proved to be a brand that was capable of having all sorts of non-tune-related things stuffed inside of it, but it was always an awkward fit and at some point it needed to be addressed.

The death of “classic” iTunes has been in the cards for quite some time, especially after the introductions of Apple Music and iCloud Music Library. Many of the pieces are in place for Apple to pull the trigger on iTunes, create discrete Mac apps for music, podcasts, and video, and rely upon iCloud-based syncing for iOS devices.

I’m still not ready for that future.

Apple Music Adds New ‘House of Strombo’ Video Show

Brad Wheeler, Globe and Mail:

It was announced on Thursday by Apple Music that the CBC Radio 2 host will bring House of Strombo, a 10-episode concert series he hosts from his downtown Toronto home, to the U.S.-based subscription service. [George Stroumboulopoulos] will also provide exclusive playlists.

For Apple Music, the recruiting of Stroumboulopoulos gives the service a Canadian beachhead and a presence in Toronto, a musically thriving metropolis. For Stroumboulopoulos, the move provides the former MuchMusic VJ a measure of international exposure.

For the uninitiated, George Stroumboulopoulos was one of the best interviewers ever employed by the CBC. He spent ten years hosting a seemingly-straightfoward chat show on the network, always asking questions that provoked a depth of conversation that was unlike anything else you’d find on similar programs. His three-hour radio show consistently delivers a killer blend of music and talk.

Quite simply, this is one hell of a get for Apple Music.

“House of Strombo” premieres tonight with A Tribe Called Red. Trust me: it’s going to be good.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Numeric Ratings

Caroline O’Donovan wrote for Buzzfeed about how star-based ratings for Uber and Lyft drivers affects their livelihood:

In a San Francisco Lyft car, there’s a chart taped to the back of the front passenger seat: “The Rating System Explained.” It details — in exaggerated terms — what Lyft’s one- to five-star rating scale really means to drivers.

[…]

Though tongue-in-cheek, this rating system explainer touches on an essential truth of the gig economy: When companies like Lyft, Uber, and Postmates penalize workers who have low ratings, anything less than five stars feels like a rebuke.

“The rating system works like this: You start off as a five-star driver,” Don, a San Francisco Lyft driver told BuzzFeed News. “If you drop below a 4.6, then your career becomes a question. Uber or Lyft will reach out to you and let you know that you are on review probation. And if you continue to drop, then you’re going to lose your job. They’ll deactivate you.”

I stand by what I wrote four years ago:

Make no mistake: there is a need to have reviews of the new products, new music, and new whatever that competes for our attention and money. But the idea that they need to be judged on a numerical scale is completely ridiculous. A much simpler and more honest approach would be to either “recommend” a product, or to “not recommend” it.

I maintain that star ratings are a poor way to rate pretty much anything. As a method of grading an opinion or experience, it’s inherently dishonest: its equivalence to a numerical ranking system makes it feel like it should be somehow impartial or objective, when a rating is anything but.

I think that impression has given “gig-economy” companies the false confidence that they can rely upon these ratings, with real consequences for their emplo— I’m sorry, independent contractors. O’Donovan:

This sort of rating anxiety extends well beyond Uber and Lyft. “The rating system is terrible,” said Ken Davis, a former Postmates courier, who noted that under the company’s five-star rating system couriers who fall below 4.7 for more than 30 days are suspended. Said Joshua, another Postmates courier, “I really don’t think customers understand the impact their ratings have on us.”

I get that Postmates might just want their couriers to provide exceptional service every time, but that’s unreasonable due to users’ wildly differing standards.

Furthermore, this shows just how dishonest these rankings are. If you’re aware of the preposterously high standards Postmates, Uber, and Lyft set, you’re much less likely to give a three- or four-star rating if your experience is imperfect — you don’t want to be the user who causes the contractor to lose their job.

In general, it’s far clearer to present a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down rating. Apple Music’s “love” and “dislike” options are exactly what I need to tell it, and nothing more: it’s either “play more like this” or “play less like this”. Likewise, everyone I’ve ever spoken to has assumed that Netflix’s old star ranking system were the ratings from either users or critics, but that wasn’t the case: it was a guess as to how likely Netflix thought you — the user — might like that TV show or movie.

Some people might argue that reducing quality ratings to binary options — like or dislike — lacks context, but I don’t think star ratings provide greater context in the real world. I can easily understand whether a product or service was acceptable to me, but I’m certain I’m not the only person who freezes when they need to figure out just how acceptable it was.

Besides, there’s an appropriate way to build context around a rating: a simple, optional, and private comment box. It might be filled with unfair criticism or utter nonsense, but at least words aren’t usually interpreted as a constant metric in the same way that numbers are. Even if a comment box is filled with complete lies, there isn’t the impression that it’s a calculated and inarguable score.

Our crime, as users, is not knowing whether we can be honest with our ratings. But tech firms have created this problem by assuming that users will be honest after implying that anything less than five-star service is unworthy, and then tying contractors’ livelihoods to users’ ratings. That’s unfair to everyone.

Robbing a Bank by DNS

Andy Greenberg, Wired:

The traditional model of hacking a bank isn’t so different from the old-fashioned method of robbing one. Thieves get in, get the goods, and get out. But one enterprising group of hackers targeting a Brazilian bank seems to have taken a more comprehensive and devious approach: One weekend afternoon, they rerouted all of the bank’s online customers to perfectly reconstructed fakes of the bank’s properties, where the marks obediently handed over their account information.

Yet another reminder that the infrastructure of the web is old and fragile, but it’s what we’ve got. I remain bewildered that it works as well as it usually does.

Big Tech Companies Lobby FCC to Preserve Net Neutrality Rules

Hamza Shaban, Buzzfeed:

Top officials from the Internet Association, a trade organization that represents Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix, among others, urged Pai to keep and enforce existing open internet rules. “The internet industry is uniform in its belief that net neutrality preserves the consumer experience, competition, and innovation online,” the group’s officials said, according to a summary of the meeting filed with the FCC.

The Internet Association also told the FCC chair that, according to their own preliminary economic research, net neutrality rules did not negatively impact broadband investment, which contradicts claims from the telecom industry that the regulations would stymie innovation.

It’s in the interests of even the biggest tech firms to preserve these rules, as I explained last week, in response to Bloomberg’s report on Comcast’s coming Netflix competitor:

With the FCC’s current attempts to dismantle net neutrality regulations, don’t be surprised if this service doesn’t count against Comcast subscribers’ bandwidth caps or limits. Also don’t be surprised if, at some point, NBC’s news channels — NBC News, CNBC, and MSNBC — become part of something like this, thereby making it more expensive to watch other news networks. Netflix would also become more expensive under such a scheme, too.

ISPs are attempting to exert tight control over the creation and distribution of media; to compete at the same level, tech companies would also have to become ISPs across the United States. As Google found out, that’s unfathomably difficult due to the permits, time, and infrastructure required. Since it’s unlikely that Comcast and AT&T will be deconstructed à la Ma Bell, tighter regulation is necessary.

Zac Hall’s WatchOS 4 Wishlist

Zac Hall:

WWDC 2017 is just around the corner and we’re eager to see what Apple has planned for watchOS 4 and Apple Watch. While we don’t expect to see an update that addresses every opportunity left for watchOS in one year, there are certainly a lot of areas ripe for improvement considering how new Apple Watch and watchOS are.

[…]

Finally, watchOS 4 could improve customization by adding the ability to have custom tones for alerts like new messages and phone calls. You can already do this on iOS of course, but watchOS doesn’t offer the flexibility. This is something I regularly see readers mention and one of my first complaints when first using Apple Watch at launch.

I’d go even further and hope for a way to match different alert tones to vibration patterns. I don’t push too many notifications from my phone to my Watch, but the few third-party apps that do — Slack, Outlook, and NY Times — all make the same sound with the same vibration pattern. As I almost always have my Watch muted, it would be great to have different vibration patterns for new emails and news alerts, as they don’t have the same priority.

Facebook Faces Increased Publisher Resistance to Instant Articles

Lucia Moses, Digiday:

The Times is among an elite group of publishers that’s regularly tapped by Facebook to launch new products, and as such, it was one of the first batch of publishers to pilot Instant. But it stopped using Instant Articles after a test last fall that found that links back to the Times’ own site monetized better than Instant Articles, said Kinsey Wilson, [EVP] of product and technology at the Times. People were also more likely to subscribe to the Times if they came directly to the site rather than through Facebook, he said. Thus, for the Times, IA simply isn’t worth it. Even a Facebook-dependent publisher like LittleThings, which depends on Facebook for 80 percent of its visitors, is only pushing 20 percent of its content to IA.

Enthusiasm has cooled elsewhere. It’s an about-face from two years ago, when publishers were champing at the bit to join the party. “It’s just a matter of time,” Hearst Digital president Troy Young said at the time. Cosmopolitan was the first Hearst brand to launch, in October that year. Now, Hearst is absent from the program, having determined the monetization isn’t paying off. Hearst declined to comment on the record.

Instant Articles was seen by many as the future of news distribution, much like Apple News and Google’s AMP Project. However, while more people have been using Apple News after its iOS 10 redesign — as the Verge noticed — and AMP has become popular thanks to Google’s promise to elevate the format in search rankings, Instant Articles doesn’t really have the same kind of draw. And then there’s Facebook’s complicated relationship with publishers and their cagey attitude towards data collection, according to Moses:

There are also a lot of details to be worked out when it comes to subscription signups on Instant, such as who owns the customer relationship, what data the publisher gets and how the revenue is shared, Wilson added. “The devil’s in the details.” (A Facebook rep said that for now, with the free digital trials, the publisher owns the relationship once the user signs up.)

Facebook and Google, alike, have a habit of making big changes that dramatically alter publishers’ relationships with them. I’d love to know why they’re far less hesitant to adopt the AMP format than they are Instant Articles.

Samsung Says Bixby Voice Assistant Is Delayed

Ina Fried, Axios:

One of the key signature features of Samsung’s Galaxy S8, its Bixby voice assistant, won’t work out of the box, when the device goes on sale later this month. Other parts of Bixby, including its visual search and reminder abilities, will ship at launch, a Samsung representative told Axios in a statement.

On Twitter, Fried said that Bixby crashed in her demo; Business Insider’s Steve Kovach said much the same.

Bixby is derived from Viv, which premiered at Disrupt NY in May of last year, running fairly smoothly on an iPhone. Samsung acquired the company in October, so they’ve been working to build it into the Galaxy S8 presumably since then. Just goes to show how hard it is to take an existing piece of software, port it to another platform, and make it a core part of the system.

Update: A correction: though some functions of Bixby are enabled by Viv, the core of it is apparently Samsung’s own effort, according to Dan Seifert of the Verge:

Though Bixby is a product of Samsung’s own internal development, the company’s recent acquisition, Viv, will be put to work making Bixby play nice with other third-party services. Viv has a pedigree here: the company was founded by the creators of Apple’s Siri assistant, which had many third-party integrations before it was folded into iOS itself. If there’s a bull case to be made that Bixby will be successful, Viv will be central to it.

Thanks to “sciwizam”.

The 2017 Pulitzer Prize Winners

Matt Giles has compiled links to many of this year’s Pulitzer-winning works. I’ve read many of them, and one of the things that struck me as I worked through this list is just how many of them I remember clearly. I think this illustrates an important quality of a Pulitzer-worthy work: its ability to get stuck in your brain and sit there long after you read the piece.

Spotify, Apple Boost Music Business to Best Year in Two Decades

Lucas Shaw, Bloomberg:

In 2016, U.S. music sales grew 11% to $7.7 billion, the Recording Industry Association of America said Thursday. That’s the biggest jump since 1998, when the industry sold almost six times as many CDs. Streaming, a category that includes Spotify, Pandora and YouTube, accounted for 51 percent, the first time it has contributed the majority of revenue.

Who would have thought that making media widely accessible in a clearly-articulated pricing structure disincentives illegitimate copying and downloads? Wild.

Unfortunately, very little of the $120 per year that many of us pay for these subscription services actually makes it into artists’ pockets. The industry may be doing better, but musicians are still dependent on multiple income streams, from gruelling tour schedules to merchandise sales.

Comcast Reportedly Planning a Netflix Rival

Lucas Shaw and Alex Sherman, Bloomberg:

Comcast Corp. plans to introduce an online video service offering hit shows from its NBCUniversal TV networks in the next 12 to 18 months, an effort to compete with rivals Netflix Inc. and CBS Corp., according to people familiar with the matter.

The new service will include programs from the NBC broadcast network, and could include shows from Comcast cable channels Bravo, SyFy and USA, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing private plans. Comcast is still determining many of the particulars of the service, including whether it will have a live feed of the broadcast network and whether it will include sports, the people said.

With the FCC’s current attempts to dismantle net neutrality regulations, don’t be surprised if this service doesn’t count against Comcast subscribers’ bandwidth caps or limits. Also don’t be surprised if, at some point, NBC’s news channels — NBC News, CNBC, and MSNBC — become part of something like this, thereby making it more expensive to watch other news networks. Netflix would also become more expensive under such a scheme, too. This will be particularly detrimental in areas where only Comcast provides broadband internet speeds.

It might seem silly that I keep repeating posts on this topic, but that’s because I truly believe that this FCC administration — in combination with the Congressional leadership and White House — will be instrumental in the devastation of the web as we know it by reducing choice to a handful of very powerful companies, and allowing subscribers’ personal information to be sold to advertisers without their consent. I’m not being hyperbolic.

Walt Mossberg Will Retire in June

Walt Mossberg, writing in Recode:

It was a June day when I began my career as a national journalist. I stepped into the Detroit Bureau of the Wall Street Journal and started on what would be a long, varied, rewarding career. I was 23 years old, and the year was 1970. That’s not a typo.

So it seems fitting to me that I’ll be retiring this coming June, almost exactly 47 years later. I’ll be hanging it up shortly after the 2017 edition of the Code Conference, a wonderful event I co-founded in 2003 and which I could never have imagined back then in Detroit.

Mossberg has had an incredible career. He really was the first mainstream technology columnist, and he set the formula for the genre’s followers, successors, and imitators — myself included.

Ben Thompson wrote a thoughtful tribute to Mossberg:

There have always been grumblings that Mossberg is “biased” towards Apple. In fact, though, while Mossberg did by and large favor Apple products — Apple made five of Mossberg’s 12 most influential products — the bias was right there in his first column:

Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it’s not your fault.

Mossberg was Steve Jobs’ favorite columnist — and Mossberg a frequent admirer of Apple’s products — because both had the same vision: bringing these geeky, impenetrable, and rather ugly boxes of wires and chips and disks called personal computers to normal people, convinced said computers could, if only made accessible, fundamentally transform a user’s life.

I think that opening salvo was what made Mossberg the original technology columnist for companies to impress, and for readers to look up to. Though there are still those who believe that high technology trumps all, the vast majority of writers have come around to realize that ease-of-use for all users is what makes for a great product or service.

Details Begin Leaking About FCC Chair Ajit Pai’s Plans for Net Neutrality

David Shepardson, Reuters:

The rules approved by the FCC under Democratic President Barack Obama in early 2015 prohibited broadband providers from giving or selling access to speedy internet, essentially a “fast lane”, to certain internet services over others. As part of that change, the FCC reclassified internet service providers much like utilities.

Pai wants to overturn that reclassification, but wants internet providers to voluntarily agree to not obstruct or slow consumer access to web content, two officials said late Tuesday.

The officials briefed on the meeting said Pai suggested companies commit in writing to open internet principles and including them in their terms of service, which would make them binding.

Hands-up, everyone who thinks their ISP is so great that they’d voluntarily promise not to shape traffic to preference their own subscription service over, say, Netflix.

Didn’t think so.

Also, terms of service regulate an agreement between customers and the ISP; my understanding is that this is not an agreement between the ISP and the law. Even though it’s a contract, individual clauses in those agreements have been ruled to be non-binding — most famously, the 1996 decision finding “shrink-wrap” agreements unenforceable.1 More to the point, ISPs would totally put up a fight and sue the FTC or FCC — depending on who ends up regulating ISPs — claiming that their First Amendment rights have been violated. Don’t believe me? In 2015, prior to the introduction of the FCC’s net neutrality rules, Alamo Broadband did exactly that.

Pai’s dogmatic mistrust of regulation is terrible for the neutrality of the web. I am not optimistic for the state of the web in ten years’ time if the proposals described here become reality.

Update: Nilay Patel has an astute point:

Second, let’s say Pai manages to thread the needle and gets every ISP in the country to agree on the exact same open internet language in their terms of service, and further secures a commitment that the language will remain in their terms in perpetuity. Isn’t that functionally identical to… a law? Shouldn’t we just have… a law? And don’t we already have that law? What specifically is Pai trying to accomplish if he agrees that open internet principles are important?

Ah, the old trick of replacing a law with a-pinky-promise-that’s-not-a-law-but-still-legally-binding.


  1. This link is from May 1996, likely making it the oldest article I’ve ever linked to here. ↩︎

Google’s Search Quality Crisis

Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land put together a lengthy explanation of how Google has been dropping the ball in search recently, and what they can do about it. It’s a good overview, and his conclusion is particularly interesting to me:

We should continue to hold Google and search engines to a high standard and highlight where things clearly go wrong. But we should also understand that perfection isn’t going to be possible. That with imperfect search engines, we need to employ more human critical thinking skills alongside the searches we do — and that we teach those to generations to come.

Life itself rarely has “one true answer” to anything. Expecting Google or any search engine to give them is a mistake.

I agree; I think users should have always been viewing search results with much more scrutiny than they do. But many people are lulled into believing that Google’s representation of the truth is the correct one. Their rich snippet answer box made this already-pervasive belief far worse by highlighting a single piece of a webpage as, seemingly, The Answer, even for questions where The Answer doesn’t exist. That’s a deliberate design decision on Google’s part, and one that should be reversed.

Jay Z Has Removed His Records From Spotify, Apple Music

Unlike many artists, Jay Z is fortunate enough to be able to make the choice to only distribute his music for streaming through Tidal. It’s his right and responsibility, as an artist, to set the conditions for how his music will be distributed.

But as a businessperson, he must know that this won’t dramatically improve Tidal’s market share. Very few people will pay ten dollars every month just to have on-demand streaming access to Jay Z’s back catalogue, especially since he hasn’t released a new record in nearly four years. Perhaps he’s working on one and it will be a Tidal exclusive; Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo” seemed to breathe some life into Tidal last year, albeit helped by those acquiring the album through other means.

Update: As of April 10, the ruler’s back. Maybe he just wanted to take the weekend off.

The 2016 Panic Report

It’s been an awesome year for Panic — now in their twentieth of business. But there’s a bee in their bonnet, as Cabel Sasser explains:

iOS continues to haunt us. If you remember, 2016 was the year we killed Status Board, our very nice data visualization app. Now, a lot of it was our fault. But it was another blow to our heavy investment in pro-level iOS apps a couple years ago, a decision we’re still feeling the ramifications of today as we revert back to a deep focus on macOS. Trying to do macOS quality work on iOS cost us a lot of time for sadly not much payoff. We love iOS, we love our iPhones, and we love our iPads. But we remain convinced that it’s not — yet? — possible to make a living selling pro software on those platforms. Which is a real bummer!

This is a hard problem, particularly on the iPad. The Pro model is an ideal canvas for highly sophisticated apps that enable the kind of work more typically completed on laptops, but the financial model of the App Store hasn’t been conducive to that.

The solutions available to independent developers, like Panic, seem rather limited. They could make the app available on a subscription basis, or tie the iOS app to an active desktop app license; but, these pricing models have flaws of their own.

The software-as-a-service model doesn’t work for every kind of app, and it really adds up as more apps use it as a pricing model. It’s especially hard to justify for an app you don’t frequently use.

Treating the iOS version of an app as a companion to the desktop version could allow for an easier-to-swallow price hike when buying the Mac version, but it would run afoul of rule 3.1.4 in the App Store Guidelines.1 I’m also skeptical of how much the desktop app’s price could be increased to sufficiently offset the development cost of the iOS app.

There are probably plenty more pricing models than what I’ve written here, but none I’ve seen yet seem capable of addressing the financial viability of this specific software niche. It’s a tricky problem. Without a solution, though, I question the long-term viability of independently-made professional-grade software on iOS.


  1. “Apps may not use their own mechanisms to unlock content or functionality, such as license keys, augmented reality markers, QR codes, etc.” ↩︎

Why Pro Matters

A fantastic piece by Sebastiaan de With:

Before this week’s announcement, it was looking like the future would simply pass Apple by.

And I was convinced — me, an ex-Apple designer with the greatest passion for Macs — that I had bought my last Mac, and would finally be forced to switch back to PCs.

I’m incredibly relieved I won’t be.

There’s a remarkable ripple effect created by the relatively tiny “pro” Macintosh market. It would be understandable, on the surface, for Apple to discontinue the Mac Pro entirely, but that would require them to cede an influential niche user base. I’m encouraged that they see the value in maintaining — and, maybe, even increasing — their commitment to pro users.

Apple Releases Clips App

If you were looking forward to Apple’s new Clips app, you’ll be delighted to hear that it’s now available.

Lance Ulanoff of Mashable really likes it:

But apps like Instagram and Snapchat have their limits, especially when it comes to permanence. Even the most beautiful snap will be gone in a day.

Tools, like Apple’s iMovie (the free version that runs on iOS) that offer richer tools and more permeance are inscrutable and lack the sense of fun promised by Instagram and Facebook Stories. Whatever you create might look good but will lack that sense of fun and shareability.

Apple’s new video-creation and sharing platform, Clips, is the near-perfect middle ground.

It’s not a social platform or a full-scale video editing platform, though it shares some of the best attributes of both.

I’ve been playing with it for a few hours now, and I think my initial impressions of the app — before I used it — are largely correct. The titling feature is clever and there are some decent filters, but I don’t find it very compelling yet.

It’s not that the app isn’t good at making short, fun videos; in fact, it’s great at doing that. But it seems like it’s trying to shoehorn an Instagram or Snapchat style of app into Apple’s typical UI conventions. As Ulanoff says, it seems less like a competitor to those apps than it does a trimmed-down version of iMovie. Maybe the market for something like that is large, but I’m not sold on it yet.

There are some silly limitations and quirks within the app, too. You can add emoji over a clip, but it seems to only show the “frequently used” set. Live Titles is a really clever idea, but it’s less accurate than dictation or Siri.

It’s a small thing, but the icon is also disappointing. It’s supposed to be a fun, creative, silly app, so why does the icon make it look like it will be for corporate videoconferencing?

I think this is an app worth experimenting with and I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets a handful dedicated users. But I’m skeptical of its chances of long-term success against established social apps. After all, if it’s permanence you’re worried about, you can always save your Instagram and Snapchat posts. I’d be more concerned with how likely it is that Apple remains committed to delivering updates — other experimental apps they’ve shipped, like Music Memos and Cards, quickly became neglected after launch. Apps like these are hard to get right, and I don’t think Clips is a hit yet. One day, I think it could be really great, but only if Apple sees it as a long-term commitment.

Update: Though there’s no social network component internal to Clips, the standard Sharing sheet has been enhanced with a row of recent Messages contacts across the top. I’d love to see that in every Sharing sheet.

Update: I’m not trying to be a pessimistic jerk about Clips. I’m just questioning the wisdom of creating a side project app that’s a late adopter of current trends in video, especially considering iMovie hasn’t been updated since July.

Google Commissions Teen Study That Says Google Is Cool

Corinne Purtill, Quartz:

Hey! Psst? Wanna know what the cool teens are thinking these days? What hip slang they use? What multinational brands they enjoy? Then check out “It’s Lit: A guide to what teens think is cool,” a research publication by the people you think of when you think of cool: the Brand Team for Consumer Apps at Google!

[…]

Teens’ absolute favorite brand — and this is a total coincidence that BTFCAAG has no choice but to pass along — is YouTube, a Google property. The third coolest is Google. The 10th coolest is Chrome, Google’s web browser. Google is the coolest multinational conglomerate subsidiary there is! You don’t even have to take Google’s word for it. They also have quotes from Real Teens. Like ‘Female, 17, from suburban Florida,’ who says: ‘Google is not only a powerful search engine, but great at everything it does, from email to documents.’ Way to stick it to the man, Gen Z!

No, really, do check this thing out (PDF). It’s an amazingly inept piece of PR bullshit. Want confirmation that it’s really, really bullshit? Here’s something I cribbed from page five of their report:

Teens are obsessed with shoes. Within the clothes/fashion/ beauty category almost 30% of the responses of what is cool were ‘shoes.’ To Gen Z, the top 3 coolest shoe brands are Jordan, Converse, and Vans.

Anybody who knows anything about sneakers will be aware that 2016 was the year of Adidas. For the first time in over a decade, a non-Nike brand topped NPD Group’s best-selling chart thanks to the Adidas Superstar. Meanwhile, the various Ultraboost, NMD, and Yeezy models Adidas released in 2016 were easily the hottest sneakers of the year.

Meanwhile, Google’s Brand Team allegedly found that Sunglass Hut is cooler among teens than Vice, and that the Doritos brand is slightly cooler than Amazon, but way cooler than Spotify.

Failures at Uber, Yahoo, and Twitter Are Not PR Problems

A day of rather critical articles — sorry about that, by the way — continues with an excellent piece from Kara Swisher at Recode:

“It’s a PR problem, with the media piling on,” said this person. “And PR can fix it. Let Uber be Uber”

Let’s not let it, shall we?

It’s moments like these that I am not entirely sure I live in a real adult place called Silicon Valley anymore. Instead, when I hear such elaborate justifications, it feels like it is increasingly becoming an environment that abrogates responsibility for actual actions that have actual consequences.

For the egregious ethical and business issues reported at Uber and Yahoo, respectively, PR is nothing more than giving a paint job to a busted-up Ford Pinto.

FCC, FTC Bosses Pen Misleading Washington Post Editorial

Karl Bode of Techdirt tears apart this entirely dishonest editorial jointly written by FCC chair Ajit Pai and FTC chair Maureen Ohlhausen:

Of course, there’s something else the pair intentionally and comically avoid talking about in their treatise. And that’s the fact that to gut FCC authority over broadband and shovel it back to an already-overburdened FTC, regulators need to roll back the Title II reclassification of ISPs as common carriers — and by proxy the nation’s net neutrality rules. Pai and Ohlhausen don’t even utter the phrase “net neutrality” in their missive, knowing all-too-well that they’d be laughed out of town if they didn’t try to hide their real objective under a parade of half-truths and prattle.

But make no mistake, this pretense that we need to shift broadband regulatory oversight back to the FTC because it provides a more “consistent regulatory environment” is a transparently self-serving, telecom industry-concocted canard — and the opening salvo in what will be the death of net neutrality protections if we don’t start paying closer attention.

The way Pai and Ohlhausen frame their editorial is that, by classifying ISPs as common carriers, the big bad Obama administration necessarily moved privacy protections from the FTC to the FCC, and somehow reduced those privacy restrictions in the process. That’s not true, as Bode explains, but their framing implies that privacy should be handled by the FTC alone and, to do that, ISPs should not be classified as common carriers.

Of course, ISPs aren’t just providing internet access any more — they own the media pipeline. Reducing regulatory oversight — particularly by rescinding their common carrier status — will only make this problem worse.

Oath, the Product of Verizon’s Ownership of Yahoo and AOL, Will Be a Privacy Nightmare

Nilay Patel and Ben Popper of the Verge:

This is everything Verizon and AOL have been working toward over the past few years. Like every other broadband provider, Verizon wants to extract more revenue from its network by increasingly owning the media that travels over it.

But unlike AT&T (which bought DirecTV and is in the process of buying Time Warner) or Comcast (which bought NBCUniversal and invested in companies like BuzzFeed and our own Vox Media), Verizon’s plan is far more lowbrow: it’s going to churn out as much cheap content as it can from AOL and Yahoo and tell advertisers it can do a better job of delivering eyeballs because it has better ad-tracking capabilities than Google and Facebook.

If you think the legislators who voted in favour of stripping internet privacy protections from the FCC’s duties — or the FCC chairman himself — were unaware of the catastrophe they created, you’re fooling yourself. They knew perfectly well that ISPs are increasingly in charge of the entire process of media creation and delivery, and that ads could be sold on the back of that. All of this should result in a burst of economic activity, right?

I see a flaw in that: we’re becoming numbed by over-exposure to advertising. Maybe paving the road for ISPs to create the most highly-targeted advertising products will create a burst of economic activity, but I bet its effective timeline is limited, and it comes at the cost of selling out Americans’ privacy.

The Web Looks Like Shit

I’m not linking to this Outline piece because it’s necessarily new information — though it’s nice to have all of the frustrating pieces of the web in a single tidy article. I’m linking to it because of Hanson O’Haver’s excellent explanation of the cumulative effect of all of this bullshit.

Decreasing ad rates have also put a lot of pressure on websites to devote more screen space to ads, and auto-play videos to increase impressions for video ads. “The very first online ad made a lot of money,” said Ben Williams, head of communications at Adblock Plus, “almost as much as print.” But as early as the mid-’90s advertisers were aware of “banner blindness,” the tendency of internet users to simply not look at the parts of the screen where ads usually are.

[…]

It’s easy to become blind to these problems when you spend all day on the internet. You figure out workarounds, stop looking at large portions of the screen, and install an ad blocker. People who don’t grasp these tricks are dismissed as rubes. Meanwhile, the problems grow more intractable. To borrow a phrase, this situation has become dangerous and unacceptable. We’re 20+ years into the internet era, and instead of becoming simpler and more thoughtful, navigating our digital spaces has turned into an increasingly frustrating exercise. Maybe it’s delusional or naively optimistic to say this, but it feels like there must be a better way.

After being inundated with crappy ads for so long, it’s no wonder many of us are becoming immune to their intended effect, hence the rise of internet chum and sneakier forms of native advertising. There’s no way that these trends will result in a better web or more profitable online publishing; it only makes us more likely to ignore anything that has even the vaguest whiff of advertising about it.

DisplayMate’s Review of the Samsung Galaxy S8’s Display

Dr. Raymond Soneira:

The Galaxy S8 is the first in a new generation of OLED Smartphones that have a Full Screen Display design. It is the most innovative and high performance Smartphone display that we have ever lab tested, earning DisplayMate’s highest ever A+ grade.

The display may be just one component in a smartphone, but it’s arguably the one many users will notice most. And virtually every statistic in Soneira’s review backs up his claim that this is the best display that has ever shipped in a smartphone.

However, on colour accuracy:

One very important capability of the Galaxy Smartphones that is often overlooked by many consumers and reviewers, is the set of user selectable Screen Modes that are available under Display Settings, which we cover and measure each one in detail below.

[…]

In order to see the high Color Accuracy, the Display Setting for the Screen Mode needs to match the Color Gamut for the content that is being viewed. All of the reviewers that continue to rant about the poor Color Accuracy of the Galaxy OLED displays have failed to set the proper Screen Mode for their content, which is very accurate as shown in our extensive Lab Measurements and Viewing Tests.

This is preposterous. Colour management is hard — that’s why Craig Hockenberry had to write a book about it. Leaving it up to typical users to recognize when they should enable Adobe RGB instead of sRGB is an idiotic move, and for Soneira to consider this a feature rather than a bug truly shows the contrast between his level of expertise and what users actually want.

One of the four Screen Modes available on the S8 is called Adaptive Display:

The Adaptive Display screen mode provides real-time Adaptive processing that can dynamically adjust images and videos. For some applications it will vary the White Point, Color Gamut, and Color Saturation based on the image content and the color of the surrounding ambient lighting measured by the Ambient Light Sensor (which measures color in addition to brightness).

The other Screen Modes tested by DisplayMate indicated very high colour accuracy, comparable with the displays in the iPhones 6 (but not the 7). Adaptive Display mode, on the other hand, was extremely inaccurate in DisplayMate’s testing because of its egregiously over-saturated colours.

Emphasis mine:

Select the Adaptive Display screen mode using Display Settings – it is the factory default screen mode for the Galaxy S8.

Samsung created a display that can very accurately display the P3 wide colour gamut, yet they chose to set the default to the least-accurate colour profile. Most users won’t change this, just as most people don’t change their wildly over-saturated default TV setting.

I have no doubt that the display component in the Samsung Galaxy S8 is one of the best smartphone displays to have ever shipped. But a display cannot really be separated from the smartphone it’s shipped in. If most customers are likely going to keep its default colour gamut setting, can it really be called the “most innovative and high performance smartphone display”, or receive DisplayMate’s highest-ever grade with honesty? Even if the display can be considered separate of the product, does it really matter that it’s so advanced if few people will ever get to see its true colours?

The Great Laptop Stagnation

MG Siegler offered his thoughts yesterday on his 2016 MacBook Pro:

The issue, as I see it, is the same reason why I thought the MacBook might be the last laptop I ever buy. We’re simply at the end of laptop innovation.

Believe me, I know this is a very dangerous thing to say in any field of technology. I run the risk of Phil Schiller getting up on stage and doing a “can’t innovate anymore, my ass” while unveiling a new, sleek device.

But I just don’t see it. The way forward is the iPad (and tablets in general) eating the laptop. This is still blasphemy to some folks, which is funny. This will happen eventually. Everything dies.

It’s kind of curious to juxtapose that comment with a stat revealed by Apple during their Mac Pro roundtable. Matthew Panzarino of TechCrunch:

Apple now ships computers at a ratio of 80 percent notebooks to 20 percent desktop computers, a stat they haven’t updated the public on in some time.

So, of the approximately 34 million Macs Apple has sold over the past eight reported quarters — earnings for Q2 2017 haven’t been released yet — approximately 27 million of them are laptops, give or take. For comparison, over just the three most recently-reported quarters — Q3 2016 through Q1 2017 — Apple sold approximately 32 million iPads.

I don’t see any grand pronouncements that can be made from these figures and perceptions. Just something to consider.

Woman Who Drinks Six Cups of Coffee Per Day Trying to Cut Down on Blue Light at Bedtime

I’ve been trying Night Shift on-and-off on my Mac for the past few months and I’m struggling to see the appeal. There was one evening where my eyes were truly strained and I needed to complete some stuff on my computer, so I switched it on. After adjusting to the yellowing, I’m still not sure whether the hue shift or lowered brightness was more effective at minimizing my eye strain.

I’ve noticed no difference in my sleeping habits after evenings where I’ve used Night Shift.

I drink two cups of coffee per day.

Apple Is Working on a New Mac Pro, iMac, and External Display

Matthew Panzarino, TechCrunch:

Apple Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller is talking to a small group of reporters in a white stucco building near its headquarters in Cupertino. The purpose of the discussion, while somewhat unclear initially, reveals itself a few minutes in.

The news, if you want it straight: Apple is acknowledging that the Mac Pro they introduced in 2013 has run aground on the cleverness of its own design, and they’re re-thinking the entire machine. In addition, they’ll be releasing a new external display — something it had previously opted out of.

But none of that is coming this year. Today, we’ll see a performance bump on the old design of Mac Pro, which will remain on sale for now. And later this year we’ll see improved iMacs that Apple feels will appeal to a segment of Pro users as well.

John Gruber also attended this briefing, and wrote a little about the obvious irregularity of Apple spilling their own product plans:

I think it was simply untenable for Apple to continue to remain silent on the Mac Pro front. No matter how disappointing you consider today’s speed bump updates to the lineup, they’re certainly better than no updates at all. But there was no way Apple could release today’s speed bumps without acknowledging that in and of themselves, these updates do not suggest that Apple is committed to the Mac Pro. In fact, if they had released these speed bumps without any comment about the future of the Mac Pro, people would have reasonably concluded that Apple had lost its goddamned mind.

Ina Fried of Axios was also there:

The company has no plans for touchscreen Macs, or for machines powered solely by the kind of ARM processors used in the iPhone and iPad. However, executives left open the possibility ARM chips could play a broader role as companion processors, something that showed up first with the T1 processor that powers the Touch Bar in the new MacBook Pro.

This is not necessarily what Apple’s pro customers wanted to hear today, but it is what they — we — needed to hear: an acknowledgement that such a tiny fraction of Apple’s sales are important to the company, and that they’re working on something that will address that. I, of course, have many questions that cannot be answered yet, and I’m okay with that. But on the timing of Apple’s realization that the architecture of the current Mac Pro isn’t capable of keeping up with upgrades, Panzarino quotes these responses:

“I wish I could give you the kind of answer you want with that, which is, ‘oh, there was a day and a meeting and we all got together and said X,’” says Schiller, “but it rarely works that way.”

“We all went on our own emotional journeys, I’d say,” laughs Federighi. “There were periods of denial and acceptance. We all went on that arc.”

I’m not surprised that it has taken this long to even get a whiff of an updated Mac Pro to suit the needs of all of their customers. But why would the development of an all-new Mac Pro preclude them from doing today’s spec bump update a year or two ago? I think that users’ concerns would have been assuaged by even slightly more regular updates.

But here we are, at long last: within sight of a new iMac, and with the knowledge that pro customers are not forgotten. This briefing does a lot, I think, to restore trust in the Mac leg of Apple’s ecosystem stool.

The news of a new display is some pretty fantastic icing on the cake, as far as I’m concerned. I expected that Apple had left the display business behind; their partnership with LG seemed to confirm that.1 After the fiasco with the 5K displays, I couldn’t be happier to read that external displays are still in Apple’s plans.

So: a new Mac Pro, a new display, and an updated iMac. The latter will be out this year, while the other products won’t be — Apple provided no guidance on when to expect them. That might not be stellar news, but it’s open and communicative, and that’s what a lot of us want to hear: an assurance that the Mac is still integral to Apple’s strategy, and that higher-end desktop customers are still important to them.

Update: One thing I didn’t see mentioned, unsurprisingly, is a commitment to regular Mac Pro updates. By the vague descriptions of the machine communicated to this roundtable of journalists, it should allow more frequent updates, but whenever this thing is introduced, I would love to hear and see a commitment to that.

A Mac is like a box of packaged tea: its expiration date might be far into the future on any shelf, but you wouldn’t buy it if you thought it had been made three years ago and was left to sit around.


  1. Over the past several years, I kept hearing hints about a brand new display being developed inside Apple. But, after the LG 5K display was announced as something of a partnership, I assumed that whatever was being developed had either always been destined for the LG display, or assisted LG after Apple had a change of heart. ↩︎

iPad Sales by Screen Size

Interesting perspective from Neil Cybart:

iPad sales have faced one major headwind in recent years. This item explains a significant portion of the sales decline. It’s not inferior software, weak storytelling, or even a longer upgrade cycle. Instead, the iPad’s problem has been the iPad mini.

People aren’t buying as many iPad mini devices these days. Excluding 7.9-inch iPad mini sales from overall iPad sales results in a completely different sales picture. As seen in Exhibit 3, iPad mini unit sales have declined 70% after peaking in 4Q13 and 1Q14. The product’s value proposition has been permanently reduced due to larger iPhones. Apple has clearly experienced Peak iPad Mini. It’s not that the iPad mini form factor is going away, but rather that it will play a smaller role going forward.

As Apple doesn’t break down iPad sales by model, Cybart is using data from Fiksu, a mobile advertising company. Their accuracy appears decent — their iOS version tracking stats show 80% of devices using iOS 10 and 15% using iOS 9 in the week of February 20; Apple’s own stats show 79% on iOS 10 and 16% on iOS 9.

Fiksu’s numbers show iPad sales that are still weaker than they were, say, four or five years ago, but without the massive apparent downfall with iPad Mini sales factored in. A fun — albeit pointless — thought experiment is to consider what iPad sales might have been like had the iPad Mini not been introduced.

I still think a big leap in software is necessary for the iPad line, but a reduced focus on the iPad Mini — and its limited display area — could yield far greater improvements for the bigger models.

See Also: Jean-Louis Gassée’s piece on what he sees as a turning point for the iPad, especially with the launch of the new low-cost and lower-specced 9.7-inch model.

Update: Michael Tsai:

…I think more than linear improvements would be needed for the iPad to become what Tim Cook thinks of it as.

Chris Adamson:

So where is the software of consequence for iPad? And who, given App Store economic realities, can afford to write it?

I’d like Apple to aim for a higher watermark, but I’ll settle for incremental changes — provided that software comes to the iPad that makes it feel like it’s of a professional calibre. I don’t know which happens first, though: does the App Store need to change in some way, or does a piece of “pro” software need to launch first to really give the iPad a kick up the ass?

Notes on the Touch Bar

Michael Lopp does not like his MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar:

In week #3 of actively using the 15” MacBook Pro, I am delighted by its build quality. I love its weight. Last night, I found myself admiring the machining of the aluminum notch that allows me to open the computer. I type deftly on this hardware.

I am also equally deft at randomly muting my music, unintentionally changing my brightness or volume level, and jarringly engaging Siri.

It is maddening. And it’s not improving.

This is a well-written exploration into the very different compromises required to use the Touch Bar compared to a row of function keys. On the plus side, the functions available in that top row are now flexible and can reflect the needs of the currently-foregrounded app; on the flip side, replacing physical buttons with a barely-delineated touch-sensitive strip makes it extremely difficult to make any Touch Bar-centric adjustments by touch alone.

Marco Arment became so frustrated with his Touch Bar-equipped 15-inch MacBook Pro that he replaced it with the 13-inch model that retains the row of physical function keys. The 13-inch “MacBook Escape” has a lot of drawbacks compared to its Touch Bar siblings — two fewer Thunderbolt ports, slower memory, a slower processor, somewhat slower WiFi, and no Touch ID — so that’s a powerful statement about how much the Touch Bar is impeding his typical usage.

With that in mind, Steve Troughton-Smith is running a Twitter poll on how many like the Touch Bar, and how many do not. With 966 votes in, the split was 51/49 in favour of the Touch Bar. The poll is now at around 1,800 votes, and I look forward to seeing the results. It’s going to be very, very close — confusing for a feature pitched as “something much more versatile and capable”.

Update: Troughton-Smith’s poll has ended after nearly 3,000 votes at the same 51/49 split in favour of the Touch Bar’s usability.

New Apple Watch Ad: ‘Live Bright’

I’ve found Apple’s advertising over the past year, especially, to be a bit of a mixed bag. It has felt messy and, frankly, a little bit bland.

This, though, is terrific. Between the near-silhouetted figures and the bright colours, it’s reminiscent of the classic iPod ads. And it features an edited version of Beyoncé’s “Freedom”, so it’s fantastic in every way.

A Universal Theory of Ride Sharing Startups

I’ve spent a decent chunk of the past couple of months explaining how Uber’s service is very clever, but the company is ethically reprehensible. I’ve written about it again and again and again and again, so I’m sure that many of you have tried to leave Uber behind. Maybe you’ve switched to Lyft, for example, or heard about the new Dryvyng app.

Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but they’re not a lot better. Ryan Felton, Gizmodo:

Uber has had a relentless year of scandals, spurring the logical conclusion that its arch-rival Lyft is now in a position to capitalize. John Zimmer, Lyft’s president, spoke at length on Tuesday with Time about how his company’s attempting to do just that — and it’s ridiculous.

[…]

“We’re woke. Our community is woke, and the U.S. population is woke,” Lyft President John Zimmer told Time. “There’s an awakening … Our vote matters, our choice matters, the seat we take matters.”

Except the seat you take in an a Lyft isn’t much different from that of an Uber, even if Zimmer thinks his company is “a better boyfriend.”

Lyft’s sins include partnering with Uber to throw a tantrum about how unfair it is for drivers to have to pass a simple fingerprint-based background check in cities like Austin, and has attempted to suppress employee unionization.

So what about Dryvyng? The service was founded by Craig Brittain, who used to run a revenge porn site. Not a good start. And it gets worse, as chats seen by Melanie Ehrenkranz of Mic show, when he started hurling racist epithets at a prospective investor over Facebook Messenger:

That’s when Brittain flew off the handle. “You need to learn respect and to learn to listen, especially to racially superior people,” he said. “Later, you fucking raghead piece of shit. Hope you leave my country soon. And take your fucking Arab socialist communist friends with you. Fuckin’ towelhead piece-of-shit invader. Fuckin commie.”

What an abhorrent life Brittain has led so far.

And, earlier this month, JetSmarter — a service for sharing time on private jets — tried to extort a Verge journalist into writing a positive review or pay a $2,000 penalty.

I asked earlier today on Twitter why ride sharing startups seem to attract founders who are unrepentant assholes, and Ryan Jones came up with the best response:

@nickheer Can culture be defined by 1 person defining a ruthless market competitive basis?

Maybe it’s as simple as that: Uber, founded by an asshole, has been successful. Therefore — other startup founders in the same market might reason — they must also be assholes in order to be successful in the space. It’s sort of like how every smartphone launch seems to echo the way Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone, except with hate, harm, and entirely unethical behaviours instead of a cool new product.

That’s my theory: ride sharing startups are run by assholes because the most successful one is run by an asshole, and they’re being rewarded.

Twitter Is Ditching the Default ‘Egg’ Avatar

INT. CONFERENCE ROOM ON MARKET STREET

Mid-level Twitter staffer: We need to do something about harassment from Twitter eggs. They’re posting nothing but sexist, racist, and hateful messages and it’s driving away users.

Twitter executive: Okay, let’s get rid of the eggs.

Mid-level Twitter staffer: Oh great, I’ll let everyone on my team know that we’re cracking down on anonymous abus—

Twitter executive: No, like, we’re getting rid of the eggs. We’re replacing the picture with a gumdrop-shaped silhouette.

Mid-level Twitter staffer: But that doesn’t do anything about abuse.

Twitter executive: Ah, but we won’t have any harassment from Twitter eggs any more, right? Am I right? Huh?

Apple to Eliminate Several Business-Related Retail Positions

Juli Clover, MacRumors:

Apple is planning another shakeup within its retail stores, according to a source who shared the company’s plans with MacRumors. At the end of April, Apple plans to eliminate certain retail positions, including Business Manager, Business Events Lead, Events Coordinator, and Events Lead.

Apple Store Leaders began informing affected employees about the change earlier this week, and many were caught off guard by the sudden sunsetting of specialized positions that have long existed at retail stores.

Our source says that the elimination of the Business Manager position is something of a shock because Business Managers lead the Business Team and are responsible for bringing in up to 20 percent of overall store sales.

This news comes just a few weeks after an overwhelmingly positive report on Apple’s success in the enterprise, making it all the more surprising. IT managers said that they loved the purchasing and support experience, but can that be maintained after many of the business-centric roles in retail stores are eliminated? Given my own recent tech support experiences, I’m not so sure.