Archive

July 29, 2016

The Amazon-to-eBay Arbitrage Scheme

It’s not just counterfeit goods on Amazon that are a problem for legitimate businesses. Jason Feifer writes for Entrepreneur magazine on a new scheme that marries Amazon’s generally low prices and dubious eBay sellers:

To see how this works in real time, I go to eBay and buy a Ripple Rug. There are five listings for the product on this day, and I select one from a seller called AFarAwayGalaxy. The price is $49.51; on Amazon, Ruckel sells it for $39.99. So, how’d this listing get here? Almost certainly, the seller is using some kind of software — made by DS Domination or a competitor — that scans Amazon for its best-selling products. (They can also do this on large sites like Walmart’s, though most seem to focus on Amazon). The software found the Ripple Rug, which, on the day in June I buy it, is ranked number 25 in cat toys. Then it copied everything in the Amazon listing and pasted it into an eBay listing –amusingly, right down to the part of the product description that says, “Thank you for viewing our Amazon version of the Ripple Rug.”

The price is usually set between 5 and 15 percent over the Amazon price. When I make the purchase, the person behind AFarAwayGalaxy simply goes to Amazon and buys a Ripple Rug — but instead of buying it for themselves, they designate it as a gift and have it shipped to me. Because I paid $9.52 above the Amazon price, that’s profit, which AFarAwayGalaxy can keep (minus Paypal and eBay fees). This seller has more than 11,000 items listed on eBay. That can quickly add up to real money.

Both Amazon and eBay failed to condemn the actions of these individuals, and they didn’t commit to making changes to prevent this practice. It’s deceptive, and it hurts individuals and businesses more than it has the potential to turn a profit for the weaselly sellers who dabble in it.

July 28, 2016

Another Analyst Offers Tim Cook Some Advice

I haven’t seen one of these incredibly idiotic articles in a while, but I also haven’t read MarketWatch in a while. Vivek Wadhwa opines:

In June 1985, Bill Gates sent a letter to Apple CEO John Sculley and Mac development head Jean Louis Gassée, urging them license Apple’s operating system to other companies. Apple ignored his advice, and five months later, Microsoft released its own operating system, Windows. It went on to become the dominant player in the personal-computer industry while Apple floundered. Microsoft saved Apple from bankruptcy in 1997 by investing $150 million in it.

There are many ways to interpret this history lesson, but one thing is clear: building an open platform gave Microsoft MSFT a huge advantage. Yes, by focusing on design and integrating hardware and software, Steve Jobs was able to reinvent Apple AAPL and make it the most valuable company in the world. But this came much later, in the 2000s, after the opportunities were lost.

One has to wonder what would have happened if Apple had taken Gates’s advice.

Okay, rewind that:

Yes, by focusing on design and integrating hardware and software, Steve Jobs was able to reinvent Apple AAPL and make it the most valuable company in the world. But this came much later, in the 2000s, after the opportunities were lost.

All of the opportunities were lost for Apple to… — what, exactly? Not become the most valuable company in the world?

Wadhwa is wrong all over this shit show of an article. Apple did license their operating system in the ’90s, and it resulted in a devaluing of their brand and their engineering, both in hardware and software. Not only that, Macintosh clones barely made a dent in the overall Mac OS market share. Clones were unpopular, usually-terrible computers (see note below) that made Mac OS and — as a result — Apple look bad. Why repeat that?

Apple needs to do something dramatic before the spell wears off and we all begin to question the company’s innovation capability again. It needs to follow Bill Gates’s recommendation and offer its operating system on other platforms. Full-featured smartphones can be purchased for as little as $50 in China and India today; that price will fall to less than $25 over the next three or four years, and billions of people will be purchasing them. The market is still in its infancy. Apple should port iOS to Samsung, HTC, LG, Xiaomi, and other brands of smartphones. It still has a chance to displace Google’s Android and become the dominant smartphone platform—if it acts in time.

[…]

Will this eat further into iPhone revenue? Yes, it surely will, but this revenue is declining anyway and Apple needs to find alternative revenue sources.

Let’s briefly engage in this crazy parallel universe, just for the hell of it. In what world will an OEM choose to pay for licenses to iOS when Android is free? This is the problem Windows Phone has always had: Microsoft charged for it and established minimum hardware guidelines, thereby limiting its potential.

Any notion that Apple should follow in those footsteps is painfully misguided. But this article trips over itself so many times trying to justify its premise that it becomes clear that Wadhwa has no idea what he’s talking about.

And before you think I’m picking on some no-name analyst, he has some serious credentials:

Vivek Wadhwa, a former tech entrepreneur, is a Distinguished Fellow and professor at Carnegie Mellon University Engineering at Silicon Valley.

He’s also made the Time top 40 as one of the “most influential minds in tech”, and been recognized by Foreign Policy. I don’t think Tim Cook will be feeling his influence on this matter.

Update: Shawn King points to several examples of clones that were better than Apple’s hardware offerings at the time. I remember using bad clones, but clearly there were some good ones around, too.

Don’t Cry for Yahoo

Maya Kosoff, Vanity Fair:

Companies like Twitter and Yahoo already get too much benefit of the doubt by virtue of being in the tech sector. At the beginning, it’s assumed these companies will be unprofitable; investors clamor to pump money into them, typically on the strength of pitch decks and founder promises. In no other industry are companies allowed to flail for so long before ultimately getting smacked down by public or private markets.

This isn’t a purely capitalistic concern for me; it’s more about user rights because of those capitalistic concerns. There are just a handful of likely end-games for an unprofitable or poorly-performing tech company: fill it with ads, sell the company, or shut it down.

These are all concerning avenues for users. Adding advertising tends to mean user privacy is compromised, as ads become increasingly targeted by the day; shutting a company down means all user data gets removed, and it’s up to each user to find a new product or service to fill the hole. Rinse and repeat.

Arguably worse is when the company and all attached user data is acquired. There’s very little control any user has over that decision: they may like the original product, but are uncomfortable with the new owner. These decisions are impossible to foresee: if you signed up for Flickr ten years ago, or Tumblr five years ago, would you be expecting your photos and blog posts to end up in the hands of Verizon today?

Twitter is another rumoured acquisition target, and one of the rumoured buyers is Google. Would you continue to use Twitter if Google purchased it and your tweets become part of your Google advertising profile?

This income inequality problem is significant for the scale at which tech companies operate. On the one hand, there are tiny companies that don’t have a business model and can barely sustain themselves. On the other hand, there are massive whale-like companies that suck up the startup krill for their data, intellectual property, and engineering talent. And that means that the technology landscape becomes increasingly dominated by a few very large players.

July 27, 2016

You Know What’s Cool?

A billion iPhones, that’s what. At an employee meeting today, Tim Cook showed off the billionth one: what appears to be a rose gold iPhone 6S Plus.

The scale at which Apple operates is unprecedented. I was trying to find something — anything — to compare it to when I stumbled across a list of the best-selling products of all time. It’s a crappy “listicle”, but it provides some context. They say that 516 million iPhones had been sold at the time of the list’s creation in May 2014, which means that nearly half of all iPhones ever made have been sold in the last two years.

Apple Reports Third Quarter Results

Amongst some not-great iPhone and Mac sales are improvements in services, and a decent bump in iPad average selling prices despite a drop in total sales, potentially indicating more people choosing the iPads Pro. “Other” revenue was down for the first time in a while, probably because the Apple Watch debuted in Q3 2015.

Graham Spencer of MacStories put together a good roundup of reactions from Twitter, and highlights from the earnings call.

July 26, 2016

Illegally Downloading Music Like It’s 1999

Tom Usher, Vice:

Eventually the music industry worked out that it couldn’t just bash people with the proverbial stick, and it created the carrot of way cheaper legal downloading and streaming services, while also going around closing down the websites that had almost destroyed its business.

That tactic pretty much worked, and today I, like everyone else, am more than happy to wrestle with the extensive catalogs of YouTube and Spotify rather than endangering my computer with dodgy software. But I do wonder what happened to those old pirate websites, whether they still exist in some kind of internet graveyard or whether they have all been expunged.

So, as I was feeling particularly blue this week, I decided to try download Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” for free on every old pirate website, to see if any of them had sprung back up in my absence.

It is truly remarkable how long it took for major music labels and movie studios to realize that they couldn’t fight pirates directly; it is equally as remarkable how quickly most of us have transitioned to a streaming world. For ten bucks a month, you can get a virtually limitless catalogue of music on loads of different platforms — from the good, to the less good. For another nine bucks a month, you can get Netflix’s huge library of TV shows and movies. It’s taking the movie studios and distribution companies longer to figure out that holding out on Netflix doesn’t necessarily make it more likely that people will pay to rent an individual movie or buy a whole television show’s season, but they’re coming around.

But if you don’t want to pay for music or movies, it’s as easy as ever to surf the web while flying the Jolly Roger, as long as you know where to look. The fight against piracy has driven these kinds of sites underground, relying upon a more distributed network. Private torrent trackers remain popular, and offer plenty of records and movies that are virtually impossible to find on streaming services or elsewhere. Music blogs remain popular and continue to distribute RAR files hosted outside of the United States, making it difficult to remove either the blog or the files.

They may be illegal and they don’t encourage support for the artists and creators of the work, but all of these files come with a distinct advantage: there’s no DRM or licensing disputes to contend with. That‘s something that the major studios and labels have yet to solve. While we’re being encouraged to put our media libraries into the cloud, we’re also told that we’re not entitled to any of this media. We’re placing yet another controlling party between ourselves and what we’re trying to do, and that party has a poor track record of balancing their own wishes with consumer desires.

There are now more obstacles between us and pirated media compared to, say, ten or fifteen years ago. But streaming media has replaced some of those with potential obstacles that show up every now and again.

Transit Cartography

I know that this is effectively an advertisement for Transit, but it also happens to be very good at explaining some of the design decisions and difficulties encountered when trying to make maps for public transportation users. Between Google Maps and Transit — Apple’s Maps app doesn’t support Calgary yet — it’s an easy choice.

July 25, 2016

An Interview With Kara Swisher

New York magazine interviewed 113 journalists and polled them on the state of the media — what’s right and, more importantly, what’s wrong. Their responses were varied and frank, with a kind of candour that is admirable and eye-opening.

As far as I can tell, the only tech journalist interviewed for the piece was Kara Swisher. Jeff Wise was the interviewer:

What about with Marissa Mayer?

I was critical of her tenure from the beginning because of a lot of moves she made. Now, I’ve known her as an executive a long time, and I knew her background at Google, which was very mixed. So I was like, “Hey, just a second. She’s never run anything. Some of the selections of executives she’s making aren’t very good. It’s a bigger problem at Yahoo than people realize — she’s not going to just arrive and wave her golden wand and make it okay.” And people are like, “Why are you so mean to her?” and I’m like, “This isn’t high school, she’s an executive, she’s a highly paid executive at a major public company, and she’s messing it up.”

Turns out…

I kept saying, “This is not going to end well.” I don’t think it was mean. All I was commenting on was her business ability. And people were saying I was mean. I’m not mean, I’m accurate.

Fiery.

This is a terrific interview. Swisher has always been one of the sharpest minds in tech media. She’s not blind to the problems that are rife in it; or, indeed, in any other media niche.

Koenigsegg’s Analysis of Their Nurburgring Accident

Like Elon Musk and Tesla, the team at Koenigsegg is pretty open about communicating what they’re learning after mistakes and accidents. I think this might be one of the most frank and honest articles published by a company about what they did wrong, and how they’re fixing it. It’s refreshing.

And the car is pretty badass, too.

A Short History of Yahoo Acquisition Attempts

Now that Verizon has made official their purchase of Yahoo for $4.83 billion, it’s worth taking a look at the comparative value of this acquisition. I’ve already contrasted its price with how much Yahoo paid for GeoCities and Broadcast.com, but this is not the first time that a company has tried to buy Yahoo itself.

Back in February of 2008, Microsoft offered $44.6 billion to acquire Yahoo, in an attempt to better compete with Google. At the time, analysts speculated that it would be a difficult merger for antitrust reasons — an idea that seems positively quaint today. In the end, Yahoo rejected the offer:

After careful evaluation, the Board believes that Microsoft’s proposal substantially undervalues Yahoo! including our global brand, large worldwide audience, significant recent investments in advertising platforms and future growth prospects, free cash flow and earnings potential, as well as our substantial unconsolidated investments.

Later that year, Microsoft tried again, offering about $20 billion for Yahoo’s search functionality. While it was also rejected, Yahoo and Microsoft entered into a deal in 2009 that would use Bing’s search technology to power Yahoo. That deal was re-signed last year; its value was not disclosed.

While Yahoo has an illustrious history with Microsoft, part of the negotiations in 2008 involved a familiar friend. Nick Tabakoff of the Australian:

But any joint move by Microsoft and News could face stiffening resistance from Yahoo, with reports suggesting the portal and internet search directory is itself in discussions with Time Warner’s AOL about the two companies joining forces to combine their online operations.

Yahoo’s reported negotiations with AOL are being seen as a direct attempt to make it harder for Microsoft to control the portal. The reported move by News Corp, which owns The Australian, to enter the fray for Yahoo follows Microsoft’s February $US44.6 billion takeover bid for the group.

News has been mulling an alliance with Yahoo for much of the past year.

Not only was News Corp. involved in these negotiations, so was AOL. There were even suggestions at the time that AOL and Yahoo could merge.

Verizon bought AOL last year. In their announcement of the Yahoo acquisition today, they noted:

Yahoo will be integrated with AOL under Marni Walden, EVP and President of the Product Innovation and New Businesses organization at Verizon.

At last.

July 23, 2016

Stellar.io Has Officially Shut Down

Sad news from Jason Kottke:

Hi all, Jason here. I am not at all excited or happy or thrilled to announce that Stellar has been shut down and will not be coming back. This was not an easy decision to make. Building the site was some of the most fun I have ever had and watching people use and love it, well, it was very satisfying both personally and professionally. But as the reasons for discontinuing Stellar piled up over the past 2-3 years, it became obvious even to me that it was the only way forward.

Stellar never caught on the way I had hoped it would, and the cost (both in dollars and in even more precious time) doesn’t allow me to give it – and you – the attention that’s deserved. The site has been unstable since late 2015 and non-responsive since April, and it’s well past time to make it official. It’s better to be a fond memory than an on-going frustration.

I loved Stellar. It’s one of the few bookmarks I keep — well, kept — in my bookmarks toolbar, as opposed to squirrelled away in a bookmarks folder. There’s nothing else that works quite like it; nothing else with the same uncanny ability to surface really great tweets from friends of your friends. I used to check my Stellar feed every night before bed. I’ll miss it, but I’ll always appreciate Kottke’s work to make it as good as it was; it gives me a reason to miss the site.

July 22, 2016

Verizon Is Close to Acquiring Yahoo

The rumoured purchase price is about $5 billion, compared to the $4.4 billion that Verizon paid for AOL last year, or about five times the amount Yahoo paid to acquire Tumblr. I remain fascinated at how eager Verizon is to acquire big-in-the-’90s web properties.

Make America Colbert Again

This week, Marisa Guthrie of the Hollywood Reporter and Alison Herman of the Ringer published two interesting articles examining Stephen Colbert’s iteration of the Late Show.

While both Jimmy Fallon and James Corden have done spectacularly well in encouraging viewers to flood their friends’ Facebook and Twitter feeds with YouTube links, Colbert has struggled. Yet, in the last month or so, Colbert has managed to combine his intellect with videos that have a similar popularity as his competitors’.

The first was a daring “explanation” of Donald Trump’s reaction to the mass shooting in Orlando. This week, he’s been broadcasting live during the Republican National Convention, and will do so next week during the Democratic equivalent. Last night, however, he topped it all by bringing Jon Stewart back.

I don’t worry too much about the Late Show’s reluctance to create viral singalong videos. Colbert has an on-air personality that’s kind of like a lighter version of David Letterman, whom he replaced. That style of television is more sophisticated, and less dependent upon gags. I hope that’s not lost should they more rigorously pursue ratings or YouTube views.

July 21, 2016

Homeland Security Tried to Confiscate a WSJ Reporter’s Phones

Joseph Cox, Vice:

The agent passed over a document, which [reporter Maria Abi-Habib] later photographed and posted to Facebook, purportedly showing that the agent has the right to seize those devices. Abi-Habib instead said that the border agents would need to contact WSJ’s lawyers. After some back and forth, the agent went to see her supervisor, and eventually said Abi-Habib is free to go.

Abi-Habib said she reported the incident to a WSJ lawyer, encryption expert and the outlet’s in-house security. From those conversations, Abi-Habib says, “My rights as a journalist or US citizen do not apply at the border, as explained above, since legislation was quietly passed in 2013 giving DHS very broad powers (I researched this since the incident). This legislation also circumvents the Fourth Amendment that protects Americans’ privacy and prevents searches and seizures without a proper warrant.”

Per the Department of Homeland Security’s assessment (PDF):

The overall authority to conduct border searches without suspicion or warrant is clear and long- standing, and courts have not treated searches of electronic devices any differently than searches of other objects. We conclude that CBP’s and ICE’s current border search policies comply with the Fourth Amendment. We also conclude that imposing a requirement that officers have reasonable suspicion in order to conduct a border search of an electronic device would be operationally harmful without concomitant civil rights/civil liberties benefits.

Read that again, carefully, and realize that these three sentences completely undermine the Fourth Amendment at any border crossing, such as an airport, or within a hundred miles of the American border.

July 20, 2016

Pixellating or Blurring Text in Photoshop Creates Identifiable Patterns

Kashmir Hill summarizes for Fusion a study by Steven Hill, et. al. (PDF):

“In many online communities, it is the norm to redact names and other sensitive text from posted screen shots,” write the researchers, specifically citing Reddit. “Mosaicing and blurring have also been used for the redaction of high-profile government documents and celebrity social media.”

They should probably stop doing that. The UC-San Diego researchers found that they could use statistical models—”so-called hidden Markov models”—to generate the blurring or pixelation of lots of numbers, letters, and words, to the point that their software program could match a known redaction to an unknown redaction to figure out what it says. The biggest challenge is figuring out the font and size of the underlying text which the researchers need for their deciphering. They say it works better than a brute-force technique for deciphering pixelated images discussed by Dheera Venkatraman in 2007.

There’s a great reason why intelligence agencies redact documents by placing an oversized black bar on top of the text in question, then printing and scanning the document to make it unrecoverable. The latter steps were not performed by the New York Times in 2014, and it lead to the unintentional exposure of sensitive information from a Snowden-leaked NSA document.

Limiting Harassment, Not Speech

Madeleine Sweet:

While [Milo] Yiannopoulos uses the term “free speech” to declare what Twitter, in his opinion, deprived him of — he clearly could not have meant it in the legal sense, though he likely meant to evoke the same sense that many horrible Americans have; this sense that they can spew whatever bigotry they want without repercussion because “the first amendment”. Perhaps he did mean it in the legal sense, in which case he is as dumb as all of his bigoted drones trolling the #FreeMilo hashtag (also: free him from what?) and attempting to make some correlation between the bill of rights and [Twitter] banning a bigot and a hate-monger from their forum.

Much like when Brendan Eich was removed as Mozilla’s CEO after his contributions to Prop 8 became known, and when Charles Johnson was banned from Twitter for raising funds to “take out” DeRay Mckesson, it was entirely within the realm of reason for Yiannopoulos to be banned as well. By goading his followers into targeted harassment repeatedly and expressing no contrition for it, he became an unwelcome and toxic presence.

Yiannopoulos’ defence is that Twitter is a “safe space for Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter extremists”. Racism and xenophobia aside, it should be noted that, last summer, Twitter began a crackdown on accounts that tweeted in support of ISIS. The result? A 40% decline in related activity.

In a weird way, Yiannopoulos is right: Twitter has a much bigger problem with abuse than any single user can represent. But he’s part of the problem. Twitter should not be a safe space for inciting hatred and targeted violence.

Update: Leigh Alexander, writing for the Guardian:

Banning one man won’t undo the small but poisonous cultural legacy he’s created, nor erase the playbook for defamation and harassment online that he’s played a key role in scripting. Twitter has far, far more work to do.

Without this further work, Yiannopoulos’s ban – and even the subsequent catty gloating from us folks on the left – all just stands to aggravate a wound that’s been attracting flies to social media discourse for too long already. An isolated ban just lets Yiannopoulos make himself a martyr for “free speech” – it enables him to argue that social media offers special treatment to those on the political left that it does not accord the right, and perpetuates the pernicious myth that the main interest of the progressive left is in shutting its ears to offensive things or in “censoring” those who ruffle feathers.

July 19, 2016

Apple and Formula 1

Joe Saward brings us a strange but intriguing rumour:

The suggestion last week that Apple may be discussing the acquisition of the Formula One group has led to a lot of interest and a lot of opinion. […]

Right now, it is unclear whether an Apple-F1 deal is a serious possibility, but it is clear that discussions have been taking place. Logic is often the wrong way to look at F1 because decisions tend to be driven by the enthusiasm of the decision-makers, who then argue for F1 within the companies involved. In this respect, Apple should be watched because Cue is a petrolhead – not to mention a member of the board of Ferrari SpA.

Saward is a reliable, long-time F1 reporter; this rumour should not be dismissed out of hand, no matter how bizarre it seems. He clarified on Twitter that he heard rumours from multiple sources in Baku and Austria about these discussions. This is unclear and volatile so far, but, as it brings together two of my favourite things, I’m fascinated already.

Why would Apple do this? Formula 1 is a huge brand, especially outside of the United States. If they want exclusive shows and other content — and they do — a pre-existing global network of live events that is broadcast to a dedicated fanbase around the world makes some sense.

Update: Then again, Siri still doesn’t support F1 queries.

July 18, 2016

Leslie Jones and Harassment on Twitter

Leslie Jones, who played Patty Tolan in this year‘s Ghostbusters film, spent today screencapping and tweeting some of the racist and sexist crap she has to put up with on a regular basis. Susan Cheng of Buzzfeed has compiled several of the tweets, along with a bunch of words of support from friends and other users.

What’s clear is that Twitter remains a platform on which it is trivial to hurl insults, epithets, and hate at other users with virtually no recourse. It took Twitter four and a half hours to respond to Buzzfeed with confirmation that they had suspended the accounts in question, and Cheng posted her article well after Jones had begun exposing those users.

Does Twitter simply not see harassment as a big deal? Their tech staff is overwhelmingly white and male, as is their leadership. Do you really think these problems would persist if they had a more diverse staff that were, depressingly, more often on the receiving end of this kind of hatred?

iTunes Match Audio Fingerprinting Is Coming to Apple Music

Jim Dalrymple:

Apple has been quietly rolling out iTunes Match audio fingerprint to all Apple Music subscribers. Previously Apple was using a less accurate metadata version of iTunes Match on Apple Music, which wouldn’t always match the correct version of a particular song. We’ve all seen the stories of a live version of a song being replaced by a studio version, etc.

Using iTunes Match with audio fingerprint, those problems should be a thing of the past.

It baffles me that Apple Music rolled out with an entirely different matching techniques when, probably two or three offices over, the iTunes Match team built a perfectly decent audio fingerprinting system. Duplicative efforts in this vein seem like they should have been eliminated when the executive staff was shuffled in 2012.

According to iMore’s Serenity Caldwell, this change also means that the files stored in Apple Music will be DRM-free. While it hasn’t been confirmed by anyone at Apple, it seems like iTunes Match is slowly being eliminated, which makes sense — it, too, is duplicative of a number of Apple Music features.

July 16, 2016

Tech Companies and Diversity Hiring

Dare Obasanjo:

The low relative numbers of black engineers at many tech companies is a reflection of how these companies approach recruitment and hiring. If 7% of Apple’s tech employees are black and it is literally the most valuable company in the world and Slack can have 8.9% of its engineering staff be black then break records by being the fastest enterprise startup to hit a $1 billion valuation, it’s a farce for other tech companies to imply that hiring more than 1% black engineers can’t be done without lowering their standards.

What an incredibly insulting statement it is for hiring managers to claim that increasing the number of nonwhite, non-male employees at their companies necessitates a lowering of standards.

Diversity Is a Broken Product

Bo Ren, in what I promise is an uplifting piece towards the end:

[We] are told that we don’t cut it, even when we have the same or higher qualifications. There is a gulf between a privileged mediocre candidate and an excellent minority candidate. It’s the tension between the B, B+, B- folks versus the A, A-, A+ folks. Yet, even after college, there’s still grade inflation for mediocre white men.

It is flawed to look to women in power as indicators of progress in diversity. Just having Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer, and Marry Barra (all white women) in power is not enough for furthering diversity. If you are an excellent, smart, Ivy League graduate, who is an early employee of a big tech company, you will do just fine despite difficulties and biases along the way. But what about the the other candidates who are not as fortunate?

There are other industries that are heavily skewed towards particular combinations of gender and ethnicity, but the ongoing focus on improving diversity in tech is because it shouldn’t be skewed. Its promise is an egalitarianism that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Tech is an inherently complex industry, with people working in everything from design and creative pursuits to physical engineering and finance. It should span the gamut, particularly due to its growing influence and power. Yet it remains an industry largely dominated by white male figures in all positions, from interns to CEOs.

And it shows: Apple debuted a Health app in iOS 8 without the capability to track menstrual cycles; Google’s photo recognition software tagged black people as “gorillas”; software from both HP and Microsoft has had problems with recognizing the faces of darker-skinned users; and, just this year, Microsoft held a party with dancers dressed as erotic schoolgirls mere hours after holding a luncheon discussing women in gaming.

Do we think any of these issues would have occurred if any of these companies hired more people of colour, more women, or more people who live at the intersection of multiple sources of discrimination?

Excuse Season Rapidly Approaches

As we move into the second half of July, tech companies are probably preparing their public diversity reports, as they’ve done for the past two years. Last year’s numbers were a scant improvement across the board from the previous year’s figures, with Facebook — in particular — performing poorly. Yours truly:

More companies released their full EEO-1 reports this year than last year, demonstrating a desire for more transparency but also revealing in much greater detail just how few improvements they’ve made. Facebook, for example, hired precisely 36 black Americans this year, out of over a thousand new employees.

Based on a report yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, those numbers aren’t much better this year. Georgia Wells writes:

The share of Hispanic and black employees in the company’s U.S. workforce didn’t budge from a year ago, remaining at 4% and 2%, respectively. The percentage of women at Facebook inched up 1 percentage point to 33%.

Facebook blamed its problem on the “pipeline,” meaning the number of women and minorities entering the tech industry.

That’s bullshit. The Washington Post busted this myth almost exactly one year ago. Cecilia Kang and Todd C. Frankel reported then:

“It’s not even remotely a pipeline issue,” said Andrea Hoffman, who runs Culture Shift Labs, which helps companies find minority and female talent. Her company recently hosted a brunch in Palo Alto, Calif., for minority job-seekers in tech and finance. The 200 seats were snapped up, and she had to make a waiting list for 200 more.

“For anybody to tell me the talent isn’t out there,” she said, “I know emphatically that’s not true.”

Wells asked a similar expert the same thing this year and got a near-identical response:

“There are a ton of opportunities to increase demographic representation in tech companies with the people that already exist in the workforce,” said Joelle Emerson, chief executive of Paradigm, a diversity consultancy that works with many Silicon Valley firms.

She added that there are more black and Hispanic computer-science graduates than are offered jobs with tech firms in the U.S.

It might be another year of middling progress in corporate diversity in the tech sector. Brace yourself for recycled excuses.

July 14, 2016

The Playlist Makers

Reggie Ugwu of Buzzfeed scored interviews with the teams who make the playlists for Apple Music, Spotify, and Google Play, and the resulting article is a fascinating look inside our expectations for what playlists should be:

Music fans, [Apple Music curator Scott Plagenhoef] argues, echoing Iovine, can smell the difference between a service where much of the product is dictated by algorithms or charts and one that is guided by more knowledgeable but equally passionate versions of themselves. By building its house on a foundation of experts, Apple Music has bet that it can be marginally more trustworthy to users than the competition, and that that margin could make a tie-breaking difference.

“Music taste is so nuanced, it’s so personal,” Plagenhoef says. “I think one of the worst things you can do to somebody is get really close to who they are and then present them with something that’s close to what they want but not quite there. You don’t want to be the people who say, ‘Well, you like Fleet Foxes, so you must like Mumford & Sons.’”

Plagenhoef’s statement is rather peculiar considering the number of times I — and other Apple Music users — have seen “Intro To…” playlists for artists that we’re deeply familiar with. The title of this kind of playlist has since been changed to “Essentials”, but it amounts to the same thing. Spotify’s playlists aren’t much better for me, though that’s likely because I use it far less than I do Apple Music. The playlists may be made by hand, but the method by which they’re served is still entirely automated, and it doesn’t work well enough.

Back in the days of iTunes Radio, there used to be a slider that would allow you to set whether you’d prefer to discover new music or listen to more familiar songs. I’d love to see that in Apple Music, too, but as a setting within For You. And I would really like for Apple Music to use my Genius library data.

U.S. Federal Court Rules That Home Computer Users Have No Expectation of Privacy

Mark Rumold of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (via Michael Tsai):

In a dangerously flawed decision unsealed today, a federal district court in Virginia ruled that a criminal defendant has no “reasonable expectation of privacy” in his personal computer, located inside his home. According to the court, the federal government does not need a warrant to hack into an individual’s computer.

I’m not sure how I missed this news, nor why it isn’t being plastered everywhere. The EFF notes that it’s unlikely to hold up on appeal, but there is now a case that states that you have no privacy on your own computer in your own home. Unreal.

July 13, 2016

Remember the Halcyon Days of Facebook Bots?

The Washington Post just launched their first bot, joining 11,000 others on Facebook Messenger. And, well, it’s not great. Joseph Lichterman, Nieman Lab:

For instance, I asked it for coverage about Pokémon Go — but it gave me stories on Evan Bayh’s Indiana Senate bid, an op-ed from a mom about why she doesn’t limit her kids’ screen time, a piece from April listing online April Fools hoaxes, a story about a D.C. kidnapping, and a review of the X-Factor TV show.

Marburger acknowledged the issue, and said those language processing issues are the main thing the Post is trying to work out now as it rolls the bot out to users.

That’s Joey Marburger, the Post’s head of product. Facebook has got media companies trying to develop natural language processing.

More to the point, are people actually using Facebook Messenger bots? Back in March, they were the new apps that Apple absolutely had to respond to. Between then and now, I’ve tried a few of the popular bots and beta tested a couple of other ones, and it’s been underwhelming. In the early days of the App Store, I remember everyone rushing to try as many apps as they could. Facebook’s bots don’t seem to have that effect.

Maybe Facebook Messenger bots will behave like the Amazon Echo: starting quietly and gradually growing to define a niche. But if the language processing must be handled on an individual developer basis, I bet users will continue to find these bots more of a nuisance than helpful.

July 12, 2016

Registration for XOXO 2016 Is Now Open

XOXO Festival has been one of the best on the circuit since its inception in 2012. This year’s lineup of speakers is especially more notable for being more diverse than XOXO or, indeed, almost any conference with a tech focus. Speakers include people you probably know — like Sarah Jeong, Talia Jane, and John Roderick — and others that you may not.

Unfortunately, there’s a bittersweet note to this year’s edition:

First, some big news: XOXO will not be returning in 2017.

We haven’t yet decided if this is the last one for now, or the last one ever, but we can say with 100% certainty that there will not be a festival next year. Certainly if XOXO does return, it’s likely that it will look very different to the event we’ve been running for the last five years.

Unfortunately, it seems that so many of the best indie conferences have a four-to-five-year lifespan. Çingleton lasted for four years; before it, the C4 Conference was also four years old when it was shuttered. XOXO has, so far, outlasted either of those by one year. I’m unable to make it this year, so I hope it comes back in 2018. It would be a shame if it doesn’t.

Attendance is by random selection via a registration survey. Registration is open until Monday, July 18.

IDC Estimates That Macintosh Sales Slipped at Nearly Twice the Market Rate

Joe Rossignol, MacRumors:

The latest numbers from market research firm IDC reveal that Mac sales experienced a slight year-over-year decline in the second quarter, dropping to 4.4 million from 4.8 million during the year-ago period.

[…]

Overall PC sales totaled an estimated 62.4 million worldwide in the second quarter, a year-over-year decline of 4.5 percent, as the PC market continues to decline. Nevertheless, North American PC shipments increased for the first time in five quarters, reflecting the strength of the U.S. dollar and “relative market stability.”

Apple’s sales decline is an 8.3% reduction compared to the year-ago quarter. Given that the most recent Macintosh news — the discontinuation of the Thunderbolt Display notwithstanding — was a spec bump of the MacBook, this is completely unsurprising. MacRumors’ own buyers’ guide shows a “Don’t Buy” indicator below every Mac except the MacBook.

Of the current lineup, fully half of all Macs — the Mac Pro, the Retina MacBook Pro, and the MacBook Air — are the most stale that those products have ever been.1 I’m not counting the non-Retina MacBook Pro as part of the Mac lineup because Apple seems to be winding down their promotion of the product. For the record, though, it would be the most stale product in Apple’s lineup by far: it hasn’t been refreshed in 1492 days, or just over four years.

The Mac Pro hasn’t been substantially updated since the new cylindrical model launched in December of 2013. The pro Macintosh situation is so dire that some designers and developers, like Mike Rundle and Sebastiaan de With, have opted to deal with the moderate hassle of building a “hackintosh” in order to get the performance they need for their work. Critical products like the MacBook Air and Retina MacBook Pro are well over a year old, too.

I look at models like the iMac and the MacBook and I see investment in the Macintosh. They’re beautiful and capable machines. But then I gaze over the rest of the lineup, and I’m disheartened. My MacBook Air turns four next month and, while it’s still humming along nicely, I am interested in replacing it with something that has a high-resolution display and greater performance. I’m not sure I see enough value in replacing it with a computer that is over a year old, fresh out of the box.


  1. Okay, the Air is out by eight days: 491 days since the last update, compared to its previous record of 499. ↩︎

July 11, 2016

Seeking Theresa May’s Web Browsing History

Theresa May is set to become the next Prime Minister of the ironically-named United Kingdom on Wednesday, after David Cameron’s resignation. Under the Investigatory Powers Bill, proposed by May last year and passed earlier this year, the web browsing history of all Britons will be available to law enforcement without a warrant for up to a year.

So, back when this was announced in November, the Independent asked to see Theresa May’s browsing history. Jon Stone quotes their predictable denial of the request:

“We have decided that your request is vexatious because it places an unreasonable burden on the department, because it has adopted a scattergun approach and seems solely designed for the purpose of ‘fishing’ for information without any idea of what might be revealed.”

I wonder if the Home Office realizes that they’ve provided the perfect opposing argument to the Bill in question. “Scattergun”, “vexatious”, and burdensome are precise descriptors of mass surveillance and intelligence-gathering activities.

Facebook Starts Testing End-to-End Encryption in Messenger

Facebook PR:

We put people first in everything we do at Messenger, and today we are beginning to roll out a new option within Messenger to better support conversations about sensitive topics. Your messages and calls on Messenger already benefit from strong security systems — Messenger uses secure communications channels (just like banking and shopping websites) as well as Facebook’s powerful tools to help block spam and malware. We’ve heard from you that there are times when you want additional safeguards — perhaps when discussing private information like an illness or a health issue with trusted friends and family, or sending financial information to an accountant.

To enable you to do this we are starting to test the ability to create one-to-one secret conversations in Messenger that will be end-to-end encrypted and which can only be read on one device of the person you’re communicating with. […]

Given that their entire business model is built on exploiting users’ privacy, Facebook has been making some significant investments in securing some aspects of what they do. Last year, they introduced PGP-encrypted emails; now, they’ve added end-to-end encrypted conversations in Messenger.

I have a problem with the naming of this feature: “secret conversations”. This phrase is repeated throughout their press release, so it doesn’t seem like a throwaway remark. It implies that there isn’t an expectation of privacy within a regular conversation. Enabling end-to-end encryption is not “secretive”, nor does it indicate that one is hiding something — it should be expected that a chat is private.

Starting a secret conversation with someone is optional. That’s because many people want Messenger to work when you switch between devices, such as a tablet, desktop computer or phone. Secret conversations can only be read on one device and we recognize that experience may not be right for everyone. It’s also important to note that in secret conversations we don’t currently support rich content like GIFs and videos, making payments, or other popular Messenger features.

iMessages are end-to-end encrypted, sync between devices,1 and support GIFs and videos. I’m not sure why Facebook couldn’t make this work, though it might have something to do with iMessage being hardware-integrated — a given Apple device’s UDID can register up to five iMessage accounts, for example, so there might reasonably be deeper-level verification at play. Facebook has released a full technical whitepaper (PDF) if you’d like to learn more.


  1. Not well, mind you, but they try. ↩︎

July 10, 2016

Samsung Galaxy S7 Active Fails Water Resistance Test

Jerry Beilinson of Consumer Reports:

Commercials for the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge showed hip-hop’s Lil Wayne pouring Champagne over the phone and dunking it in a fish tank.

You can tell the reviewer is an older white guy because a reference to Lil Wayne doesn’t really need to be clarified as “hip-hop’s Lil Wayne”, as if there were another one. I digress.

The Active version of the S7, which is available to AT&T customers for $800 and up, is being marketed as equally water-resistant. While Consumer Reports generally doesn’t evaluate phones for this feature, we do perform an immersion test when a manufacturer claims that its product is water-resistant. When we recently evaluated the Galaxy S7 Active, it failed this test.

Companies that label their devices “water-resistant” can cite a variety of benchmarks. In this case, Samsung says its phone follows an engineering standard called IP68 that covers both dust- and water-resistance, and that the phone is designed to survive immersion in five feet of water for 30 minutes. That’s the spec we used in testing the Galaxy S7 Active.

Bizarrely, the only model that failed was the sports-marketed Active variant; the other Galaxy S7 models performed fine in the same water resistance test. You’d think that the one ostensibly designed for an active lifestyle would be even more water resistant than their counterparts.

For comparison, the Apple Watch is only rated as IPX7 water resistant, which means that it may be submerged in shallower water — just three feet — for up to thirty minutes, yet Craig Hockenberry swims with his. I have also swum with mine for about an hour at a time, and it’s fine, though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it.

Meanwhile, the iPhone 6S has been widely speculated to be water resistant, with a YouTube video emerging last year showing both models submerged underwater for over an hour, while powered on and running a timer. One of the reasons often cited for the rumoured removal of the headphone jack in the next iPhone is to make it waterproof.

Just goes to show that under-promising and over-delivering is still a far better product decision than the opposite.

Update: As of July 21, Samsung says that they’ve fixed a manufacturing defect that was affecting the Active model, and they’ll replace any previous S7 Active affected by water damage. A good, timely response.

July 8, 2016

Facebook Explains Censorship Policy for Live Video

Josh Constine of TechCrunch spoke to Facebook about what’s allowed under their “Community Standards” guidelines. They weren’t completely forthcoming, and some of the aspects of their policy are concerning:

Even a single report flag sends the content to be reviewed by Facebook’s Community Standards team, which operates 24/7 worldwide. These team members can review content whether it’s public or privately shared. The volume of flags does not have bearing on whether content is or isn’t reviewed, and a higher number of flags will not trigger an automatic take-down.

This probably prevents abuse, insomuch as a mob can’t force the takedown of a post through excessive flagging. However, a high number of reports could be indicative of something that ought to be addressed with immediacy; as it’s very hard to tell which is the case, Facebook’s policy is probably best.

There have been instances of Facebook posts mysteriously disappearing and they often blame it on a bug or an infrastructure problem. That seems fishy to me. It has long been speculated that a certain threshold of flags would get a post automatically pulled; as this no longer seems to be the case, I’m not sure what would get a post removed in a seemingly-automated way.

There is no option to report content as “graphic but newsworthy,” or any other way to report that content could be disturbing and should be taken down. Instead, Facebook asks that users report the video as violent, or with any of the other options. It will then be reviewed by team members trained to determine whether the content violates Facebook’s standards.

This is a serious omission. As I noted earlier today, there ought to be a mechanism for separating news items from the rest of the site. They clearly need to be treated differently.

Facebook, Life’s New Gatekeeper

I don’t want to be a writer — now or ever — who tries desperately to find a tech angle for major news stories. In the case of the murders this week of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five police officers in Dallas, it is especially pertinent to place empathy, listening, and compassion ahead of anything else. Ali Tomineek’s poem is a good place to start.

I do want to touch upon Facebook Live, though, which factored into Castile’s death and the handing-over of a weapon from a misidentified person of interest in Dallas.

Sonya Mann:

Facebook pulled down Diamond Reynolds’ video of her boyfriend dying and then claimed it was due to a “technical glitch” — frankly, this strikes me as an outright lie. I would bet money that Facebook users reported the video and some underpaid moderator in another country, given no context, axed it because they thought it was just another snuff film.

It has since been reported by a tabloid, the Register, that law enforcement officials were behind the removal of the video.

Mann continues:

I’ve argued before that human societies can’t escape from centralized power. Facebook is a centralized power with a huge and increasing influence over the information that is available to people, both in crisis and on a daily basis.

Joseph Cox and Jason Koebler, Vice:

As Facebook continues to build out its Live video platform, the world’s most popular social network has become the de-facto choice for important, breaking, and controversial videos. Several times, Facebook has blocked political or newsworthy content only to later say that the removal was a “technical glitch” or an “error.”

Charlie Warzel, Buzzfeed:

The video is another solemn chapter in our endless conversation about racial injustice and excessive police force. But for Facebook, it may well be a defining moment in how the world’s biggest social network handles the darker side of real-time, brought about by the company’s failure to answer substantive policy questions about its handling of a gruesome but important video posted to a platform that CEO Mark Zuckerberg has publicly touted as Facebook’s top priority.

Facebook Live is rapidly becoming entwined with some of the biggest news stories of the year, but past accusations of editorializing and bias have tainted its reputation as an effective medium for sharing these events. If Facebook is to become a news carrier, they ought to compartmentalize the sections of their platform that are directly relevant to the news, and give that product the unique ethical and moral gravity it deserves. Facebook Live is clearly no longer just a feature.

July 7, 2016

This Is the Year the Home Screen Dies, Again

Mat Honan, writing for Wired in 2014:

Interactive notifications will spur all sorts of new behaviors. (And yes, Android already has interactive notifications, but the ones in iOS 8 look to go beyond what KitKat can do.) Some of these will be simple, like the ability to reply to an email or text message. But they’re powerful in that you can do this without quitting whatever you’re already doing. And this interactivity is not just limited to system apps. Third-party developers can take advantage of this new capability as well, so you could comment on something on Facebook, respond to a tweet, or even check in on Foursquare. But others are going to be radical, stuff we haven’t imagined yet. Once developers begin to really harness what interactive notifications can do in iOS 8 — and they will — it’s going to cause one of the most radical changes since third-party apps. With the advent of iOS 8, notifications are the new interface frontier.

Kyle Vanhemert, also writing for Wired, in 2015:

With iOS 9, the bulk of interaction will happen elsewhere, dispersed among intelligent notification panels, powerful search tools, and context-specific suggestions that put relevant apps a flick away. The dependable home screen will still exist, but for the first time, it feels secondary. These days, the smartphone experience is just too fast and fluid to be pinned to a grid.

David Pierce, writing for — yep — Wired today in an article titled “With iOS 10, Your iPhone’s Basically Just a Lockscreen Now”:

That’s a key feature, because the lockscreen is the biggest change in iOS 10. That press-to-unlock thing is designed to keep you on the lockscreen, because it’s where you’ll want to be.

Relentlessly assuming that Apple is in the process of killing off the home screen in iOS seems to be a pet passion for Wired’s writers. I don’t see it, though. I may reply to tweets from the push notification banner, but that isn’t a substitute for launching the app from my home screen.

A Golden Clause for Mozilla

Kara Swisher at Recode, with one hell of a scoop:

Under terms of a contract that has been seen by Recode, whoever acquires Yahoo might have to pay Mozilla annual payments of $375 million through 2019 if it does not think the buyer is one it wants to work with and walks away.

That’s according to a clause in the Silicon Valley giant’s official agreement with the browser maker that CEO Marissa Mayer struck in late 2014 to become the default search engine on the well-known Firefox browser in the U.S.

That contract seems like a no-lose situation for Mozilla if Yahoo is acquired. If they like the new owners, Mozilla will likely retain the existing default search contract. If they don’t, they get a billion dollars by 2019 in addition to funds from whatever new contract they strike with a different search engine.

July 6, 2016

Grey Group Returns Award, Is Kind of a Dick About It

Courtesy AdWeek, here’s the Grey Group’s statement:

During Cannes we said the app was real and its creator, Grey for Good in Singapore, is a highly respected philanthropic unit that has helped numerous non-profit organizations. Moreover, Grey is one of the most creatively awarded agencies in the world with the highest ethical standards. We won over 90 Cannes Lions this year alone so there is no need for scam projects. However, given the unwarranted, unfair, unrelenting attacks by unnamed bloggers, we are putting an end to this and returning the Bronze Lion so there is not even the hint of impropriety or a question of our integrity. The saying no good deed goes unpunished is apt in this case.

Translation: “We know the app doesn’t really work and we were caught, but we’re such gigantic assholes that we’ll blame those who pointed this out instead of apologizing. Also, we won a shitload of other awards. Please don’t let our complete inability to show contrition affect your next campaign with us.”

BBEdit 11.6

From the (lengthy) release notes:

BBEdit 11.6 introduces a new demo model in which its complete feature set is available for the first 30 days of use.

At the end of the 30-day evaluation period, BBEdit will remain permanently functional with a revised feature set that includes its powerful text editing capabilities but not its web authoring tools or other exclusive features. BBEdit’s exclusive features may be re-enabled at any time with a purchased license.

If I’m reading this right, the most powerful text editor available for the Mac is now — effectively — free. Even with the limitations they cite, that’s astonishing.

E.U. Approves Network Security Law

Jonathan Stearns, Bloomberg:

The European Parliament endorsed legislation that will impose security and reporting obligations on service operators in industries such as banking, energy, transport and health and on digital operators like search engines and online marketplaces. The law, voted through on Wednesday in Strasbourg, France, also requires EU national governments to cooperate among themselves in the field of network security.

The rules “will help prevent cyberattacks on Europe’s important interconnected infrastructures,” said Andreas Schwab, a German member of the 28-nation EU Parliament who steered the measures through the assembly. EU governments have already supported the legislation.

This is a good-natured law that I think will significantly improve security protocols used by major companies, and encourage them to more readily report breaches. That’s desperately needed — recall that LinkedIn was a public company with 200 million members four years ago, when their systems were breached. Over 100 million passwords were stolen, yet LinkedIn only acknowledged “some” at the time. It wasn’t until this year when they admitted to the full scale of the theft. If LinkedIn covered it up for PR reasons, that’s bad; if they didn’t know about the theft in 2012, that’s arguably worse.

But more needs to be done. Not only should systems be hardened and reporting procedures be set in place, these companies ought to be collecting and storing less personal information. That’s the kind of decision that would reduce the incentive for this kind of crime while improving all of our privacy and security, regardless of the chance of a corporate-level breach.

Postscript: I adjusted Bloomberg’s headline because the word “cybersecurity” makes me feel like I should switch on some Eiffel 65. I asked on Twitter and Victor Pope suggested “information security”, but it doesn’t feel quite right in this context. Sonya Mann’s choice, “network security”, seems more right, but still a little clunky to me. If you have a suggestion for a better phrase, please let me know. Together, we have already bid farewell to CSI: Cyber; now, it is time for us to rid the world of the word “cyber” in all its forms.

July 5, 2016

The Danger of Dependencies

Glenn Fleishman writes for TidBits on Eye-Fi’s decision to drop support for many of their products this September:

I have long been dubious about devices that require the continuous operation of Internet-connected services to function. I don’t expect relatively inexpensive hardware to remain useful and work forever, of course. But while Eye-Fi says it began to phase out the last products that are affected starting in 2012, it allowed them to remain in retail sales channels until March 2015. The company should have taken more ownership of the situation around products sold in the last five years.

It’s not just hardware — the products and services we use are increasingly dependent on a monthly or yearly subscription fee to retain their usability. Streaming music and movies, the software-as-a-service model, and “internet of things” devices have all made us more comfortable with paying small amounts of money over time instead of a lump sum for a lifetime of use.

There are good arguments to be made for subscription pricing. It allows software developers to have regular cash flow; prior pricing models encouraged a surge in sales upon the release of a new version, followed by a slow trickling off as the version increases in age. Such a model presses developers to think in terms of monolithic releases, which seems outdated when software doesn’t need to be packaged and shipped to be updated.

It also means that we, as consumers, feel the cost impact a lot less. Many people listen to the same songs and albums repeatedly in Spotify, which they could own forever for $10 per album, not per month. But having a subscription instead allows users to experiment with new and more diverse music choices without expending any additional cost. Lots of people don’t take full advantage of this, but that’s okay too — it all evens out.

However, we’ve seen instances where music becomes no longer available due to a licensing expiration. Movies and TV shows appear and disappear from Netflix on a frequent basis, which makes its selection unreliable. Free software you rely on can simply disappear, while paid software requires an ongoing cost for as long as you’re using it. If the software utilizes a proprietary file format, you have a choice to pay for a very long time, or hope that you’ll be able to recover your data should you need it in the future. Most of these problems are not new, but they are exacerbated by the rise of the subscription pricing model.

Google to Stop Running Flash Ads in January 2017

Google:

Starting June 30, 2016, you’ll no longer be able to upload display ads built in Flash. And, starting in January 2017, AdWords will stop running display ads in the Flash format.

If you use Flash ads in your AdWords campaigns, there are 2 ways to switch to HTML5 ads […]

Amazon stopped accepting Flash ads last year, but they’re clearly nowhere near as significant a provider as is Google. This policy change affects both AdWords and DoubleClick.

I don’t have Flash installed on my personal computer, but I do on my office computer. A recent update introduced a resource-eating bug where loading a page in Safari with a poorly-built Flash ad (read: almost any Flash ad) would bring the browser to a halt.1 It’s the kind of thing that would strike by surprise, though most news sites could reliably reproduce the bug due to their significant number of ad placements. This issue completely went away after I activated ClickToPlugin to block Flash in Safari.

HTML5 video ads are as annoying as Flash video ads, but at least they aren’t resource hogs. Those who champion the recent upsurge in autoplaying video with sound, though, can go straight to hell.


  1. Chrome doesn’t exhibit the same behaviour because it has a built-in copy of Flash. ↩︎

July 4, 2016

‘Unnecessary BS’

This year’s collection of sketchy Vancouver, Washington-area fireworks from Cabel Sasser is strangely heartwarming at times. Happy American Canada Day, American readers.

‘No Longer Available’ in iCloud Music Library

Kirk McElhearn writing for Macworld:

But things get complicated when music that you have added to your iCloud Music Library from Apple Music is pulled. Labels can withdraw the right to stream certain songs and albums at any time, but you won’t be notified. You may see albums and songs in your library, but their titles are a slightly lighter color (depending on the view), and their iCloud status is No Longer Available.

It’s understandable that record labels make this decision at times. They may realize that enabling streaming for a certain album leads to lower sales, and the lost revenue isn’t compensated by the meager moneys they get from streaming. But it’s frustrating as a user to find that, for example, one or two songs of an album you’ve been listening to for a while are no longer available to stream. Or that an entire album is missing from your library.

Yet another terrific reason to use streaming services as a complement to — rather than a replacement for — a local music library. Unlike Spotify, however, saving playlists and music on Apple Music to your local library requires an iCloud Music Library subscription, which tends to cause problems like this. Conceptually, I still prefer the idea of one library that contains both, but Apple’s implementation of iCloud Music Library has been a widespread disaster. I’m not one for hyperbole or exaggeration, but there are few things more personal than my music library, and I don’t trust it to survive an iCloud transition unscathed.

The Hidden Price of Convenience

Victor Luckerson writing for the Ringer on the hidden fees within Uber-style apps and services:

[…] A growing number of apps that fulfill an ohhhh, I really want rather than a basic I guess I need are masking their pricing structure in hopes that users will mash “I accept higher fare” on their phones ever faster, regardless of the price tag’s details. Postmates, for example, connects consumers to couriers who will hand-deliver everything from a panini to an Xbox. You just have to pay tax, a 9 percent service fee that goes to the company, and a delivery fee that varies based on distance to pay the courier (who is a contract worker, not an employee). And you’re supposed to tip. And, sometimes, there’s Uber-style surge pricing. Add it all up and you get a nightmare known as a $26 Chipotle burrito.

David Streitfeld writing for the New York Times on Amazon’s deceptive pricing practices:

With a majority of Amazon products, the presentation of a bargain used to be front and center. Take, for example, the Breville Infuser Espresso Machine. A few months ago, Amazon said this was an $800 machine that it was offering for $500, a discount of 38 percent.

[…]

The problem with list prices or, as they are sometimes called, manufacturers’ suggested retail prices, is that they are regularly more of a marketing concept than what anyone is actually charging. When Amazon was saying the list price of the Breville Infuser was $800, Breville itself was selling the machine for $500 — about the same as Amazon. Other retailers sell it for $500, too. Breville confirmed the price was $500.

We are, of course, willing to pay for convenience and efficiency. But both of these authors raise a good point: this pricing should be transparent and known to consumers.

Uber’s recent decision to bury the amount by which they’re increasing the fare during “high demand” makes it hard for users to know whether it’s a reasonable deal. Of course, we may well choose to take the Uber instead of a cab, even if it costs far more, but we should be fully aware of how the rate is calculated. Similarly, Amazon’s displayed list price should be reflective of the actual list price for the item in stores, not a hypothetical number.

July 3, 2016

LinkedIn Shopped Itself to Microsoft, Salesforce, Google, and Others

All of the prospective buyers in this case seem to have one thing in common: they’re all interested in expanding their collection of user data. Google and Facebook aren’t interested in engineering talent that can presumably only be found at LinkedIn, but the company’s collection of data on over 430 million users must have been appealing. Microsoft — the eventual buyer — has, of late, been accelerating their own collection of user data, too.

July 1, 2016

Whither the Webpage

Charles Thaxton, writing for the Awl:

So to what extent does the way a site looks impact what a site is? This question might have to be re-legislated again. What seems certain is that fewer discrete pages means fewer discrete voices, and further ensures that the internet becomes primarily a vehicle for reaction (and all the ugliness of a purely reactionary culture) rather than creation.

Nostalgia for the way the web looked is really a sublimated nostalgia for how it felt, for a time in almost everyone’s life when discovery and openness and joy were all more operable. As much as we want to preserve the early internet in amber, we want to hold on to the feeling of the early internet even more.

It fascinates me that there are Tumblr blogs belonging to teenagers who never experienced the early, lo-fi web, but seek to emulate its style. They’re also partially responsible for the resurgence of animated GIFs over the past few years. I wonder if they are trying to create their interpretation of a romanticized ideal.

Apple Replies to Spotify’s Claims, Says They’re Full of Shit

Bruce Sewell is not mincing words:

Our team has been incredibly responsive. Shortly after Spotify submitted its app on May 26, our team identified a number of issues, including that the in-app purchase feature had been removed and replaced with an account sign-up feature clearly intended to circumvent Apple’s in-app purchase rules. That feature exists only for the purpose of avoiding having to pay Apple for your use of the App Store by emailing customers within hours, directing them to subscribe to Spotify on its website. A clear violation of the terms every other developer adheres to. During a number of discussions between our team and Spotify, we explained why this sign-up feature did not comply with our guidelines and requested you resubmit a compliant version of the app. On June 10, Spotify submitted another version of the app which again incorporated the sign-up feature directing App Store customers to submit an email address so they could be contacted directly by Spotify in a continued attempt to get around our guidelines. Spotify’s app was again rejected for attempting to circumvent in-app purchase rules, and not, as you claim, because Spotify was simply seeking to communicate with its customers.

I had a little too much trust in Peter Kafka’s original report. Spotify may have “turned off its App Store billing option”, but they also introduced a clear attempt to circumvent Apple’s requirements.

Spotify is lobbying pretty hard for Apple to be investigated for anti-competitive behaviour, and it sounds like they’re getting their way — an investigation is apparently ongoing. But that doesn’t mean that regulators are going to find anything; and, in this case, Spotify was whining about their clear violation of App Store rules.

June 30, 2016

A Sociological Perspective on the Moral Economy of Tech

Kieran Healy was also a speaker on the SASE “Moral Economy of Technology” panel. He’s an associate professor of sociology, which makes this particularly notable:

Contemporary social theorists no longer expect to be priests of a new society. These days they are mostly outside the bubble, spending their time coining terms to describe it. Meanwhile, in recent years, the technology sector has massively accelerated the demand for the collection and analysis of data while also gradually diminishing the role of specifically social-scientific expertise in its evaluation. A few people are lucky enough to get access to private treasure-houses of data at places like Facebook or Uber. But mostly, these firms are managing and analyzing their data for themselves. The ideology of progress has been cut loose from social science and grafted itself on to big data and its handmaiden, data science.

This is absolutely worth reading alongside Maciej Cegłowski’s talk. I hope that the other participants — Stuart Russell and AnnaLee Saxenian — soon put their contributions online as well.

Apple Reportedly Exploring a Tidal Acquisition

Daisuke Wakabayashi , Hannah Karp, and Patience Haggin, Wall Street Journal:

Apple Inc. is in exploratory talks to acquire Tidal, a streaming-music service run by rap mogul Jay Z, according to people familiar with the matter.

The talks are ongoing and may not result in a deal, these people said. Apple is exploring the idea of bringing on Tidal to bolster its Apple Music service because of Tidal’s strong ties to popular artists such as Kanye West and Madonna.

This doesn’t surprise me in the least for the very reason the Journal cites: artist connections.

Streaming music services are all pretty similar in premise: ten bucks a month gives you access to a massive library of music. One of the ways they differentiate themselves is to swoon artists enough for them to make their newest releases exclusive to a platform for a short amount of time before it’s generally released. A bunch of these exclusives over the past year went to Apple Music, but those they didn’t get — the newest albums from Kanye West, Rihanna, Beyoncé, and other high-profile artists — all went to Tidal. If Apple were to maintain those relationships post-acquisition and keep the ones they have, they’d have the exclusive release market effectively cornered.

Though that sounds like kind of a dick move, I’m not so sure it will be. In practical terms, that might prove a net positive for consumers, as there’s no need to subscribe to two or more streaming music services just to get exclusive releases from favourite artists.

There’s another positive, too: if this deal even marginally increases the chance of a full Jay-Z album produced by Dr. Dre, I’m all for it.

Update: Perhaps it’s less about Apple buying Tidal than it is about Tidal selling to Apple.

Apple Is Reportedly Not Approving a Spotify App Update

Peter Kafka, Recode:

Last fall, Spotify started a new end-run via a promotional campaign offering new subscribers the chance to get three months of the service for $0.99 — if they signed up via Spotify’s own site. This month, Spotify revived the campaign, but [Spotify general counsel Horacio Gutierrez] says Apple threatened to remove the app from its store unless Spotify stopped telling iPhone users about the promotion.

Spotify stopped advertising the promotion. But it also turned off its App Store billing option, which has led to the current dispute.

Both the old and new App Store Review Guidelines limit the ways that apps may reference and use subscriptions purchased outside the app. Neither version says that an app must offer a subscription option using in-app purchases.1

It’s unclear how Spotify notified users about the promotion. If it was via an Apple mechanism — such as push notifications or an in-app notice — I understand the initial threat to remove the app. If it was via an email newsletter or another outside method, that stretches over the line. An app update that doesn’t allow for an in-app billing option does not appear to be a violation of the App Store guidelines, and should not have been rejected.

Amidst an ongoing inquiry into potential anti-competitive behaviour from Apple, this feels like it’s stepping over a line. Spotify is being passive-aggressive, but that’s no reason to reject the app. And, while it’s Apple’s store and nobody has the right to have their app on it, this feels wrong.

Update: This is, of course, assuming that Kafka was provided with the full context from Spotify, which I’m not so sure about. There’s something missing here. This may well turn out to be nothing more than a miscommunication, but Spotify is pretty good at the PR game and, as noted, Apple is already being looked at for this sort of thing.

Update: Christina Warren, quoting Apple in 2011 when the then-new subscription model launched (emphasis mine):

Apple does require that if a publisher chooses to sell a digital subscription separately outside of the app, that same subscription offer must be made available, at the same price or less, to customers who wish to subscribe from within the app. In addition, publishers may no longer provide links in their apps (to a web site, for example) which allow the customer to purchase content or subscriptions outside of the app.

I assume that rule still stands, making Spotify in violation of it when they launched their more expensive IAP subscription option.

Update: Jonas Wisser:

For the record, as recently as last week I got that offer of three months for $0.99 as a a Spotify ad. […]

I don’t remember it explicitly _saying_ I had to go to the website, but there was no other way to act on it.

An ad within Spotify’s player is a pretty sneaky way to try to skirt Apple’s rules.


  1. “Apps may allow a user to access previously purchased content or subscriptions (specifically: magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, video, access to professional databases, VoIP, cloud storage, and approved services such as educational apps that manage student grades and schedules), provided the app does not direct users to a purchasing mechanism other than IAP.” ↩︎

June 29, 2016

Facebook Is Updating Their Feed Rankings to Prioritize Friends

Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab:

Has your employer built its audience strategy around Facebook traffic? Welp, today’s not a good day for you. Facebook announced today it is changing its News Feed algorithm to give more weight to content and links shared by friends and family — and less weight to what publishers share.

[…]

This is another step in the continued devaluation of large publisher followings on Facebook; the social network has over time reduced the share of your fans who see each of your posts (though they’re happy to take your ad dollars to show them to more!). Add in Instant Articles and the strong preference given to Facebook-native video and you see, once again, the primary hoarder of Internet attention consolidating its position.

I can’t help but think that this is — in part — a reaction to last month’s controversy about editorial decisions that seemingly left stories of interest to conservatives out of the Trending Topics feature. Today’s announcement is about the algorithmic News Feed, not the manually-edited Trending Topics element. Nevertheless, I see it as a way for Facebook to wash their hands of any questions about what news appears in a user’s feed because most news stories they’ll now see are those that their friends are sharing or commenting on.

The Tenth Anniversary of the Switch to Intel

It’s hard to overstate just how badly IBM screwed up their opportunity to be the provider of processors for every Macintosh sold in the past ten years. Apple has consistently outpaced the overall PC industry in growth figures for all of that time, and IBM can share none of that glory.

MFi Specifications for Lightning Headphones

Last week’s article from the Journal about the next-generation iPhone’s lack of a headphone jack produced as much of the teeth-gnashing as I expected. There are some valid criticisms, I think, of the rumoured change to Lightning and Bluetooth for headphones, but there seems to be some misinformation out there. As much of this subject is still rumoured, that’s understandable; however, some details — particularly with regards to MFi Lightning headphones — are known and documented.

As an example, I saw some concern about a cheapening of the digital-to-analog converter and the amplifier. For instance, Steve Streza:1

Removing the analog headphone port means you’re removing the DAC and the amplifier from the phone into the headphones. This is good news for the high-end, but awful news at the low end. Cheap DACs sound really, really bad, and that’s what you’re going to get in cheap headphones (which is what a lot of high school and college kids who lose their EarPods end up with). But no matter which you get, you will be paying a premium for it in your headphones, so Apple can save a few cents on one of the most commoditized components you’ll find in an iPhone.

According to a 2014 report from 9to5Mac’s Jordan Kahn, the MFi program mandates specific hardware requirements for Lightning headphones:

Apple will allow two configurations for the headphones. Standard Lightning Headphones are described by Apple as using minimum components when paired with a digital-to-analog converter supported by the Lightning Headphone Module. It also has an Advanced Lightning Headphones specification that allows digital audio processing features like active noise cancellation and uses a digital signal processor and digital/analog converter. Manufacturers building the Standard configuration have to use this Wolfson digital-to-analog converter.

The DAC in question — the WM8533 — is a fairly standard DAC that has previously been used in Apple’s Lightning-to-dock connector adapter and it is, by all reviews that I can find, decent.

I don’t mean to pick on Streza here; I saw a similar sentiment from many of those reacting to the news. But it seems like Apple considered the likelihood of headphone manufacturers using cheap and inferior parts, and will use the MFi program to control that. Since the technical details of the MFi specification are confidential, I’m not sure what other base-level requirements Apple may have for Lightning headphones. There’s no way they’re willing to let third parties ruin their standards, though.

Update: While I was drafting this post, Cirrus announced a Lightning headphone development kit. Though the press release doesn’t mention what DAC is used, I’ll note that Cirrus owns Wolfson.


  1. I disagree with Streza’s interpretation of Apple’s motives here. I sincerely doubt they’d do this to “save a few cents”. Even at Apple’s scale, that saves only a few million dollars every year against billions of dollars in profit. ↩︎

June 28, 2016

The Moral Economy of Tech

Maciej Cegłowksi has published his remarks from a SASE conference panel on Sunday:

In our attempt to feed the world to software, techies have built the greatest surveillance apparatus the world has ever seen. Unlike earlier efforts, this one is fully mechanized and in a large sense autonomous. Its power is latent, lying in the vast amounts of permanently stored personal data about entire populations.

We started out collecting this information by accident, as part of our project to automate everything, but soon realized that it had economic value. We could use it to make the process self-funding. And so mechanized surveillance has become the economic basis of the modern tech industry.

If you want a smart ten-minute summary of many of the most pressing issues facing the tech industry today — and what it has beget — this is a landmark essay.

Update: Chris Chelberg has posted a video of Cegłowski’s speech.

Facebook Admits, Then Denies, Using Location Data to Suggest Friends

Kashmir Hill, Fusion:

On Friday, and again on Monday, Facebook told me that it uses smartphone location data to recommend new friends to its users. After I reported this, lots of people said that this explained why certain people had popped up in their “People You May Know” box on Facebook.

[…]

But on Monday night, after lots of negative feedback, Facebook reversed course. A spokesperson told me that the company had dug into the matter further and determined that “we’re not using location data, such as device location and location information you add to your profile, to suggest people you may know.”

I have reportorial whiplash. I’ve never had a spokesperson confirm and then retract a story so quickly. So here’s how we got here.

Let’s assume that the spokesperson is correct in stating that Facebook does not use location data for friend suggestions, and ask yourself how creepy is it that they can be so accurate without that information. Is using location data more of a violation of your privacy? Definitely. But, with Facebook’s level of accuracy and knowledge, does it matter? It seems intrusive either way.

Chris Vickery Has a Copy of the World-Check Crime Watchlist

Security researcher Chris Vickery — you may remember him as the guy who found 90 million Mexican voting records online, or for finding a database of 191 million American voters’ records — has announced on Reddit that he has a 2014 copy of the Thompson-Reuters World-Check database. World-Check is, according to Thompson-Reuters’ 2011 press release announcing their acquisition of the company, a “leading global provider of financial crime and corruption prevention information”:

World-Check provides information that profiles entities and individuals and is used in the due diligence processes of the international business community. More than 5,400 clients in over 150 countries, including 49 of the world’s top 50 banks, 200 enforcement and regulatory agencies, and 45 of the world’s top 100 corporations, rely on the World-Check database.

Vickery:

The current-day version of the database contains, among other categories, a blacklist of 93,000 individuals suspected of having ties to terrorism.

[…]

This copy has over 2.2 million heightened-risk individuals and organizations in it. The terrorism category is only a small part of the database. Other categories consist of individuals suspected of being related to money laundering, organized crime, bribery, corruption, and other unsavory activities.

Vickery is currently soliciting comments in that Reddit thread asking whether he should post the list publicly. I think it would be best to pass it along to a well-regarded media company that can appropriately handle highly-sensitive information.

See Also: Vice’s explanation of how someone might end up on the World-Check list.

June 27, 2016

Twitter’s Temporary Following Feature

Alex Kantrowitz, Buzzfeed:

Twitter is built on a follow model, which is great for some use cases, but also means you’re going to miss a lot of great stuff from people you don’t follow. Unless you followed certain Democratic lawmakers, you likely missed lots of action from the House floor during the sit-in this week. But there’s a solution to that: A Twitter that temporarily inserts relevant tweets from the right people at the right moment into your timeline would be a much more useful Twitter. Amazingly, this Twitter already exists but is buried puzzlingly deep within the platform’s user interface.

Instead of following users, this feature enables the temporary following of events. Tweets from so-called “influential” or “relevant” users will be inserted until the event ends. Of course, this is only available in Twitter’s official apps.

Bafflingly, instead of emphasizing features like this that are core to the entire experience of Twitter, the company has instead introduced stickers.

Homescreen App Rejected by Apple for ‘Intellectual Property’ Violation

Préshit Deorukhkar (via Michael Tsai):

Over time, we realised that the easiest way to upload your homescreens would be directly via your mobile device. Long story short, we started building a native iOS app in early 2015 which would let you do that, and a lot more.

[…]

After about a week of being “In Review”, Apple rejected our app for reasons that we still can’t wrap our heads around. After the initial rejection, we tried to work through it via multiple iterations — but it just didn’t work out for them.

What did we get rejected for?

Apple executives explained to us that we cannot showcase a homescreen springboard image within the app — stating that the springboard was Apple’s IP and it was against Apple’s Brand guidelines.

Is it, though? Because two years ago, Betaworks launched a similar app called “#Homescreen” which, though it had app review issues of its own, was never sanctioned for intellectual property issues. Betaworks pulled the app from the store earlier this year on their own volition. I can’t see a good reason why Deorukhkar’s app would or should be treated differently.

June 25, 2016

New in Notifications

Filip Radelic:

When you see a WWDC session titled Introduction to Notifications, you might think it’s silly that after 7 years of using notifications, developers need an introduction to them. However, iOS 10 actually brings us a complete overhaul of notifications APIs and convergence of push and local notifications. They are now just called User Notifications, represented by UNNotification instances and they look and work the same no matter where they come from. All the related functionality has moved from UIKit into UserNotifications framework that also packs a ton of new functionality and is available in iOS, watchOS and tvOS.

Key highlights include the ability for apps to push updates to existing notifications, ensuring that things like sports scores and weather alerts are current. The level of interactivity now offered to notifications is also a huge improvement.

Unfortunately, these enhancements haven’t made their way into MacOS.

June 24, 2016

U.S. Customs Proposes Collecting Social Media Handles of Foreign Travellers

Mario Trujillo, the Hill:

Foreigners traveling to the United States without a visa would be asked to provide the government with their social media handles under a new proposal from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The optional question on arrival and departure forms would ask about a traveler’s “social media identifier,” but not passwords. People could leave it blank. The extra information would be used for vetting and contact information, according to the proposal.

“Collecting social media data will enhance the existing investigative process and provide [the Department of Homeland Security] greater clarity and visibility to possible nefarious activity and connections by providing an additional tool set which analysts and investigators may use to better analyze and investigate the case,” according to the proposal.

Earlier today, I had some down-time at an event I was attending, so I tried to connect to the venue’s WiFi network. The connection page I was presented with had the usual checkbox for the terms and conditions, but below that were fields for my name, email address, and postal code, along with checkboxes to subscribe to various newsletters.

It took me a minute to realize that only the terms and conditions checkbox was required; the email-related fields weren’t, but were added to trick guests into subscribing.

Official forms have far greater implications. They should require no more information than they absolutely require. How many people plotting “nefarious activities” are really going to write their Twitter account on this form, anyway?

Grey Group Childishly Defends ‘I Sea’ App

Cyrus Farivar, Ars Technica:

On Thursday, a Grey Group spokesman, Owen Dougherty, insisted to Ars that “the app is real… the attack on us by [an] unnamed ‘tech blogger’ is the fraud in all of this. [It’s] not worthy of comment let alone coverage.”

[…]

We responded: “What impact and results did this have? Were any migrants helped via this app?”

Dougherty dodged the question: “Great idea, great strategy… great spotlight on the migrant issue until we were vilified for trying to be of service,” and added four minutes later: “3 out of 4 not bad don’t you think?”

What might you expect happened to this atrocious fake app during this year’s Cannes Lions advertising awards? If you answered “disqualified”, you’re wrong — it received a third-place ranking. Not really a surprise when you see some of the other ethically-challenged events surrounding the awards.

Differential Privacy Features Will Be Opt-In in iOS 10

Ina Fried of Recode has clarified with Apple how the company plans on collecting and using data through differential privacy in iOS 10. I think this is an astute summary:

While Apple is clearly pitching this as a just-right balance, it runs the risk of losing some of its privacy points while still not getting the kind of data it needs to truly rival Google and Facebook in the machine intelligence game.

You, as I, may see this is a good thing — that it is hard to implement these features in a privacy-conscious way. It’s a principled stance that user privacy has such importance that they’re willing to bet the company’s reputation for innovation and feature quality on it.

Others may be more pragmatic, and wish that Apple would relax their hard-lined stance on privacy in favour of a more rapid pace for launching new features. I understand where that comes from, but I also don’t see any other company in the Valley that’s standing up for users’ rights to the extent that Apple is.

June 23, 2016

Apple Discontinues the Thunderbolt Display

Long-time readers will know that I like my Thunderbolt Display far more than I probably should. I bought it about four years ago; at the time, it was already a year-old product. But it’s the end result of an obsession of mine that started when I first saw a 30-inch Cinema Display in person, and I still regard it as my favourite piece of computer hardware that I own.

Anyway, surely that rumoured 5K display will be along in no time, right?

Update: John Paczkowski’s sources tell him that the integrated GPU display is still in the works. Apple’s not out of the display business; they’re just going to make it worth the money. Start saving now.

The Path of Least Resistance

Dr. Drang:

The opinions of the people who make the products you use cannot be dismissed as easily as those of some randoid on Twitter. If they think you should doing things this way when you’ve spent years doing them that way, they can make it hard for you to stick to your guns.

Now where have I heard that before?

Ian Parker, writing for the New Yorker last year:

[Steve Jobs] craved products that didn’t force adjustments of behavior, that gave what [Laurene] Powell Jobs called a “feeling of gratitude that someone else actually thought this through in a way that makes your life easier.” She added, “That’s what Steve was always looking for, and he didn’t find it until he worked with Jony … They were really happy, they relished each other.”

The way I read this is that well-designed products are those that slot neatly into an existing behaviour and work as expected; this doesn’t preclude products that oust common ideas or technologies, modify expectations, or otherwise change the cause of a behaviour.

For example, even though all smartphones used to have a physical keyboard, that doesn’t mean the iPhone should have had one as well. The benefits of dropping it outnumbered the drawbacks, and new technologies — like a virtual keyboard that adjusts the tappable area of different keys based on the most likely letters to be used next — were invented to compensate. Now, we look back on smartphones with physical keyboards as quaint relics; those with big displays that can adapt to their needs are clearly far superior.

Reporters Imprisoned

Mother Jones did something remarkable: they sent Shane Bauer — one of their reporters — to become a guard for a privately-run prison for four months. It’s a shocking article, and a brilliant piece of journalism.

In a complementary piece, Mother Jones’ editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery explains why they chose to investigate private prisons, and how they went about it. But there’s a critical note in her explanation:

When CCA (which runs 61 prisons, jails, and detention centers on behalf of US taxpayers) learned about our investigation, it sent us a four-page letter warning that Shane had “knowingly and deliberately breached his duty to CCA by violating its policies,” and that there could be all manner of legal consequences. The letter came not from CCA’s in-house counsel, but from the same law firm that had represented a billionaire megadonor in his three-year quest to punish us for reporting on his anti-LGBT activities. When he lost, he pledged $1 million to support others who might want to sue us, and, though we won the case, were it not for the support of our readers the out-of-pocket costs would have hobbled us.

Recall Peter Thiel’s proxy campaign against Gakwer and note the similarities. The freedom of the press has always been challenged, but an increase in income disparity and a decrease in the sustainability of the press provide increasing opportunities for wealthy individuals to intimidate and harass.

June 22, 2016

C-SPAN Is Now Broadcasting via Periscope and Facebook Live

Hadas Gold of Politico:

TV viewers hoping to catch all of the House Democrats’ sit-in on the House floor on Wednesday had to find other methods besides Capitol chronicler CSPAN.

That’s because it’s the House who controls CSPAN’s video and audio feeds, meaning when the leadership sent the House into recess, they cut off the feed.

[…]

With the cameras turned off, CSPAN began broadcasting a Periscope livestream of the floor from Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), with the full graphics afforded to normal video feeds of the House floor.

I didn’t know it was possible for the Speaker of the House to control what gets filmed, much less that they were the control. Unless they’re working with classified materials, these sessions should always be broadcast.

At any rate, I like to imagine Jack Dorsey beaming at the television as Periscope became the video stream of record after traditional broadcast was terminated, only for him to boil into a rage as the broadcast replaced the feed with a Facebook Live source. He can’t seem to catch a break.

Snapchat Has a History of Copying Artists

Some good ongoing reporting from the Ringer’s Molly McHugh on Snapchat’s directions to freelancers to use other artists’ work as reference material for Lenses. Artists have a hard enough time getting paid for the work they — we — do, let alone any acknowledgement that it’s a “real” profession requiring skill and labour. Snapchat’s trivializing of artists’ work is not unique, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less outrageous.

Apple Understands Photography, I’m Pretty Sure

Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten, co-founder of the Next Web, in an article headlined “Apple Doesn’t Understand Photography” that’s getting quite a lot of traction:

The most innovative thing Apple did with their Photo app recently was the addition of a ‘Selfie’ filter. You can find the folder in your Photos app, and yeah, it is filled with Selfies.

Apart from that Apple still thinks we use photography as we did it 30 years ago: we go on a trip, take a bunch of photo’s then struggle with how to show our friends these photos when we get back from our trip.

I think van Zanten missed WWDC because I cannot figure out why he wrote this article otherwise. Case in point:

What is the problem that needs fixing? It is that photography is changing. I showed my girlfriend some tiny text on the back of a credit card. Without hesitating she pulled out her camera, took a photo, and then zoomed in on the photo to read the text.

The camera in your iPhone is a zoom in device for small text or objects.

iOS 10 will ship with a magnification feature enabled via a triple-press of the home button.

Now you could argue there are different apps for different purposes and I should simply use Evernote for notes, Snapchat for disposable stuff and remember to delete the photos I no longer want. But that’s not how life works. I’m paying for lunch and take a quick pic of the receipt. That’s two actions: Swipe up, take photo.

I could also launch my receipts app. Then means unlocking my phone, finding the app, launching it, clicking the ‘Add receipt photo’, taking the photo, etc. That’s easily 10 steps. Nobody has time for that.

Adding a note in Evernote is also more complicated than just swiping up and launching the camera. But Apple could easily make this easier. If Apple can detect a face in a photo it should be able to detect a receipt as well. If it can detect a selfie surely it can differentiate between ‘holiday photos’ and regular snapshots. In fact, if the photo was taken on a weekday, during work hours, and close to work or home there’s a 95% chance this isn’t some kind of holiday event that needs a photo album.

iOS 10 will also ship with object detection built into the Photos app and, yes, it detects receipts. It doesn’t create albums for any of this stuff; it just tags the photo. This was all announced at WWDC; van Zanten’s article was written nearly a week after the opening keynote.

None of those images are meant to be saved ‘for later’. A year from now nobody will care about what I did at 9:06 AM while waiting in line at the coffee bar. It might be interesting for 1 other person (the person I’m getting coffee for) but it can safely disappear into the void an hour later.

Automatically deleting photos from the Camera strikes me as a terrible idea; for photos taken from within Messages, I can see the value. However, that’s still automatic deletion of user data caused by the system, and that’s rarely okay. There are features within Photos today that help solve this problem, like iCloud Photo Library and device-optimized storage, so deleting photos is rarely necessary. The aforementioned automatic scene detection features coming in iOS 10 mean that far less user intervention is necessary to organize and maintain a large photo library.

Are there loads of features I hope to see from Photos and the Camera app in future versions of iOS? Sure. But to argue that Apple “doesn’t understand photography” using issues that were solved at WWDC is callous and lazy.

June 21, 2016

The Sound of Lightning

Every time someone publishes the rumour that the next iPhone will lack a headphone jack, a mix of anger and incredulity floods my Twitter feed. Today’s antagonizers are Daisuke Wakabayashi and Eva Dou of the Wall Street Journal:

Apple Inc. plans to break with its recent pattern of overhauling the design of its flagship iPhone every two years, and make only subtle changes in the models it will release this fall, according to people familiar with the matter.

[…]

The biggest planned change in this year’s phones is the removal of the headphone plug, which will make the phone thinner and improve its water resistance, said people with that matter.

First, how did the copy editors at the Journal miss the weird construction of that last sentence?

Second, this isn’t really news for those of you who follow the rumour cycle. Macotakara first reported this back in November, and Mark Sullivan of Fast Company and Mark Gurman effectively confirmed the rumour in January. What’s different now is that it’s being reported by the Journal.1

This rumour is the new Apple Rorschach test: some people will see an iPhone without a headphone jack as an indicator that Apple is being user-hostile, or that they have their priorities all screwed up. Others will see it as yet another time when Apple is making a choice that challenges assumed standards in favour of a bold bet on the future.

Will it work? I have no idea. Apple’s competitors are certainly making a similar guess — the new Moto Z doesn’t have a headphone jack, nor do LeEco’s most recent devices.

Regardless of Apple’s success or failure in removing the headphone jack, history has shown that few connectors live for very long. The USB Implementers Forum is encouraging OEMs to move from the long-standard USB-A connector to the new — much better — USB-C standard. Floppy disks did not last forever, and I never want to see a VGA or DVI connector again. The headphone jack will, one day, suffer the same fate.

There are certainly some significant benefits to Lightning. It’s reversible, it’s more durable than most headphone cables, it can be made more water-resistant, and it carries both power and data.

That last point is particularly important when it comes to headphone playback controls, which are currently implemented as a clever hack. When you squeeze the remote, it simply shorts out two of the headphone wires. Smartphones interpret different squeeze patterns as play/pause, skip, rewind, and so forth. Headphone controls that send actual playback control data ought to be significantly more reliable and far easier to use.

But I have reservations about this rumour, primarily because I think the conversation around it has blurred the distinction between replacing the headphone jack with a more modern port, and replacing it with a Lightning connector.

All accessories that wish to use Lightning are required to be a part of Apple’s MFi Program. MFi accessories are subject to strict regulations set by Apple, and their manufacturers are required to pay royalties of $2 per product sold with a Lightning connector. The connector is also not found on competing devices, meaning that if a company wishes to make a product to sell to the entire smartphone user market, they must manufacture at least two variants of the product: one for iPhone users, and one for everyone else.

That might be totally fine. The market won’t be limited to next-generation iPhone users; it will be the user of any iOS device released since the iPhone 5. That’s a huge potential audience, and manufacturers aren’t going to pass that up, even if it does cost them $2 per unit. Any accessory company that doesn’t like that can use Bluetooth, which costs a flat fee for each product rather than each unit.

But there’s a tradeoff here: any company that wishes to make wired headphones for the iPhone will now be subjected to Apple’s rejection or acceptance. This probably won’t matter much to most users, the vast majority of which use the EarPods that come with their iPhone, but it does matter if you wish to change your headphones. For those of us who wish to use better headphones, or those with special requirements — for fitness, a different style, or whatever it may be — this means that our buying choices will be fewer and far between, at least for a while. Or, we’ll have to make do with a converting dongle, and that doesn’t seem elegant at all.

This is a little different than when the Dock Connector was replaced with Lightning. While it became trivial to borrow a Lightning cable off a friend or find one at an airport after a matter of months, headphones are a more personal choice for many of us. I don’t think there’s any question that it’s going to be initially frustrating, but there’s a potential bright light: the premium headphone market is booming, and it’s projected to keep growing. That gives headphone designers and manufacturers a good reason to update their wares and make them Lightning-friendly.

Regardless of market size and potential, it’s still a little hard to swallow the prospect of replacing a universal connector with a proprietary one. Call it a maybe-misguided principled stance. And yet, in a few years, I think we’ll look back on this as a quaint concern that needn’t have consumed so many angry words.

Update: This article previously stated that the cost to manufacturers for licensing Lightning was a rumoured $4 per connector. I’ve since learned that the royalty fee is $2 per product sold with any number of Lightning connectors. I have updated the article accordingly.


  1. On an unrelated note, the Journal happens to be one of the few publications that Apple occasionally provides off-the-record information to. Make of that what you will. ↩︎

Big, Bold, and Beautiful

The refinements to iOS’ design language in its tenth major release do a lot for clarifying and building upon the established hierarchy of the system.

Additionally, the new language used in the Music, News, and Home apps is intriguing. That it’s only in those apps is one thing; that they’re treated similarly despite being different conceptually is another. I’m interested in ways this style could be brought to other parts of the system in the future.

June 20, 2016

Facebook Votes to Keep Peter Thiel on Their Board

According to a Parse.ly report from August of last year, Facebook now drives more traffic to news websites than Google. Many sites now depends on ad revenue earned directly from clicks off a Facebook shared link that happened to surface on some user’s news feed due to Facebook’s non-public sorting algorithms. Meanwhile, as we’ve learned recently, Peter Thiel, a Facebook board member, is trying to bring down a news publication that he dislikes. That seems like a brewing conflict of interest.

I’m not saying Thiel would even think about encouraging those algorithms to be tweaked to drive less traffic to sites that he disagrees with. What I am saying is that there’s an awful lot of power over the press today that currently rests in very few hands, and most of the people with that power have competing financial interests.

Here’s another example: Jeff Bezos is both the CEO of Amazon and the owner the Washington Post. Last summer, the New York Times published a damning book excerpt on the conditions of Amazon’s corporate employees. Publications worldwide re-reported or quoted the piece, including the Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg, and the Guardian — among many others — and almost all did so in a critical light.

But the Washington Post’s piece was more measured and tame. It comes across as gently critical, emphasizing defence over addressing the issues raised in the excerpt. I’m not saying Bezos had a hand in editing it, or even that the Post was reluctant to publish anything more critical. But what I am saying is that it’s hard to see how the Post’s reporting on this could feel neutral at all, given its owner’s conflict of interest.

I’m not trying to state that Bezos or the Post, in particular, are untrustworthy, but — in general — would you trust a newspaper owned by a person to report in a neutral way about a company run by that same person? Do you trust a social network to deliver the news in a neutral and fair way, even when one of the people who helps run it is simultaneously picking a fight with a specific publication?

Update: I’ve changed the last paragraph slightly to clarify that this isn’t about Bezos or Thiel specifically, but rather a broader trend.

A Translation of Tronc’s Internal Brand Introductory Video

I’ve somehow resisted covering Tronc — the company whose name sounds like a Canadian goose caught in a windsock — because, in my head, they do not exist. Alas, the Tribune Company has now started trading on the NASDAQ under that name — the sort of name your crazy uncle would make up for a nonexistent startup he thinks all the kids are using these days — so I must acknowledge the reality.

To introduce Tribune employees to the new name, which kind of sounds like someone blowing their nose through a length of PVC pipe, Tronc has made a couple of videos, and they’re full of buzzwords and B-roll.

Madison Malone Kircher has translated them to English for New York Magazine:

“The key to making our content really valuable to the broadest possible audience is to use machine learning to maximize all the time. Artificial intelligence is going to allow journalists to do their jobs more efficiently, finding the right photos the videos, the databases, the things you package your stories with.”

Translation: We’re going to replace many of the people who get laid off with “artificial intelligence,” which means those that remain will be asked to churn out more work in the same amount of time as they did in the years Bt (Before Tronc).

“Ultimately those efficiencies will help us produce more content, better content. That will make stories much more visual, much for exciting. Today, that is what people expect.”

Translation: We’re going to make more video.

I’m joking around a bit, but there are actual numbers in the video. Tronc executives Malcolm CasSelle and Anne Vasquez explain that the company currently attaches ad-supported video players to 16% of their articles; their target for 2017 is for 50% of articles to include video.

The problem is that articles that are typically published by major newspapers are not always readily-suited for video, not even half the time. And that means that purely increasing the number of CPM video players across their properties requires writing articles specifically for video, which probably means more filler.

Speaking of filler, Tronc is the sound made when packing peanuts squish and rub together.

Update: I’ve updated the headline to this piece because the original — “A Translation of Tronc’s New Welcome Video” — didn’t make any sense.

Apple Pulls ‘I Sea’ From the App Store

Patrick Howell O’Neill, of the Daily Dot:

A popular app that claims to scan the Mediterranean Sea in real time for adrift refugees does not work as its developers claim it does and may be a ploy to win an advertising industry award, experts say.

The app, I Sea, was nominated at the Canne Lions awards show, an international advertising festival held this week in France, causing some to question whether it was made as a publicity stunt.

Despite its press coverage, I’m not sure I’d call I Sea “popular”, but this is pretty scummy. The Singapore branch of Grey Digital — the registered developer of the app — partnered with a legitimate Malta-based migrant aid charity, too, which seems like an opportunistic way for the agency to try to win some awards.

Some good detective work by @SwiftOnSecurity, Matthieu Rivière, Rosyna Keller, and a host of others — be sure to check the replies to Swift’s tweets.

Update: This doesn’t seem like an honest mistake. When this was in the press last week, Grey executives were pretty clear in how they described the app:

“The app uses an algorithm that divides the satellite images of the sea into thousands of smaller plots,” explains Low Jun Jek, executive creative director at Grey. “Each of these plots is then sent or assigned to different users so they can view the plot through the app. The user will receive a notification on their phone that will prompt them to check their plot — a simple task that will take no more than one minute at most.

This is clearly bullshit.

iOS 10 and the iPad

Federico Viticci:

I didn’t have high hopes for major iPad-specific features to be announced at WWDC. Still, I was disappointed to see the iPad return to the backseat after last year’s revitalization. Every time Craig Federighi ended a segment with “it works on the iPad, too”, it felt like the iPad had become an afterthought again.

WWDC this year certainly ticked a lot of boxes, but a lack of iPad-specific enhancements continues to be a sore point. It’s very clear that Apple prioritizes iPhone development while Tim Cook continues to espouse the benefits of the iPad. From his opening remarks during the WWDC keynote:

The iPad magically transforms a glass canvas into anything that you want it to be. It’s our clearest expression of the future of personal computing.

Unlike Apple’s stance on privacy, it doesn’t fully feel like they’re practicing what they preach with iOS and the iPad. While it is a tremendous personal computer, there remain significant and glaring areas where it still feels like a jumbo iPhone in a not-so-good way.

Viticci continues:

After WWDC, I strongly believe that Apple has notable iPad-only features in the pipeline, but they won’t be available until later in the iOS 10 cycle, possibly in early 2017.

I’m listening.

June 19, 2016

The Talk Show at WWDC

You thought last year’s show was a hell of a get for John Gruber? This year, not only did Phil Schiller appear at the live recording of the Talk Show, so did Craig Federighi. And it was a pretty good conversation.

Of course, these are two top Apple executives who are well-versed in the company’s PR policy. But it’s a truly entertaining discussion where both Federighi and Schiller can be a little loose and unscripted. The best moments are, I think, are in the second half where both executives explain how Apple is protecting users’ privacy with the upcoming photo analysis and other features coming to iOS and MacOS.

Serenity Caldwell and Mikah Sargent of iMore did a great job transcribing the show, in case you’d rather read it. It’s a good show to watch, though; everyone’s pretty light and loose — there was an open bar — and it’s just an hour long. Well worth your time.

June 17, 2016

Hubris

Ashley Carman and Frank Bi of the Verge wrote an article praising Apple’s introduction of Swift Playgrounds on the iPad, but warning that it’s all a big trap:

But most importantly, Swift Playgrounds fits into Apple’s proprietary business efforts as it has a vested interest in teaching kids to code in Swift; apps built in Swift only work on iOS devices. With Swift Playgrounds, Apple is hoping its programming language will be the gateway to coding that encourages a new generation of App Store developers.

I know what you’re thinking. And Carman and Bi address it the very next sentence:

That being said, we should note that Swift is open source, so it’s possible it’ll be more widely adopted on Linux and eventually show up on Android.

Apple is trying to lock kids into building using a totally open language, much in the same way that Netscape tried to lock kids into using HTML. The hubris is overwhelming. Not Apple’s — the Verge’s.

Hat-tip to Matt Birchler.

Fumblr

Seth Fiegerman, reporting for Mashable on how Tumblr is doing after three years at Yahoo:

Tumblr’s stumbles under Yahoo may go down as a cautionary tale, both for the perils of a large corporation buying a hot startup and for Silicon Valley’s belief that any social network reaching hundreds of millions of people will inevitably generate boatloads of cash one day. Tumblr was slow to monetize before it was acquired, struggled to grow revenue enough to meet its new parent company’s expectations in the first year and struggled even more to keep up with ambitious goals when Yahoo began to meddle.

The massive Tumblr acquisition may also come to highlight Mayer’s broader management missteps in making flashy bets, trusting deputies with limited knowledge of a product to oversee it and some mix of arrogance or denial in failing to quickly right those wrongs when necessary.

Yahoo was floundering long before Marissa Mayer came on board, but it still feels like it’s in a dive. The acquisitions made on her watch have largely failed to pan out, and I question whether the company can ever come out of its slump.

You know that weird vibe you get when someone tells you that their email address is something-something “at Yahoo dot com”? That’s what she and they are fighting — that sense of malaise about anything Yahoo touches.

That iMessage-on-Android Rumour, Post-WWDC

Shortly before WWDC this year, a rumour was flying around that Apple was preparing to bring iMessage to Android. I didn’t write about it because the source seemed sketchy and, for no other reason than gut instinct, it didn’t seem likely for this year.

Well, Walt Mossberg looked into it after the WWDC keynote:

When I asked a senior Apple executive why iMessage wasn’t being expanded to other platforms, he gave two answers. First, he said, Apple considers its own user base of one billion active devices big enough to provide a large enough data set for any possible AI learning the company is working on. And second, having a superior messaging platform that only worked on Apple devices would help sales of those devices — the company’s classic (and successful) rationale for years.

This year’s software enhancements greatly reduce the amount of lock-in to Apple’s services. In iOS 10, you can — on a per-contact basis — set third-party apps as the default for both messaging and voice communications. But that’s the kind of openness that doesn’t increase the likelihood of users crossing over to Android. Rather, it expands their choices within Apple’s ecosystem.

Bringing iMessage to Android is the opposite of that. It serves to increase choice for users with little incentive to keep them within Apple’s ecosystem. But, if that other rumour about Apple Pay transfers over iMessage comes true, that’s a good reason to bring it to Android. Another good reason is the forthcoming iMessage App Store.

It’s worth keeping in mind that Apple executives have, on more than one occasion, said one thing while planning another. Things may always change. But I don’t foresee iMessage working with anything other than Apple’s products anytime soon.

June 16, 2016

Apple Is Allowing App Store Ad Bids on Competitors’ Names

Bidding on competitors’ brands and unique keywords is the sort of thing that’s allowed by most advertising networks, yet I hoped Apple would prevent it on the App Store. It’s dirty and mischievous.

John Siracusa:

Schiller talked about this in The Talk Show live. Short version from memory: this is allowed and benefits small devs more than big.

Michael Tsai:

I’m very skeptical that this is a benefit for developers (who would have to outbid others just to protect their own app’s name as a search term) or for users (who expect what they search for to be at the top). Note, also, how the ad takes up more of the screen than the actual matching search result.

A very large company like Facebook could conceivably bid on all major social networking keywords, for example, and push down any competitors on the search results page. Or, in a more nefarious scenario, a well-funded low-quality or knockoff app could bid its way to the top of search. I’d hope Apple puts a stop to this; it would be inadequate to simply add “Report” buttons for ads that engage in this sort of behaviour.

June 15, 2016

Digging Into the Dev Documentation for APFS

John Siracusa seems very pleased that Apple introduced a new file system at WWDC called “APFS”, for “Apple file system”.1 It’s not coming until next year but, at first blush, it seems thoroughly modern, powerful, fast, and secure.

Lee Hutchinson of Ars Technica dug through Apple’s initial documentation for the juicy bits. This sounds particularly intriguing:

Also interesting is the concept of “space sharing,” where multiple volumes can be created out of the same chunk of underlying physical space. This sounds on first glance a lot like enterprise-style thin provisioning, where you can do things like create four 1TB volumes on a single 1TB disk, and each volume grows as space is added to it. You can add physical storage to keep up with the volume’s growth without having to resize the logical volume.

Based on what I’m hearing, APFS will be making its way across Apple’s product lineup. I don’t know what the limitations are of this — if you do, please write me — but perhaps 16 GB iPhones and 128 GB MacBooks won’t be so space-constrained after all.

Update: Michael Rockwell:

regarding space constrained 16GB iPhones, I’m surprised they released the optimized storage feature for macOS and not iOS.

While potential space saving optimizations made possible by APFS will be available on iOS devices, it is strange that optimized storage is a MacOS exclusive right now.

Update: Apple explains space sharing:

Each volume in an APFS container reports the same available disk space, which is equal to the total available disk space of the container. For example, for an APFS container with a capacity of 100GB that contains volume A, which uses 10GB, and volume B, which uses 20GB, the free space reported for both volumes A and B is 70GB (100GB – 10GB – 20GB).

Think of it like flexible partitioning rather than allowing multiple volumes the same amount of virtual space, which is the way I read it initially.


  1. For the curious, “AFS” has already been taken by the Andrew File System and the AtheOS File System, though only the former still exists. ↩︎

All LinkedIn With Nowhere to Go

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around Microsoft’s acquisition of LinkedIn. It doesn’t baffle me like it does Peter Bright of Ars Technica, though he does raise a good point: Microsoft’s track record with multibillion-dollar acquisitions is, well, terrible. But why would Microsoft want to own the world’s second uncoolest social network — the first, of course, being Google+ — when it’s effectively a glorified and unprofitable résumé hosting service?

Today, the always-great Kontra surfaced a 2013 article by Ann Friedman, writing for the Baffler:

On one level, of course, this world of aspirational business affiliation is nothing new. LinkedIn merely digitizes the core, and frequently cruel, paradox of networking events and conferences. You show up at such gatherings because you want to know more important people in your line of work — but the only people mingling are those who, like you, don’t seem to know anyone important. You just end up talking to the sad sacks you already know. From this crushing realization, the paradoxes multiply on up through the social food chain: those who are at the top of the field are at this event only to entice paying attendees, soak up the speaking fees, and slip out the back door after politely declining the modest swag bag. They’re not standing around on garish hotel ballroom carpet with a plastic cup of cheap chardonnay in one hand and a stack of business cards in the other.

This acquisition is exceedingly uninteresting, yet it makes total sense. The products from both LinkedIn and Microsoft are perfectly designed for middle-management types and those who aspire to be middle-management types. That market is dull. The products in that space are dull. It’s full of people working dull jobs that they really don’t want to talk about at a dinner party.

This sort of thing has now run all the way up the ladder. Microsoft and LinkedIn are associating themselves because they get to name-drop each other. LinkedIn is the name in corporate social networking; Microsoft is the name in corporate office software. LinkedIn is more legitimized now that they’re owned by Microsoft, while Microsoft gets a second successful social network — Xbox Live being its first. It’s a marriage made in, well, not heaven — probably in a ninth-floor boardroom.

June 14, 2016

Next Steps for Legacy Plug-Ins

Ricky Mondello writing on Apple’s WebKit blog:

[…] When Safari 10 ships this fall, by default, Safari will behave as though common legacy plug-ins on users’ Macs are not installed.

On websites that offer both Flash and HTML5 implementations of content, Safari users will now always experience the modern HTML5 implementation, delivering improved performance and battery life. This policy and its benefits apply equally to all websites; Safari has no built-in list of exceptions. If a website really does require a legacy plug-in, users can explicitly activate it on that website.

If this sounds like a great idea to you, you don’t have to wait until this autumn’s release of MacOS1 Sierra to get it. You can uninstall Flash right now. You know you want to.

See Also:Please Update Adobe Flash”.


  1. I’m going with the capital-M variant until Apple changes their hardware line to “mac pro” and the menu item for Macs to “mac”, which I really hope doesn’t happen. Mary Norris needs to have a chat with Phil Schiller. ↩︎

Billboard Interviews the Executive Team Behind Apple Music

Shirley Halperin of Billboard interviewed Eddy Cue, Jimmy Iovine, Robert Kondrk, and Trent Reznor in the wake of Apple Music’s refresh previewed yesterday. It’s a good — albeit light and PR-friendly — interview, touching on the things the team has learned in the first year of Apple Music’s availability. Most notably, it was confusing:

Reznor: I think you’ve seen the DNA of me in what we’ve shown [at WWDC] and the concepts behind what we released a year ago. It’s been really interesting for me to see how this works and how much time and patience it takes. The update of Apple Music is a result of us taking a hard look at how people actually use it — not hypothetically, but realistically.

The theme of this year’s WWDC seems to be: Pragmatic changes that, individually, are not that significant, but when used every day, greatly improve the way people use their devices in the real world.

I think the first release of Apple Music was centred around hopes on how people should use it. This update is decidedly pragmatic. It’s less idealized, more practical, and should prove far easier to use no matter how you use the Music app on your phone.

Peter Thiel’s Lawyer v. Gawker — Again

J.K. Trotter, Gawker:

One day after the Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel revealed his clandestine legal attack on Gawker Media to the New York Times, Gawker reporter Ashley Feinberg published a lengthy investigation that sought to solve the enduring mystery of Donald Trump’s infamous mane, which she described as a “cotton candy hairspray labyrinth.”

[…]

But if you were under the impression that praise-worthy journalism is somehow inoculated against campaigns like Thiel’s, you’d be mistaken. Last week, Thiel’s lawyer-for-hire, Charles J. Harder, sent Gawker a letter on behalf of Ivari International’s owner and namesake, Edward Ivari, in which Harder claims that Feinberg’s story was “false and defamatory,” invaded Ivari’s privacy, intentionally inflicted emotional distress, and committed “tortious interference” with Ivari’s business relations. Harder enumerates 19 different purportedly defamatory statements—almost all of which were drawn from several publicly available lawsuits filed against Ivari.

Harder’s demands included the immediate removal of the story from Gawker, a public apology, the preservation of “all physical and electronic documents, materials and data in your possession” related to the story, and, notably, that we reveal our sources.

The precedent has been set: billionaires are allowed to silence and drive into the ground publications with which they disagree. It doesn’t matter that Feinberg’s piece is well-sourced, well-reported, and of public interest. Gawker now has to brace themselves for another fight that can likely trace back to Thiel. Apparently, he’s so committed to destroying Gawker that he won’t stop at a Chapter 11 filing — he’ll stop when Nick Denton is living in a Cheerios box on the High Line.

Thiel is supporting Trump’s bid for president.

U.S. Court of Appeals Upholds Classification of ISPs as Utilities

Jon Brodkin of Ars Technica has been following this case closely:

The US broadband industry has lost its lawsuit attempting to overturn the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules and the related reclassification of Internet service providers as common carriers.

ISPs’ First Amendment claims (among others) were rejected. “Because a broadband provider does not—and is not understood by users to—’speak’ when providing neutral access to Internet content as common carriage, the First Amendment poses no bar to the open Internet rules,” judges wrote in a decision released today by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (full text).

This is tremendous news, and a model that I hope is copied worldwide. The internet has become as essential to our lives as electricity; it should have the same kind of protections for consumers.

June 13, 2016

Differential Privacy

During the keynote today, Craig Federighi explained how Apple was attempting to bridge the gap between attempting to collect as little personal information as possible, while still creating software that takes advantage of ongoing trends and larger data sets. Federighi phrased it “differential privacy”, which isn’t a made-up thing at all: it’s a specific and defined field of study regarding the collection and fuzzing of data in larger sets. The intent is that it can provide a sense of larger trends — a newly-coined word or phrase, for instance, or traffic patterns in an area, or potentially voice patterns for regional accents — but there’s no useful data on any one person.

Andy Greenberg, Wired:

Differential privacy, [Aaron] Roth explains, seeks to mathematically prove that a certain form of data analysis can’t reveal anything about an individual — that the output of an algorithm remains identical with and without the input containing any given person’s private data. “You might do something more clever than the people before to anonymize your data set, but someone more clever than you might come around tomorrow and de-anonymize it,” says Roth. “Differential privacy, because it has a provable guarantee, breaks that loop. It’s future proof.”

Roth is the professor that Federighi gave a shout-out to in the presentation.

Ideally, what this means is that Apple can mine users’ devices for larger amounts of information to analyze and help improve their services, without it being invasive. It’s less about strip-mining data, and more about carefully retrieving it, and it’s the kind of thing that Apple can do because they have an established record of looking out for users’ privacy. More importantly, it’s the kind of thing that Apple is doing because they continue to respect users’ privacy.

But, from what I’m reading, this doesn’t necessarily allow them to provide better individualized services on its own. Data collected en masse must be married to individual user data. For iOS, this sounds like it occurs on the device itself. Any company can collect a bunch of data; the hard part is making meaning of it. I hope that’s successful here.

More on Deleting Default Apps in iOS 10

Alex Guyot, writing for MacStories, on the confused behaviour of mailto links after deleting the Mail app:

First beta and all that of course, but this isn’t a great user experience at all. I honestly can’t think of any way to rectify this besides either not allowing the Mail app to be deleted in the first place, or allowing the user to pick a different default app that will handle mailto: links in the absence of Mail.

A potentially elegant way of handling this would be to allow third-party apps to add mailto as one of their supported URL protocols. However, that would likely require the ability to select an app to handle them by default when many are installed.

My guess is that Mail will simply be disallowed from being deleted until this can be resolved, however. If it isn’t it’s going to be important for third-party email clients to have a sharing extension — many still do not.

Remove Default Apps in iOS 10

Something not mentioned at all during today’s WWDC keynote is the long-requested ability to remove many built-in apps in iOS 10, including Tips, Stocks, Contacts on iPhone, and the Watch app.

June 12, 2016

RNI Films

I’m not usually the type to jump ship on apps I love, but VSCO’s new update has been so puzzling to me1 that I am actively seeking alternatives. Most importantly, I’d like something that is easy to use, and doesn’t have a social network built into it.

Enter, via Dave Day, RNI Films. Instead of filters, the creators of the app have modelled actual film stock, including favourites like Fuji’s Instax instant film, classic Polaroid stock, and Kodak Gold — in six different variations of the actual chemistry of the film. They’ve even scanned in actual film grain and dust, instead of modelling those textures digitally.

It includes most of the editing tools that VSCO has, but with icons that are much easier to understand. Some of them are quite clever: vignette is a camera’s aperture, grain looks like wheat, and highlights and shadows are salt and pepper, respectively. They have text labels below them, too.

I’m not super keen on the app’s cropping workflow, though. I often edit at full-size, then crop or re-crop later. In RNI Films, cropping is, unfortunately, the first step after selecting a photo from the camera roll, and there’s no way to re-crop without discarding edits. It’s also missing perspective correction tools, but you should really be using SKRWT for that anyway.

Overall, though, I really like RNI Films. The app itself is free, and includes a pretty good starter kit of different film stocks. Additional packs of film types are about $5 per set, which is a little pricey, especially if you purchase them all. I do think it’s worth your time to check it out, though.

Really Nice Images — the RNI, obviously — has another app available for $5 called Flashback. Instead of fine-tuned settings, it randomizes the film stock, textures, and various other effects. It’s fun to play around with if you’d rather not fiddle with a bunch of settings. You can grab it on the App Store, too. (App Store links in this post are affiliate links because I’m an opportunist like that. I do genuinely use and recommend both apps, though, and I haven’t been compensated in any way for this post.)


  1. It’s so confusing that VSCO has published a “How to Use VSCO” help article. That’s not a good sign. ↩︎

June 11, 2016

Gawker Files for Bankruptcy

Peter Sterne, Politico:

Gawker Media filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Friday, in order to protect its assets from seizure by former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan.

Simultaneously, Gawker Media parent company Gawker Media Group announced that it had agreed to sell its assets in an auction supervised by a bankruptcy court. Ziff Davis, the media company that owns PC Mag, has agreed to purchase Gawker’s assets for $90 million to $100 million, a person close to Gawker told POLITICO, though it’s expected that other potential buyers will participate in the auction and make higher bids.

Nicholas Lemann, New Yorker:

At the moment, what seems most important about the Hulk Hogan case is last week’s revelation that Hogan’s legal costs were borne by Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire on whom Gawker has been inflicting pain for years. The story has been that Thiel is out for revenge against Gawker and its founder, Nick Denton, and may well get it, in the form of a forced sale or even Gawker’s going out of business. The stakes may actually be bigger than that. Remember that Thiel is a graduate of Stanford Law School who clerked for a year on the Eleventh Circuit, and that, in his world, “scale” and “disruption” are the hoped-for ends of every investment. He is surely aware of this case’s potential to begin a reëxamination of the fundamental questions in American press law, far beyond the fate of Gawker.

Nothing is right about this whole case. I don’t think there was a good reason for Gawker to have published Hulk Hogan’s sex tape, but I also don’t think their punishment was commensurate with the damage inflicted.

But most damaging of all is the ability for Peter Thiel to bankroll the suit. This is not a case where the plaintiff needed a friend to lend them a few bucks; this is Thiel’s personal vendetta under the guise of a right to privacy suit. Make no mistake: I am not in favour of many of the things Gawker chooses to publish, but I am far more opposed to the bankrolling of an opportunity to suppress their publication.

If money is truly representative of speech, as implied in the Citizens United decision, Thiel has a far greater freedom of speech than does Gawker or, indeed, most publications.

Remember when, in 2012, Mother Jones released the “47% Tape”? Shortly after, they were sued by a billionaire donor to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.

I’ll let Mother Jones’ CEO Monika Bauerlein and editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery take it from here:

People have asked us whether we think these two things were connected, and the honest answer is that we have no idea. What we do know is that the take-no-prisoners legal assault from VanderSloot and Melaleuca has consumed a good part of the past two and a half years and has cost millions (yes, millions) in legal fees. In the course of the litigation, VanderSloot sued a former small-town Idaho newspaper reporter whose confrontation with him we mentioned in our article. His lawyers asked a judge to let them rifle through the internal records of the Obama campaign. They deposed a representative of the campaign in pursuit of a baseless theory that Mother Jones conspired with Obama’s team to defame VanderSloot. They tried to get one of our lawyers disqualified because his firm had once done work for Melaleuca. They intrusively questioned our employees—our reporter was grilled about whether she had attended a Super Bowl party the night she finalized the article.

Legally, what we fought over was what, precisely, the terms “bashing” and “outing” meant in the context of our article. (Read the decision for yourself.) But make no mistake: This was not a dispute over a few words. It was a push, by a superrich businessman and donor, to wipe out news coverage that he disapproved of. Had he been successful, it would have been a chilling indicator that the 0.01 percent can control not only the financing of political campaigns, but also media coverage of those campaigns.

Mother Jones justly won that lawsuit, while Gawker lost theirs, arguably for good reasons. But re-read that last quoted paragraph and notice the similarities: these are lawsuits borne of the personal vendettas of billionaires. They were designed to suppress the publication of true articles disliked by the funding parties.

The Gawker Media Group will apparently be purchased by Ziff Davis — they’re the “ZD” in ZDNet. However, Gawker itself was conspicuously absent from their press release. Brian Stelter heard a potential reason for its omission:

Denton has talked with associates about potentially trying to buy Gawker.com back from whatever company acquires it, sources confirmed to CNNMoney. Then he could run it on its own.

This idea comes with several “ifs” — it is dependent on Denton prevailing in the appeal of Hulk Hogan’s ongoing lawsuit against Gawker.

That’s a plot twist worthy of a Gawker article.

June 10, 2016

Ruin Your Google Search History

Jason Koebler, Vice:

Ruin My Search History” promises to “ruin your Google search history with a single click,” and that’s exactly what it does. Click on the magnifying glass and it’ll take over your browser and immediately cycles through a series of search terms ranging from the mildly embarrassing (“why doesn’t my poo float,” “smelly penis cure urgent”) to the potentially relationship-ruining (“mail order paternity test,” “attracted to mother why”) to the type of thing that might get your name on a list somewhere (“isis application form,” “cheap syria flights,” “how to kill someone hypothetically”).

I’d not click that link at work, if I were you. If you’re the type to read the ending of a book before reading the rest of it, you might like to know that someone going by “tomatoaway” on Reddit has copied out the full array and it’s, well, spectacular. Aside from those mentioned by Koebler, queries include “rohypnol safe dosage”, “view ashley madison list”, and “bing”. The stuff of nightmares, really.

Picking and Choosing

Riccardo Mori:

Here’s the thing — Among the apps I’ve bought over the years, a lot of them are quality apps I love and enjoy using, but I don’t necessarily use them all the time. A classic example: photo apps and image editing apps. I have a lot of them, and I don’t really have a preference. I decide which to use mostly following the mood of the moment (in case of photo apps) or the specific function/effect I’m after (in case of editing apps and even photo apps as well).

With these kinds of apps, I like to have lots of options available, and I haven’t minded paying upfront for each of these apps; I haven’t minded paying the occasional extra for a paid update or for the in-app purchase that unlocked more photo filters or editing features. But in the extreme case that all app developers behind these apps moved to a subscription-based pricing, without offering alternatives, I would be forced into a position I really don’t like: having to decide which app stays on my devices and which one has to go. Will the App Store’s infamous ‘race to the bottom’ become the ‘race to stay in your device’s (home) screen’?

I’ve been thinking about this as well, and my hope is that an app without an active subscription degrades gracefully. But how graceful it may degrade ultimately depends on what the App Store allows. Restricting app updates based on subscription status, for instance, can’t be done because they’re run through the store itself.

Perhaps some developers will get creative with how they distribute updates within the app. For instance, a new set of filters could be made available as a free download provided the user has an active subscription. Bug fixes could be distributed as app updates, but feature updates could be dependent upon a subscription.

These new rules create a somewhat murky new world for developers and users alike. I’m generally optimistic because the apps you love most probably come from developers who respect their users. Developers like Panic, Flexibits, Cultured Code, Tapbots, Sam Oakley, and Ole Zorn — they actually care. And those developers who do not care about their apps’ users will find it very difficult to retain subscribers.

(Kind Of) Clarifying App Store Subscriptions

Macworld received confirmation from Apple that the new in-app subscriptions will — theoretically, at least — be open to all apps. “Content” and “service” subscriptions are just two examples of the kinds of subscriptions that apps could conceivably offer.

However, it’s not entirely clear what criteria Apple will use to determine whether a particular app should be allowed to use a subscription model. Glenn Fleishman:

But Apple also stressed that not just every business model will pass its muster. Unlike with periodicals and streaming media apps, which are allowed to have no content or use without a subscription, apps in other categories will need to ‘make sense.’ As Apple notes on the What’s New page, ‘the experience must provide ongoing value worth the recurring payment for an auto-renewable subscription to make sense.’

We don’t yet know precisely how Apple will evaluate that, and uncertainty is bad for developers. Schiller also promised much faster app review turnaround for developers, but speed doesn’t matter if an app doesn’t meet Apple’s test, and Apple doesn’t yet offer formal advance review of app features or business model. (We have heard of developers discussing features more broadly, but informally, with developer relations staff.)

Poor communication between Apple and developers — and, in the case of the expired Mac App Store certificates earlier this year, between Apple and customers, too — has been the root cause of many of the App Store’s most significant controversies since its inception. I think a lot of developers are going to want Apple’s stance on subscriptions to be absolutely solid before they attempt to integrate it into their own apps.

June 9, 2016

VSCO Updated With New Interface

I am a long-time fan of VSCO, but I have never really liked its interface. It suffers from Don’t Wash Tennis Balls syndrome, with inscrutable icons and odd control patterns. But it’s something I’ve gotten the hang of over the years because the results are worth it.

Today’s update brings with it an even more abstruse interface. If you’re one of those people who finds Snapchat difficult to understand — and I feel your pain — you’re going to be completely lost in the new version of VSCO.

The app no longer has a “hamburger” menu on the side to jump to different sections, nor does it have any kind of tab bar.

Instead, there’s a floating circle at the bottom similar to the Camera shutter, except with three horizontal lines running through it. Tapping on it does nothing. But sliding it up, down, or to either side switches between different sections of the app, kind of like a joystick.

For instance, dragging down on it while in the Library view will pull up a menu to filter images based on whether they’ve been edited. Dragging right from the Library will take you to the Explore view. Dragging down here will pull up a search box. Dragging up on the joystick thing from anywhere in the app will pull up the camera.

There’s a strange staggered layout to the posts in the Explore feature. They alternate left and right sides seemingly at random; posts from the same users posted on the same day might have two images on the right followed by one on the left.

It’s all very bizarre and very little of it makes sense to me. The app hasn’t changed much under the hood, so far as I can tell, but nearly every aspect of its presentation is different. Even the hard-to-understand icons for various editing tools — saturation, highlight levels, sharpness, and so on — have been redesigned and are now impossible to understand.

There’s not another app providing the kind of quality and variety available in VSCO, so I’m going to have to get used to this. But I really don’t like it.