Archive

January 27, 2015

Reporters Vulnerable to Misreporting Macintosh Security Problems

Bad reporting on the state of Macintosh security is nothing new, and ZDNet’s Adrian Kingsley-Hughes adds another one to the stack. I missed this one when it was written a couple of weeks ago, but I thought I’d make up for some lost time today:

Macs vulnerable to virtually undetectable virus that “can’t be removed”

That headline can be broken into three distinct parts:

  1. Is the malware “undetectable”, or virtually so?
  2. Is it a “virus”?
  3. Is it, in fact, impossible to remove?

Let’s start with the first claim in the headline: Thunderstrike is “virtually undetectable”. Kingsley-Hughes reports it so:

“Since it is the first OS X firmware bootkit, there is nothing currently scanning for its presence. It controls the system from the very first instruction, which allows it to log keystrokes, including disk encryption keys, place backdoors into the OS X kernel and bypass firmware passwords,” Hudson said.

Well, when I say “reports”, Kingsley-Hughes basically dumps bits of Trammel Hudson’s original post into the ZDNet CMS, adds a few summarizing phrases, and dusts his hands before hitting the “Publish” button. But I digress.

Kingsley-Hughes’ selected quote, however, clearly states that nothing is currently detecting this malware; that doesn’t mean that nothing could. In Hudson’s original post, he clearly says that the boot ROM — where this attack lives on the system — is being verified at boot in software. It’s entirely possible that its contents could be dumped and checked against a known safe version during a reboot.

Hudson suggests basically that:

If they really need to support Option ROMs on Thunderbolt, Apple could implement the EFI architecture specific security protocol to enforce driver signing — PCIe OptionROMs can be signed and checked before they are executed.

In fact, even in Hudson’s worst-case scenario, the boot ROM could hypothetically be verified in this fashion:

It could also be very stealthy and hide in system management mode, through virtualization or possibly in the Management Engine (although there is lots of work to be done there).

In theory, the user downloads a firmware update from the App Store and is prompted to restart their Mac. They do, the firmware is checked, and, if it fails, they’re prompted to visit a retail store to have it fixed.

So, no, it’s not “virtually undetectable”. Like any security gap, it takes time for it to be detectable.

Next claim: it’s a “virus”.

Not exactly, no, and certainly not in its current form:

Hudson discovered that he could use a modified Apple gigabit Ethernet Thunderbolt adapter to carry out the attack.

It spreads through hardware-to-hardware contact, not over the air. If Kingsley-Hughes were a health reporter, he’d probably say that gonorrhoea can be spread by sneezing or something.

I get that the term “virus” gets tossed around in mainstream publications the way everyone calls any tablet an iPad, but ZDNet is an industry-targeted site, and not really for general audiences. Using the term “malware” would be more correct.

Finally, is it true that it “can’t be removed”? Well, that’s a little hard to know, as Hudson, to my knowledge, didn’t actually attempt a removal, only stating that:

Since the public RSA key in the boot ROM is now one that we control, only updates that are signed by our private key can be used to update the firmware.

So, hypothetically, it wouldn’t be possible to update the firmware through software if the system were infected. A thorough software fix comes as part of OS X 10.10.2, and a hardware fix for infected computers — currently estimated at zero — would still be possible, though Kingsley-Hughes reports it in typically doomsday terms:

Fortunately, Hudson reports that Apple is working on an update that will prevent malicious code from being written to the Boot ROM via the Thunderbolt port. However, this update would not protect the system from having the Boot ROM tampered with directly.

If you have direct access to the boot ROM chip, you have direct access to everything. It’s a bit like pointing out the flaws of having locks on the doors of your house because you still have a wall that, when combined with a chainsaw, can be entered through.

However, if someone could rewrite the public RSA key on the chip, surely Apple could write it back, even if it requires in-store service.

There’s no doubt that Thunderstrike exposed a pretty serious vulnerability in the security of the Thunderbolt port. But Apple is rolling out a very thorough fix in 10.10.2 that even prevents an attacker from undoing the patches. This is clearly not being ignored, but hyperbolic and incendiary reporting doesn’t help anyone.

January 26, 2015

A Human Centipede of Public Relations

Though I’ve been hard on the Verge of late, they still do some killer reporting. Spencer Woodman:

On August 21st, 2014, Mayor Jere Wood of Roswell, Georgia, sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission expressing emphatic support for Comcast’s controversial effort to merge with Time Warner Cable. Not only did the mayor’s letter express personal excitement for the gargantuan deal — which critics say will create a monopoly that will harm millions of consumers — but it also claimed that the entire town of Roswell adored Comcast. “When Comcast makes a promise to act, it is comforting to know that they will always follow through,” Wood’s letter explained. “This is the type of attitude that makes Roswell proud to be involved with such a company,” the letter asserts, “our residents are happy with the services it has provided and continues to provide each day.”

Yet Wood’s letter made one key omission: Neither Wood nor anyone representing Roswell’s residents wrote his letter to the FCC. Instead, a vice president of external affairs at Comcast authored the missive word for word in Mayor Wood’s voice. According to email correspondence obtained through a public records request, the Republican mayor’s office apparently added one sign-off sentence and his signature to the corporate PR document, then sent it to federal regulators on the official letterhead of Roswell, Georgia.

And, as Woodman’s reporting reveals, at least two other public officials did something similar with Comcast on this issue alone. This reporting isn’t that shocking; lobbyists have long worked far too closely with public officials. But the blatant and indefensible nature of these emails is noteworthy.

In response to a list of questions from the Verge, Comcast emphasized that it did not have final say in the substance of the letters. “We reached out to policy makers, community leaders, business groups and others across the country to detail the public interest benefits of our transaction with Time Warner Cable,” Sena Fitzmaurice, a Comcast spokesperson, said in an email. “When such leaders indicate they’d like to support our transaction in public filings, we’ve provided them with information on the transaction. All filings are ultimately decided upon by the filers, not Comcast.”

Bullshit. Comcast wrote these letters in the voice of the public officials they’re targeting, under the presumption that the public officials will submit the letters largely unchanged to the FCC. These are not informational briefs, but fully-formed letters of support.

The public officials should be shamed for signing their names on these things — and, for what it’s worth, for supporting a Comcast/TWC merger — but Comcast isn’t anywhere close to innocent here.

January 25, 2015

Microsoft, Apple, and Disappointment

Gus Mueller:

Apple is your favorite aunt or uncle, who isn’t talking about crazy future ideas, but is instead showing you how to hold a pencil correctly, or a tie your shoe. Something you can do today. Apple isn’t flailing about trying to grab onto whatever it can so, yelling out for attention. Apple is solid, reliable, dependable.

And I think that is why we’re seeing so many people reacting to Apple’s software quality lately. You expect Microsoft not to deliver. But we expect Apple to. And lately, it really hasn’t felt like they’ve been doing it.

Well said.

Organ Banked

Michael Tsai:

The comments from Apple insiders underscore that there are many factors that affect software quality. It is not simply a matter of dropping the yearly schedule or of deciding to do “another Snow Leopard.” The development schedule and cycles matter. It also matters who the engineers and managers are, how they are treated, whether they are shuffled between projects, etc.

Precisely why I’m not in the “just do a Snow Yosemite release this year” camp, nor in the “delay software releases by several months” group. Apple needs to refine the features they already have, absolutely, but it cannot come at the cost of releasing zero new features this year either. The annual release cycle is impressive, and it can work for them if everything else is in order. Much of Apple’s quality issues appear to be a byproduct of much greater forces.

January 23, 2015

Fear China

Craig Hockenberry:

The number of requests [to the Iconfactory’s main server] peaked out at 52 Mbps. Let’s put that number in perspective: Daring Fireball is notorious for taking down sites by sending them about 500 Kbps of traffic. What we had just experienced was roughly the equivalent of 100 fireballs.

If each of those requests were 500 bytes, that’s 13,000 requests per second. That’s about a third of Google’s global search traffic. Look at how much careful planning went into handling Kim Kardashian’s butt at 8,000 requests per second.

All of this traffic directed at one IP address backed by a single server with a four core CPU.

Like I said, “Holy shit.”

On a scale of One to Deep Wedgie, this ranks pretty high on the nerdy scale, but it’s a real “holy shit” kind of story. I’ve had to block a couple of IP addresses for DDoS attempts, but I’ve never seen anything like this. Madness.

January 22, 2015

Marissa Mayer’s Plan for Yahoo Takes Hold

You know that scene at the beginning of “Goldeneye”, where Bond leaps off the cliff to chase the rapidly-plummeting plane, manages to get into the cockpit, and jostles the stick just in time for the nose to come up over the mountain?

Mayer’s job is a bit like that.

Large-Capacity Hard Drive Failure Rates

As Backblaze has thousands of very high-capacity hard drives running all the time, they’re in a unique position to analyze the failure rates of popular models. No surprises that Seagate lives up to their abysmal reputation here, though I was a little surprised to see a somewhat poor showing from Western Digital. Pretty much all of my dozen-or-so spinning hard drives are from WD and I haven’t had a single failure in as much as eight years. Unlike Backblaze, though, I’m not running them full-time, my sample size is comparatively tiny, and they’re not the recent ultra-high-capacity models (my biggest is a 2TB “Green” model).

The Difference Between Microsoft and Apple

Shorter Dan Frommer: Apple tends to make stuff that people actually buy, use, and love. Microsoft makes crazy bets in loads of sectors, only some of which pan out. Frommer:

[The HoloLens] looks technically impressive, and Microsoft’s demo went about as smoothly as something like this could have. This could become a big deal someday.

But it’s hard to get over how strange someone looks using it. And it’s hard to imagine Apple doing something like this any time soon, whether or not it’s the future of computing.

Given how huge and dorky these goggles are, it seems as though Microsoft intends this to be something used in private, likely when doing specialized tasks. They may have a really crap sense of fashion — just look at the big feature image in the linked article — but I don’t think they’re completely oblivious.

BlackBerry Has Gone Bananas

BlackBerry CEO John Chen (emphasis, including underlines, removed, because who the hell uses underlines to emphasize words on the internet?):

Unfortunately, not all content and applications providers have embraced openness and neutrality. Unlike BlackBerry, which allows iPhone users to download and use our BBM service, Apple does not allow BlackBerry or Android users to download Apple’s iMessage messaging service. Netflix, which has forcefully advocated for carrier neutrality, has discriminated against BlackBerry customers by refusing to make its streaming movie service available to them. Many other applications providers similarly offer service only to iPhone and Android users. This dynamic has created a two-tiered wireless broadband ecosystem, in which iPhone and Android users are able to access far more content and applications than customers using devices running other operating systems. These are precisely the sort of discriminatory practices that neutrality advocates have criticized at the carrier level.

Therefore, neutrality must be mandated at the application and content layer if we truly want a free, open and non-discriminatory internet. All wireless broadband customers must have the ability to access any lawful applications and content they choose, and applications/content providers must be prohibited from discriminating based on the customer’s mobile operating system.

I mean, this is just completely insane. The difference between apps being available on all platforms and the neutrality of all internet traffic is obvious to any of you, I’m sure. Much in the same way Apple shouldn’t have to make iTunes songs with DRM playable on every device in the known universe, developers shouldn’t be forced to spend months rewriting their apps for an OS that very few people use. BlackBerry didn’t take the iPhone seriously, then they fell behind. This is just an attempt to confuse the issue.

January 21, 2015

Other Stuff From Microsoft Today

Microsoft didn’t just unveil a slightly hyperbolic version of the future today. They also unveiled a big-ass wall-mounted table. Er, a “Surface Hub”. Emil Protalinski, VentureBeat:

In fact, Surface Hub can take content from any device in the room (think of it as a projector) and then share it again to your conference call. This will be the device’s main use: A meeting mode lets users conduct presentations and send them to users that are dialed in from conference rooms or their personal computers.

“It will make your meetings productive and engaging,” Microsoft declared. This is not the first time a company has declared that, and it’s unlikely to be the last.

Nobody likes meetings. Nobody likes them even if they have a gigantic dynamic whiteboard to stare at. Seriously, why is Microsoft obsessed with whiteboards?

Bigger news than that was the pricing for Windows 10: free, in a very Microsoftian kinda way. Jordan Novet, VentureBeat:

“I’m very excited to announce that for the first year after Windows 10 is available, we will be making available a free upgrade to Windows 10 to all devices running Windows 8.1,” said Terry Myerson, executive vice president of Microsoft’s Operating Systems group, kicking off a series of news announcements at a press event.

A free Windows 10 upgrade is coming to all devices running Windows Phone 8.1. And for the first year after Windows 10 is available, Microsoft will provide a free upgrade to all customers still running Windows 7, Myerson said.

I might be incredibly stupid, but this sounds way more complicated than it needs to be. Why is it only free for a year? Why not just make it, well, free, at least as an update? Why did a gigantic metaphorical asterisk appear over Myerson’s head when he said this at the launch event?

Microsoft HoloLens

Jessi Hempel of Wired got a sneak peek back in October at what is — by a gigantic margin — the coolest and most interesting piece of technology Microsoft unveiled at their big Windows 10 event today:

[Alex] Kipman leads me into a briefing room with a drop-down screen, plush couches, and a corner bar stocked with wine and soda (we abstain). He sits beside me, then stands, paces a bit, then sits down again. His wind-up is long. He gives me an abbreviated history of computing, speaking in complete paragraphs, with bushy, expressive eyebrows and saucer eyes that expand as he talks. The next era of computing, he explains, won’t be about that original digital universe. “It’s about the analog universe,” he says. “And the analog universe has a fundamentally different rule set.”

Translation: you used to compute on a screen, entering commands on a keyboard. Cyberspace was somewhere else. Computers responded to programs that detailed explicit commands. In the very near future, you’ll compute in the physical world, using voice and gesture to summon data and layer it atop physical objects. Computer programs will be able to digest so much data that they’ll be able to handle far more complex and nuanced situations. Cyberspace will be all around you.

What will this look like? Well, holograms.

This sounds incredible, in the most literal sense — I could scarcely believe this was actually being launched. To be sure, the promo video exaggerates the quality of the holograms, but the live demo during today’s event looked impressive. And it would be, because Kipman was also responsible for the Xbox Kinect.

Of course there were some things not announced today: battery life, a price, or a launch date. I’m also skeptical of how much I’ll tolerate a speech-and-gesture-driven interface if it isn’t nearly perfect. But let’s enjoy this moment. It feels like I’m ten years from now, and that’s crazy.

January 20, 2015

You Want Me to Whine and Complain?

I’ve heard you. I’ve touched on Apple’s apparently declining quality controls, and I’ve heard your feedback. Some of you agree with me; others think Apple’s software is markedly worse these days. And you might be right. Jeffrey Zeldman:

First came software failure: Apple applications such as Safari quit on launch; the machine could not find the network. Then came kernel panics. (This is where the machine reboots into a black and white Unix screen, spitting out Matrix-like error messages. To exit, you must type the appropriate Unix commands, which implies that you know what they are.) Finally, the machine would not boot, period.

Jeez, that sounds terrible.

John Gruber adds:

[T]he fact that something went wrong for Mr. Zeldman [is not] an indication that Apple “doesn’t test” their updaters, or that they have rampant QA problems.

Bugs happen. Some will slip through even the tightest QA tests. It has always been the case, and always will be, that every upgrade of your OS ought to be preceded by a full backup.

Agreed, but this sounds pretty serious. Zeldman again:

But I wonder if Apple has lost sight of the non-Unix-oriented creative professionals whose loyalty supported the company through its hardest times. There are many of us. We admire what Apple designs, we remain committed to the platform, and we want the company to succeed. But a simple OS upgrade should not fail, should not induce panic, and should not waste three days of a user’s life.

Wait, “non-Unix-oriented creative professionals”? It’s 2015 — who writes like that?

Friday, 23 April 2004

Oh.

[Zeldman’s] report detailing the entire experience is exquisitely detailed, and well worth reading — even if you, just like me and the vast majority of Panther users, upgraded to Panther without a hitch.

Panther. Huh.

The Verge Has a Super Bowl Ad

Apparently, Vox Media decided to drop around $4.5 million to promote the Verge during the Super Bowl because the ad leaked in a since-retracted post from Nilay Patel. Google has it cached, and the video is still on YouTube, if you’re interested.

It’s an ad about the Future-with-a-capital-F in which we are living, surrounded by technology, especially our smartphones. From some angles, it’s an oddly dystopic kind of mission statement. From others, it’s just reality. I’m just amazed that Vox Media had $4.5 million to blow on a Super Bowl ad.

Update: Cute:

The Verge, a technology website owned by the online media company Vox, said on Tuesday that it would be airing a Super Bowl advertisement, before revealing that it would in fact be spending just $700 on a regional spot in Helena, Mont.

Also cute is Nilay Patel’s reaction:

Also @VergeVideo is pretty miffed that people thought that ad is up to their standards; we made it ultra silly and generic on purpose.

Here’s the thing: I don’t know whether this is an elaborate troll or rapid backpedalling. The Verge isn’t even close to being classy enough not to run something like this; it’s not like the New Yorker putting out something crappy and generic. The fact that a lot of people — myself included — could conceivably believe this says a lot more about what the Verge churns out than it does about the public’s gullibility.

John Moltz Bought a PC

He hasn’t lost it completely; it’s for his son. And it sounds like a continuation of the nightmare buying a PC has always been. Moltz:

What I don’t understand is why there’s no PC OEM that takes the user experience as seriously as Apple does. Why isn’t there one with a rationalized product lineup, aimed at a broad swath of customers (Razer’s is rationalized, but only focuses on high-end gaming), that all come with a clean Windows install? OK, I’m not a great businessman, but if I were in the PC OEM business what I’d copy about Apple is not the silver body and black keys but the giving a darn about the user experience. Yes, you’ll never get Microsoft out of the mix, but that’s no excuse for junking up everything else.

From start to finish, Moltz’s experience sounds depressing, but virtually unchanged from how it has been for the past couple of decades. Most manufacturers’ lineups are a dizzying array of letters and numbers, or meaningless names that defy categorization. Then they junk up the computer with all kinds of trial- and crapware, plaster it with stickers, and treat it like a disposable good rather than the investment that it is. I suppose the amount of trialware pays for the steep advertised discounts,1 but it shows a deep-seated disrespect for the customer to prioritize pre-installed advertisements over user experience.


  1. I question the legitimacy of these discounts. 

Audio Hijack 3

This looks really impressive. The interface, in particular, is brilliant; it reminds me of Max or Pure Data, but without the complexity that comes with either.

January 19, 2015

What the Web Said Yesterday

Jill Lepore, writing for the New Yorker:

The address of the Internet Archive is archive.org, but another way to visit is to take a plane to San Francisco and ride in a cab to the Presidio, past cypresses that look as though someone had drawn them there with a smudgy crayon. At 300 Funston Avenue, climb a set of stone steps and knock on the brass door of a Greek Revival temple. You can’t miss it: it’s painted wedding-cake white and it’s got, out front, eight Corinthian columns and six marble urns.

“We bought it because it matched our logo,” Brewster Kahle told me when I met him there, and he wasn’t kidding.

Apple Pay Enrolment Trends

Neil Cybart:

Running with a conservative estimate of the percent of Apple Pay users Bank of America (50M total banking customers) represents, Apple Pay enrollment rates in the U.S. would stand at 8%. If using aggressive metrics, Apple Pay enrollment would be 16%. I estimate 10-15% of iPhone 6 and 6 Plus owners in the U.S. have registered with Apple Pay.

It’s only been about three months since Apple Pay was released with iOS 8.1. I’m guessing some pretty gigantic usage numbers are coming with Apple’s Q1 2015 earnings release.

Something Slightly Less Terrible

Loren Brichter was interviewed by objc.io magazine. He is, as usual, chock full of insight and brilliance. On the greater goals of building stuff:

Personally, I’m tired of the trivial app stuff, and the App Store isn’t conducive to anything more interesting. I think the next big thing in software will happen outside of it.

And on the actual process:

Remember that nothing is magic. Even though it seems like you’re working at the top of a stack of impenetrable abstractions, they’re made by people (who were probably rushed, or drunk, or both). Learn how they work, then figure out how to minimize your dependence on them.

Wonderful.

January 16, 2015

The Siri Standard

Daniel Jalkut:

I don’t doubt that the groups at Apple responsible for [other] technologies are comprised of individuals striving to improve things as quickly as possible. It’s hard to say how much the impression of slow progress is due to internal challenges we don’t know about, Apple’s lack of knowledge about the breadth of defects, or the public’s perception being skewed by severity of the impact from problems that persist.

Whatever combination of luck, hard work, and pragmatism is powering the Siri team’s “year of good work,” perhaps it should serve as a model, or at least as a symbol of hope for these teams as they move forward adding features, fixing bugs, and finessing the public’s perception of the value of their work. A world in which every group at Apple somehow achieved the standard of apparent progress that Siri has achieved would be a very good world indeed.

It’s a beacon of hope for me, at least. If Siri can get from where it was to where it is now, anything can.

Nobody Likes David Cameron’s Plan to Decrypt the Internet

Not even the NSA, at least in 2009. James Ball, of the Guardian:

Part of the cache given to the Guardian by Snowden was published in 2009 and gives a five-year forecast on the “global cyber threat to the US information infrastructure”. It covers communications, commercial and financial networks, and government and critical infrastructure systems. It was shared with GCHQ and made available to the agency’s staff through its intranet.

One of the biggest issues in protecting businesses and citizens from espionage, sabotage and crime – hacking attacks are estimated to cost the global economy up to $400bn a year – was a clear imbalance between the development of offensive versus defensive capabilities, “due to the slower than expected adoption … of encryption and other technologies”, it said.

An unclassified table accompanying the report states that encryption is the “[b]est defense to protect data”, especially if made particularly strong through “multi-factor authentication” – similar to two-step verification used by Google and others for email – or biometrics.

While Cameron’s position might be politically advantageous, it’s impossible to create encryption that can only be broken by Good Guys™.

January 15, 2015

Google Glass’ Current Form Is Dead

The BBC:1

[Google] insists it is still committed to launching the smart glasses as a consumer product, but will stop producing Glass in its present form.

Instead it will focus on “future versions of Glass” with work carried out by a different division to before.

The Explorer programme, which gave software developers the chance to buy Glass for $1,500 (£990) will close.

[…]

The Glass team can at least continue its work out of the spotlight without the pressure of deadlines. Tony Fadell, the former Apple designer Google acquired with his smart thermostat firm Nest, will oversee the future of the product.

I’m not sure how this is anything but an admittance that wearing a camera and a screen on your face has a very small potential audience, at least in this form. I think Glass would be an order of magnitude less repulsive if the camera were removed.


  1. No paragraph in this article is longer than two sentences. 

January 14, 2015

Apple May Shun Intel for Custom A-Series Chips in New Macs

KGI Securities’ Ming-Chi Kuo is, like, ridiculously well-connected. Even though he’s an analyst, when he speaks, I listen a little closer, especially for intriguing reports like this one:

In a new report released Wednesday, a copy of which was obtained by AppleInsider, well-connected analyst Kuo suggests that Apple’s in-house chips will reach a level of performance somewhere between Intel’s Atom and Core i3 lines within the next 1-2 years. Removing Intel from the equation would allow Apple to better control the launch timing of the Mac line, he believes.

Kuo predicts that the iPad and Mac will share the AyX line of chips. But his report is kinda weird: he’s also predicting that the A9 SoC will use a 10nm process, but the A10 will use a 16nm process, which seems like a regression to me. It’s entirely speculative, of course, but not out of the realm of reality, especially for, say, a hypothetical low-power ultra-portable fanless MacBook Air.

January 13, 2015

Apple Maps, Revisited

While Apple’s software quality may not be degrading at the rate you might expect, it’s also not necessarily improving at the rate that it needs to. Case in point: Apple Maps.

Is it better than it was? Yeah, absolutely.

Is it good enough? Hell no.

Take my search for “wine market” as an example. I live approximately 15 minutes’ walking distance from Kensington Wine Market in Calgary. However, Apple Maps’ search results don’t reflect my current location, and suggest wine markets in Baltimore and Memphis.

I know this stuff must be hard, but taking a user’s current location into account for search results isn’t exactly stretching the imagination.

Apple’s Software Quality

I’ve been thinking about this a little more and it strikes me that many of the different reactions to Marco Arment’s “Losing the Functional High Ground” piece can be simultaneously true. I’m not certain that Apple’s software quality is universally getting worse; far from it, I think it is, in many cases, getting better. But I think the impression is much stronger because vastly more people are using it.

Consider the catastrophically stupid iTunes 2 update bug that permanently erased non-primary drives, or the general slowness of early versions of OS X. Then consider the number of Mac users that existed at the time, and the fact that upgrading Mac OS X required you to visit a physical store — bricks not bits — and exchange a hundred and twenty-nine of your hard-earned dollars for a physical disc which you must then take home, pop into your computer, and spend an hour waiting for it to install.

Apple’s been making all kinds of strides in trying to get people using the latest versions of the software they make and distribute. iOS has automatic updates for apps; OS X has automatic and free updates for everything from apps to the entire system, excluding major (x.0) OS updates.

Add that to a vastly larger install base of hundreds of millions of iPhones, iPads, iPods, and Macs, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a controversy. It’s not necessarily that the bugs are getting worse or profusely dumber; rather, that more people are experiencing those bugs. Having such a large install base requires an elevated level of diligence.

So many of these reactions are simultaneously true. Yes, there are extremely stupid bugs and regressions littered throughout Apple’s software products. Yes, there’s the impression of a downward slide in quality assurance. And, yes, there have previously been really stupid bugs and regressions. I think Apple is cognizant of the fact that their software quality needs to improve faster than they gain new users; if it’s slower, it feels significantly worse than it really is.

Radio Isn’t Dead

What I find most fascinating about this survey is just how popular radio-style music services are. Of the ten most popular services, just four allow the user to specifically select what they’d like to listen to; the remainder are largely pre-decided, with minimal user input. Even though some reports pegged iTunes Radio as a miss, this strategy seems to be working. Even though “Apple engineers involved with [iTunes] often preferred to use Spotify and Pandora”, it seems that loads of people use iTunes Radio regularly.

January 12, 2015

British Prime Minister Pledges to Ban Encrypted Messaging Services

Rich Trenholm, CNet:

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to tighten laws surrounding the encryption of electronic communication, potentially targeting services such as WhatsApp, Snapchat or Apple Messages. He asked Monday whether we should “allow safe spaces for (terrorists) to talk to each other.”

Cameron was discussing security measures in the wake of events in Paris last week, where gunmen attacked the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people. In the interest of disrupting communications between terrorists, Cameron pledged that if re-elected in this year’s general election, he intends to ban encryption that cannot be read by security services.

(Emphasis mine.) We don’t allow safe spaces for terrorists to talk to each other; we allow safe spaces for everyone and anyone to talk to each other.

What happened in Paris was absolutely tragic; there is no question about it. But it simply wasn’t the case that a lack of intelligence was what allowed these attacks to happen. There was loads of intelligence available, according to Steven Erlanger and Jim Yardley of the New York Times:

“These guys were known to be bad, and the French had tabs on them for a while,” said the American official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid complicating a delicate intelligence matter. “At some point, though, they allocated resources differently. They moved on to other targets.”

[…]

“The problem we face is that even though there are not that many radicalized Muslims in France, there are enough of them to make it difficult to physically follow everyone with a suspicious background,” said Camille Grand, a former French official and director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, an independent Paris group.

“It’s one thing to listen to the phone calls or watch their travel, but it’s another to put someone under permanent physical surveillance, or even follow all their phone conversations full time for so many people,” he added.

Then there’s the outrageousness of Cameron’s statement, flying in the face of all that we hold dear in a free and just society. Glenn Fleishman:

I just love how politicians pretend privacy is not a fundamental human right when they claw so hard to protect their own.

From the “Too Much Encryption Will Kill Apple in India” File

Remember how too much encryption killed BlackBerry, according to the NSA’s general counsel? And how that would mean Apple would be totally slaughtered in countries like, say, India? Writankar Mukherjee, of the Economic Times:

Preliminary estimates suggest Apple sold half a million iPhones in the October-December period in India, said Tarun Pathak, senior analyst at market research company Counterpoint Research.

The sales number is corroborated by two leading trade partners of Apple in India. That figure compares with one million iPhones sold in India in the year to September 2014.

Apple doubled their sales rate in India. Positively slaughtered.

January 11, 2015

The Software and Services Apple Needs to Fix

Glenn Fleishman, writing on his Glog:1

Part of what makes these sorts of statements reasonable, though, is to enumerate the problems, whether they’re long-running or unique to Yosemite or iOS 8 or to the last two releases of each system. Here’s a list of regularly recurring issues or fundamental problems I’ve seen supplemented by those provided by others.

Any time I find an article with “Apple Needs” in the title, I immediately begin to doubt it. There’s something inherently obnoxious about anyone telling one of the world’s largest companies what it “needs” to fix, largely because such articles are often proved not just a little wrong, but 180° wrong.

But I agree with so much in this list. The fact that many of the software issues can be enumerated in a single post gives the impression that there really aren’t that many, but closer inspection reveals that so many of these problems are rudimentary. Frequent and serious WiFi connectivity issues, for example, are completely unacceptable in an era when Apple has removed an ethernet connection from most of its notebooks.


  1. I chuckle to myself every time I remember that a guy named Glenn has a blog named Glog. Glog is just a funny word, like “spatula” or “piazza”. 

Minimum iOS App Store Prices Rise Internationally

AppleInsider:

As a result of the changes, the minimum app price in Canada is now $1.19, £0.79 in the U.K., and €0.99 in the E.U. Similar increases are expected in Norway and Russia, while prices are set to see a decrease in Iceland.

Think these prices will go back down when the US dollar gets weaker, or the other currencies get stronger?

Eight Years Ago, Apple Introduced an “Innovative Cellphone”

Remember how shortsighted those articles seem from when the World Wide Web was invented? Those kinds of articles are always funny in hindsight. John Markoff’s reporting for the Times is chock full of great quotes, like this:

[Jobs] said Apple had set the goal of taking 1 percent of the world market for cellphones by the end of 2008. That may seem small, but with a billion handsets sold last year worldwide, that would mean 10 million iPhones — a healthy supplement to the 39 million iPods that Apple sold last year.

And this:

“At $499 and $599, it’s a pretty expensive deal,” said Rob Glaser, chief executive of Real Networks, whose online music store is a rival of Apple’s iTunes Store. “Steve is more focused on not cannibalizing iPod sales than on driving volume of phones. Those are not high-volume prices.”

It’s pretty easy to gloat about articles like these with the benefit of hindsight, but it was also pretty easy to know at the time that the iPhone was the future of cellphones. Everyone I know watched the presentation at the time realizing that they were watching the unveiling of the perfect convergence device that every other company on the planet would strive to copy. It was truly one of those rare keynotes where everyone was completely surprised.

January 8, 2015

Je Suis Charlie

The bittersweet result of this week’s tragedy in Paris is the amount of moving and truly beautiful art that has come out of it. It doesn’t soften the viciousness and cowardice of the attacks, but it demonstrates a solidarity with those killed and those affected.

Back to Basics

Jason Snell:

The MacBook Air is now a comfortable, mainstream product that even power users can adopt as their primary system. (Until I bought my iMac, it was my primary machine at home and work for a couple of years.) That’s great, but it’s also a sign that feature creep has been a-creepin’.

Does Apple feel the current MacBook Airs are truly representative of the MacBook Air name? Has the MacBook Pro’s role as the go-to laptop for portable professionals been usurped by the Air?

Glad I’m not the only one who feels this way.

The Monopolist

Three posts on a common theme, but otherwise unrelated. First, Horace Dediu:

Great companies are “monopolists of customer trust” and are unaffected by alternatives. They are positioned on and nailing the job their products and services are hired for. The alternatives must not only duplicate the exact job (which they almost never do), but they must also overcome the switching costs.

Remember this when analyzing the impact of yet another competitor and considering the “Apple must fix/do X or else” assertions.

Ken Segall:

[Steve Jobs] believed that a company’s brand works like a bank account. When the company does good things, such as launch a hit product or a great campaign, it makes deposits in the brand bank. When a company experiences setbacks, like an embarrassing mouse or an overpriced computer, it’s making a withdrawal. When there’s a healthy balance in the brand bank, customers are more willing to ride out the tough times. With a low balance, they might be more tempted to cut and run.

Steve went on record many times about the importance of building a strong Apple brand. And he benefited from having a high balance in the brand bank many times. One of the most negative stories in recent years was the now-famous “Antennagate” controversy. When iPhone 4 was launched, Apple was battered by journalists and influential bloggers over what was perceived to be a flawed antenna design. Despite the heavily negative press and ridiculing by late-night TV hosts, Apple’s customers remained true. Now that episode is remembered only as an example of overreaction, with virtually no long-term impact.

Craig Hockenberry:

Apple is a manufacturing powerhouse: the scale of your company’s production line is an amazing accomplishment. Unfortunately, software development is still a craft: one that takes time and effort to achieve the fit and finish your customers expect.

Apple would never ship a device that was missing a few screws. But that’s exactly what’s happening right now with your software products.

January 7, 2015

At CES, Plenty of Snake Oil to Go Around

Tyler Hayes, Fast Company:

From the outside looking in, the state of the music industry is tough to figure out. Streaming music was up 54% last year, but so were sales of the decades-old vinyl format. At the CES gadget extravaganza this week in Las Vegas, wireless products have been abundant—Google even announced a new wireless streaming initiative for connected speakers called Cast for Audio—but hardware makers also appear to be doubling down on high-end audio gear. The kind of equipment that’s typically meant for those with supersonic hearing, not average consumers.

Setting aside the woefully incorrect use of the word “supersonic” here, nobody has hearing good enough to notice the difference between a CD-quality file and whatever Pono is selling. Hell, most people can’t tell the difference between a mediocre quality MP3 and what’s on a CD. Hayes is just writing up the marketing package here.

If the trend in the music industry has been for people to stop paying for music, then the companies selling audio products are going to start targeting the outliers who still want to savor music that sounds like it just dripped from the musicians’ instruments. And if companies like Samsung, Sony, and Panasonic can make high-end audio equipment cool in the process, maybe more people will get serious about music.

I’m someone who still pays for music. I’m serious about music. This sort of stuff makes me feel like I’m getting ripped off, not like it’s “dripping from the musicians’ instruments”. Nobody gets serious about music by buying expensive audio gear. At that point, they’re not listening to the music — they’re just listening to the gear.

PonoPlayer Available Next Week; PonoMusic Store Live Now

My favourite dead horse is alive and well, so it seems. The PonoPlayer will be available next week for $400 — a steal when you compare it to Sony’s ludicrous $1,200 Walkman. But the PonoMusic Store is live now, so I thought I’d go take a look.

On the homepage, I noticed that they were featuring Foo Fighters’ “Sonic Highways”, which is one of the worst-mastered albums I’ve heard all year. Though it may be a reasonably high-quality 44.1 kHz, 24 bit version, I bet it still sounds just as brickwalled as the iTunes version. So I added “Something From Nothing” to my cart.

And that got me thinking: I wonder if one of the worst-mastered albums in history is on Pono. Surely I couldn’t find something that sounds as bad as the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ “Californication” on an audiophile music store. But, much to my surprise, it’s there. I added this to my cart, too — the full album, because you can’t, for some reason, buy individual songs for this album.

Then I went to check out, and started filling in my billing information. And it was only at this point that I found out that PonoMusic is only available in the United States right now, which is odd, because Neil Young, one of the guys behind Pono, is Canadian.

I wasn’t able to find out first-hand whether the version of “Californication” on Pono uses the same awful-sounding master as every other version of it, including the vinyl. Happily, by the time I tried to buy the album, some others already did and shared their thoughts. Justin Denman:

Okay, I’m the guinea pig for you all. I purchased Californication. IT’S BRICKWALLED to the max. The 96kHz/24bit is useless, and I feel ripped off. It’s very frustrating, but hopefully I’ll save everyone else some money by sharing.

Gross.

“Let Us Pause to Honor the Disrupted”

Leon Wieseltier, writing for the New York Times:

Amid the bacchanal of disruption, let us pause to honor the disrupted. The streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of bookstores and record stores, which have been destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry. Writers hover between a decent poverty and an indecent one; they are expected to render the fruits of their labors for little and even for nothing, and all the miracles of electronic dissemination somehow do not suffice for compensation, either of the fiscal or the spiritual kind.

This is so good. Wieseltier, continued:

Meanwhile the discussion of culture is being steadily absorbed into the discussion of business. There are “metrics” for phenomena that cannot be metrically measured. Numerical values are assigned to things that cannot be captured by numbers. Economic concepts go rampaging through noneconomic realms: Economists are our experts on happiness! Where wisdom once was, quantification will now be. Quantification is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary American understanding of, well, everything. It is enabled by the idolatry of data, which has itself been enabled by the almost unimaginable data-generating capabilities of the new technology.

USB Type-C Hands-On

Key to that rumoured 12-inch MacBook Air is the USB “Type-C” connector. Dong Ngo, CNet:

To quickly recap, apart from the fact that with Type-C there’s no need to worry about which side of the cable to plug in (it works either side up), it also packs the USB 3.1 standard, which comes with a top speed of 10Gbps, twice the current speed of USB 3.0.

It also includes support for displays and much higher-wattage power, which means that someday you will be able to plug one cable into your laptop to charge it and connect it to your big, desktop display. But, while 10 Gbps is no slouch, it’s just half the speed of a Thunderbolt connection, which is 10 Gbps in both directions simultaneously, or 20 Gbps with Thunderbolt 2. That kind of bandwidth can be largely eaten up by using a high-resolution display1 and a backup hard drive.

But USB Type-C has a couple of advantages over Thunderbolt. First, it’s reversible, like any good connector.2 Second, it’s actually going to be adopted on a much more mainstream basis, and compatible peripherals should be less expensive and more plentiful.


  1. My Thunderbolt Display, for example, is 2,560 x 1,440 pixels, each with three subpixels at eight bits of depth, at 60 Hz, for a total bandwidth requirement of approximately 5.3 Gbps. 

  2. However, I maintain that the best connector type is a circular one with its pins on the outside, like a standard headphone connector. 

The 12-Inch MacBook Air

What a scoop for Mark Gurman — who else could it be? — at 9to5Mac:

Apple is preparing an all-new MacBook Air for 2015 with a radically new design that jettisons standards such as full-sized USB ports, MagSafe connectors, and SD card slots in favor of a markedly thinner and lighter body with a higher-resolution display.

If this scoop is true, it’s yet another example of Gurman’s incredibly high level of sources inside Apple. Impressive.

There’s one word conspicuously absent from Gurman’s reporting, though: “Retina”. He does mention a higher-resolution display and the post is tagged with “Retina Display”, but he doesn’t say either way whether this is the Retina MacBook Air.

It makes sense either way, too. Perhaps in favour of this being a non-Retina product, this part of Gurman’s report:

The upcoming 12-inch Air has the fewest amount of ports ever on an Apple computer, as can be seen in the rendition above. On the right side is a standard headphone jack and dual-microphones for input and noise-canceling. On the left side is solely the new USB Type-C port. Yes, Apple is currently planning to ditch standard USB ports, the SD Card slot, and even its Thunderbolt and MagSafe charging standards on this new notebook. We must note that Apple tests several designs of upcoming products, so Apple may choose to ultimately release a new Air that does include the legacy components, though there is very little space on the edges for them.

Why would Apple drop so many ports and connectors from the Air, especially something as useful and distinctively “Apple” as MagSafe? Power. Each port draws a little bit of power, so reducing the number of ports should reduce power consumption. So, too, should using Intel’s Broadwell chipset at a low clock speed, and removing the fans. A Retina display might be incompatible with this vision of low-power, impossibly-long-lasting computing.

This reminds me of the original MacBook Air, from 2008. It had just four ports: MagSafe, micro DVI, USB, and headphone. For comparison, the MacBook Pro of the time had at least seven ports, if you count the ExpressCard slot as one. Today’s MacBook Air has five ports on the 11-inch model, and adds an SD card reader on the 13-inch. Perhaps this is merely a way of realigning the Air with its original core premise.

In 2010, Apple promised that, one day, all notebooks would be like the Air. Now, the Air is the “default” MacBook, and it’s hard for a lot of people to see why they’d pay the extra money for a Retina MacBook Pro. Apple has almost never competed on price, but on actual feature differentiation. As their notebook lineup looks increasingly like a bunch of different MacBook Air models, maybe this is an opportunity for them to differentiate the lineup.

On the other hand, maybe this product is the culmination of a bunch of different rumours. Maybe this is the 12-inch Retina MacBook Air and the long-rumoured ARM-powered MacBook. Which makes it kind of like that rumoured “iPad Pro”, except this entire report clearly describes a MacBook, not an iPad.

Of course, this is all based on speculation and rumours. But it’s from Gurman, and he’s kind of a clairvoyant.

January 6, 2015

Under Fire

Harry McCrackenAustin Carr1 wrote a huge story on the development and aftermath of Amazon’s Fire Phone for Fast Company, and it’s simultaneously scintillating and scathing:

[Jeff] Bezos didn’t want a me-too device, and the margins a low-cost phone could garner would be minimal, even if it did manage to stand out in an ocean of cheap devices. The only solution, some inside the organization argued, was to differentiate the hardware enough to justify a higher price point and hope to go after some of Apple’s profits. But Apple is a ferocious competitor as well, whose dominance in high-end products was made possible by decades of rigorous R&D, a world-class design team, and its unrivaled approach to hardware and software. The idea that Amazon, a neophyte hardware maker whose CEO has shown no special affinity for design, could successfully attack Apple might seem quixotic.

Even a word like “quixotic” might be an understatement for a company like Amazon trying to go after Apple’s high price point. Samsung was able to do it because they didn’t really have a household brand image pre-Galaxy.2 You didn’t really think of Samsung; they were just a supplier. Samsung could be Brand X, for all it’s worth. So when they came along with a smartphone that looked kind of like an iPhone on carriers that didn’t offer the iPhone, that looked like a pretty good proposition, even at a similar high price point.

Amazon, on the other hand, does have a definite brand image: they’re the place you go to buy low-cost products. Apple is seen as an affordable luxury brand with exemplary taste and premium quality. And Jeff Bezos doesn’t exactly have great taste:

Bezos drove the team hard on one particular feature: Dynamic Perspective, the 3-D effects engine that is perhaps most representative of what went wrong with the Fire Phone. Dynamic Perspective presented the team with a challenge: Create a 3-D display that requires no glasses and is visible from multiple angles. The key would be facial recognition, which would allow the phone’s cameras to track a user’s gaze and adjust the 3-D effect accordingly. After a first set of leaders assigned to the project failed to deliver, their replacements went on a hiring spree. One team even set up a room that they essentially turned into a costume store, filling it with wigs, sunglasses, fake moustaches, and earrings that they donned for the cameras in order to improve facial recognition. “I want this feature,” Bezos said, telling the team he didn’t care how long it took or how much it cost. Eventually, a solution was discovered: Four cameras had to be mounted at the corners of the phone, each capable of identifying facial features, whether in total darkness or obscured by sunglasses. But adding that to the phone created a serious battery drain.

And team members simply could not imagine truly useful applications for Dynamic Perspective. As far as anyone could tell, Bezos was in search of the Fire Phone’s version of Siri, a signature feature that could make the device a blockbuster. But what was the point, they wondered, beyond some fun gaming interactions and flashy 3-D lock screens. “In meetings, all Jeff talked about was, ‘3-D, 3-D, 3-D!’ He had this childlike excitement about the feature and no one could understand why,” recalls a former engineering head who worked solely on Dynamic Perspective for years. “We poured surreal amounts of money into it, yet we all thought it had no value for the customer, which was the biggest irony. Whenever anyone asked why we were doing this, the answer was, ‘Because Jeff wants it.’ No one thought the feature justified the cost to the project. No one. Absolutely no one.”

Oh, how right they were.

Update: Corrected byline reference to Austin Carr per this tweet.


  1. Or Austin Carr. The main byline is attributed to Carr, but there’s a little one next to the main body text that suggests McCracken wrote this piece. 

  2. I’d argue that they still don’t, really, but that’s just a guess. 

January 5, 2015

Balancing the Functional High Ground

Federico Viticci, MacStories:

We’re in 2015, and things have changed. I tried to imagine the reaction to Craig Federighi pointing to a big iOS 8 slide boldly stating “No New Features”, and it wouldn’t be pleasant. I guess the mainstream media would be claiming that “Apple has lost its mojo”; developers would be upset for the lack of new functionalities and APIs to build new apps for. Six years after Snow Leopard, I don’t think “normal people” would respond well to a bug-fixes-only iOS release either.

Agreed entirely. Apple has, in two years, dramatically overhauled both iOS and OS X, and the pace at which they’ve moved really shows. Apple can’t take this year off, but they could ensure that some of the longstanding and critical bugs (WiFi connectivity in Yosemite, for instance) on both platforms are addressed while also releasing new features. It’s going to be a big year for them.

TapSense Attempts to Sour the Apple Watch

Ash Kumar of TapSense:

Continuing its lead in wearables, TapSense, a leading mobile ad exchange, today announced the industry’s first programmatic ad platform for Apple Watch. The platform provides full suite of solutions for developers and brands to get started on the new Apple Watch platform including SDK for app developers and programmatic APIs for brands, agencies, and marketers.

Gross.

What’s really dumb is how this news is being spun by the usual suspects as “Apple Watch Will Deliver ‘Hyper-Local’ Ads On Your Wrist”, for example, when it is, in fact, a third party offering an platform by which some crappy apps will put ads on your Apple Watch, which was obviously and unfortunately going to happen. There will, of course, also be developers who respect their users.

The State of Panic, 2014

Not just any state of panic, but the state of Panic-with-a-capital-P. Sounds like another great year for them, and many more to come. I’m excited.

So Much for That “Year of Android”

Yeah, yeah: it’s January 5, and they’ve got all year to sort this stuff out. Rob Jackson, Phandroid:

The Google Play Store is becoming an absolute joke, governed by contradicting laws that are enforced without logic, and policed anonymously and at random. Once heralded as the most open and developer friendly mobile platform on the planet, Google has given Android a huge black eye by sucker-punching loyal developers right in the face. Over and over and over.

Sounds familiar.

Functional High Ground

Some choice words from Marco Arment:

Apple’s hardware today is amazing — it has never been better. But the software quality has taken such a nosedive in the last few years that I’m deeply concerned for its future. I’m typing this on a computer whose existence I didn’t even think would be possible yet, but it runs an OS riddled with embarrassing bugs and fundamental regressions.

[…]

… Windows is still worse overall and desktop Linux is still too much of a pain in the ass for most people. But it should be troubling if a lot of people are staying on your OS because everything else is worse, not necessarily because they love it.

Lukas Mathis adds:

My main computer is still a Mac, but not thanks to anything Apple has done. It’s things like Coda, Pixelmator, Sketch, BBEdit, Kaleidoscope, OmniGraffle, or Interarchy that keep me on the Mac — despite the issues I have with Apple’s OS. By now, I’ve stopped using any of Apple’s own applications.

Daniel Jalkut disagrees with Arment and provides his own list of Apple’s prior foibles:

I’ve been following the company closely since my hiring in 1996. Since that time, the company has consistently produced nothing short of the best hardware and software in the world, consistently marred by nothing short of the most infuriating, most embarrassing, most “worrisome for the company’s future” defects.

Like these guys, I’ve also wondered if Apple’s spreading themselves too thin. What was once a simple product rubric — pro and consumer Macs, each in a portable and desktop configuration, plus the iPod — has ballooned: three-and-a-half different desktop Macs (the Retina iMac is the half), two-and-a-half different portables (the Pro sans Retina is the half), iPads of many generations in two sizes, iPhones of many generations in three sizes, accessories for all of the prior, two operating systems, more-important-than-ever cloud services, four different online stores, and various software packages. And that’s before you get to the Apple Watch, in three kinds and two sizes of each, with another operating system and the line’s own set of accessories. Yowza.

So I hit up some dude at the SEC named Edgar, who gave me Apple’s 10-K from 2014 and, for comparison, 2007:

As of September 29, 2007, the Company had approximately 21,600 full-time equivalent employees and an additional 2,100 temporary equivalent employees and contractors.

[…]

As of September 29, 2007, the Retail segment had approximately 7,900 employees…

So in 2007, Apple had approximately 13,700 full-time employees at the corporate level.

As of September 27, 2014, the Company had approximately 92,600 full-time equivalent employees and an additional 4,400 full-time equivalent temporary employees and contractors. Approximately 46,200 of the total full-time equivalent employees worked in the Company’s Retail segment.

In 2014, they had about 46,400 full-time employees at the corporate level. That’s a huge growth rate, but I’m not sure what to compare it to. I’m not sure there’s a way to accurately total the number of products Apple had in each year, and make a sweeping statement about the average number of employees per product. Each product is obviously weighed differently; the iPhone is arguably more important to Apple’s business in 2014 than it was in 2007, and iOS as a whole is vastly more important to Apple’s business today than OS X was at any point.1

I’m more inclined to agree with Jalkut: Apple is not in any worse shape today than it was, say, seven years ago. Their software is generally better than it was back then. If you find a crazy bug in Yosemite or iOS 8, I bet you could find something just as dumb in Leopard or iPhone OS 1.

A couple of years ago, when Tim Cook reorganized the company in a big way, I wrote that it would be a big fucking deal. I think we’re still feeling shockwaves from that executive shuffle. They’re not small, and they’re causing very real problems for very real people — users and developers alike. I don’t want to make excuses for the company, because the world’s biggest technology company needs critique more than it needs cheerleading. My wish list for Apple in 2015 is really long, but I don’t think that spells doom.

Yet I can’t help but feel hopeful. For every dumb bug or feature regression, I also find something that works far better than it ever has, and often far better than its competition. Perhaps the big thing Apple needs to do in 2015 is reassert its unique skill in creating unique, easy-to-use software that — hyperbolically — “just works”. Not necessarily with new features, but by making the features that already exist truly great.


  1. Ignoring, of course, the obvious conclusion that had OS X not succeeded in 2000, iOS would likely not exist today, or that if the iPhone crashed and burned in 2007, Apple as a whole might not be in business today. 

December 31, 2014

Apple Hit With Class Action Over iOS Storage Requirements

Julia Love, SiliconBeat:

The case, filed in the Bay Area’s federal court on Tuesday, claims iOS 8 can take up as much as 23.1 percent of the advertised storage capacity on Apple gadgets, but few users realize that when they make their purchases. Seeking damages and changes to Apple policies under California state law, plaintiffs hope to represent sweeping classes of users who bought Apple gadgets with iOS 8 already installed and users who upgraded to the latest version of the software.

Not quite as bad as Microsoft’s Surface RT, but it seems like yet another good reason for Apple to discontinue iPhones with 16 GB or less of storage space.

This is going to be another instance of the public questioning the validity of fine print, too. If Apple notes that the “actual formatted capacity [is] less” than the advertised space, is that good enough?

December 30, 2014

Amazon Names Amazon Show as Best of 2014

Jason Del Rey, Recode:

If you’re looking to catch up on the top movies and TV shows of 2014, Amazon has a Top 10 list for you. And surprise! Amazon is No. 1.

The company, which is no stranger to beating its chest loudly and often, is using the list as another thumping opportunity during prime binge-viewing season. Case in point: It named its own show “Transparent” as the No. 1 show on its “Best of 2014” list for the “top 10 movies & TV shows.” Another one of its shows, “Mozart in the Jungle,” is No. 8 on the list. The latter just became available online one week ago, squeaking in just in time for the rankings. Sneaky Amazon!

The irony of a show called “Transparent” being produced and promoted by its distributor without any indication of the conflict of interest is kind of beautiful.

Performance Degradation Between Tiger and Yosemite

I hate1 to keep going on about stuff like this, but it’s really important to the overall user experience. OS X engineers might consider peeking over WebKit’s proverbial shoulders:

The way to make a program faster is to never let it get slower.

We have a zero-tolerance policy for performance regressions. If a patch lands that regresses performance according to our benchmarks, then the person responsible must either back the patch out of the tree or drop everything immediately and fix the regression.

Common excuses people give when they regress performance are, “But the new way is cleaner!” or “The new way is more correct.” We don’t care. No performance regressions are allowed, regardless of the reason. There is no justification for regressing performance. None.

A similar level of attention to and focus on performance might be applied to OS X — and, for that matter, iOS: performance should not regress. That’s a very tall order for the demands of an operating system, especially before the inclusion of new features, but on recent hardware, it should be a reasonable guideline. Users should not have to worry that using the most recent version of an OS will impede the performance of their computer, tablet, or phone.


  1. I don’t. 

What’s So Special About the AeroPress

Shawn Blanc really likes his AeroPress, but I think he missed a big reason of why it’s so loveable — and I’ve tried nearly everything: the ratio of ease-of-use to results. A French press is really easy to use, but makes — in my opinion — a mediocre cup of coffee, and is a pain in the ass to clean. An espresso machine is very challenging to use consistently, but it makes a great cup of coffee. An automated machine is super easy to use, but the results are nearly always wanting. A V60 is finicky, but makes a good cup.

The AeroPress, though, is really hard to screw up and produces a fantastic cup, and it’s easy to clean.

It’s not just one thing, but the combination of everything that Blanc mentions that makes the AeroPress so damn great. For a single cup of coffee, no other brewing method is able to combine ease-of-use, easy cleaning, lack of waste, inexpensiveness, and consistently great results.

Promoted Accounts on Twitter

Danny Sullivan, MarketingLand:

Take a look at your “Following” list on Twitter. You might find some brands or people showing up there, even if you don’t follow them. If so, that seems due to either a new change or a newly noticed change in how Twitter is doing placement for promoted accounts.

Credit to William Shatner who spotted this first — or if not first — has been the most vocal about it. He noted that MasterCard was showing up on the list of accounts he was following, even though he wasn’t actually following them.

I noticed this too a couple of weeks ago, but I entirely forgot about it because I don’t really use the official Twitter apps or website; none of Twitter’s promoted content shows up in third-party apps.

This is super sleazy. Promoted tweets from people you don’t follow showing up in your timeline is one thing; that feels like a typical social media ad. But making it appear as though I’m following accounts that I’m not? That’s real sketchy. MasterCard is one thing — I don’t hold a strong opinion on the company. But what if some company I am philosophically opposed to buys a promoted spot and it appears in my list of people I’m following?

December 29, 2014

iTunes Syncing Is Broken

Kirk McElhearn, Macworld:

In a way, this may be a predictable side effect of Apple’s push to online services. The company wants everything to be in the cloud, and it would prefer that you buy all your music and movies from there as well. Local syncing isn’t really a part of that plan and so may be treated as an afterthought. The difficulty is that not all users are right for the cloud model. For those with large iTunes libraries, or with limited broadband bandwidth, cloud storage simply isn’t usable.

My iTunes music library — not counting video, podcast, or anything else — is over 300 GB. So many of the problems I’ve seen with iTunes syncing have manifested themselves or become worse with an ever-expanding library.

I’m sure that my unreasonably large library is only part of the problem though; I’ve seen these and other issues with libraries a tenth the size.

90 Day Apple ID Password Reset

A few years ago, I was trying to log in with my Apple ID in iTunes and I kept getting a weird password-related error. I switched over to try it on one of Apple’s websites, and was told that my password needed to be reset. This was the first time I saw this and, without fail, every 90 days from thereon, I was required to reset my password every single time. Then, about a year ago, it stopped.

I have two Apple IDs and saw the same behaviour in both, but none of my friends saw a similar behaviour, and I had a hard time tracking down any reliable reports on the web of this occurring.

The Iconfactory’s Sean Heber asked developer relations about this, and got an answer:

A response from Apple seems to indicate that access to Attache is the thing triggering the 90 day password reset.

What the hell is Attaché?

Apple’s Attache is a kind of internal email system or something. I remember using once to deliver a particularly big file to an engineer.

Fascinating. I don’t remember ever having used this. Very odd.

Update: It could be due to the Apple ID having been used to log into an AppleConnect-related service. Attaché is connected to AppleConnect, but so is Radar, Apple’s bug reporter. I’ve used that. A lot.

December 23, 2014

Now Entering the Public Domain: Ian Fleming, Et. Al

Thanks to Disney, none of these authors will have their works entering the public domain next year in the United States or, indeed, well into the future. In Canada, however, the works of Fleming, Munch, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Marinetti, and others have now entered the public domain for all to enjoy. Splendid.

Apple Has a Way to Push Software Updates to OS X Automatically

Intriguing tidbit about the critical NTP patch, as reported by Jim Finkle of Reuters:

When Apple has released previous security patches, it has done so through its regular software update system, which typically requires user intervention.

The company decided to deliver the NTP bug fixes with its technology for automatically pushing out security updates, which Apple introduced two years ago but had never previously used, because it wanted to protect customers as quickly as possible due to the severity of the vulnerabilities, [Apple spokesman Bill] Evans said.

With Apple’s not-particularly-stellar track record as of late, this is a little worrying. However, given that this is the first time the mechanism has ever been used, it appears that they are being abundantly cautious. This means that users silently have part of their system patched without requiring any intervention or interruption.

December 22, 2014

Unswitchers

My, how things have changed. Want to know how far? Here’s Microsoft’s guide for Mac users switching to a Surface, with gems like:

On my Macbook… [sic]

I was used to using the command key with letters like C, V, and P to copy, paste, and print respectively.

On my Surface Pro 3…

Use Ctrl in place of command and many of the keyboard shortcuts you know still work!

It’s like Apple’s “Switch” campaign all over again, just in reverse. This isn’t gloating or anything; I just find the situation entirely surreal.

OS X NTP Security Update

You’re going to want to update as soon as you can:

Available for: OS X Mountain Lion v10.8.5, OS X Mavericks v10.9.5, OS X Yosemite v10.10.1

Impact: A remote attacker may be able to execute arbitrary code

Description: Several issues existed in ntpd that would have allowed an attacker to trigger buffer overflows. These issues were addressed through improved error checking.

Scary stuff. Do this right away: it’s 1.4 MB, it requires no reboot, and it’s in the App Store. Just go do it.

Update: This is apparently no longer theoretical.

On Developer Confidence in iOS

Russell Ivanovic wrote an intriguing post titled “2015: The Year of Android” (via Michael Tsai). With a title like that, I had to check it out:

In other words in 2013 Google payed out $2 billion to developers on Google Play. In 2014, $5 billion. This is a growth rate of 2.5x since last year. The lazy way to analyse this would be to point out that Apple announced that they’d paid out $15 billion to developers in December of 2013. 15 = 5 x 3, case closed. We could argue all day about growth rates, profitability and which platform is ‘winning’ right now. The real thing I pay attention to as a developer is this: can you be profitable on Android? To me the clear answer, with many years of actual revenue flowing into our company is an emphatic ‘Yes’.

Ivanovic’s phrasing isn’t quite correct here. Apple’s $15 billion figure is a cumulative amount, and they announced last year that they’d paid out a total of $7 billion to developers, giving Apple a 115% growth rate. Not as good as Google’s, but way, way more money on a per-user basis.

Though Ivanovic’s company has done very well on Android, but the vast majority of developers with paid apps in both stores have consistently reported far greater revenue on iOS than on Android. The chance of users paying for an app on iOS remains vastly greater than Android, so I have to disagree with Ivanovic here.

His second of three points:

The next thing people often throw out is “Oh but it’s so fragmented, I could never bring myself to buy 300 phones and test on 1000 screen sizes!”. This too as it turns out is a mostly a myth based on a lack of understanding. Firstly screen sizes on Android are actually less fragmented on Android than iOS. If you don’t understand why, or don’t believe me then you need to read this, followed by this.

iOS has the greater developer tools for supporting flexible layouts, especially for game developers. Neener neener.

But Ivanovic’s third point is why I’m linking to it. Not to poke fun, but to agree with it:

To me the next most important thing is how the App Store on the platform works. On iOS we’re starting to see things like this on a daily basis:

And that’s just the high profile developers. I shudder to think of how many small developers, with no contacts in the media are just being crushed on a daily basis. Do I see those things on Android? Nope. The only place I’ve seen Google crack down is on apps that download from YouTube and apps that do nefarious things. The first is against YouTube’s TOS, clearly so, and the second is obvious. I can’t tell you just how refreshing it is to push ‘publish’ on a brand new app or update, and see it in the store an hour later.

2015 should be the year of iOS. Apple has given developers a boatload of new APIs and new ways of interacting with iOS, but they apparently haven’t told the App Store review team any of this. While I don’t agree with Ivanovic’s premise — “2015 is the year of Android” — I do think that Apple is squandering its goodwill with developers and betraying their trust and confidence in developing for the platform.

PHG’s Fund Releasing Policy

The per-currency $30 threshold is the biggest pain in the ass for smaller publishers like myself. PHG’s policies have a habit of encouraging only the biggest referral marketers, while leaving people with not-insubstantial but not-quite-big-enough sales figures without their funds.

December 21, 2014

The Curse of Compressing Reality

Noah Lorang (via Shawn Blanc):

Any creative endeavor is highly non-linear, but the sharing of it almost always skips a lot of the actual work that goes into it. That’s ok; a clear progression makes for a good story that’s easy to tell. But don’t judge your reality against someone else’s compressed work. It’s ok if it takes you a day to make a cutting board like one that someone made in six minutes on YouTube; the truth is it probably took them a day too.

As I watch the traffic on this site rocket upwards one day only to take a dive over the following days, time and time again, I must keep reminding myself that the success I’m so amazed and proud of Blanc, and Gruber, and others for achieving is the product of a lot of work and a lot of time. But, while I don’t write Pixel Envy for the most readers — only the best, like you — it’s hard to stay motivated when one great week is followed by a lousy one. It’s probably my fault, or the fault of the season, but I must keep reminding myself that Blanc probably had (and has) crappy weeks himself, and what keeps him motivated is knowing that he does great work. I want to do great work for myself, and for you. That’s what motivates me to keep going.

Apple Forces the Nintype Keyboard to Drop Its Calculator

Just as I thought that things might — might — possibly be improving, Apple snatched that idea right back. Jormy, the developer of Nintype:

So the reason I was given was that “completing calculations” is “not an appropriate use of App Extensions”

I mean, for real?

Update: Turns out this decision was reversed (thanks, Mike M). I ask again: How much confidence can developers really have in a review system that’s so wildly inconsistent?

December 20, 2014

On File Formats, Very Briefly

Paul Ford, in the Manual:

You can take apart these formats and find out which decisions were made to create them. You’ll find that within them each carries the weight of its own past. Whether it’s Photoshop reacting to the enormous power of computers by doing ever more things with images, ever more channel ops and blends, or HTML opening up to accept every kind of data, serving not as a way to present documents but as a sort of glue.

Samsung to Shut Down ChatOn Next Year

I didn’t even know Samsung had an iMessage competitor, though I should have guessed. But they do, or, rather, did. Richard Lawler, Engadget:

The company blamed “changing market conditions” for the change, but seems that despite a claimed 100 million strong user base, people weren’t really using the software preloaded on so many smartphones.

“Changing market conditions”, eh? How’s iMessage doing?

During today’s annual stockholders meeting, Apple CEO Tim Cook revealed (via Bloomberg) that [several] billion iMessages and 15 to 20 million FaceTime calls are made daily. That number suggests iMessage has grown exponentially over the course of the last year as usage numbers were at two billion messages per day in January of 2013.

Maybe if market conditions continue to change, Samsung will keep removing its terrible bloatware.

December 18, 2014

Get Info Redesigned

With every update to OS X comes a reminder of just how far behind some parts of the system are. The Get Info dialog is one of those things; the colour picker is another.

Journalism as Entertainment

Stephen Hackett:

[T]he old-school rules of objective journalism exist for a reason. They protect reporters, subjects and stories from being influenced by emotions. Breaking those rules is fine, as long as expectations are set correctly. The fact that people are upset at Serial’s ending indicates they weren’t.

On the contrary, I think Sarah Koenig did a great job emphasizing that it’s not a fictional drama series, but a real-life event. Adnan Syed is still in prison, and it’s continuously referenced throughout her reporting on the story. If people are upset, that’s an indication that Koenig did a great job of making such a contrived decade-old case so compelling.

Stop the Presses

Kontra:

Yes, we have ever growing access to filtering software to shape our own sphere of coverage, and yet tens of millions of people read, and likely most believed, that Apple had deliberately and secretly deleted competitors’ songs from users’ iPods, an impression which may never be sufficiently corrected. Yes, we’re getting better tools to find and check facts, and yet the incentives to not deceive readers through disingenuous headlining and packaging are clearly not in place. How many headline corrections have you seen in this case?

Not a single one. While most headlines stated that “Apple deleted non-iTunes music from iPods”, or something to that effect, Mike Beasley of 9to5Mac took his headline even further:

Apple admits it deleted songs purchased through competing stores from iPods without warning

Bold. And not just my formatting.

It’s funny, because later in Beasley’s re-reporting, he makes the opposite case:

Apple’s lawyers stress that while such security measures did exist, the plaintiffs have yet to produce a single case of music being lost.

C’est la clickbait.

Drafts 4.0.6

Greg Pierce, the Agile Tortoise himself:

New: Today widget. Now back with the addition of recent drafts summary. Thanks to the help of some fine folks inside Apple for sorting this out.

Of the major App Store rejection stories this past month, all have now had their rejections reversed. But do you think developers — in particular, those who have a lower profile and smaller user base — are much more confident?

December 16, 2014

App Store Discovery Is Completely Broken

It’s so bad that it’s almost as if it’s programmed to be deliberately obtuse. If the App Store were a barista, it would bring you a wrench instead of your coffee and then come around to your house a few weeks later to take it back for unclear reasons.

Shaw Wins Gold in Verbal Gymnastics

Remember that totally craptacular Shaw announcement I wrote about earlier? They finally officially announced the changes to the pricing and service tiers, and it’s like a masterclass in spin:

These new services will introduce faster download speeds and greater value for customers who have our most popular tiers by providing more value per Mbps (Megabits Per Second) download rate.

HS 10 improves to Internet 15
HS 25 improves to Internet 30
BB 50 improves to Internet 60

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Except it’s not like the 50 mbps service becomes 60 mbps for the same price; rather, the 50 mbps service turns into a 60 mbps service for the same price as the outgoing 100 mbps service.

Meanwhile:

We’re pleased to be introducing a new entry-level Internet service, Internet 5, which is well suited to customers who use their Internet for simple web browsing and email.

Who the fuck, exactly, is going to want a 5 mbps service for the same price as the outgoing 10 mbps service?

The Ten Year DRM Saga Is, at Last, Over

Robert Burnson and Karen Gullo, Bloomberg:

Apple Inc. prevailed in a potential $1 billion lawsuit by iPod customers who claimed restrictions in the iTunes library were meant to kill competition, as a jury handed the company a decisive victory after only three hours of deliberations.

Firmware and software updates in iTunes 7.0, which were contained in the iPod models at issue, were genuine product improvements, the jury in Oakland, California federal court said. That finding meant the company couldn’t be held liable for thwarting competition even if the tweaks hurt rivals.

A decade of combined lawsuits and general nuttiness ended in just three hours. Finally.

All-Canadian Duopoly

I talk a lot here about the importance of ensuring net neutrality. I also talk a lot here about how shitty internet service providers are. But most of the time, I’m talking about this in the context of American providers because the majority of my readership is American. But I’m Canadian, and we’ve got our own problems. Let’s talk about them.

There are two major internet service providers in Canada: Shaw and Telus. There are a few more in certain cities — Rogers and Bell, for example — and several local providers that generally operate using bandwidth from a larger provider. I’m with Shaw, because they’re marginally more reliable than Telus, and they provide Usenet access.

Every year, like clockwork, Shaw bumps their prices up a little; last year, it was by a lot — over 50% in some cases. This year is no different, and I received notification from them a couple of weeks ago that they would be increasing prices by about 10% across the board. Why? Shaw makes several claims:

Canadians use the Internet more than anyone else in the world. We are doing more than just browsing the web and checking email – we’re conducting business, watching videos and movies, streaming TV shows and talking to our loved ones with video chat. Today the average home has 10 WiFi devices with modern appliances, tablets, phones, and home security all increasing traffic on the network. By 2018, Internet traffic is estimated to triple*.

There’s no citation for the statement “Canadians use the Internet more than anyone else in the world”. By number of users and penetration, Canadians are far from the most connected country on earth, and according to Wikipedia’s traffic stats,1 Canada is nowhere near the top. Either that, or we’re just way less curious. It is incomprehensible that Canada — a country with about 10% of the internet users of the United States — could be using more bandwidth.

The citation for the traffic estimate is Cisco’s VNI forecast, which estimated traffic to triple from 2013 to 2018, and we’re nearly halfway through that. Traffic isn’t expected to triple from 2015 to 2018.

So it’s clear that Shaw’s reasons for the price increase are built on shaky ground, at best. Some person named “seanman72” — going out on a limb here that it’s some guy named Sean — has thoroughly deconstructed these arguments.

Simultaneously, Shaw will be cutting back service plans:

Effective Jan 6th (One day after the price increase):

Shaw 100mbps becomes Shaw 60mbps
Shaw 50mbps becomes Shaw 30mbps
Shaw 25mbps becomes Shaw 15mbps
Shaw 10mbps becomes Shaw 5mbps

All for the same increased price of their originating packages…

On the bright side, anyone currently ON one of the higher packages will be grandfathered in, until they have to make any changes to their account (Moving, changing package, etc).

This hasn’t been announced by Shaw, but numerous customers have confirmed it over the phone, though phone staff have offered mixed information regarding grandfathering.

In a country Shaw claims is using the internet most heavily, they are simultaneously raising prices and cutting — by 40-50% — the amount of service offered to their customers. This comes as Shaw and Rogers have teamed up to launch Shomi, a Netflix competitor. Shaw and Rogers also own various Canadian television networks as well.

This smacks of an abuse of their market-leading position, in an industry that has almost no actual competition. Similar to Canada’s cellular carriers, our internet service providers have an unprecedented level of end-to-end control and responsibility in the market. It’s time we started regulating them as we view them in 2014: as utilities.


  1. This is the best source I could find. Most global traffic estimates are behind paywalls of thousands or tens-of-thousands of dollars. I like you, reader, but not quite that much. 

Who’s Apple’s Ideal Customer?

Thomas Verschoren:

There’s a clear devide [sic] within Apple these days. On one side you have the people who bring you WWDC, new SDK’s and who feature LaunchCenter Pro as a top app in 2014. It’s those people who, I think, invite developers to push the boundaries of what’s possible in iOS forward.

On the other side you have the people who promote these free apps, push [in-app purchases] and who see those who develop differently as wrong and force them to remove those imaginative features.

Internal disagreements are common — even encouraged — at most companies, including Apple. But this internal disagreement — similar to the Maps debacle from two years ago — is spilling into the lives of their developers, customers, and most ardent users. Shouldn’t that be enough to spark a large internal shift of priorities and practices?

December 15, 2014

Insecure Keyboard Entry

Daniel Jalkut made a little tool to alert him any time he tries to enter his password in a non-password field on his Mac. Turns out, there are a couple of places in OS X that look and work like secure password entry fields, but aren’t. Like Terminal:

The nice “•” is new to Yosemite, I believe. Previously tools such as sudo just blocked typing, leaving a blank space. But in Yosemite I notice the same “secure style” bullet is displayed in both sudo and ssh, when prompting for a password. To me this implies a sense of enhanced security: clearly, the Terminal knows that I am inputting a password here, so I would assume it applies the same care that the rest of the system does when I’m entering text into a secure field. But it doesn’t. When I type my password to sudo something in the Terminal, my little utility barks at me. There’s no way around it: it saw me typing my password. I confirmed that it sees my typing when entering an ssh password, as well.

There are a couple of radars that are dupe-able in Jalkut’s post, too.

IUMA: Digital Music’s First Big Chance

Caleb Garling:

In IUMA’s final days, computing celebrity John Gilmore furiously scraped the tracks — imploring others to do the same — and stowed them away. In 2012 he worked with Jason Scott of Archive.org to put the “wreckage” of IUMA, as Scott calls it — 45,000 bands and over 680,000 tracks — back on the web, where it remains today, free for anyone to access.

“It’s what it was always meant to be: a big pile of music that people enjoy listening to,” Scott says. (Though about 100 artists have asked Scott to remove their music, many having shed punk guitar riffs for collared shirts.)

Casual browsing turns up all kinds of hidden gems. Adam Duritz was the lead singer of The Himalayans and would eventually bring the band’s song “Round Here” to the Counting Crows and the top of Billboard charts. Duritz ensured The Himalayans got songwriting credits for the iconic ’90s tune, and their version remains preserved on Archive.org.

Scott says listeners sometimes come across the IUMA music and review it, as if it were new, having no idea these tracks were first uploaded in the 1990s. “The music is timeless,” he says. “It just might be more angry at the first Bush than the second.”

December 13, 2014

The Sony Hacks Are Terrifying

Brian Barrett, Gizmodo:

The most painful stuff in the Sony cache is a doctor shopping for Ritalin. It’s an email about trying to get pregnant. It’s shit-talking coworkers behind their backs, and people’s credit card log-ins. It’s literally thousands of Social Security numbers laid bare. It’s even the harmless, mundane, trivial stuff that makes up any day’s email load that suddenly feels ugly and raw out in the open, a digital Babadook brought to life by a scorched earth cyberattack.

These are people who did nothing wrong. They didn’t click on phishing links, or use dumb passwords (or even if they did, they didn’t cause this). They just showed up. They sent the same banal workplace emails you send every day, some personal, some not, some thoughtful, some dumb. Even if they didn’t have the expectation of full privacy, at most they may have assumed that an IT creeper might flip through their inbox, or that it was being crunched in an NSA server somewhere. For better or worse, we’ve become inured to small, anonymous violations. What happened to Sony Pictures employees, though, is public. And it is total.

December 12, 2014

Apple Probed in Canada Over iPhone Carrier Contracts

Alastair Sharp and Euan Rocha, Reuters:

Canada’s Competition Bureau is investigating allegations that Apple Inc’s Canadian unit used anti-competitive clauses in contracts with domestic wireless carriers, the watchdog said on Thursday.

The bureau said no wrongdoing by Apple’s Canadian arm has been found so far, without stating who made the allegations. An Apple spokeswoman was not immediately available for comment.

Apple was part of that giant Silicon Valley employee anti-poaching ring, so heavy-handed contracts with cell carriers wouldn’t surprise me in the least. But I do wish the CRTC and the Competition Bureau would cooperate to investigate the carriers themselves, too. Or maybe it’s entirely coincidental that all three major carriers announced almost-identical plans when the wireless consumer code was introduced.

Workflow for iOS

Another one of Federico Viticci’s mammoth reviews, and — oh boy — what an app to review. Workflow is like Automator for iOS, and with capabilities like that, it’s worth downloading fast, before Apple pulls it for confusing and ultimately ridiculous reasons.

I’ve been messing around with it for a little while, trying to add a button to my Share sheet to create link posts. It’s incredibly powerful, especially with Pythonista and Editorial integration. I think I’ve gone down the Viticci rabbit hole.

Anyway, if you’d like to join us freaky iOS automation types down in this hole, you can grab the app from this referral link.

December 11, 2014

Transmit’s Forced Removal of Its Sharing Sheet to Be Overturned

The Guardian’s Charles Arthur broke the news in an article about developer grievances with the App Store:

The Guardian understands that Panic will be allowed to reinstate sharing – but that only raises the question of why it was stopped in the first place. Apple declined to comment to the Guardian on the banning or reinstatement of the functionality.

And from Panic themselves:

Update: late Wednesday we got a nice call from Apple. We have resubmitted Transmit iOS with “Send To” (iCloud Drive et al.) restored.

Great for Transmit iOS users, but how does this crapshoot style of App Store moderation instil developer confidence?

December 10, 2014

Instagram Surpasses Twitter’s Userbase

John Gruber:

Perhaps it’s as simple as photos being more appealing to a broader audience than tweets. But I say part of Instagram’s success is that their interface is simpler, and the rules for what you see in your feed are like what Twitter’s used to be: a simple chronological list of posts from the people you choose to follow. Insert your own “Correlation is not causation” disclaimer here, but it seems to me that Twitter’s slowing growth corresponds pretty closely to its complexity increasing over the past few years.

I remember Twitter being easy to explain, even if it wasn’t conceptually easy to understand: “constant 140 character snippets of whatever from people you find interesting”. Twitter is no longer that simple; its complexity has made it more difficult to explain and understand.

Twitter Clients in 2014

Federico Viticci has added another to his series of mammoth reviews, this time regarding the state of Twitter clients in 2014. Pour yourself a coffee for this one, because it’s a great read. Viticci has made known his preference for the official Twitter client, but I found his conclusion most telling as to why I prefer Tweetbot:

2014 Twitter is bigger than Twitterrific and Tweetbot. Today’s Twitter goes beyond text and a traditional display of the timeline – it encompasses native photos (and soon videos), interactive previews, advanced recommendation algorithms, photo tagging features, and a fully indexed search. I didn’t know how much I would come to rely on Twitter’s new features until I started using the official app and now, in spite of design details and advanced functionalities that I still prefer in third-party clients, I don’t feel like I want to switch back.

And that’s because the basic Twitter experience in 2014 is different. Twitter is split in Legacy Twitter and Modern Twitter, and it increasingly seems like users and developers of classic clients will have to stay in the past of the service. Perfectly functional (for now), beautiful in their delightful touches, but ultimately limited.

I am a happy Legacy Twitter user. I don’t much like Cards, the insertion of tweets from people I don’t follow into my timeline, the blue conversation line, or creepy app spying. As Viticci notes, your choice of Twitter client is a personal one. You, like Viticci, may actually like Twitter cards, so you might use the official Twitter app, or you might like a unified timeline, so you’d prefer Twitterrific. The best possible user experience for my needs, however, remains Tweetbot. Regardless of your choice, this is a must-read article.

December 9, 2014

Apple Pay’s User Experience

James Cook at — sighBusiness Insider:

iPhone 6 users are hitting upon a problem when trying to pay for burgers in McDonald’s: Staff don’t know how to accept payment using Apple Pay, the new mobile payments app.

[…]

Here’s a post from DKDonkeyKong that explains the problem:

I just got my new Gold iPhone 6 Plus (128GB) yesterday. I went to McDonalds, excited to purchase lunch using my new device. The lady at the front gave me my total, and I said “I’m going to pay using my new iPhone”. She immediately gave a very confused look and told me I could pay using cash or credit. I said that Apple Pay is an NFC-based feature and should work with any NFC terminal. She told me to wait just a moment while she spoke with her manager. At that point I was rather embarrassed and told her I’d just pay with my card.

First of all, it’s from Business Insider, so we’re already off to a bad start.

Then there’s this DKDonkeyKong person, who might — and this is just a guess — not necessarily be the best source for a journalistic outlet.1 But, then again, this is Business Insider.

But there’s actually something to this. Cook continues with a quote from the MacRumors thread from which he sourced this entire let’s-call-it-an-article:

Do NOT involve the cashier. While they ring up, I generally have my phone near the terminal [with] home button pushed. This works over 50% of time. For those other times, when they ask cash or credit, simply say credit. People spend too much time talking to the cashiers. They’re easily confused.

Aside from the holier-than-thou way this poster calls cashiers “easily confused”, they’re kind of right. You shouldn’t need to explain that you’re using Apple Pay; it should work just like a contactless credit card. It’s not cashiers that are to blame, but rather retailers who favour collecting data over customer experience creating unnecessary complications in the contactless payment space.


  1. This is from a MacRumors thread, but you could probably tell that from the way this user explains, in full, which iPhone they bought. I’m half-surprised DKDonkeyKong didn’t also include the model number. 

Big Dogs/Little Fish

Ole Begemann:

What does it say about Apple’s priorities when app review spends its time policing developers for building features that are innovative, useful, and entirely opt-in anyway?

At around the same time, Twitter announced that their app is now spying on users in a new way, using a public API for a purpose it was clearly not intended for. I would argue that this practice, if not against the letter of the Review Guidelines, is much more harmful to users. It’s stuff like this that should warrant action from the app review team.

Things like Begemann’s Twitter example and putting a U2 album on everyone’s iPhone are clearly more detrimental to user experience than having a calculator in Notification Centre. It’s undeniably frustrating for developers to be given a shitload of great new APIs only to be told through subterranean channels that they cannot be used in ways which are innovative, interesting, and ultimately make the platform better.

Shy

Jessica Guynn, USA Today:

American companies collect and report information about their workforces to the federal government each year in a form called the EEO-1.

The EEO-1 is a standard form that breaks down race, ethnicity and gender of workforces by job classification.

Facebook, eBay, Google, Yahoo and LinkedIn are among the technology companies that have made public their EEO-1s.

[…]

Chief among the companies that decided not to disclose their EEO-1s were Microsoft, Twitter, Apple and Amazon.

Every company’s already-disclosed diversity figures are already so bad that I’m not certain why they’d be so shy about their EEO-1s.

December 8, 2014

Untransmitted

Cabel Sasser of Panic has written a short post officially announcing that Transmit for iOS is dropping support for send-to-iCloud Drive, and, collaterally, send-to-several-other-services-on-the-same-sheet. The gold is in the comments, though; an addendum of sorts from Sasser:

Speaking for myself: when we get a call from the App Review Bad News Guy — a very nice guy with a very terrible job — we know we’re in for a difficult few weeks. We haven’t shared, and likely never will share, most of those stories. To be clear, we always work all of the angles available to us to keep our software great, and there’s no doubt there are countless great people at Apple who are doing wonderful work and want the best for all developers. But we have to remember Apple is now a massive organization with countless divisions — the App Review team isn’t even in Cupertino, for example — and sometimes that means the wheels turn slowly or the car, well, drives backwards. It’s hard to describe the legitimate emotional toll we feel when we’re angry or frustrated with a company we love so deeply. But then we realize it’s never Apple we’re frustrated with. It’s always the App Store.

Apple is a fucking massive company; internally, though, it’s been famously described as “the world’s biggest startup”. I don’t think it’s naïvety but rather a sense of optimism that has kept it humming as a gigantic startup, but the widening gap between that and the giant company that it is has become most apparent to developers through the App Stores.

There doesn’t appear to be a common understanding of what rules the app reviewers should be focusing on, or even what rules exist — as far as I can tell, there’s no written rule that prohibits what Transmit was doing here. The lack of consistency is especially frustrating for developers. They become increasingly unsure of how much effort they should invest in features that shouldn’t be controversial. They don’t know if they’re the next ones to be rejected for some feature while dozens of other apps remain on sale with a similar feature.

In this particular case, I don’t understand what Apple gains by having Panic remove their export to iCloud Drive feature. I don’t understand what Apple or their users would lose — financially, morally, ethically, or in any other way — by allowing Transmit to retain this feature. If anything, this entices people to use iCloud Drive.

Meanwhile, there remain apps available in the Store that continue to push out notification spam or have atrocious user interfaces, both of which are explicitly prohibited by the review guidelines.1 Both of these rule violations directly impact users’ experience with the platform, yet issues of this nature are not treated nearly as seriously. Why, for example, is there no way to report apps that send excessive or spam notifications?

We all want Apple to do better here. It’s not about the (bloody) ROI, nor should it be. It’s just an issue of user and developer satisfaction, both of which are being toyed with in inconsistent and frustrating ways. That’s it.

And am I the only one who wishes for a book of stories from development hell?


  1. 5.6 Apps cannot use Push Notifications to send advertising, promotions, or direct marketing of any kind,” and “10.6 Apple and our customers place a high value on simple, refined, creative, well thought through interfaces. They take more work but are worth it. Apple sets a high bar. If your user interface is complex or less than very good, it may be rejected”. And, arguably, “If your App looks like it was cobbled together in a few days, or you’re trying to get your first practice App into the store to impress your friends, please brace yourself for rejection. We have lots of serious developers who don’t want their quality Apps to be surrounded by amateur hour”. 

December 6, 2014

Profound Stupidity, Round Three

Apple’s war on developers putting to use the new APIs in iOS 8 continues. Transmit for iOS doesn’t have a Notification Centre widget, but it does have a ridiculously powerful Share sheet extension. Or, well, did, because Apple has decided to neuter it by removing its send-to-iCloud Drive functionality.

The thing that PCalc, Drafts, and Transmit all have in common is that they’re power user tools. I’d wager heavily that their users are more likely to be longtime Apple supporters and very tech savvy. Never mind the silliness of going after developers who actually use the new APIs; the stupidity of taking on software used by Apple’s most ardent supporters is baffling to me.

December 4, 2014

…And Then It Got Weird

That iTunes/iPod/DRM/RealPlayer/blast-from-the-past lawsuit that’s been going on seemingly since the dawn of consumer technology? Yeah, it just got weird. Brian X. Chen, New York Times:

The class action seeks damages for iPods bought from September 2006 to March 2009. Apple said it checked the serial number of Ms. Rosen’s iPod Touch and found that it was bought in July 2009, months after the class period ended.

Apple’s lawyers also said the company could not verify purchases of other iPods that Ms. Rosen said she had bought, including an iPod Nano in the fall of 2007. Apple lawyers said they had requested proof from Ms. Rosen’s lawyers of her purchases.

Apple also said it had asked the plaintiffs’ lawyers for proof of any purchases of iPods by the other plaintiff in the case, Melanie Tucker of North Carolina. Apple said it verified that an iPod Touch was purchased by Ms. Tucker in August 2010, also outside the class period. In her testimony, Ms. Tucker said she bought an iPod in April 2005.

The judge overseeing the case, Yvonne Gonzales Rogers, said she was concerned about the potential issues presented by the letter. “I am concerned that I don’t have a plaintiff,” she said. “That’s a problem.”

Deleting the Evidence

Jeff Elder, Wall Street Journal:

When a user who had downloaded music from a rival service tried to sync an iPod to the user’s iTunes library, Apple would display an error message and instruct the user to restore the factory settings, [attorney Patrick Coughlin] said. When the user restored the settings, the music from rival services would disappear, he said.

Apple directed the system “not to tell users the problem,” Coughlin said.

This is yet another example of the plaintiffs in this case confusing various computer terminology. In this case, it was an iPod software update with a revised version of FairPlay. And Apple did warn users what would happen, in broad strokes:

We strongly caution Real and their customers that when we update our iPod software from time to time it is highly likely that Real’s Harmony technology will cease to work with current and future iPods.

I’m a generally optimistic guy, so I’m a pretty big believer in Hanlon’s razor. I’d like to believe that the reason Apple didn’t tell users specifically what was going on was due to the kind of confusion that this trial has created. People don’t understand the difference between DRM formats, or even the fact that an audio file has DRM. So Apple not explicitly telling users that they’re updating the iPod to ensure the security of their own FairPlay DRM — and that this will remove songs with unlicensed or hacked versions of FairPlay — is likely borne from simplicity, not malice.

SPECTRE

When the Kevin McClory suit was settled last year, I got so thrilled for the prospect of bringing back the best and baddest villains in the Bond franchise, and back they are. Pair SPECTRE with a brilliant cast and crew and I’m so entirely excited for November 2015.

I’m also digging the teaser poster, with a bullet hole somewhat reminiscent of SPECTRE’s logo. Nice.

December 3, 2014

“I Can’t Breathe”

Charles M. Blow, New York Times:

At some point between the moment a Missouri grand jury refused to indict a police officer who had shot and killed Michael Brown on a Ferguson street and the moment a New York grand jury refused to indict a police officer who choked and killed Eric Garner on a Staten Island sidewalk — on video, as he struggled to utter the words, “I can’t breathe!” — a counternarrative to this nation’s calls for change has taken shape.

The argument is that this is not a perfect case, because Brown — and, one would assume, now Garner — isn’t a perfect victim and the protesters haven’t all been perfectly civil, so therefore any movement to counter black oppression that flows from the case is inherently flawed. But this is ridiculous and reductive, because it fails to acknowledge that the whole system is imperfect and rife with flaws. We don’t need to identify angels and demons to understand that inequity is hell.

The iPod/DRM/iTunes/Holy-Shit-It’s-December-2014 Trial Begins

Dan Levine, Reuters:

Opening statements began on Tuesday in an Oakland, California, federal court in the long-running class action, which harks back to Apple’s pre-iPhone era. The plaintiffs, a group of individuals and businesses who purchased iPods from 2006 to 2009, are seeking about $350 million in damages from Apple for unfairly blocking competing device makers. That amount would be automatically tripled under antitrust laws.

Levine’s description of the suit is a bit off. Even the description in the lawsuit itself (PDF) is wrong:

In July 2004, an Apple competitor in the online music market, third party Real Networks (“Real”), introduced a new version of its own digital-song manager, RealPlayer. RealPlayer included a feature called Harmony. Harmony made songs downloaded from Real’s online music store mimic FairPlay, and thus made music purchased from Real playable on iPods.

Music wasn’t required to use FairPlay to play on iPods; non-FairPlay AAC and MP3 files play just fine on any iPod.

Levine, again:

In July 2004, Jobs wrote to other Apple executives with a suggested press release about Real Networks.

“How’s this?” Jobs wrote. “‘We are stunned that Real is adopting the tactics and ethics of a hacker and breaking into the iPod.’”

“I like likening them to hackers,” Apple marketing chief Philip Schiller responded.

During his 2011 deposition, Jobs displayed some of the edge he was known for, according to a transcript filed in court. Asked if he was familiar with Real Networks, Jobs replied: “Do they still exist?”

I don’t understand how this suit still exists.

December 2, 2014

Apple Tells ‘Drafts’ to Remove Note Creation Feature in its Notification Centre Widget

iOS 8 feels very similar to iPhone OS 2: there are a lot of new developer goodies to play with, and apps are being rejected for seemingly random reasons from a frustratingly inconsistent rulebook. It’s not like Agile Tortoise took a big risk by putting a shortcut button in Notification Centre; there were plenty of apps already in the Store that had similar functionality before Drafts 4 was released. Yet it’s the one that’s being restricted over two months after its release for a rule that doesn’t even exist.

Profoundly stupid, take two.

December 1, 2014

I Dot Me Cloud Drive

Dr. Drang:

Then came MobileMe. It was introduced with the iPhone 3G, just before Apple’s internet-connected user base was about to shoot through the roof. MobileMe will forever be remembered as the reason Steve Jobs called a special company meeting to ask two questions:

  1. “Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?”

  2. “So why the fuck doesn’t it do that?”

The phrase “MobileMe” in the Jobs quote above could easily be replaced with any one of Apple’s cloud services, though at a blessedly decreasing rate. I’d wager that it’s an asymptote; whatever Apple calls their cloud service, it will never, ever reach the point of expected reliability. Part of this is because Apple is ambitious, and wants to replace most of their existing web services in one fell swoop. This is made extra complicated because as soon as the service is released, there will be tens of millions of people trying to use it immediately. But that’s really hard to see as an excuse in 2014.