Archive

July 29, 2015

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai Says Goodbye to Android

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, Vice:

As security expert Cem Paya put it, that was a conscious decision Google made when it created Android. Paya called it a Faustian deal: “cede control over Android, get market-share against iPhone.” Basically, Google was happy to let carriers put their bloatware on their Android phones in exchange to having a chance to fight Apple for in the mobile market. The tradeoff was giving carriers and manufacturers control over their Android releases, leaving Google unable to centrally push out operating system updates.

Some carriers and manufacturers are better than others, it’s true, but they all pretty much suck when it comes to pushing updates. There really isn’t a better way to put it.

As security researcher Nicholas Weaver put it in a (now deleted) tweet, ”Imagine if Windows patches had to pass through Dell and your ISP before they came to you? And neither cared? That is called Android.”

Ouch.

Windows 10 Is Out Today

A hesitantly positive review from Ars Technica’s Peter Bright:

Windows 8 felt unfinished, but it was an unfinished thought. The actual released operating system was stable and reliable and didn’t have any glaring errors in it, but the thoughts behind it, the thoughts about how its various facets should work together, were incomplete.

Windows 10 feels unfinished, but in a different way. The concept of the operating system is a great deal better than its predecessor. It’s better in fact than all of its predecessors. It can ably span a range of form factors and designs, and it can be comfortable and effective on all of them. For all my gripes, it’s the right idea, and it’s implemented in more or less the right way. But I think it’s also buggier than Windows 8.1, 8, 7, or Vista were on their respective launch days.

Microsoft’s going through the same transition period Apple started a few years ago, and it is manifesting itself in similar ways: some icons that look a little rough, a healthy dose of bugs, yet generally positive reviews. Good stuff.

Update: Icon link swapped.

How Will the Next Generation Tinker?

Louie Mantia shares the story of how he got to be the designer he is today, and wonders how the next generation of designers will hone their skills:

Just the other day I was wondering… what happens now? Not with me, but with the next fourteen-year-olds who are ready to be inspired. Do they look at Dribbble and decide to make things? Do they jump in and make an app?

I started by tinkering, customizing. Just as an engineer might. You start with something that exists and you change it to understand it. You do things on your own. But now… companies like Apple have locked down things like theming. It’s so hard today that no one even bothers. Changing icons is hard too. With some apps you can’t even do it without an app breaking because of code signing.

People haven’t stopped modifying cars just because it has become more difficult. They’ve found ways to either work around the limitations or to embrace them. My hope is that this generation of designers can do the same, and one hopes they don’t simply browse the heterogenous work on Dribbble.

“3D XPoint” Is a New Memory Technology That’s Way Faster Than Flash Memory

Pretty crazy announcement from Intel:

The explosion of connected devices and digital services is generating massive amounts of new data. To make this data useful, it must be stored and analyzed very quickly, creating challenges for service providers and system builders who must balance cost, power and performance trade-offs when they design memory and storage solutions. 3D XPoint technology combines the performance, density, power, non-volatility and cost advantages of all available memory technologies on the market today. The technology is up to 1,000 times faster and has up to 1,000 times greater endurance than NAND, and is 10 times denser than conventional memory.

Even wilder? It’s not just a concept; Intel and Micron are beginning production. Moore’s Law may not be wholly accurate any longer, but its effects are still being realized.

Cecil

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, the story of the killing of Cecil the lion is depressing all around. Why an American dentist — or anyone — feels compelled to pay tens of thousands of dollars to fly halfway around the world to shoot and kill wildlife for entertainment is bewildering. As Fusion’s Jason O. Gilbert points out, this is going to play out in a far too predictable pattern:

The backlash to the backlash begins. Benghazi will be invoked. A right-wing radio host with an active following will start a GoFundMe page; it will raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in a few hours. Everyone will act surprised. Barack Obama’s birth certificate will be invoked. The Minnesota dentist will issue a formal apology through a lawyer. The Nuremberg trials will be invoked. Furious tweets will be fired off. The second amendment will be invoked, even though Zimbabwe doesn’t have a second amendment. Someone will ask Donald Trump for comment. Someone will ask Mitt Romney for comment. Someone will ask Dog the Bounty Hunter for comment. CNN will screw up a segment about the story, perhaps by mislabeling Zimbabwe on a map of Africa, or by mislabeling Minnesota on a map of America, or by mislabeling a lion as a baby hippopotamus.

There are plenty of outrageous things going on in the world at the moment, but this must rank pretty highly in your heart and mind; it certainly does in mine. Maybe it’s possible for something good to come out of this. Cecil was being tracked for many years by a team of researchers at Oxford, and if you want to help them out, you can donate; I did. Americans: you’ll want to donate here and specify that you want your donation allocated to WildCRU. Canadians: here’s your link. If you live somewhere else in the world and want to help out, check out WildCRU’s site.

MPAA Emails Reveal Plan to Run Anti-Google Smear Campaign

Mike Masnick, TechDirt:

[In] a filing on Thursday, Google revealed one of the few emails that they have been able to get access to so far, and it’s stunning. It’s an email between the MPAA and two of Jim Hood’s top lawyers in the Mississippi AG’s office, discussing the big plan to “hurt” Google. Beyond influencing other Attorneys General (using misleading fake “setups” of searches for “bad” material) and paying for fake anti-Google research, the lawyers from Hood’s office flat out admit that they’re expecting the MPAA and the major studios to have its media arms run a coordinated propaganda campaign of bogus anti-Google stories

[…]

As Google notes in its legal filing about this email, the “plan” states that if this effort fails, then the next step will be to file the subpoena (technically a CID or “civil investigatory demand”) on Google, written by the MPAA but signed by Hood. As Google points out, this makes it pretty clear (1) that the MPAA, studios and Hood were working hand in hand in all of this and (2) that the subpoena had no legitimate purpose behind it, but rather was the final step in a coordinated media campaign to pressure Google to change the way its search engine works.

An “Anonymous Coward” in the comments points out that this could amount to securities fraud:

… conspiracy, fraud, bribery, and corruption.

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission

Common violations that may lead to SEC investigations include:

• …
• Manipulating the market prices of securities
• …

That’s probably a stretch, but interesting to consider. The MPAA has way too much influence in Washington; they will be unlikely to feel any repercussions from this plan.

July 27, 2015

Apple Music’s Edge May Be Unfair, but Potentially Isn’t Illegal

I’m no lawyer, so I’m just going the way the wind blows on this one. I would have thought that no single part of Apple Music’s competitive advantage constitutes a legal issue, but the compounded effect of all of the advantages offered to Music may be grounds for anticompetitive behaviour. Some legal experts that Wired contacted happen to disagree, but the FTC seems to think they have enough to go on to initiate inquiries.

NSA to Purge Mass-Surveillance Phone Records Database

Dustin Volz, National Journal:

The National Security Agency will purge all phone data collected during the operation of its expiring bulk surveillance program by the start of next year pending ongoing litigation, the government announced Monday.

“As soon as possible, NSA will destroy the Section 215 bulk telephony metadata upon expiration of its litigation preservation obligations,” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, referring to a provision of the Patriot Act, said in a statement. “Analytic access” to those records, which go back five years, will end Nov. 29, and they will be destroyed three months later.

Slow progress is progress nevertheless. No word on when they’re stopping their far more invasive mass collection of internet traffic.

Google Minus

Must be a rough day to be working at Google. Bradley Horowitz, VP of “Streams, Photos, and Sharing”:

People have told us that accessing all of their Google stuff with one account makes life a whole lot easier. But we’ve also heard that it doesn’t make sense for your Google+ profile to be your identity in all the other Google products you use.

So in the coming months, a Google Account will be all you’ll need to share content, communicate with contacts, create a YouTube channel and more, all across Google. YouTube will be one of the first products to make this change, and you can learn more on their blog. As always, your underlying Google Account won’t be searchable or followable, unlike public Google+ profiles. And for people who already created Google+ profiles but don’t plan to use Google+ itself, we’ll offer better options for managing and removing those public profiles.

Much as Horowitz spins this as “focusing” Google+, the reality is that Google is slowly peeling away any dependence on it. Take a look at how it’s being “focused”:

Google+ is quickly becoming a place where people engage around their shared interests, with the content and people who inspire them. In line with that focus, we’re continuing to add new features like Google+ Collections, where you can share and enjoy posts organized by the topics you care about.

So they added a Pinterest clone. Is that useful? Were people asking for that?

At the same time, we’ll also move some features that aren’t essential to an interest-based social experience out of Google+. For example, many elements of Google+ Photos have been moved into the new Google Photos app, and we’re well underway putting location sharing into Hangouts and other apps, where it really belongs. We think changes like these will lead to a more focused, more useful, more engaging Google+.

All of the stuff that actually boosted Google+’s active user numbers — YouTube comments, photo sharing, and so on — is being removed from Google+. What’s it left with? A discussion board nobody really uses? Does that sound good for the future health of Google+?

Update: To clarify: I love Pinterest a lot; I think it’s one of the best things to come out of Silicon Valley in a long time. I question the application of its concept in the context of Google+.

“The Mobile World’s Equivalent to Heartbleed”

This isn’t good. Michael Mimoso, for Kapersky’s ThreatPost:

Researcher Joshua Drake, vice president of platform research and exploitation at Zimperium zLabs, said exploits could be particularly insidious given the fact that an attacker need only use a malicious MMS message that could trigger the vulnerability without user interaction, and delete the message before the victim is aware. All an attacker would need, Drake said, is the device’s phone number.

[…]

An attacker in possession of their target’s phone number could send an MMS or even a Google Hangouts message to an affected device that triggers the vulnerability before the victim has a chance to open the message. In some cases, the attack would delete the MMS in question, leaving behind only a notification that a message was sent. Drake said the processing carried out by Stagefright is a bad design and implementation choice, and that once he dug in and did additional fuzzing and learned more context from prior work, he said he uncovered close to a dozen issues, with half of those being critical remote code execution vulnerabilities; the others were less serious and did not have RCE implications.

That’s pretty scary: merely receiving a malicious MMS will likely trigger the attack which, if executed correctly, can run remote code, all with zero user interaction. But, while Google has patched this, it faces the same problem as any other software update for Android: the companies that make the phones have practically no financial incentive to update their devices. As far as they’re concerned, their job is done. NPR, for example, spoke with HTC:

Google informed HTC of the issue and provided the necessary patches, which HTC began rolling into projects in early July. All projects going forward contain the required fix.

“All projects going forward”? I know HTC doesn’t sell a lot of phones so, by the numbers, their user base does not even a reasonable minority of those affected, but come on. That’s a weak response. I’m hoping that other major manufacturers will do the right thing instead of worrying purely about their bottom line.

July 26, 2015

Now Testing Piwik on Pixel Envy

I think it’s very important that you are aware of the goings-on of this site, and any changes to it. I want you to know that I’m taking Piwik for a trial run. Piwik is analytics software that is self-hosted, so none of your information is going to a giant advertising company. I’ve long been an ardent supporter and user of Mint, but it hasn’t been updated for a while so it’s not super great at reporting recent versions of iOS and OS X, for example.

There’s good news for you, too: if you’d rather not be recorded by Piwik, it will attempt to respect the Do Not Track preference you’ve set in your browser; Mint does not.

For now, I’ll be running both Mint and Piwik, as it doesn’t seem to impact load times to a noticeable degree. In a few months, I’ll decide whether I want to keep both, or switch to one permanently. If you have any questions about this experiment, please don’t hesitate to email me or send me a note on Twitter.

Thank you, as always, for reading. It means a lot to me.

July 25, 2015

Jim Dalrymple Got Most of His Assumed-Gone Music Back

Jim Dalrymple:

Apple said my music was never deleted and that it was in the cloud the entire time. Before Apple Music, iTunes Match would show me all of my songs—matched, uploaded, and purchased. However, if you turn off iCloud Music Library and Apple Music, iTunes Match will only show your purchased content now. There is no way to separate iTunes Match from the iCloud Music Library. Before, you would turn off iTunes Match—now you would turn off iCloud Music Library.

So now I have the iTunes Match service that I pay for separately, and Apple Music, both of which use iCloud Music Library. There is really no way to get away from them if you want to use the latest and greatest from Apple.

I’ll admit, I’m still trying to get my head around how this works.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t think Apple is doing a very good job of explaining the differences between their music services. I’m a pretty low bar, but if this is confusing for Dalrymple as well, it’s really hard to understand.

July 24, 2015

Smug

A couple of weeks ago, Apple launched a new ad campaign sporting the tagline “If it’s not an iPhone, it’s not an iPhone”, and I kind of ignored it. Though one focuses on customer satisfaction and the other focuses on the interplay between hardware and software, both come across as bland, and a little smug. Apple used a similar tagline on a campaign a few years ago, and it felt only slightly more charming at the time. Now, with an industry-dominating profit share, it feels kinda gross.

But now, today, Apple’s launched a companion site that really ups the smugness. As Gruber points out, the section on apps is cringeworthy:

Also amazing? The fact that there are over a million and a half capable, beautiful, inspiring apps on the App Store. And each and every one was reviewed and approved by a team of real live humans. With great taste. And great suggestions. And great ideas.

Yep — the App Store is truly a bastion of greatness. It’s not like they’d carry dozens of the same tutorial-originating app, or apps with truly appalling user interfaces. Great taste, indeed.

Apple has gotten really, really good at making ads that show the products, rather than talking about them — remember the “Every Dayseries? They’re still doing ads like that series, but for the Watch.1 And, while I know they have to change things up every so often, these feel like a miss to me. They’re too smug, and too pompous for my tastes. I prefer the softer sell.


  1. By the way, ten bucks says those ads are scored by Trent Reznor. ↩︎

AnandTech Reviews the Apple Watch

I’m typically a big fan of AnandTech’s in-depth reviews, but this one let me down a bit. In particular, Joshua Ho and Brandon Chester didn’t even bother to try the Workout app (via Michael Rockwell):

There is a workout component, but I suspect that this is something more targeted towards someone who is actually setting aside time every day to do nothing but exercise. I tried the interface and found it to be a useful addition, but I really haven’t had a reason to use it as the automatic tracking is pretty much good enough for my needs.

I understand that the Watch is — to put it as Apple does — their “most personal device yet” and that not all people are going to find the fitness component important, but the Workout app is worth testing. This is AnandTech, the land of the ridiculously in-depth review — I expected more. How does it compare to actual fitness and workout trackers? Is it accurate? Is it easy to use while riding a bike? (I can answer the last question: it’s kind of easy to use while riding, but you need to find a bit of road where you can take both hands off the handlebars if you need to diddle with it. Not that I’d ever do that. Ride safe.)

There are other nitpicks I have with it: the authors question a lack of a multitasking UI, for example. This, then, is a review of what the Apple Watch is, not what it does. It’s almost certainly the best glimpse you’ll get of the technology behind the Watch, but it’s decidedly not the best review of how it fits into your life.

July 23, 2015

The US Government Must Lose Cryptowars 2.0

Elissa Shevinsky in a brilliant, must-read piece for the Christian Science Monitor:

My older friends in the security world have started telling me countless battle stories about fighting “the cryptowars.” Now we chat openly at hacker conferences or their fancy corporate offices. But back then, they were building Pretty Good Privacy, known as PGP, which became one of the most widely used tools for encrypting communications. They would take their servers home at night. They thought the FBI would break into the offices and seize their code. Export controls made it illegal for them to ship this crypto code overseas, so they typed the PGP code into book form. Senior executives mailed it to a bookstore in Europe. As online e-commerce and other activities became more mainstream, the restrictions – and security pros’ paranoia! – relaxed.

[…]

But now, with FBI and National Security Agency leaders pushing Silicon Valley technologists to weaken their encryption so the US government can more easily access the protected data, it’s clear that while I may have missed the drama of the ’90s, I won’t be able to escape the cryptowars redux of the 2010s.

Stupid and Misleading Company Gains $9 Million Investment

Remember the bullshit of Bulletproof coffee, and the café founder Dave Asprey is doing in Santa Monica? He’s just raised nine million dollars to build it, and it includes other pseudo medical bullshit, per Buzzfeed’s William Alden:

It will also include a Bulletproof Vibe vibration platform, which is said to be able to support the immune system and build muscle strength by moving up and down 30 times per second. “You can use it while you’re waiting for us to make a cup of Bulletproof coffee,” Asprey said.

There is no evidence that body vibration systems improve muscle strength, and the only reference to any support or boosting of the immune system comes from Bulletproof. But these claims are implicitly validated through this venture capital injection, and that’s appalling.

July 22, 2015

FTC Reportedly Subpoenas Streaming Music Services Regarding Apple Music

Micah Singleton of the Verge demonstrates the case against Apple:

As you would expect, Apple Music doesn’t need to raise its price to make up for lost revenue, nor is it subject to other restrictions that the App Store rules place on competition streaming services, essentially giving the service a built-in advantage.

If Spotify wanted to point iOS users who try to sign up through its app to its website, where the subscription price is cheaper, it wouldn’t be allowed according to the App Store rules. “Apps that link to external mechanisms for purchases or subscriptions to be used in the App, such as a “buy” button that goes to a web site to purchase a digital book, will be rejected,” Apple wrote in section 11.13 of its App Store review guidelines.

This makes sense to me. If we assume that all streaming services have broadly comparable licensing terms with record labels, Apple can book $10 in monthly revenue from the sale of a $10 per month plan, while competing services can only book $7 per month of a $10 plan, if sold through an in-app purchase. And, it’s worth mentioning, Apple gets to book their full $3 per month cut from those competing in-app sales; they don’t have to pay a dime of that to labels.

Here’s where Singleton loses me a bit:

Competing music streaming services also aren’t allowed to offer free promos, according to the App Store guidelines, even as a three-month free trial is currently being offered for Apple Music. Music streaming services are also forbidden from offering family plans through the service, which again, Apple Music does.

When it was independent, Beats Music offered a free trial at launch, though through what mechanism I’m not sure.

The gist remains, however. I think the most likely outcome of this, should it be found against Apple, will be for the ban on advertising alternative points of purchase within an app to be overturned. But this is one of those cases where there is little precedent. It all smells like anticompetitive behaviour, but it’s up to the FTC to decide.

Jim Dalrymple Has Had It Up to Here With Apple Music

Jim Dalrymple sounds pissed:

From what I can tell in my tests, Apple Music is deciding itself, based on your library, that it will not add duplicate songs. For instance, I purchased a lot of Black Sabbath albums over the years, but not all of the compilations. I went into Apple Music and added a compilation album, but it didn’t all get added to my library. When I looked at all of the songs that didn’t get added, they were ones that I already had in my library.

[…]

However, if I decide I really want those songs, when I click the “Add” button, nothing happens, which seemed odd to me. If adding the songs is an option, why won’t they add to the library. I went to my iPhone and tapped “Show Complete Album”—when I tapped on the song to add it, the option was to “Remove from My Music.” This means that my iPhone thinks it’s already added, but the song isn’t showing up. What I had to do is go through all of the songs, remove them from the library, and then click add to get them back in the library.

[…]

At some point, enough is enough. That time has come for me — Apple Music is just too much of a hassle to be bothered with. Nobody I’ve spoken at Apple or outside the company has any idea how to fix it, so the chances of a positive outcome seem slim to none.

For what it’s worth, this sounds like an iCloud Music Library problem, not an Apple Music issue. It’s splitting hairs, but it’s an important distinction to make. Because I have Apple Music turned on, but not iCloud Music Library, I get all of the streaming features, but none of the saving or syncing ones. That means my local files remain untouched, which gives me a vastly greater sense of security.

But that’s neither here nor there, when considering what’s written here. Based on everything Dalrymple has said on this, it sounds like the absolute worst possible situation. Missing and skipped songs, matching that doesn’t work very well, and deleting local files. It sounds like my worst nightmare.

You can bet very good money that there’s going to be a tough meeting in Cupertino this week.

(Also, who said that writers like Dalrymple and John Gruber were afraid of damaging their relationship with Apple, so they temper their criticism with platitudes?)

The Gawker Tax

Capital New York’s Peter Sterne recaps a meeting between several editors and business partners at Gawker, regarding the publishing and subsequent takedown of that trashy article:

This sparked a shouting match between [managing editor Nick] Denton and Gawker features editor Leah Finnegan, who previously worked as a staff editor at the [New York Times].

“[The Times] doesn’t [weigh its reporters against its advertisers]! I know that for a fact. It does not and it never will,” Finnegan said.

“I think at some level, yes they do. I know enough New York Times people to know that,” Denton said.

“Nick, I worked there for two and a half years. They canceled ads in favor of journalism.”

“Do you know how much money we lose all the time, because of cancellations in ads? I cannot, I cannot believe that you are actually saying this!”

“Make this into an advertising company then! Say what it really is! It’s not a place for journalism!”

[John] Cook told everyone to calm down and the conversation moved on.

Two things are true here: the Times (broadly) maintains separation between church and state — that is, the editorial and advertising departments of the paper; and, the Times has vastly higher journalistic standards than Gawker. It would be irresponsible to have a conversation about the legitimacy of this entire incident without acknowledging that Gawker is, at its core, a morally-corrupt disingenuous advertising company masquerading as a news organization.

Update: The Times has confirmed to Politico that they’re not jackasses:

“It’s too bad that Mr. Denton is trying to damage others to get out of his own scandal,” Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy wrote in an email when asked about Denton’s remarks. “The New York Times does not make decisions about assignments or beats based on advertisers.”

July 21, 2015

Web Design: The First Hundred Years

Maciej Cegłowski, with yet another killer talk:

A further symptom of our exponential hangover is bloat. As soon as a system shows signs of performance, developers will add enough abstraction to make it borderline unusable. Software forever remains at the limits of what people will put up with. Developers and designers together create overweight systems in hopes that the hardware will catch up in time and cover their mistakes.

We complained for years that browsers couldn’t do layout and javascript consistently. As soon as that got fixed, we got busy writing libraries that reimplemented the browser within itself, only slower.

It’s 2014, and consider one hot blogging site, Medium. On a late-model computer it takes me ten seconds for a Medium page (which is literally a formatted text file) to load and render. This experience was faster in the sixties.

The web is full of these abuses, extravagant animations and so on, forever a step ahead of the hardware, waiting for it to catch up.

But yeah, sure, it’s the browser’s fault.

Salvaging Flash

Dan Goodin, Ars Technica:

A string of weaponized attacks targeting Adobe’s Flash media player — including three in the past 10 days — has kept software engineers scrambling to fix the underlying vulnerabilities that make the exploits so dangerous. Fortunately, they have also been busy making structural changes to the way the program interacts with computer operating systems to significantly reduce the damage that can result not only from those specific attacks but entire classes of similar ones.

At the moment, the defenses are fully implemented only in the Flash version included in Google Chrome, having made their debut earlier this week. One of the two mitigations is available in other versions of Flash, and the remaining one is expected to be added to other browsers in August.

As Google has opted to bundle Flash into Chrome, thereby creating one of the biggest and most popular security risks around, this is a welcome improvement.

I’ve got to wonder if this is a last ditch effort on Adobe’s part to prolong Flash’s welcome life, which, as far as I’m concerned, it has long surpassed. When will these improvements be rolled into Adobe’s software that relies upon Flash for various UI elements? When can we finally say goodbye to Flash entirely, the way we did for Java on the web? Is Adobe aware that this is only prolonging the agony of a product that is well beyond its sell-by date? Can we just move on already to discover the new and exciting security holes that are surely in HTML5 local storage?

The Internet Is Awful

John Degraft-Johnson has been testing the sites in the Alexa top 50, and his findings aren’t exactly surprising: a lot of sites load far too slowly, either because of the number of requests they make or the size of those requests.

I’m not sure I entirely agree with the inclusion of the China-based sites on here, though. Sure, Sina Weibo loads slowly outside of China, but that’s because its servers and users are located primarily within the country. On the other hand, it’s 2015, so geography should no longer cause issues with site speed.

Update: Wil Turner points out that the China-US slowness isn’t any better in the other direction:

@nickheer follow up on slow internet post & China: from other side of Pacific, all US hosted sites are significantly slower.

@nickheer from Seoul Hong Kong Tokyo lag is slight, real. From Shanghai tedious (if not blocked). Majors (Amazon) better, v. close to US.

July 20, 2015

The Mythical Golden Key

The Washington Post’s editorial team published a pretty bizarre column in Saturday’s edition. In essence, they renew their call for a “golden key” — some way for authorities to decrypt data in cases where it’s required, but retain its security otherwise:

Last October in this space, we urged Apple and Google, paragons of innovation, to create a kind of secure golden key that could unlock encrypted devices, under a court order, when needed. The tech sector does not seem so inclined.

But the preceding paragraph with interviews from actual experts makes clear that this request is impossible:

A rule-of-law society cannot allow sanctuary for those who wreak harm. But there are legitimate and valid counter arguments from software engineers, privacy advocates and companies that make the smartphones and software. They say that any decision to give law enforcement a key — known as “exceptional access” — would endanger the integrity of all online encryption, and that would mean weakness everywhere in a digital universe that already is awash in cyberattacks, thefts and intrusions. They say that a compromise isn’t possible, since one crack in encryption — even if for a good actor, like the police — is still a crack that could be exploited by a bad actor. A recent report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology warned that granting exceptional access would bring on “grave” security risks that outweigh the benefits.

Experts told the Post that there can be no way to make a key that only law enforcement may have access to while retaining the security of encryption in all other cases. The Post responded by insisting that such a key was needed, much in the same way that a ten year old child asks for a unicorn after being told that no such creature exists.

The Mobile Web Sucks, but You Can Do Something About It, Nilay Patel

There’s a lot to pick apart with Nilay Patel’s whiny article about the sluggish mobile web. Let’s start at the top — with how browsers apparently suck – and take it one claim at a time from thereon:

But man, the web browsers on phones are terrible. They are an abomination of bad user experience, poor performance, and overall disdain for the open web that kicked off the modern tech revolution. Mobile Safari on my iPhone 6 Plus is a slow, buggy, crashy affair, starved for the phone’s paltry 1GB of memory and unable to rotate from portrait to landscape without suffering an emotional crisis. Chrome on my various Android devices feels entirely outclassed at times, a country mouse lost in the big city, waiting to be mugged by the first remnant ad with a redirect loop and something to prove.

I don’t know what sites Patel frequents, but I do not regularly experience achingly poor performance with Safari on my iPhone. Mind you, I do have a 5S, which also has 1 GB of RAM but doesn’t have to drive nearly as big of a screen as the 6 Plus. Apple has regularly shipped underpowered large-screened iOS devices, and I hope that practice changes.

There are improvements coming in software. Safari in iOS 9 takes advantage of Metal, so that should improve rotational performance. Last year, the WebKit team also rolled out a vastly better JavaScript compiler, and they’re working on performance all the time.

But a “disdain for the open web”? How Mobile Safari and Chrome on Android exhibit this Patel does not explain.

The overall state of the mobile web is so bad that tech companies have convinced media companies to publish on alternative platforms designed for better performance on phones.

An alternative way to read this is that media companies’ sites are so bad that Facebook and Apple were compelled to build alternative ways of delivery that strip out all the crap and allow the user to actually read the articles.

And yes, most commercial web pages are overstuffed with extremely complex ad tech, but it’s a two-sided argument: we should expect browser vendors to look at the state of the web and push their browsers to perform better, just as we should expect web developers to look at browser performance and trim the fat. But right now, the conversation appears to be going in just one direction.

In Patel’s mind, no major browser vendor considers performance a serious problem. This is complete nonsense. The conversation is in the other direction currently because browser performance has gotten markedly better over the past several years, but websites have become increasingly bloated. Any advantage gained by browser vendors has been eaten away — and then some — by bad web developers.

Taken together, Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles are the saddest refutation of the open web revolution possible: they are incompatible proprietary publishing systems entirely under the control of huge corporations, neither of which particularly understands publishing or media. […] Apple and Facebook are turning their back on the web to build replacements for the web, and with them replacements for HTML and CSS and every bit of web innovation it’s taken 20 years of competitive development to achieve.

This, I suppose, is the part where Patel proves a “disdain for the open web”, but it is not proof of Chrome or Safari contributing to that. The web is gunked up with all sorts of performance-sapping scripts, ads, and trackers — even Vox Media, the company behind the Verge, admits as such.1 But, for whatever reason, Patel cannot really admit to this, except in couched and defensive terms:

Now, I happen to work a media company, and I happen to run a website that can be bloated and slow. Some of this is our fault: The Verge is ultra-complicated, we have huge images, and we serve ads from our own direct sales and a variety of programmatic networks. Our video player is annoying. (I swear a better one is coming, for real this time.) We could do a lot of things to make our site load faster, and we’re doing them. We’re also launch partners with Apple News, and will eventually deliver Facebook Instant Articles. We have to do all these things; the reality of the broken mobile web is the reality in which we live.

So: “We built a very complex site that is disrespectful of readers by taking many seconds and over a hundred HTTP requests to fully render a multi-megabyte page containing barely three paragraphs of text — much like many of our competitors — but it’s the fault of Apple and Facebook for not accommodating to these atrocious circumstances.”

But we can’t fix the performance of Mobile Safari. Apple totally forbids other companies from developing alternative web rendering engines for the iPhone, so there’s no competition for better performance, and no incentive for Apple to invest heavily in Safari development.

Bullshit. Apple is — as demonstrated above — actively pursuing a much better Safari experience on both mobile and the desktop. Just listen to this week’s Debug (NSFW language). Even Nolan Lawson, who wrote that famous “Safari is the new IE” article you’ve seen floating around, disagrees with Patel here.

That’s a recipe for stagnation, and stagnation is what we have. It’s leading powerful players like Apple and Facebook to create ersatz copies of the web inside their walled gardens, when what we really need is a more powerful, more robust web.

I empathize with the Verge and Vox teams. I really do. But Apple and Facebook’s news apps are a response to an already-bloated web that shows no signs of slowing down. Giving developers a more powerful JavaScript compiler or a more robust browser will only allow them to stretch them to their limits. But providing them with incentives to not use all of the resources allocated to them will ultimately create a better web.

Dan Chilton of Vox Product:

We’ve finally reached a tipping point where we can devote full-time resources to the performance of our platform, and we want to bring you along for the ride. This post will introduce you to our newly-formed Performance Team and describe the first steps we’re taking in pulling ourselves out of performance bankruptcy.

The Verge — like any other site — should not have performance tacked-on at the end; it should be the primary goal. Anything less is disrespectful to readers.

Update: It’s worth pointing out that Chilton’s post is from May, and that Patel’s article was written in July. In the two-and-a-half months between those posts, it doesn’t seem like they’ve dramatically reduced page weight.


  1. “Performance metric tools often use our render time to show off the upper limits of their graphs!” ↩︎

July 19, 2015

A More Diverse Comp Sci Student Base Is Graduating Than Is Being Hired by Leading Companies

Cecilia Kang and Todd C. Frankel, Washington Post:

Silicon Valley has a diversity problem, a contentious issue that has come into sharper focus in recent months as tech firms have sheepishly released updates on their hiring of minorities. The companies have pledged to do better. Many point to the talent pipeline as one of the main culprits. They’d hire if they could, but not enough black and Hispanic students are pursuing computer science degrees, they say.

But fresh data show that top schools are turning out black and Hispanic graduates with tech degrees at rates significantly higher than they are being hired by leading tech firms.

A number of tech companies have previously offered a lack of diversity in the talent pool as a reason for their predominantly white and male staff. This data indicates that this is largely untrue; there is vastly more diverse talent available than is being hired, which underscores how significant this problem is for Silicon Valley, not schools.

The “Coontown” Breakdown

Though I haven’t written much about it here, I’ve been following the ongoing implosion of Reddit from the sidelines. It has sort of felt inconsequential to me, perhaps because I don’t feel invested in Reddit’s success or failure.

There’s some interesting stuff that’s come out of it, though. Reddit has been another experiment in allowing virtually unlimited freedom of speech on the internet, and, with growth, it has — like Usenet and BBSes before it — turned into a place of hatred and contempt. The community there blew its chance.

Then, yesterday, a user by the name of “Audioburn” put together an analysis of the users of one of the more notorious and popular racist discussion boards, and how they cross-pollinate with other subreddits. The results are illuminating, but also confirming of what you might expect: lots of people prejudiced by race are also sexist, xenophobic, deliberately offensive, and into conspiracy theories. The second set of charts is even more comprehensive.

July 16, 2015

Coda for iOS

Panic has just released an update to Coda for iOS — goodbye, funny Diet Coda name — and it’s amazing. Between the redesigned UI and vastly expanded capabilities, it’s already a solid update, but they’ve brought it to the iPhone too, and that’s a crazy good proposition.

As a web designer, what device are you using when you notice issues with how your site looks on your phone? Your phone, right? Now you can make those edits for real. For the past few months, I’ve spotted things that didn’t look quite right with this site on my phone. Each time — whether I was on the train or waiting for a coffee, or whatever — I fired up Coda on my phone and fixed the problem right there. It’s pretty much perfect.

I swear they didn’t pay me for this or anything (though I have had the privilege of beta testing the app). Coda’s just that good. Every site I’ve ever made as a freelancer has been built in Coda on my Mac, and the iOS version is now just as capable.

Apple Watch Sales Are Great or Crappy Depending on Which Analyst You Ask

Remember that Slice “Intelligence” report from last week in which they claimed that Apple Watch sales had dropped 90% since peak? Well, if you ask a different group of analysts, the Watch is selling fine.

It’s worth keeping in mind that these estimates are based on the same official data from Apple: none, whatsoever. It’s all a bit academic, frankly, because Apple doesn’t plan on releasing specific sales data for the Watch, so analysts won’t even know if they’re right.

But, though this article from Mark Hibben at Seeking Alpha is just as spitbally as anything based on the Slice report, he does make one smart observation:

The idea that consumers are “losing interest” in the Apple Watch is likely a fallacy as self-serving to Apple detractors as the idea that consumers would quickly lose interest in the iPhone 6. Sounds like the same template, doesn’t it? This message gets repeated over and over in the tech media with only a slight variation: Apple’s products are just fads and consumers will quickly get tired of them.

Of course, that’s the whole point of these analyst estimates: to answer the question of whether Apple has created the next big thing, again. But it falls into the same pattern of those assuming Apple is on the precipice of collapse, as so many have done for so long.

July 15, 2015

Paying for an Underground Fare With an Apple Watch

Apple switched on Apple Pay yesterday in the UK with a reported 250,000 retail locations supporting it from launch. In addition, you can use it with the contactless readers in the London Underground. Pay close attention to the image in the linked post: the Underground readers are all on the righthand side as you walk through the gate, but most people are right-handed, so they probably wear a watch on their left arm. I wonder if frequent Tube riders will make paying easier by swap which wrist they wear their Apple Watch on.

Apple Introduces Its First 4-Inch A8-Powered iOS Device

Apple’s last major update to the iPod Touch was nearly three years ago, so this is a bit of a surprise. The new colours were expected, but the extent of this update — including new cameras and the A8/M8 combo — is pretty awesome.

It is a little odd that the marketing page emphasizes five colours — space grey, silver, gold, blue, and pink — but it’s also available in red for the Product Red campaign. It’s just as much a new iPod Touch as the other colours, and it’s just as “stunning”, per the marketing copy.

Apple also rolled out new Shuffles and Nanos in the new colours. The Nano doesn’t even get a software update to look current; it retains the incredibly glossy iOS 6-esque UI.

Update: Well, that explains the Nano.

July 14, 2015

Left and Leaving

I’ve been fearing this day for a while now, and it’s arrived. The Weakerthans are over. Drummer Jason Tait:

Word is getting out that The Weakerthans are done. Here’s the song we used to take the stage to for years. Bye bye.

I’ve liked a lot of bands and artists over the years, and listened to a shitload more, but the Weakerthans have stuck by my side for everything. I’ve seen them live four or five times, the last time being a few years ago, and hearing the double snare hit at the beginning of “Psalm for the Elk’s Lodge Last Call” still gives me chills. Not my money, they are the best band Canada has ever created. I will greatly miss seeing them live.

They’re on Apple Music, if you have no idea what this post is all about. I’m sure you’ll find something you like, though my recommendations are the aforementioned “Psalm”, “This is a Fire Door”, “Leash”, “Confessions of a Futon Revolutionist”, and this post’s title, “Left and Leaving”.

The World’s Biggest Startups Are Growing Up

In business terms, if not in behaviour. Alistair Barr, for the Wall Street Journal:

With revenue growth ebbing, profit margins shrinking and shares flat, Google is curbing hiring and seeking ways to run its sprawling empire more efficiently, according to recruiters, venture capitalists and others familiar with the matter.

[…]

For many years, Google teams assumed they could add staff each year. Now, Google executives are selecting which groups can hire, based on the company’s strategic priorities. Since late last year, many Google teams have had to submit plans describing how additional employees will produce specific business objectives, such as increased revenue or more users.

For example, Google last year capped hiring at the struggling Google+ social-media division, while the Nest connected-home unit was given more leeway to grow, according to people familiar with the changes.

Graham Lee quoting John Gruber (via Michael Tsai):

At just 20 percent of unit sales, Apple isn’t even close to a monopoly. At 92 percent profit share, they have a market dominance that rivals any actual monopoly the tech industry has ever seen. We don’t even have a term for this situation, it’s so unusual.

[…]

The thing it’s important to remember about monopolies or monopsonies is that they are not inherently bad: badness happens when an entity uses its dominant position in a market to set prices or other terms that are not considered fair, and that’s a pretty woolly situation. When the one buyer in your market decides that your contribution is “amateur hour” (sucks to be a hobbyist, I guess), or that your content is “over the line”, and doesn’t want to buy your product, you have no other vendors to sell it to: is that fair?

These companies aren’t little any more. They’re huge, and have the kind of influence over our lives that their market cap implies. Sometimes, though, we forget that. Whether that’s because they both project an image of friendly youthfulness or because the law is having a hard time keeping up with rapidly-changing technology, I’m not sure. It sure is interesting to watch this era take shape.

It’s Time for Flash to Die

Graham Culey:

If Adobe Flash is ever going to be kicked to the kerb (as it seems it should be) then a date clearly needs to be declared to drive the push to a Flash-free world. It’s not just important for browsers, of course, but also for companies whose websites and in-house applications might rely heavily on the technology.

The problem is that perhaps Adobe doesn’t feel happy acknowledging that securing Flash is beyond them, and so is unwilling to drop the product. The truth is that the company would probably gain a lot more respect from the internet community if it worked towards this ultimate fix for the Flash problem, rather than clinging on to the belief that it might be able to one day make Flash secure.

It’s long past time for Flash to die. To begin with, Google should stop bundling such an enormous security hole into Chrome, which has been the world’s most popular web browser for a while now. If they were to do this publicly, with some fanfare, Adobe would likely feel compelled to respond. And there’s no way they’ll actually secure Flash.

News Sites Are Fatter and Slower Than Ever

Frédéric Filloux:

Two major industry trends should force us to reconsider the way we build our digital properties. The first one is the rise of ad blockers that pride themselves at providing faster navigation and at putting less strain on computers. Users made publishers pay the hard price for giving up browsing comfort and speed: in some markets, more than 50% of visitors use ad-blocking extensions.

The second trend is the rise of mobile surfing that account for half of pageviews in mature markets. And, in emerging countries, users leapfrog desktops and access the web en masse through mobile.

Interestingly, because of the way AdBlock is built and the number of iframes that are on popular websites, AdBlock often slows down browsers, though Filloux found otherwise. Apple’s new integrated content blocker doesn’t have this issue. But that’s something of an aside.

As much as I complain about JavaScript trackers and the like slowing the web down, I can’t help but think that part of the problem with news sites, specifically, is the number of them that try to bring the print experience online. Web fonts are slow to render, but really popular, especially with news sites. The same goes for very complex dynamic layouts. News sites seem to take the slowest elements of the web and bundle them together into one tedious package.

A Watch Expert Reviews All of the Apple Watch Bands

I’ve been using the 38mm Sport with a Classic Leather Buckle for a while now. While the white Sport Band that came with it is comfortable, it’s fairly informal. The combo I’ve settled on looks great, and it’s the lightest-weight combination you can make.1 That Ariel Adams agrees that these are two great band options is relieving to hear, particularly when there’s considerable choice.

One thing that struck me when I my Classic Leather was its edges and sides. Watch the linked video closely or check out the photos and notice how the sides are smoothly cut and sealed, with crisp edges. There’s something about it that looks artificial, but Adams says that this is an indication of better construction, and not cheapness. A lot of the tech review sites are adamant that Apple’s watch bands are of a lower quality, but appearances are deceiving. Apple isn’t kidding around when they say these are really great straps; Adams seems impressed, at any rate.


  1. The watch I was wearing previously was made of titanium, so increased weight is noticeable. ↩︎

July 13, 2015

iTunes 12.2.1

It includes a fix for a crappy situation in which iTunes Match (read: DRM-free) songs were swapped for Apple Music (read: DRM’d) songs. Jeremy Horwitz over at 9to5Mac explains the delicate procedure for remedying this, if you were affected:

If you want to restore a downloaded, Apple Music DRM’ed track to normal, DON’T just delete the DRM’ed version of the song from your iTunes library. Try to do this, and the dialog box above will pop up. Hitting return or the blue-highlighted button will obliterate the track from both your library and Apple’s servers, such that you might not be able to get the track back.

Instead, Apple says, you should control-click and choose “Remove Download” for all tracks that were incorrectly downloaded as Apple Music. Then control-click again and choose “Make Available Offline” to re-download them correctly, without DRM.

Let me get this straight: the bug could taint portions of a local library with DRM, and the removal procedure requires exact steps that are counter to what you may be expecting, and that following the steps you may expect instead will nuke the track almost entirely unless you use another workaround explained by Horwitz in his post? This isn’t acceptable at all.

Authors and Booksellers Accuse Amazon of Antitrust Violations

David Streitfeld, New York Times:

The Authors Guild, the American Booksellers Association, the Association of Authors’ Representatives and Authors United said in letters and statements being sent this week to the Justice Department that “Amazon has used its dominance in ways that we believe harm the interests of America’s readers, impoverish the book industry as a whole, damage the careers of (and generate fear among) many authors, and impede the free flow of ideas in our society.”

[…]

Among the destructive practices cited by the critics was Amazon’s appearing last year to engage in content control, “selling some books but not others based on the author’s prominence or the book’s political leanings”; selling some books below cost as loss leaders to drive less well-capitalized retailers — like Borders — out of business; and blocking and curtailing the sale of “millions of books by thousands of authors” to pressure publishers for better deals.

If these accusations are investigated and, ultimately, proven, this seems pretty straightforward. There’s nothing about these allegations that are the result of Amazon being a web-based business; it’s an old-fashioned abuse of power. That is, if these allegations are true.

FTC Looking Into Apple’s Cut of Competitors’ Music Streaming Subscriptions Sold Through the App Store

Diane Bartz and Julia Love of Reuters:

Apple recently launched a new music streaming service, Apple Music. It also provides the App Store platform for competing streaming services including Jango, Spotify, Rhapsody and others.

Apple takes a 30 percent cut of all in-app purchases for digital goods, such as music streaming subscriptions and games, sold on its platform.

While $9.99 has emerged as the going monthly rate for music subscriptions, including Apple’s, some streaming companies complain that Apple’s cut forces them to either charge more in the App Store than they do on other platforms or erode their profit margins.

I don’t know what the law is around this sort of behaviour, but it illustrates how murky it is, and how the legal system isn’t keeping up with rapid advances in technology. The closest analogy I can think of are supermarket house brands, but those are physical goods subject to vastly different regulation than electronic communications.

July 12, 2015

Reddit Is Not the Front Page of the Internet

Samantha Allen, the Daily Beast:

But Reddit became a web destination and a traffic powerhouse by virtue of the clicking, viewing, and typing habits of a relatively narrow subsection of Internet users. Seventy-four percent of Reddit users are men, the highest of any social networking website. Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube all come much closer to gender parity. Describing Reddit without making reference to its gender asymmetry is akin to reporting on Pinterest, which is 72 percent female, without noting that the site caters to women.

And, indeed, when The New York Times reviewed Pinterest in 2012, they rightly referred to it as “female-oriented,” but when the CEO of a 74 percent male social network resigns after facing intense criticism from its users—much of it laced with misogyny—they somehow forget to label Reddit, in turn, as “male-oriented.” Reddit too often passes in the media as unmarked and neutral territory while sites like Pinterest get pigeonholed as girly.

I used to browse a few specific subreddits occasionally — Panic History is pretty funny — but either it became far more hostile, or I began to notice far more hostility. In either case, the site is a cesspool of the worst kinds of human beings (read: men) with internet access on the planet, and it’s outrageous and presumptuous for them to think they are the “front page of the internet”.

On Negative App Store Reviews During Betas of iOS and OS X

Nobody who actually needs this reminder will see this great article from Federico Viticci:

We all have to keep in mind, though, that developers get the short end of the stick here. When it comes to App Store reviews that point out issues on betas of iOS and OS X, there is nothing they can do. They can’t respond to them, they can’t release compatiblity and feature updates for public betas, and yet they’re left dealing with the outcome of negative reviews. These are smart folks, and they know that their apps have issues on beta versions of iOS and OS X. Not only it’s not useful to leave negative reviews for those problems now – it’s not fair to developers.

This is the first year that Apple has offered a public beta of iOS which is, by far, their most popular platform. I have long argued that they should be blocking reviews written from iOS developer betas, and I think it’s ridiculous that they’re not doing it for the public beta. No, it’s not going to stop a determined jackass from being a jackass, but it will prevent people casually leaving one star reviews for apps that don’t behave correctly in the beta.

The Tidal Lie

The Verge’s Chris Ziegler on June 23:

Lossless streaming isn’t a gimmick. In fact, it’s the opposite: streaming services can’t entirely obviate owned music without it. Average-quality streams are great for the bulk of the market, but hardcore music lovers will absolutely pay a little more for something that sounds noticeably better. (I’m one of them.)

The Verge’s Chris Ziegler on July 7:

But what does this all actually mean in the real world? We wanted to find out, so we put a bunch of Vox Media staff in front of the camera for a blind test between Spotify, Tidal, and Apple Music.

[…]

The results were very, very surprising to me. It was generally random across the board, though Spotify fared slightly worse than Apple Music and Tidal overall. In roughly 29 percent of the tests, subjects couldn’t tell any notable difference at all. Tidal — which wants you to pay more for lossless quality — most definitely didn’t take the crown, and in several cases, subjects actually identified it as the worst-sounding of the three.

Marco Arment reacted:

If you need to try really hard to identify whether there’s any difference at all, it probably doesn’t matter.

Invest your energy and money in what matters so clearly and obviously that nobody needs to strain to hear the difference: great headphones or speakers fed by great recordings of great music.

Yep.

July 10, 2015

Using San Francisco in HTML and CSS

Craig Hockenberry:

As a developer, there are often cases where we need to use the system font on web pages. Many times these pages are embedded in our apps and manage things like remote settings or documentation. In these contexts, matching the content to what the customer sees in their surrounding environment makes a big impact on the user experience. Think about how out of place an app feels when it displays Sparkle release notes in Lucida Grande while running on Yosemite.

We’ll soon be faced with a lot of surrounding content that’s displayed in San Francisco and will need ways to specify that same font in our CSS. It turns out that’s not a simple thing to do.

Hockenberry has a smart “hybrid” solution. What’s kind of fun about this discovery is how -apple-system-font — the self-descriptive system font declaration — renders on the current OS X/iOS releases. If you open his test page, you can see some subtle differences between Helvetica Neue (the red text) and the system version of Helvetica (the last three examples).

Photos 1.1

A quick preview from Jason Snell. This is nice to have back:

Yes, in Photos 1.1 you can add a location to an image or batch of images that weren’t geotagged, as well as edit the location of data of already-geotagged images. To do this, you open the Inspector window. A not-yet-geotagged image will offer a section of the window labeled Assign a Location. Clicking in this area will let you enter a street address or a name of a point of interest, and Photos will search Apple’s Maps database. If that location isn’t good enough for you, you can always click on the pin and drag it around the map, placing it wherever you like.

Not only is this the return of a feature I’d been missing, it comes back stronger than ever. This sounds great. Based on what I’ve heard and played with so far, I don’t think that I’m going to fall in love with it yet, in the same way I did with Aperture. But it’s now the primary way I edit my photos, and I like it more each time I use it.

Update: Based on an email from Brian Kimball, I took another look at this functionality and it doesn’t seem to be up to the tasks of power users.

As he pointed out, it relies on the Apple Maps POI database, which can be a crapshoot as we’ve previously discussed. Furthermore, because it relies upon search, it’s incredibly difficult to bulk tag photos in slightly different places – that is, you must tag them all identically, or modify them one at a time, which is tedious.

So, from the perspective of an average user, I maintain that this is stronger than ever. You simply select photos, search for a location, and you’re done. But if you want even slightly more granularity in your workflow, you’re hooped.

Joshua Topolsky Fired From Bloomberg

Dylan Byers, Politico:

In recent weeks, the disagreements between Bloomberg and Topolsky hit a fever pitch, sources there said. This week, Bloomberg finally declared that he no longer wanted to work with Topolsky and demanded that he be moved off the Digital team. Topolsky agreed to leave on Thursday, though he will stay at Bloomberg offices until next week, when the company is expected to make a formal announcement.

Joe Pompeo:

Bloomberg/Micklethwait weren’t down w/ Topolsky/Tyrangiel/Smith’s designy, splashy, photo-driven design for Bloomberg Biz, per my sources.

According to Alexa — so take it with a grain of salt — Bloomberg’s traffic skyrocketed immediately after the launch of the redesign. I’d venture a guess that these new visitors have generally been younger and less traditional. By that measure, it’s been a success, but the makeover received a mixed response:

… a vibrant, responsive design relaunch for Bloomberg Business that pulls you in as much as it spits in your eye.

[…]

Note the pinkish overlays. The strange, overlapping logotype. The pushy, flat hues. This error page. Scroll down and you’ll find a Web 1.0 gradient behind an exposé on the Islamic State.

I don’t understand the redesign, yet I’m oddly drawn to it, and I visit Bloomberg far more now than I ever had previously. But it’s jarring, and it clashes somewhat with the assumed image of a company reporting largely on economics and world politics.

Is that the entire reason for Topolsky’s outing? Probably not, and the company’s framing is pretty odd in that light:

Josh Topolsky is one of the most creative digital journalists that I have met. He has done a wonderful job for us in launching Bloomberg Business — the numbers speak for themselves — and he has remained a consistent innovator.

But:

[Michael] Bloomberg, a notorious micro-manager, had been fighting with Topolsky for months about the direction of the website, which had been relaunched under Topolsky’s leadership in January, company sources said.

Strange.

July 9, 2015

Unnatracktive

Glenn Fleishman, for Macworld:

No matter your feelings about ads, it’s reasonable to be worried about and want to block sites that have no business — literally, it’s none of their business — tracking you, and to be angry at those feeding us malicious software and trying to coax our secrets from us. Some balance would be nice. Without it, readers will continue to take matters in their own hands.

The only reason content and ad blockers exist is because web ads and trackers became so pervasive, intrusive, and downright creepy. It took the control away from users and ultimately put it in the hands of advertisers, largely bypassing any control from publishers. Many, like iMore, found themselves fitting with the contextual advertisement status quo. Some found an opportunity to take it into their own hands in a respectable manner; others, like the Next Web, were dicks about it.

The rise of content and ad blockers has required companies to get creative about how they show us ads. Buzzfeed has mastered the art of “native” advertising on the web, but that also kinda sucks for readers because it feels deceptive. The short sponsor posts popular among many sites feel more honest, but they’re straddling a fine line between a clearly-marked sponsor post and a native ad.

It’s a hard question: how do you get paid on the internet in a way that feels respectful to readers? Is it as simple as clearly labelling sponsored content as such? Is there a better way?

Talking About Diversity, as a White Dude

Cate Hudson:

Lately I’ve been watching more men give talks about diversity. Personally I’m in favour of this, because 1) If women could fix this, we would have by now – making “diversity” a “woman’s issue” is a way of perpetuating the status quo. And 2) there is clearly a subset of men who won’t listen to women talking about this (or maybe anything), and perhaps they won’t listen to men on this topic either but it’s worth a try.

That being said, I’m seeing some things reoccur and I think they are problematic. So, I offer some suggestions.

Smart caveats for not only talking about diversity, but thinking about it too.

Several People Are Emojiïng

Slack now has support for dynamic emoji-based reactions. I hope everyone copies this, because I’d use the smiling pile of poo out of it.

Bad Ads and Content Blockers

If you want a textbook example of an outstanding response to complaints, look no further than Rene Ritchie at iMore. Notice how I didn’t make some snarky reference to how slow it is or how “heavy” it is? They’re working on it:

Ads in and of themselves aren’t bad, and can indeed provide a service where everyone wins, which is why so many sites and so many mediums employ them. But many of the ads—and the services that deliver them—suck. We all know that.

[…]

We—and by “we” I mean the Mobile Nations design and tech teams—have done a lot to streamline the site templates over the last few months. We rolled out new review templates, new article templates, and just last week, a new home page template. All are considerably lighter and faster than anything we’ve ever had before. And it’s something we’re continuing to work on and make even better.

It’s true. The whole team there seems to have been working really hard to make their site way, way better without reducing their ad revenue, and I applaud and thank them for that.

But the fact that anything like this has to be written is a testament to just how shitty advertising is on the internet. Between ad exchanges that run bidding in real time against keywords on the page, to images, movies, and Flash animations, to the tracking scripts that live underneath, there’s far too much going on for any of it to be efficient. Furthermore, it’s detrimental to privacy, and these ads generally feel cheap.

But as Ritchie points out, Mobile Nations can’t run without them:

Mobile Nations is still an independent company, with no media conglomerate or VC funding behind us, and we still have to pay our dozens of writers, videographers, developers, designers, and support staff, and all of our expenses.

While we sell premium ads directly to advertisers, that only fills a small subset of the required “inventory” to support the network. Some 85% of ads we served last month were “programmatic”—provided by ad exchanges like Google Adx and Appnexus. Those exchanges are pretty much black boxes. We get a tag, we insert it, and ads appear.

I’m really impressed with how much they do without additional funding, almost like an old-school media company. They consistently produce some of the best Apple-centric writing on the web. So, this, to Mobile Nations, iMore, and Rene directly: sorry for making you the scapegoat. It’s just that I love the words on the site so much, but hate the underlying foundation. Sometimes I forget that the things I write might actually be read by people.

But iMore, to their credit, are taking care of this. They’re improving, where few others will. I’m not sure what it will take to convince other major sites to take another look at all the advertising and analytics scripts they use, and what impact that has on their page weight, but it’s a start. Maybe content blockers in the most popular mobile web browser will be the spark.

July 8, 2015

Reading Tea Leaves

Microsoft announced some big changes to their smartphone hardware business (read: Nokia) today:

Microsoft Corp. today announced plans to restructure the company’s phone hardware business to better focus and align resources. Microsoft also announced the reduction of up to 7,800 positions, primarily in the phone business. As a result, the company will record an impairment charge of approximately $7.6 billion related to assets associated with the acquisition of the Nokia Devices and Services (NDS) business in addition to a restructuring charge of approximately $750 million to $850 million.

[…]

“We are moving from a strategy to grow a standalone phone business to a strategy to grow and create a vibrant Windows ecosystem including our first-party device family,” [CEO Satya Nadella] said. “In the near-term, we’ll run a more effective and focused phone portfolio while retaining capability for long-term reinvention in mobility.”

This is terrible. That’s a lot of lost jobs, and a lot of money Microsoft is spending to get rid of those jobs.

But the media coverage around this has been really interesting because of two things Nadella said: “standalone phone business”, and “first-party device family”. Vanessa Wong of Buzzfeed interpreted this in a fairly straightforward manner:

Microsoft is backing down from its attempt to become a major smartphone maker, saying today that it is moving away from efforts to build “a standalone phone business.”

Read: Microsoft won’t make phones any more.

Michael Calore of Wired read it differently:

Given that Microsoft is dismantling its “stand-alone phone business” (aka Nokia) and focusing instead on a “first-party device family” (aka Surface), it’s reasonable to expect a Surface Phone to show up soon.

Read: Microsoft’s doubling down on its efforts to make smartphones.

Only one of these can really be correct. Either Wong is simplifying the press release, or Calore is reading far too much into it.

“A Technical Glitch”

Nathaniel Popper, New York Times:

Trading on the New York Stock Exchange was shut down for hours on Wednesday as the exchange tried to cope with what appeared to be a technical glitch, rather than an attack.

[…]

The first technical problems appeared soon after the opening bell rang at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, when orders for several smaller stocks failed to go through, Mr. Costa and another trader on the floor said.

These systems never go down, so I bet the inside story of this would be relatively mundane, if not for its context. Nevertheless, I’d love to know the technical details on this one.

July 7, 2015

Apple Watch Sales Coverage Plunges 90% in Accuracy

Free up your RAM and CPU — it’s another iMore link. (Sorry.) You may have seen headlines today claiming that Apple Watch sales have “plunged 90%”. You may also recall Apple mentioning that they would not be releasing precise sales figures for the Watch. So how was this figure derived?

Well, turns out that a company called Slice tracks online shopping by filtering email accounts and parsing out tracking numbers and receipts. Then, they aggregate the data gleaned from these email accounts, do some math, and present it as research. And some dumbasses in the press gobble this stuff up.

Rene Ritchie does a great job of discrediting this ridiculous report.

Apple Music Is Integrated, but Not Intertwined

Ben Lovejoy:

I gave my first impressions of Apple Music on day two, and my main disappointment remains: despite putting both owned and streamed music into a single app, there is absolutely no real integration between the two. All the evidence suggests that Apple Music has no awareness of my owned music.

After years of Genius submissions, Apple Music apparently can’t automatically figure out what I listen to. Shouldn’t this kind of thing “just work”?

Humans Curating Apps

Jean-Louis Gassée might be on to something:

If it’s a good idea to use human curators to navigate 30 million “songs”, how about applying human curation to help the customer find his or her way through the 1.5M apps in the Apple App Store? Apple bought Beats for $3B and spent a good chunk more to build its Music product. Why not take another look at the App Store jungle and make customers and developers even happier?

Between Genius, Near Me, and Explore, Apple has taken a lot of stabs at automating app suggestions. They also do have human curators creating featured app collections on the App Store. But a more regular rotation of apps — including surfacing some of the lesser-known apps — combined with a more tailored approach could be a huge boon to developers and users alike.

Disable Auto-Following Artists on Apple Music

By default, iTunes Connect auto-follows all the artists in your music library, regardless of how much you listen to them, whether they’re on a compilation, or whether you even want to see posts from them. For example, because of that whole U2 fiaso, you’re probably automatically following them, too. Turning that behaviour off is a little hidden, as Steven Troughton-Smith and Anthony F Waller found.

On a side note, my Connect section — a week after launch — has posts from these artists:

  • many from Trent Reznor
  • one from Aerosmith
  • a handful from Leon Bridges
  • a couple from U2 (though those should disappear now that I’ve unfollowed them)
  • one from Autolux
  • a few from Beck
  • a couple from the Boxer Rebellion
  • a few from the Strokes
  • one from the Black Keys
  • one from School of Seven Bells
  • a video from FKA Twigs used in the Apple Music promo

Compared to Ping, it’s not bad, but I also have over 2000 artists in my library. Connect is not necessarily a hive of activity yet (and maybe there’s a reason for that).

Update: Of course, it only auto-follows iTunes purchases, not all artists in your library.

July 6, 2015

Third-Party Accessories Sold in Apple Stores to Have Apple-Designed Packaging

This, according to Mark Gurman:

Apple is looking to own yet another aspect of its product experience. The company is gearing up to revamp its third-party accessory selection across all of its retail stores by next week by reducing the amount of accessories available in stores to ones sold in packaging co-designed by Apple. Apple has been working with select third-party accessory makers over the past six months to redesign boxes so that the experience more closely matches the boxes of Apple’s own products.

[…] According to the memo, the packaging will be mostly white to match the Mac, iPhone, and Apple Watch boxes, while they will also include simpler fonts, new photography, higher-quality materials, and more consistent compatibility labeling.

This is a pretty bold way for Apple to flex their muscle on third parties. No longer is a really good product sufficient criteria for consideration in an Apple retail store; now, the company needs to be cool with handing over part of their marketing as well.

Plenty of accessory companies already attempt to ape Apple’s packaging already, though. If you’ve walked into an Apple Store lately, you must have noticed how many boxes are on the shelves with plain lettering and a product photo on a white background, covered in a semi-satin coating for a luxurious look. Through that lens, it’s almost beneficial for accessory companies to have this kind of access to Apple’s marketing team. Requiring better labelling of accessory compatibility is an obvious benefit to customers, too.

It’s pretty bold, though, for Apple to require accessory manufacturers to subject their packaging for their critique and revision. It’s not without precedent — with the exception of iPhones, plenty of cellular carriers repackage the phones they sell. It’s a big step, and I bet a lot of accessory makers are uneasy about this, so we’ll see how this plays out. It’s good business to be in an Apple retail store, and everyone knows it — especially Apple.

Update: Good stuff from Sebastiaan de With.

Comment Out

The Verge is turning off their comments by default. Nilay Patel explains:

What we’ve found lately is that the tone of our comments (and some of our commenters) is getting a little too aggressive and negative — a change that feels like it started with GamerGate and has steadily gotten worse ever since. It’s hard for us to do our best work in that environment, and it’s even harder for our staff to hang out with our audience and build the relationships that led to us having a great community in the first place.

I’d argue that Verge commenters have been needlessly negative since always, but that’s just my observation.

Patel promises that comments will be back later this year, so I’m not sure this is going to fix anything in the long term. They’re still leaving the discussion boards open, thereby simply burying the more toxic discussions a couple of clicks deeper. Why not make that change permanent, leaving the article pages without comments? Seems like it wins all around: the discussion remains, but it’s in a dedicated part of the site, making the stories feel less bloggy and more newsy.

Previously: Reuters, Recode, and Bloomberg all got rid of their comment sections, among others.

Instagram Images Are Now 1080 Pixels Square

Great news for users of iPhones 6 and high-res Android devices, which previously upscaled images from 640 pixels square. That size is still perfectly optimized for older iPhone models, though, so I’m curious about whether they’re sending different sizes of images to different devices. Instagram hasn’t released any information about the change beyond a tweet, but I’ve reached out to Mike Krieger and will update this if he responds.

Interestingly, while the 1080 pixel size seems perfectly optimized for the 1080 × 1920 pixel iPhone 6 Plus, that device typically upscales content to the 1242 pixel (414 point) rendering size it uses, then downscales to fit the actual display pixels. If you’re on an iPhone 6 Plus and you can think of a way to test whether this is the case, please let me know what you find.

July 3, 2015

Clarifying the Apple Music DRM Situation

My apologies to Serenity Caldwell, writing for iMore,1 for liberally quoting her piece here, but I have complaints. Not with Caldwell, but with what this piece means:

Just like with the company’s iTunes Match service, Apple Music allows you to upload the music you own on your Mac to iCloud; from there, you can stream and download it using your iCloud Music Library to your other devices.

Apple’s upload algorithm for Apple Music works in two parts. First, it scans your library for any tracks that also happen to be in Apple Music, and matches those together—so when you download a copy of your song on a different Mac, iPhone, or iPad, you’re getting the high-quality 256kbps version from the Apple Music catalog.

Then, any songs it can’t match, it uploads directly to iCloud; when you download a copy of those songs on a different device, you’re getting the same file you had on your Mac.

This all sounds exactly like iTunes Match, with one tiny exception:

… you’re getting the high-quality 256kbps version from the Apple Music catalog.

Not the iTunes catalogue — the Apple Music one. iTunes lacks DRM; Apple Music has DRM. That’s the difference: it’s subtle, and it’s poorly-explained. iCloud Music Library is a completely different pitch to that of iTunes Match and iCloud Photo Library, despite sounding similar, if not identical.

Here’s what Apple says about iTunes Match:

With iCloud, the music you buy from the iTunes Store automatically appears on all your devices. And for music you haven’t purchased from iTunes, iTunes Match is the perfect solution, letting you store your entire collection in iCloud — even music you’ve imported from CDs or purchased somewhere other than iTunes.

And for iCloud Photo Library:

iCloud Photo Library helps you make the most of the space available on each of your devices by automatically storing the original high-resolution photos and videos in iCloud and leaving behind the lightweight versions that are perfectly sized for each device — taking up only as much space as needed.

Reading between the lines, these pitches sound like Apple is saying “Hey, don’t worry about your ever-increasing media libraries taking up way too much space on all your devices. Leave it with us, and we’ll keep it safe.”

Here’s the pitch for Apple Music:

Your entire library lives in iCloud when you’re an Apple Music member. First, we identify all the tracks in your personal collection and compare them to the Apple Music library to see if we have copies. If we do, we make them instantly available in iCloud across all your devices. If you have music that’s not in the Apple Music library, we upload those songs from iTunes on your Mac or PC. And because it’s all stored in iCloud, it won’t take up any space on your devices.

Sounds pretty much the same, doesn’t it? And it has a similar name to iCloud Photo Library, so you’d expect it to behave in a similar way. But it does not. Caldwell, continued:

So what gets DRM? Any matched track you download to another device. It gets DRM because the file itself is coming directly from the Apple Music catalog, which, as we established above, has DRM on it.

Uploaded tracks that you re-download will never get DRM, because they’re not coming from the Apple Music catalog.

So: tracks that are matched to the gigantic Apple Music catalogue will have DRM applied when you download them again, whether that’s to your iOS device, or another Mac that doesn’t have the song in its local library. Apple will just store, locker style, tracks that you upload, like a live bootleg recording or something recorded by a local band that isn’t on Apple Music (or the Beatles). This is almost identical behaviour to that of iTunes Match, with the exception that tracks are being matched to the DRM-laden Apple Music catalogue, not the DRM-free iTunes catalogue.

So this makes sense:

That said: Do not upload all your tracks from iTunes to iCloud, then delete the local copy on your Mac. If you do that, you’re getting rid of your original, DRM-free copies. And you’re leaving yourself without a physical backup of your data, which I never, ever recommend.

It’s probably a bad idea to be without a local backup of your music, but that’s almost what it sounds like with iTunes Match: store everything in the cloud, and you’ll have it available any time you want. It isn’t as risky because the files are DRM-free, and are of a good enough quality (256 kbps AAC) that most people really won’t care that they’re not the “original” files.

Apple Music and iCloud Music Library are pitched so closely, and the nuanced differences are not explained very well. Yet, these differences are incredibly important to know, because a normal person could reasonably consider their library to be safely off their computer, readily accessible when it’s needed, and largely recoverable if they were to switch to a different service.

This is an article that Serenity Caldwell should not have had to write. Not because of some of the FUDdier articles around,2 but because Apple should be more clear about the difference between Apple Music and iTunes. I would bet actual money that Apple wanted to — in essence — add these features onto the existing iTunes library, but were prohibited from doing so by record labels.

The reality is more confusing than that, and Caldwell’s article helps clarify it somewhat, but I still feel a bit lost in an array of very similar products. If this sounded simple to you before reading Caldwell’s article or mine — two libraries of music with two similar matching products that behave in differing ways — you seem to be one of very few.


  1. I have my reservations about linking to this page — or, indeed, anything from Mobile Nations: depending on the ads on the page, I’m seeing over 2,000 errors and 80,000 warnings generated by the advertising and analytics scripts on the site. iMore’s site continues to be a wart on the web, and it’s barely tolerable that this hasn’t been fixed. ↩︎

  2. Thanks to Cult of Mac for reliably being the serious counterpart to Gizmodo while retaining similar journalistic integrity↩︎

iTunes Disconnect

Earlier this week, I asked what the new iTunes Connect features are like for artists. Dave Wiskus happens to be both a musician and a writer, and answers pretty much all of my questions in this post. In short, Connect sounds clunky and overwrought, and there’s this:

I can see no way to invite people to follow us on Connect. I can share the link. I can even tweet about it. Yet there’s no way to know how many followers we have, encourage people to follow us, or directly engage with anyone who hasn’t already purchased a song from us on iTunes. That feels broken.

Indeed, it does. Based on Wiskus’ documentation, it looks like it lacks the litheness of Twitter, the scale and engagement of Facebook, and the demo tape feel of SoundCloud. I don’t quite know what to make of it yet.

And then there’s this:

[Update: I got an email from Trent Reznor this afternoon. Apple is aware of the growing pains and is working to address them.]

Damn you, Dave.

July 2, 2015

Shining a New Spotlight on Spotlight

Like Ben Brooks, I switched over to Spotlight from my “power user” search utility — in my case, Alfred — shortly after Yosemite launched, and I haven’t looked back since. It’s grown up a lot, and feels way, way faster than it ever did previously. It’s pretty much exactly what I need. I do still have it mapped to Option-Space, though.

EU Plans to Ruin Net Neutrality

Glyn Moody, Ars Technica:

A two-tier Internet will be created in Europe as the result of a late-night “compromise” between the European Commission, European Parliament and the EU Council. The so-called “trilogue” meeting to reconcile the different positions of the three main EU institutions saw telecom companies gaining the right to offer “specialised services” on the Internet. These premium services will create a fast lane on the Internet and thus destroy net neutrality, which requires that equivalent traffic is treated in the same way.

Awful news. This sets a dangerous precedent for the rest of the world.

iCloud Music Library Woe

A classic Apple cloud service launch. Have a backup.

Update: Reddit user OMGshNicholas (not me) says [sic]:

Apple music added the song “no better” by lorde into one of my playlists six million times. Now my iTunes crashes every time I open it. What. The. Fuck.

What the fuck, indeed.

DRM Is the Difference Between iTunes Match and iCloud Music Library

Kirk McElhearn:

When you match and download files from iCloud Music Library (without having an iTunes Match subscription), however, you get files with DRM; the same kind of files you get when you download files from Apple Music for offline listening.

This means that if you’ve matched your library with Apple Music and iCloud Music Library, you need to keep backups of your original files. If not, you’ll end up with files that you can’t play without an Apple Music subscription.

This is a really confusing aspect of Apple Music. iCloud Music Library has the same 25,000-song restriction as iTunes Match and does pretty much the same thing, so I figured it would behave similarly. Because of this, I thought iTunes Match would be made redundant by iCloud Music Library and be discontinued.

It doesn’t behave the same way, though: iCloud Music Library serves DRM’d versions of your music back to you regardless of where you purchased or ripped it from. But you can still add a $25 per year iTunes Match subscription to your $10 per month Apple Music subscription and get the same DRM-free behaviour. Apple doesn’t explain this very well, and I wasn’t able to test it because my library exceeds the limit (for now). I think that I’ll just be streaming music for now, and not relying upon Apple Music quite yet.

Update: Marco Arment:

I bet iTunes Match gets Google Readered within a year. Don’t get too attached…

This would explain why the details are a little fuzzy. If Match is getting phased out, it might be less confusing when the differences are not fully explained. But for someone who understands the difference, it also feels deceptive, if unintentionally so.

July 1, 2015

Assorted Thoughts and Observations About Apple Music

It’s only been a day since Apple launched their newest streaming music service, so the thoughts I have about it are fairly preliminary and would probably comprise several shorter posts. For convenience, they’re here in a bulleted list.

  • Listening to Beats 1’s first hour of broadcasting was the most fun I’ve had with a radio station in a long time. It’s pretty clear that Zane Lowe is stoked about its launch, and his enthusiasm is infectious. The other main DJs — Ebdo Darden and Julie Adenuga — are equally exciting. Their energy makes the difference between listening to the playlist and listening to the radio.

  • Launching with a little-known band feels like it harkens back to the days when Apple could serve an artist their career on a silver platter simply by being in an iPod ad. Those days have faded somewhat, with the company opting for far bigger names to close out their events — U2, Foo Fighters, and Elvis Costello, to name a few.

    In fact, the first hour and a half of Beats 1’s broadcast was a great blend of big-name artists and lesser-known acts. Sure, there were tracks from Dr. Dre, AC/DC, and Eminem, but Lowe also played songs by Courtney Barnett, Day Wave, and Wolf Alice.

    I think Apple is very honest and genuine when they say that they love music. I don’t think it’s marketing spin or a way for them to try to acknowledge the iPod’s role in their current success. In addition to the business case, the amount of attention they’re putting into all of the different facets of Apple Music is a reflection of this love and passion for making music listening better.

  • As I alluded to above, the presence of an actual engaged DJ is what separates a playlist from a radio station. It’s what’s missing from most actual radio stations these days, and what works so well with Beats 1. Not only does it create excitement, it also offers some continuity, or at least an explanation of why different songs are being played. Ebdo Darden played Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “Otis”, and then chased it with “Try a Little Tenderness” by Otis Redding. Why? Because “Otis” sampled Otis in a big way, and hearing that connection is important for understanding its context in the song. It allows listeners a way to appreciate the artistry and creativity of both artists.

  • On the other hand, Beats 1 doesn’t depart that much from terrestrial radio in ways it could on the internet. There are still too many station idents (“You are listening to Beats 1″) and ad breaks (though way shorter than typical radio stations).

    There’s also no profanity or objectionable lyrics. I understand that Apple wants to keep this family-friendly, and that some people just don’t want to listen to profane lyrics, but it does feel a little jarring to listen to Dr. Dre’s classic “Let Me Ride” with a bunch of the lyrics reversed because they contain references to drugs and violence. It numbs the song of its intentional bite.

    There are ways of doing a split stream, so an explicit stream can be broadcast alongside a clean stream, both live. Art isn’t always clean and family-friendly, and I think Apple’s insistence that it should be neuters songs that use less savoury lyrics for artistic effect.

    Darden, for example, played Jay-Z’s classic “99 Problems”. With the last word removed, the line “rap critics say that he’s ‘Money, Cash, Hoes’” has less connection to the lines that follow, wherein he dismantles the notion that he only talks about wealth and women. Similarly, the storytelling in the infamous second verse is harder to follow when some of the more profane lyrics are removed.

    Or you could take Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer”, with the wonderfully crude chorus “I wanna fuck you like an animal”. Drop the protagonist’s spitting “fuck” and it becomes much weaker.

    You could argue that it’s the artists’ fault for including objectionable lyrics, but I think that there’s a valid case for profanity, and that “99 Problems” and “Closer” are accessible songs that make liberal use of it. Removing it from those songs — as with many, many others — neuters the artists’ intent.

  • All of the Beats hosts seem very excited that they’re broadcasting to 100 countries worldwide, 24/7. Did you know that they’re broadcasting to 100 countries worldwide, 24/7? Well they’re broadcasting to 100 countries worldwide, 24/7.

    Doing a worldwide live music station is a potential programming nightmare, though. When I was in high school, I worked in the sound booth for a local theatre company. One of the other technicians was a guy who used to work as a radio host, and he was telling me that the programming they had for different times of day was carefully controlled, particularly in the evening. Past midnight, internal policy dictated that the DJs couldn’t play anything by the Smiths, for example, because it would be just too depressing for anyone awake at that time of night.

    But it’s even simpler than that. When it’s 8:00 in Los Angeles, it’s 4:00 in London, and midnight in Tokyo. The music someone wants to listen to during their morning commute is probably different to the music they’d want to listen to during an afternoon commute or late-night partying.

    Understanding Beats 1’s role in your music listening is complicated. For some people, like those who get most of their new music from the radio already, it could be the first thing they put on in the morning and the last thing they listen to at night. But for someone like me, who more deliberately chooses music by my mood or time of day, it’s a little more like a place to go when I am more interested in simply having something to listen to. It’s complicated, and I’m not entirely sure what problem Apple is solving with this.

    It’s kind of cool, though, when I know that someone on the other side of the world is listening to the exact same thing that I am. It carries a buzz that’s kind of like the World Cup.

  • Having a library that’s a blend of my own, local tracks and those available through Apple Music is pretty much my ideal approach. It’s something that Spotify tried to do with its local library, but I’ve built my iTunes library over the past ten-plus years, and it’s more trouble than its worth to bring it over to Spotify. Now, though, that functionality is built-in.

  • I’m digging the new psychedelic colour scheme for the app icons on OS X and iOS. For real. I know it’s a bit garish, but it’s also fun and it doesn’t look ugly, I don’t think.

    If you wanted to read too much into it, you’d notice that it uses a similar magenta as the previous icons, plus some blue and some purple, both of which could be seen as representations of the two other aspects of the service, all blended together.

    But, as I said, that’s probably reading way too much into it.

  • Spotify, Rdio, and Pandora must have been dreading Apple’s entry into the streaming music business. By effectively bundling it into the built-in apps, it becomes almost a default choice. I know a few people who have already cancelled their Spotify subscriptions, and I might do just that too. I wonder how their user base will change, and whether they’ll sue on presumed antitrust grounds.

  • The Connect feature seems to be used far more than Ping was, but it also still feels overwrought and “heavy”, as least on my Mac. (I haven’t been able to try Connect on my iPhone yet because a new beta seed hasn’t been released.) It will be very interesting to see if artists actually continually post work-in-progress pieces, non-catalogue music, and those kinds of things. It isn’t like they haven’t been able to do that already, between YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. What compels them to post on Connect? Can an artist cross-post to other social services at the same time? If you know anything about the artist publishing tools for this, please get in touch.

  • The instrumental version of The Fragile is magnificent.

I have a lot more to say about Apple Music and all that it entails. It’s a big, comprehensive array of services and apps. More to come, I’m sure.

Apple Releases OS X 10.10.4

John Gruber:

OS X 10.10.4 shipped today, and as expected based on the developer betas, Discoveryd is gone, replaced by an updated version of good old mDNSresponder. At WWDC, word on the street was that Apple closed over 300 radars with this move. Not dupes — 300 discrete radars.

Three hundred individual bugs fixed simply by reverting to mDNSresponder shows just how flaky discoveryd really was. Shocking.

Also in 10.10.4:

Fixes an issue where a website could prevent the user from navigating away by presenting repeated JavaScript alerts in Safari.

From the bottom of my radar #18927527, thank you.

June 30, 2015

A Familiar Taste

The Apple PR force is out in full swing for the launch of Apple Music, but I’ve found most of the initial impressions lacking. Kory Grow’s interview with Trent Reznor for Rolling Stone, on the other hand, is far more interesting:

That aspect of treating music like art is important. And we’ve tried to do that everywhere that you come across music in Apple Music. When you listen to a radio station here, every song has been chosen by somebody. When your recommendations pop up “For You,” that wasn’t based on some tag that came into the system; it was based on editors sitting and saying, “We like this subgenre of hip-hop which branches off into these artists which branch off into these artists,” and paying attention to the actual behavior in the app. And we believe that the result ends up being something that feels better. It makes music feel more personal and it raises it up a notch into something what it deserves, rather than a big-box-retailer feel, like, “Here’s the stuff, pick what you want.” And some people will say that none of that matters, but it does to us and we are proud of the love and care that we are treating music with.

Genius — like most recommendation engines — is entirely based on a programmatic approach to finding similar music, and the effects of that have been plain to see. Artists are suggested based on the number of common downloads, similar band members, and similar genres. That’s really limiting, and a human curator can patch that gap. This is based on the Beats Music model, but it’s vastly more integrated in its Apple Music guise to create a kind of blended library between your local files and streaming songs. I’m looking forward to trying this out as soon as I can.

June 29, 2015

iOS 9, El Capitan, Safari Content Blockers, and Shit-Ass Websites

Developer Dean Murphy spent an hour tossing together a quick content blocking extension for Safari on iOS 9, testing it against iMore:

With no content blocked, there are 38 3rd party scripts (scripts not hosted on the host domain) running when the homepage is opened, which takes a total of 11 seconds. Some of these scripts are hosted by companies I know, Google, Amazon, Twitter and lots from companies I don’t know. Most of which I assume are used to display adverts or track my activity, as the network activity was still active after a minute of leaving the page dormant. I decided to turn them all off all 3rd party scripts and see what would happen.

After turning off all 3rd party scripts, the homepage took 2 seconds to load, down from 11 seconds. Also, the network activity stopped as soon as the page loaded so it should be less strain on the battery.

That’s a big difference, which means only one thing: iMore is another one of those shit-ass websites. John Gruber in 2011:

One article at TheNextWeb weighed in at over 6 MB and required 342 HTTP requests. 73 different JavaScript scripts alone. Absurd. I did a reload on the same page a few minutes later and it was up to 368 HTTP requests but weighed “only” 1.99 MB.

So how are we doing now, four years later? That same article is now 11.0 MB requiring 236 HTTP requests. (I turned off all of my desktop Safari extensions before running these tests.)

For their part, iMore didn’t ignore Murphy’s article. Rene Ritchie:

To answer the obvious questions, yes. Everyone here and at our network, Mobile Nations, saw it. Everyone here and at our network were also well aware of it, and have been working for months already to improve it. That we haven’t made it further, faster is an indication of how hard it is when you’re talking about websites visited by tens of millions of people, and companies that employ more than a dozen writers. Of course, everyone here is going to continue working to find better, smarter ways of solving the problem, because that’s our jobs. I’m sure other large websites are doing likewise.

His “response” article — which, I should point out, is entirely text-based, unlike a media-heavy review — weighs in at a whopping 14 MB with 330 requests. That’s one shit-ass website, largely because it’s bogged down by unnecessary tools.

As someone who operates a website with an advertisement served by JavaScript, you may see me as a hypocrite: on the one hand, I’m looking forward to a faster web via content blockers; on the other, I directly profit by a lack of script blocking. But the Carbon ad on the right doesn’t seem to have noticeably degraded performance on this site, and it’s a tiny static image in the sidebar.1

By contrast, a glance through the changelog of my blacklist clearly shows certain ad networks and utilities that are disrespectful to performance and, consequently, readers. With increasing amounts of web browsing being done on mobile devices — and with iOS devices occupying a significant chunk of the mobile web market share — the pressure is going to be on for the makers of inefficient scripts and utilities. With any luck, the web will be better for it.


  1. And, unlike most web tools, it doesn’t track you site-to-site, or even within this site. There’s a referral code on the end of the link so Carbon knows if someone clicks it, but that’s it. There’s no targeting, and no other funny business. ↩︎

Facebook Hired Seven Black People in 2013

Rupert Neite, of the Guardian:

The most recent EEO filing available shows Facebook hired an additional seven black people out of an overall headcount increase of 1,231 in 2013. At that time Facebook employed just 45 black staff out of a total US workforce of 4,263. Facebook’s black female headcount increased by just one person over 2013 to 11, and the number of black men increased by six to 34. There were no black people in any executive or senior management positions.

The United States is 12% black; California is 5% so.

Over the same period the company’s white employee headcount increased by 695. There were 125 white people holding executive and senior management positions at the firm.

That’s not even close to proportionate.

Update: Angelica Coleman adds her experience from Dropbox, ironically, on Facebook:

I left Dropbox because as a black woman working on bettering myself, the tech industry doesn’t give a shit. Even with the skills to do more, if I had stayed at Dropbox, I would have always had the submissive role of serving others and never calling the shots. Why? Because a white manager didn’t want to see me do more.

There is a long way to go.

The Apple Watch Will Never Have a Killer App

And that’s okay. Ken Segall (via Federico Viticci):

If you need any proof, just look at the iPhone. We can all agree it started one of the biggest technology revolutions of our time. So … what’s the killer app?

Music? Banking? Fitness? Games? Email? Messaging? Camera?

That depends on who you are. Any one of those things, or a combination thereof, might be worth the price of admission. But what’s killer to one person is boringly insignificant to another.

Further, what you consider to be killer probably existed previously on your laptop or camera. Which means that the killer part of iPhone really isn’t an app — it’s the concept of the phone itself. One device that does all that stuff, and fits neatly into your pocket.

I’ve long thought that how the product is going to be used — its context — is a vastly more important part of software development than it has been given credit for. As the timespan of the product’s use decreases and the number of situations in which the product will be used increases, the impact of minor poor decisions becomes amplified.

Or, to put that another way, desktop software can be a little rougher around the edges than tablet software because you’re spending more time with it in more limited circumstances: usually on a desk, or on your lap. Smartphone software needed to be designed with more awareness of the context in which it would be used because it would be used for minutes, not hours, in vastly more varied situations. The Apple Watch is a distillation of software and hardware. It is strapped to you, so it goes pretty much wherever you go. It’s also physically smaller and used for significantly less time, so apps built for it need to be laser focused.

Consequently, it’s harder to determine its killer app. It’s stripped-down, and apps on the Watch are typically less feature-rich than their iOS or OS X siblings. But don’t mistake a lack of features for a reduction in usability; they are usable in far more places because of a reduction in features.

Ever since I’ve been using an Apple Watch, I’ve had people stop me in the streets, at the grocery store, and in elevators asking about it. What I’ve realized is that it is a difficult product to demo, which is odd because I use it all the time. I should know what to demo, but I find myself at a loss every time because it’s a product that can only really be demonstrated in the context of life. I usually resort to demonstrating the wrist raising gesture, though, because it is — in the words of my mother — “kind of freaky”.

We Need Detailed App Release Notes

Every time I open the App Store, I see a sea of updates with the generic “bug fixes and performance improvements” note, or some variation thereof. David Chartier has noticed the same, but for him, it isn’t merely irritating:

Developers, I know you have an internal list of these changes for each release. Withholding them from customers is wrong, lazy, and misleading, and it erodes trust with your users.

Please give us an accurate list of what’s new in each update so we can make an informed decision about whether to update.

What Chartier says is logical, but I doubt that most people look at app release notes before updating. In fact, I doubt most people look at them at all, because automatic updates are on by default. That’s a great convenience for most people, but a really crappy way to avoid being stuck with an update you don’t want.

I’d like to think most developers would be considerate to users and any escalation of permissions or the use of that information would be better documented than, say, a patch for a small feature not behaving correctly. But I want to know exactly what’s being changed with every update; I want to know what bugs are being fixed, so I can test my bug reports against updates with more knowledge. Far too many apps have joined the Facebook school of vague change logs.

Thanks to Ben Zigterman for surfacing this link for me after I forgot who wrote it.

June 26, 2015

It’s About Time

We did it in Canada about ten years ago, and it’s about time that the momentum of forty US states manifested itself in federal law. There is no straight or gay marriage in the United States — just marriage. There are a lot of new rights that come with this decision, but the right for two people to express their love in a binding way is beautiful. A true leap forward for humanity.

See Also: The full ruling (PDF), and Bloomberg’s timelines of other historic changes of mind.

A Significant AppleCare+ Improvement for Mobile Devices

Joe Rossignol for MacRumors:

Apple has updated the terms of its AppleCare+ Protection Plan for iPhone, iPad, iPod and Apple Watch to cover batteries that retain less than 80% of their original capacity within the extended warranty period, whereas it previously covered batteries that retained less than 50% of their original capacity. The change applies to AppleCare+ purchased for iPhone, iPad, iPod and all Apple Watch models on April 10, 2015 or later.

If AppleCare+ wasn’t a good deal before, it is now. While a drop below 80% capacity shouldn’t happen before two years of standard use, it’s not a rare occurrence either, as far as I can figure out. It happened to my MacBook Air after a year of standard usage, and I’ve seen very poor capacity on friends’ iPhones, too. This coverage now matches the Mac AppleCare rules, aside from covering only two years instead of three.1 Good stuff.


  1. Unless you have a Watch Edition. ↩︎

June 25, 2015

Our Half-a-Week Long National Nightmare Is Over

Taylor Swift has confirmed that all of her albums, including “1989”, will be available for streaming on Apple Music in a kind of implicit exclusive — other streaming services still offer the same library to free and paid subscribers. I have a hunch that Spotify and Rdio are working on a way to split their libraries between their tiers.

Microsoft Has a New Vapid Mission Statement to Replace Its Old Vapid Mission Statement

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in an internal email to employees:

Mission. Every great company has an enduring mission. Our mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. I’m proud to share that this is our new official mission statement. This mission is ambitious and at the core of what our customers deeply care about. We have unique capability in harmonizing the needs of both individuals and organizations. This is in our DNA. We also deeply care about taking things global and making a difference in lives and organizations in all corners of the planet.

Read that mission statement again:

Empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.

“Every person”? “Every organization”? Sounds like the Microsoft of yore. “Achieve more”? Isn’t that kind of obvious for pretty much any company that makes tools or utilities? I can’t think of a company that would openly and unironically brag about making people achieve less. This statement means nothing. That’s par for the course for Microsoft, but it’s disappointing because Nadella is a very different CEO from his predecessor.

Update: Smart response from Tze-Ho Tan on Twitter:

Compare to Jobs’ for Apple in 1980: “To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.”

I still think it’s pretty hollow, as any corporate mission statement seems to be, but there is a subtle difference. Jobs’ statement clearly specifies how Apple plans to make a contribution: “by making tools for the mind”. That qualifies the statement, and it becomes meaningful as a result. It’s not much, but it’s something.

June 24, 2015

A Disaster Foretold and Ignored

Patrick Barker:

On my home forum Sysnative, a user (wavly) was being assisted with a WU [Windows Update] issue, which was going well, aside from the fact that wavly’s WU kept getting disabled randomly. It was figured out eventually after using auditpol.exe and registry security auditing that the program that was responsible for disabling WU was Disable_Windowsupdate.exe, which is part of Samsung’s SW Update software.

SW Update is your typical OEM updating software that will update your Samsung drivers, the bloatware that came on your Samsung machine, etc. The only difference between other OEM updating software is, Samsung’s disables WU.

The BBC:

Adobe has released an emergency software patch for Flash after it found a serious vulnerability being exploited by hackers.

The company said it had evidence of “limited, targeted attacks” and urged people to update their software immediately. […]

This vulnerability – which enables hackers to take control of a computer – affects Windows, Mac and Linux systems.

Craig Timberg, in the Washington Post:

Your computers, [hacker collective LOpht] told the panel of senators in May 1998, are not safe — not the software, not the hardware, not the networks that link them together. The companies that build these things don’t care, the hackers continued, and they have no reason to care because failure costs them nothing. And the federal government has neither the skill nor the will to do anything about it.

[…]

The result was a culture within the tech industry often derided as “patch and pray.” In other words, keep building, keep selling and send out fixes as necessary. If a system failed — causing lost data, stolen credit card numbers or time-consuming computer crashes — the burden fell not on giant, rich tech companies but on their customers.

It isn’t working.

“Bravely Default”

Seth Clifford:

For years, I’ve eschewed using the default iOS apps in favor of third-party offerings, because maaaan, I always knew better. Apple’s apps are for regular people, and I’m a PowerUser™, maaaan. I’d configure all kinds of workarounds and extra steps because I wanted to wring every last bit of functionality out of my devices, and the basic starter apps just weren’t ever enough.

Something’s changed though–well, two things–in the past few years. I’ve lost my taste for fiddling a little bit, and the default apps Apple ships with its devices have gotten, well, better. Better than other things I could use? Not in all cases. But better… enough.

But:

Certainly I have specific pieces of my workflows that must remain more complex; OmniFocus is a great example. The complexity-to-ability balance is tilted way in favor of the amazing productivity gains it offers when life throws a lot of stuff at me. But that new Notes app looks hot. Dark Sky is cool, but I just end up opening Weather way more often. I’m rediscovering that using Reminders for very simple nudges can be highly effective outside of OmniFocus. Most shockingly for some nerds, I’m just using the built-in Podcasts app. Why? Because my use case is having a podcast show up, and me listening to it.

It’s interesting that Clifford called his decision to switch to mostly default apps “brave”. He’s kind of right — using the default anything amongst a tech-savvy audience is practically begging for an onslaught of confused @ replies and backlash.

Every so often, as with most nerds, I think about my workflow and reconsider my assumptions of The Way Things Ought To Be. Am I using the best Twitter client for me? Am I using the best calendar replacement, or is there a better one out there for my specific use case? And then I realize that I haven’t really changed much in my workflow in about five years because I’m largely doing similar stuff as I was then, albeit in different proportions. And that realization raises all sorts of other questions, but that’s an internal crisis for another time — first, I have different email clients to try.

What I’ve realized is that you should limit your exploration outside of default apps if:

  1. there’s an aspect of the app that you use all the time that is either not present, is woefully buggy, or is inadequate; and

  2. the app or its function is something you use constantly.

If it’s an infrequently-used app or you can live with its features, keep using the default. It’s probably fine, plus you get all of the benefits of the app being integrated with the rest of the system in some way. But if it’s an app that you use all the time and it’s driving you crazy, you may want to look into something else.

Take Clifford’s example of using the default Reminders app over OmniFocus for simple reminders. I don’t use OmniFocus at all — I only need simple reminder capabilities — but Reminders is woefully inadequate even for me, because it is my only todo list. I create reminders for specific dates and times a lot, and doing it in the Reminders app is a huge pain in the ass for something that should be such a lightweight function. It requires:

  • tapping in the blank cell to create a new reminder,

  • typing the reminder title,

  • tapping the little info icon to bring up the details view,

  • switching the date reminder to “on”,

  • using iOS’ still-a-little-clumsy date picker to assign a date and time, and

  • tapping “Done” to save it.

That’s too complicated. In Fantastical, I just tap the “new” button, type “remind”, then the title and time details in natural language, then tap “Done”. As this is something I do a lot, it saves me enough time and stress that I find the $5 I dropped on Fantastical a no-brainer. But I wouldn’t try anything else now because my grievances with Fantastical aren’t worth it. That’s really the tradeoff. Find one app that does what you need it to well enough that you can live with it, and stick with it. And, for a lot of people, that’s going to be the default.

June 23, 2015

Instagram Has a New ‘Explore’ Tab

Jessi Hempel, Wired:

First, Instagram will highlight trending places in a box across the top of the screen. The software will show you both the most attention-getting events (Houston flood; Bonnaroo concert) and also things that are close to you (Central Park concert; new restaurant opening). Second, users can scroll sideways to see curated collections of photographs that members of Instagram’s community team cull from the most popular Instagrammers’ feeds. This is where you’ll stumble across your kid skateboarders, say, or remote islands you’ll dream of visiting. Last, Instagram will highlight trending hashtags in the center of the screen, promoting the most popular tags. The bottom third of the screen will look much like it has, surfacing compelling posts, but Instagram’s new design will allow users to move seamlessly from one photo to the next, rather than returning to the Explore page between photos.

This is a huge shift for Instagram’s strategy. What once was Twitter, but for photos, is now — uh, *checks Twitter* — never mind, it’s still Twitter, but for photos. As Twitter has added features for trying to make billions of tweets topical, Instagram has done the same for its photos. Only one catch:

While Explore will initially be available only to US users, Instagram will introduce a more powerful search engine globally.

Yet again, an interesting new feature or product is only available to Americans. Nothing wrong with Americans, mind you, but as a Canadian, this is infinitely frustrating.

But you can now, at long last, search by location, so that’s good.

Google Launches Play Music

Elias Roman of Google:

At any moment in your day, Google Play Music has whatever you need music for—from working, to working out, to working it on the dance floor—and gives you curated radio stations to make whatever you’re doing better. Our team of music experts, including the folks who created Songza, crafts each station song by song so you don’t have to. If you’re looking for something specific, you can browse our curated stations by genre, mood, decade or activity, or you can search for your favorite artist, album or song to instantly create a station of similar music.

[…]

The new free, ad-supported version of Google Play Music is launching first in the U.S. It’s available on the web today, and is rolling out this week to Android and iOS.

I’m Canadian, so this doesn’t impact me in the least. It does, however, explain why I’m very excited for the launch of Apple Music. Unlike Google Play Music, Pandora, or iTunes Radio, Apple Music looks like it’s launching here, amongst something like 100 other countries. That’s unheard of in a contract-encumbered industry. It’s not the entire iTunes library available anywhere, but it’s going to be an impressive launch regardless.

June 22, 2015

I Knew You Were Trouble

Musicians may have won a victory against Apple’s onerous terms for their forthcoming Music service, but the floodgates of discontent have now opened. Kirk McElhearn clarifies who is (not) getting paid:

Apple, like most other people in this discussion, are a bit confused about their terminology; they don’t pay “artist[s],” they pay rightsholders. They make two payments: one for publishing, and one for performances. Clearinghouses for publishing rights then divvy up their share to songwriters, and record labels let some of their income trickle down to the actual artists. (Except, of course, with the smallest indie bands who actually contract directly with Apple, or any other streaming music service. Most indies go through aggregators, who distribute their music on streaming and download services, and who collect the income and pay it to individual labels.)

Charles Perry wants to know why app developers have been ignored for so long (via Michael Tsai):

So no one – not even Taylor Swift – is saying that Apple is breaking any laws. What Swift is saying, and what I agree with, is that it’s a bad deal for artists. Creators should be compensated for the use of their creations.

This debate is important to app developers because, whether we like it or not, digital music has been devalued – just as our digital creations have been. In just a few short years people have gone from paying tens of dollars for an album, to paying 99 cents for a single track, to paying pennies or even nothing to stream an entire library of music. This parallels in a rather frightening way the history of the App Store where, in an even shorter amount of time, mobile software that once sold for tens of dollars now is lucky to sell for 99 cents. Just as the music industry, now including Apple, has moved to an “all-you-can-eat” subscription model to bring down the per title cost of music below that 99 cent threshold, it now doesn’t seem unreasonable that a similar all-you-can-eat subscription model might be used to allow per title pricing of apps to fall below 99 cents as well.

Not only that, many developers feel obligated to provide free updates in perpetuity for that $0.99, or they risk the wrath of angering their users. Apple hasn’t made it easy for them: there’s no official way to offer upgrade pricing, nor is there a way to offer a free demo of iOS apps.

Esteemed photographer of many artists and bands Jason Sheldon points out that many of his contracts — including the one for shooting a Taylor Swift show — are just as anti-artist [sic]:

How are you any different to Apple? If you don’t like being exploited, that’s great.. make a huge statement about it, and you’ll have my support. But how about making sure you’re not guilty of the very same tactic before you have a pop at someone else?

Photographers need to earn a living as well. Like Apple, you can afford to pay for photographs so please stop forcing us to hand them over to you while you prevent us from publishing them more than once, ever.

It isn’t news that art gets shafted at its intersection with business, and I’m glad that we’re talking about it.1 As it has become easier for artists to make their work known, however, it seems as though we haven’t gained additional leverage over these contracts. It’s good that the Andy Warhol of music is able to influence change for the better, but it’s yet another reminder that a thousand indie artists won’t have the impact that Swift does. It is, quite simply, exploitative, and all parties involved know that.


  1. If you’re in Calgary between June 24 and July 27, come see my work. Reception is June 27 from 8 PM until whenever UAS decides to kick everyone out. ↩︎

iCloud Photo Library Can Consume a Lot of Data Over a Cellular Connection

Adam C. Engst at TidBits:

Luckily, unlike many people, I don’t have a data cap for my Time Warner Internet connection, so at least that wasn’t a problem for me, as it might be for you. Where I did run into trouble is with my iPhone, on which I’m using the Optimize iPhone Storage option to reduce the amount of data transferred and stored. Tonya, Tristan, and I now share 2 GB of data on our family plan, and before last month, we had never come close to using that much, since we’re still accustomed to having only 250 MB each. So you can imagine my surprise shortly after I enabled iCloud Photo Library when AT&T texted me to say that I was approaching my 2 GB limit. […]

There are no settings to prevent iCloud Photo Library from working over cellular, and while I disabled cellular data for the Photos app, that made no difference. I could turn off cellular data in general (and I did once or twice, but that’s a hard thing to remember every time you leave the house), but by the end of the billing period, AT&T had hit me with $30 of overage charges for two $15 blocks of 1 GB of additional data.

It doesn’t appear as though full photos are being uploaded — that should only happen over WiFi, or at least that’s what happens for me. But there should be more stringent limitations baked into iOS for how much cellular data any app may transfer. Even though LTE has the bandwidth to support broadband-level services, its users often don’t have broadband-level data caps.

June 21, 2015

To Apple, Love Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift:

I write this to explain why I’ll be holding back my album, 1989, from the new streaming service, Apple Music. I feel this deserves an explanation because Apple has been and will continue to be one of my best partners in selling music and creating ways for me to connect with my fans. I respect the company and the truly ingenious minds that have created a legacy based on innovation and pushing the right boundaries.

I’m sure you are aware that Apple Music will be offering a free 3 month trial to anyone who signs up for the service. I’m not sure you know that Apple Music will not be paying writers, producers, or artists for those three months. I find it to be shocking, disappointing, and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company.

Swift is right — there’s no three month free trial where (almost) nobody gets paid in any other industry. During that trial, Apple should pay the artists. It’s as simple as that, and I don’t see how the company could view it any differently.

It is odd that Swift is only including “1989” in her boycott, though. I think it would be way more powerful if she and other artists were able to excise all of their works from Music until this is resolved. After all, the service is nothing without their work.

Update: Good news, everyone:

I [Peter Kafka] just got off the phone with Eddy Cue. I’m going to dump some notes in here, and then turn them into something more coherent in real time. Internet!

[…]

Cue says Apple will pay rights holders for the entire three months of the trial period. It can’t be at the same rate that Apple is paying them after free users become subscribers, since Apple is paying out a percentage of revenues once subscribers start paying. Instead, he says, Apple will pay rights holders on a per-stream basis, which he won’t disclose.

When Google’s Legal Team Becomes Your Legal Team

Jacob Appelbaum is one of the most prominent security researchers in the world, and one of the most outspoken defendants of a person’s right to privacy. So, naturally, he’s under some fairly extraordinary surveillance, with the government requesting access to everything, including his Google account, as collected by Bethany Horne in this Storify.

If you’re a regular reader,1 you know my stance on Google collecting all your information in a gigantic silo. But there’s one advantage to that: when they receive a wiretap or records request, their legal team scrutinizes it first. That probably goes for pretty much all companies; Apple’s legal department probably does the same thing. Having a multinational company’s legal team front-ending interactions with the justice department is pretty powerful.


  1. Thank you. ↩︎

June 18, 2015

Mike Ash Does Not Agree to Apple’s Terms

Mike Ash got an email from Apple about them automatically including his site’s RSS feed — among probably many, many others — as part of their new News app. His site’s feed is publicly available, so that’s cool with him, but there are some terms attached:

  • You agree to let us use, display, store, and reproduce the content in your RSS feeds including placing advertising next to or near your content without compensation to you. Don’t worry, we will not put advertising inside your content without your permission.

Apple didn’t get to be such a wealthy company by leaving money on the table, but automatically appending RSS feeds with ads seems gross to me. Aside from the philosophical objections one may have, it cheapens the experience a little. It feels like a product where some middle manager needed to justify the “bloody ROI”.

  • You confirm that you have all necessary rights to publish your RSS content, and allow Apple to use it for News as we set forth here. You will be responsible for any payments that might be due to any contributors or other third parties for the creation and use of your RSS content.

Fair enough.

  • If we receive a legal claim about your RSS content, we will tell you so that you can resolve the issue, including indemnifying Apple if Apple is included in the claim.

This is probably to protect Apple when a lawsuit is brought against third-party content, like if someone sued a writer on defamation grounds and named Apple because that story was available in News. And that makes sense; Apple should not be liable for stuff like that.

  • You can remove your RSS feed whenever you want by opting out or changing your settings in News Publisher.

And this is the brunt of it, because the email continues:

If you do not want Apple to include your RSS feeds in News, reply NO to this email and we will remove your RSS feeds.

As far as I can tell, these terms are broadly acceptable, with the exception of Apple selling ads against third-party content. But it also sounds like Ash is understandably upset that he’s being opted into these legally-binding terms unless he opts out. It probably wouldn’t hold up in court, but that question being raised should ring some alarm bells.

Update: Kevin Ballard in the comments:

[U]pon re-reading it, it seems like the Terms they’re saying applies doesn’t actually really legally bind you to anything. It’s not like a normal EULA where you’re being granted a license. They’re saying that these are the terms under which they (Apple) will operate, and if you aren’t comfortable with them, you can opt-out.

June 17, 2015

On Euphemistic Press Release Titles

I like to picture the offices of PR and marketing teams when there’s a giant corporate shakeup. There must be a fairly lengthy process of whittling the press release title down to the most anemic combination of words possible. Remember when Apple did that big executive reshuffle back in 2012? Here’s the title of that press release — one of the biggest executive and strategy decisions in the company’s history:

Apple Announces Changes to Increase Collaboration Across Hardware, Software & Services

It’s not wrong, but it’s also redefining the phrase “burying the lede”.

Here’s Microsoft’s equivalent, from today:

Microsoft Aligns Engineering Teams to Strategy

As if Microsoft were not strategic with their engineering teams before.

Anyway, here’s the seventh paragraph, after much preamble:

As a result of the organizational moves, Stephen Elop, Kirill Tatarinov and Eric Rudder will leave Microsoft after a designated transition period. Unrelated to the engineering restructuring changes, Chief Insights Officer Mark Penn has decided to pursue another venture outside Microsoft and will be leaving the company in September.

That’s a lot of high-ranking executives that are leaving. You may remember Stephen Elop from helming various companies and engineering their acquisitions, or his weird memo exactly eleven months ago following another intra-Microsoft reshuffling.

FCC Reminds AT&T It Was Insane to Offer Unlimited Data

Julia Greenberg, Wired:

I use a lot of data—and you probably do, too. American smartphone users, on average, consume 1.2GB of cellular data each month, according to a Mobidia Technology analysis last year. (Even more data is consumed over Wi-Fi.)

So it should come as no surprise then that AT&T and Verizon no longer offer the unlimited cellular data plans they once sold to new customers. Even so, AT&T promised those early customers who came to be thrilled at the luck of their unlimited data that they could keep their plans under certain conditions. But today, the Federal Communications Commission said AT&T didn’t keep its promise. Now the agency wants to fine AT&T $100 million for allegedly misleading consumers about what it actually means to have an unlimited wireless data.

There’s no way that AT&T could have predicted back in 2007 just how much data people would use in the future; that much is understandable. To keep offering plans marked “unlimited” but with a big fucking asterisk beside them is misleading, pure and simple. You know it, the FCC knows it, and — deep in whatever they have instead of hearts — AT&T knows it.

June 16, 2015

“On a Long Enough Time Scale, Everything Is a Fad”

Daniel Jalkut wrote what is probably the best counterpoint to Christopher Mims’ silly Mac-killing op-ed:

Why have people been so convinced, for years, that mobile is the future, while desktop computers are on the way out? What if mobile devices only fill the variety of temporary needs that arise from how we live today?

[…]

Years from now, I suppose it’s possible desktop computers will become obsolete, supplanted by mobile devices. But given the unpredictability of progress, I suspect we’ll look back at both classes of computing devices and chuckle about how silly it all seemed, before the advent of ______.

Guessing the future of a marketplace is brilliantly paradoxical. The amount of effort required for a company like Apple to bring to market a brand new product is so great that they need to begin planning it well in advance of when the market could be ready for it. But they don’t get to define the future; if everything goes okay, the market decides that. We are, in effect, in control of the future of technology, but only after being shown what it could potentially be. We can’t predict the future because we only have the present as a state of reference, but we do control the future.

Bug Writing Season

Rene Ritchie implores you to file your radars early this year:

With profound respect to everyone who ships pixels and bits, here’s what I’ve learned: When the first betas of OS X, iOS, or watchOS hit, there are still months to go before release. That means engineers have more time to work on fixes, so there’s a higher chance your particular bug will get fixed.

[…]

As later betas are seeded, and release draws near, Apple is forced to triage. Eventually, there’s only time to work on show-stoppers. The chance of a bug reported at that stage getting fixed, no matter how annoying, trends towards zero.

Ritchie has a good point. But filing bugs can range from a mild inconvenience to an enormous pain in the ass.1 Craig Hockenberry has a way to make it a little bit easier:

Now’s the perfect time to start using QuickRadar. As its name suggests, this project run by Amy Worrall, makes creating or duplicating bug reports much quicker. You’ll also find that a native Mac user interface is much easier to deal with than some web form pretending to be iOS 6.

QuickRadar is super nice. It runs nearly invisibly in the menubar, you can set up a keyboard shortcut to bring up a new radar window, and you can configure it to automatically duplicate the bug to the OpenRadar project.


  1. The number of times I’ve been asked to recreate data loss bugs in production operating systems is decidedly in the latter category. ↩︎

Ignoring Apple’s Fundamental Thinking

Christopher Mims wrote a widely-derided op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, arguing that Apple needs to drop the Mac line:

In the quarter ending in January of this year, a funny thing happened at Apple. The company took in the highest revenue for its Mac line ever, yet the Mac accounted for the lowest-ever proportion of overall revenue. Apple raked in $6.9 billion on 5.5 million Macs, just 9% of overall revenue. This would be a crazy thing to say for any other company, but Apple doesn’t need this revenue.

What the company does need, and like all ambitious companies occasionally strays from, is focus. If the iPhone is just coming into its prime, the iPad is an immature platform and the Watch is in its infancy. Yet Apple continues to invest in one-of-a-kind feats of engineering like the Mac Pro, which ships in volumes that are a rounding error on pretty much everything else Apple makes.

Even ignoring the Mac user story, Glenn Fleishman makes a compelling case for the Mac simply as a developer platform.

Apple will never again cede its future to other firms’ control. It’s why Apple makes its own chips, buys industrial-manufacturing firms that create special tools which it puts into its assembly partners’ factories, and even blows a wad of cash on a failed attempt to generate more sapphire screens.

And it’s why it has its own computer platform: 100 percent of software development for the iPhone, iPad, and Watch (and Mac apps) occurs on Macs. There’s no other way to assemble software for those devices. Even with the highest-end Mac hardware currently available, developers strain against the amount of time it can take to compile and test builds, whether in Mac-based emulators or when cross-loaded onto a developers’ test devices.

Meanwhile, the Macalope is typically direct:

Everyone is so concerned about Apple and its future. And for some reason that concern drives them to write this terrible anti-fan fiction. In effect, Apple’s power has driven them mad.

So Mims wrote a followup piece claiming that he was shocked — shocked! — that the tech press responded this way:

If we collected all the blistering heat generated by this week’s column on why Apple should phase out the Mac, I’m pretty sure it would be enough to power Apple’s headquarters for a month. Which is amazing to me, since I thought what I was saying was only a little bit controversial, and a natural extension of so many others’ reactions to last week’s Apple developer confab.

“There’s no way I could have known that suggesting the retirement of the original personal computer brand would make waves. Oh, please, don’t call it clickbait!”

Yeah, right.

Now, on the matter of the future: If Apple phased out the Mac, how would those who use it to get work done carry on? That’s the question filling up my inbox, and it’s one I wish I hadn’t cut answers to from the original piece.

I recognize this is probably an editor’s doing in order to fit the piece in the paper, but the web has no character limit. Mims could have extended the column on the web to include solutions to the obvious counterpoints; not doing so weakened an already weak piece.

Mims’ point is one that has been made countless times before, though with few titles as clickbaity as his WSJ article: that the computer is evolving, and that tablets will one day replace what we think of today as personal computers. That is, they may have similar form factors, but be using the same hardware as their mobile device counterparts:

It’s been clear since the debut of the iPad that Apple believes it will be the future of the PC. And countless PC makers have realized that, especially if people are going to use a tablet as their primary device, it needs to be able to snap into or easily connect to a keyboard and other input peripherals. Touch interfaces are great for certain tasks, but they’re just not enough on their own. If the iPad Pro isn’t a reasonable laptop replacement, suitable for the needs of 90% of the notebook-buying public, I’ll eat my hat.

Someone butter Mims’ hat and ready a sauté pan.

Indeed, sleuthing by one developer suggests that Apple is already laying the groundwork for developers to run OS X apps on the very same chips that are already in iPhones and iPads. Maybe we’ll get an iPad family that runs OS X apps without running OS X? Or “Macs” that only run iOS? Or, yes, I could be wrong about all this, and what this points to is OS X (i.e. Macs) that run on iPhone/iPad chips.

Mims hasn’t provided a timeframe prediction, only that “one day” we’ll be using laptops and desktops powered by ARM chips, running a hybrid of iOS and OS X. That much has been argued before, enthusiastically, and frequently. But what Mims has failed to articulate clearly is why the Mac brand needs to die for this to happen, instead of simply evolving to meet a new role.

Yet I still disagree. I doubt we’ll be using a hybrid version of iOS and OS X any time soon, with touch controls for when you’re using it on an iPad, and desktop controls on a laptop. I also doubt we’ll see Apple’s professional lineup move to ARM processors in the near future, though I could imagine something like the MacBook potentially using a high-end ARM CPU. But the MacBook Pro is still one of — if not the — best-selling lines of Macs Apple makes. They may have commoditized the Air, but the Pro still gets features first, it still sells extremely well, and it has a very distinctive core customer base. Yes, there are plenty of college students who buy a 13-inch MacBook Pro to browse the web on, but there are lots and lots of recording artists, drafters, designers, architects, movie editors, photographers, mathematicians, and physicists who require the kind of mobile power that the MacBook Pro provides in spades.

June 15, 2015

Spotify Rewind

Spotify is rolling out a sweet new feature called Rewind. Fletcher Babb, VentureBeat [sic]:

A man who appears to be a Spotify engineer posted the feature to Facebook post last night, revealing a public link to a mostly functioning new service.

Spotify did not immediately return a request for comment on the matter, but the Facebook post explains it best: “Ever wondered which artists you would be listening to if you were born in another time? Spotify can help you turn your music back in time (smile emoji), try it out!”

Apart from Babb’s awkward phrasing, and his inability to correctly link to the Facebook permalink, or to Spotify’s service itself, this is pretty cool. I took it for a spin with a few of my favourite artists — Refused, Deftones, and a third artist I can’t remember — and it returned some absolute jewels. The ’90s playlist was unfortunately obvious, with some Rage Against the Machine, Germs, and Incubus, but the ’80s playlist had stuff like Accepted’s “Monsterman”. It’s kind of fun, albeit limited.

Apple’s Increasing Localization for China

Mark D. Miller:

Most people in China get transportation by public transit. Having a mapping service in China without transit directions would be like having one in the US without driving directions. Apple hit this hard:

  • Apple developed transit directions for just 10 cities in the non-China world, but over 300 cities in China.

  • The non-China cities for which Apple has transit directions have a combined population of about 38M. Just the 9 listed cities in China have a combined population of over 130M.

In ways both explicit and implicit, Apple made enormous strides in their offerings to China. Having recognized the significance of China’s emerging middle class early, they’re farther ahead there than probably any of their Western competitors.

June 12, 2015

An Introduction to WebKit Content Blockers

New in Safari for iOS 9 and El Capitan is a content blocker-specific extension.

“But Nick,” you protest, “we already have extensions in Safari on OS X. And I already use content blockers like JavaScript Blacklist, to prevent the jackasses at Tynt and po.st from taking over basic functionality like copy and paste.”

Well, reader, there’s a good reason for introducing a new extension point. Benjamin Poulain writes on the WebKit blog:

The reason we are unhappy about the JavaScript-based content blocking extensions is they have significant performance drawbacks. The current model uses a lot of energy, reducing battery life, and increases page load time by adding latency for each resource. Certain kinds of extensions also reduce the runtime performance of webpages. Sometimes, they can allocate tremendous amounts of memory, which goes against our efforts to reduce WebKit’s memory footprint.

It is an area were we want to do better. We are working on new tools to enable content blocking at a fraction of the cost.

A while back, I was going to post this article about how AdBlock slows down your browser because it iterates through all the iframes on a page, running on each of them. I ultimately didn’t link to it because I think the author missed the point of why most people block ads: not because they’re slow, but just because they don’t want to see ads.

But I thought of it again after I heard about content blockers baked into Safari. I don’t use AdBlock, but I do use Steven Frank’s excellent ShutUp.css. The internet is much more peaceful without comments, but I also see a small performance hit on most modern web pages because of the number of iframes they contain.

This new extension point seems to smooth over these issues in a really nice way. Not only will this improve performance, I can now have ShutUp on my iPhone, too, and block the humungous JavaScript files so many sites use these days.

San Francisco UI and Compact

Apple has now released to developers copies of their new universal system UI type family, San Francisco. I’ve only done a little bit of digging into it but, so far, it looks like there are some significant updates and improvements compared to the versions released with WatchKit in November. There’s still no public copy of the rounded variant, however.

Apple’s Latest Product Is Privacy

Walt Mossberg, Recode:

Apple is clear in its belief that users are better off if personal data is stored locally as much as possible. The company makes settings for enhancing privacy relatively clear and easy for its customers. And some of this week’s new product demos were designed to show that local device data, like cloud data, can provide rich, helpful intelligence.

Yet Apple’s case isn’t impregnable. And it’s able to use privacy as a marketing point at least in part because that stance happens to fit its business model, and is harder to reconcile with Google’s.

Mossberg, to my eye, has this backwards: it’s not that higher privacy happens to fit Apple’s business model, but rather that their business model deliberately avoids violating or bending your expectations of privacy.

But I also think that I think I got this tradeoff between privacy and features all wrong. I was under the impression that the reason Google’s services work so well is because they have a consolidated privacy policy that allows them to blend data from almost every service they offer into one giant privacy-invading smoothie. They can then compare disparate pieces of data to try to determine what’s relevant to you now, and what can be done with that information.

Proactive search in iOS 9 demonstrates that it isn’t necessary to do that processing in the cloud, nor is it necessary to scoop up a ton of data to make these features work. If you get an email with a hotel booking, for example, it will suggest that booking in the calendar. This functionality does require scanning on-device email messages, but it doesn’t seem to leave the device, as far as I can tell. And because Apple’s business model doesn’t require them to know this kind of information, they really don’t care about it. What they do collect and store in the cloud is siloed.

June 11, 2015

Live with Phil

Marco Arment was at John Gruber’s annual WWDC live podcast recording and, oh boy, what a show:

But after a brief introduction from Merlin Mann and Adam Lisagor, John introduced, “and I shit you not,” Apple’s senior vice president of marketing, Phil Schiller.

Being familiar with John’s dry humor, I’m not sure most of the audience believed him. Many cheered. Some hesitated. For a few seconds, nobody walked out, and people started laughing, thinking they got the joke.

And then Phil Schiller really walked on stage.

There’s a lot to unpack with an appearance like this, and Arment does so expertly. Most important, though, is that it still felt like an episode of the Talk Show. After a few minutes of thinking “holy shit, it’s that great writer interviewing one of the most important product people in the world”, it settles in to a pretty familiar feeling. It doesn’t feel like PR; it feels human. You really need to listen to this episode.

Update: The video recording is now up, and the tension in that short pause described by Arment above is totally palpable.