Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

A History of Uber Since January 2014, in Excerpts

Carmel DeAmicis, reporting for Pando in January 2014:

Last month, Pando reported that an Uber driver in San Francisco had been accused of verbally and physically assaulting a passenger, James Alva. According to Alva, the driver called him a “dirty Mexican faggot” and then struck him several times when Alva tried to take a photo of him and his license plate to send to Uber.

The company confirmed that the alleged attacker was an Uber driver. However, since the police did not arrest the driver when called to the scene, the company chose not to investigate the incident further. At the time, Uber said it would temporarily suspend the driver, but not permanently ban him from driving for the company. [Updated: Since this post was published, Uber emailed to say the company deactivated this driver’s account from the system in December. Uber has not yet commented as to what prompted this change of heart.]

Throughout, Uber insisted that the driver had passed their standard background checks.

However, Pando has since learned that the driver — 28-year-old San Francisco resident Daveea Whitmire — has a criminal record, including felony and misdemeanor charges, and at least one felony conviction involving prison time. How, or why, Uber missed — or ignored — this criminal history is unclear.

In February 2014, GQ writer Mickey Rapkin spent a week as an Uber driver and interviewed CEO Travis Kalanick:

Not to make assumptions, but Kalanick probably wasn’t the first kid in his class to lose his virginity. But the way he talks now—which is large—he’s surely making up for lost time. When I tease him about his skyrocketing desirability, he deflects with a wisecrack about women on demand: Yeah, we call that Boob-er.

Gross.

Alicia Lu, writing for Bustle in October 2014:

Everyone’s favorite car service just had a major lapse in judgment. It seems that someone was thinking with their stick shift: Uber Lyon’s promotion with the Avions de Chasse app let customers be chauffeured around by amateur models instead of its regular drivers. The premise of it alone sounds pretty gross, but upon a closer look at the app’s website and the whole operation looks like the brainchild of a horny teenage boy and his older web developer friend. Coming to their senses, Uber has taken down any trace of the app and the promotion from its websites.

Matthew Williams reporting for Boing Boing in November 2014:

A few years ago, Uber posted a blog entry titled “Rides of Glory.” Uber searched its data, looking for anyone who took an Uber between 10pm and 4am on a Friday or Saturday night. Uber then searched that data for how many of the same people took another ride about four to six hours later — either from, at, or near the previous nights’ drop-off point.

“The greater the male/female ratio, the more likely that neighborhood had a Ride of Glory.”

What does this mean? Uber can track one-night stands.

Uber pulled their March 2012 post shortly after various news outlets and blogs started reporting on it in 2014.

Ben Smith of Buzzfeed in November 2014:

A senior executive at Uber suggested that the company should consider hiring a team of opposition researchers to dig up dirt on its critics in the media — and specifically to spread details of the personal life of a female journalist who has criticized the company.

The executive, Emil Michael, made the comments in a conversation he later said he believed was off the record. In a statement through Uber Monday evening, he said he regretted them and that they didn’t reflect his or the company’s views.

Sarah Lacy of Pando was the female journalist in question:

And lest you think this was just a rogue actor and not part of the company’s game plan, let me remind you Kalanick telegraphed exactly this sort of thing when he sat on stage at the Code Conference last spring and said he was hiring political operatives whose job would be to “throw mud.” I naively thought he just meant Taxi companies. Let me also remind you: This is a company you trust with your personal safety every single time you use it. Let me also remind you: The executive in question has not been fired.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Emil Michael still works at Uber.

Johana Bhuiyan and Charlie Warzel of Buzzfeed in November 2014:

Early this November, one of the reporters of this story, Johana Bhuiyan, arrived to Uber’s New York headquarters in Long Island City for an interview with Josh Mohrer, the general manager of Uber New York. Stepping out of her vehicle — an Uber car — she found Mohrer waiting for her. “There you are,” he said, holding his iPhone and gesturing at it. “I was tracking you.”

Mohrer never asked for permission to track her.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Mohrer still works at Uber.

Johana Bhuiyan in a January 2016 followup article:

As part of the settlement, Uber has agreed to pay a penalty of $20,000 to the attorney general’s office for its failure to report unauthorized third-party access to drivers’ personal information in a timely fashion. The ride-hail company has also agreed to adopt more rigorous privacy and security practices. These practices include password-protecting and encrypting the geo-location data of Uber riders and drivers, limiting access to that information to designated employees with “legitimate business purposes”, and incorporating multi-factor authentication and other “protective technologies” to secure personal information.

Shortly before this settlement was announced, the New York Times reported that Uber was valued at $62.5 billion. At that point, $20,000 becomes just another business expense.

Charlie Warzel and Johana Bhuiyan, in a March 2016 Buzzfeed report:

According to data provided by Uber to BuzzFeed News, the company received five claims of rape and “fewer than” 170 claims of sexual assault directly related to an Uber ride as inbound tickets to its customer service database between December 2012 and August 2015.

Uber provided these numbers as a rebuttal to screenshots obtained by BuzzFeed News. The images that were provided by a former Uber customer service representative (CSR) to BuzzFeed News, and subsequently confirmed by multiple other parties, show search queries conducted on Uber’s Zendesk customer support platform from December 2012 through August 2015. Several individual tickets shown in the screenshots have also been confirmed.

[…]

In one screenshot, a search query for “sexual assault” returns 6,160 Uber customer support tickets. A search for “rape” returns 5,827 individual tickets. Other variations of the terms yield similarly high returns: A search for “assaulted” shows 3,524 tickets, while “sexually assaulted” returns 382 results.

Gabriel Samuels, in a May 2016 report for the Independent:

Uber drivers are accused of sexually assaulting or raping customers almost three times a month, according to new figures which have outraged rape campaigners.

Freedom of Information data obtained by The Sun newspaper revealed 32 assault claims were made against employees of the taxi-hailing app in London over the past twelve months, equal to one every eleven days.

The figure represents more than a fifth of all claims against taxi and car-hire drivers filed to 14 UK police forces last year, which totalled at 154 allegations including attacks in minicabs and chauffeur vehicles.

Ellie Kaufman, in a June 2016 article for Quartz:

What Uber giveth, Uber can taketh away. On May 9, Uber and Lyft stopped operating in Austin, Texas, after spending over $10 million to lobby Austin’s citizens against a city ordinance that would require ride-sharing drivers to get background checks. Voters upheld the ordinance, and the two companies pulled out of the city two days later.

[…]

In 2015 alone, 27 incidents of sexual assault or rape in Austin were reported where a driver of a ride-sharing service assaulted a passenger, according to data from the Austin Police Department. Meanwhile, only 9.2% of victims report sexual assault to the police in Texas, according to the 2015 Texas Statewide Sexual Assault Prevalence Study, and 68% of sexual assaults go unreported nationally. This means that while 27 incidents of sexual violence were reported, many more could have occurred undetected.

Mitchel Broussard, in a December 2016 MacRumors article:

A recent update to ride-hailing app Uber is generating a negative reaction online, with customers concerned over the company’s decision to track their location “from the time of trip request through five minutes after the trip ends,” no matter if the app is open or not. The only option now available for users to negate the background tracking of their location is to go into iOS Settings > Privacy > Location Services and opt-in to “Never” allow Uber location access through the iPhone.

Will Evans, in a December 2016 article for Reveal:

After news broke two years ago that executives were using the company’s “God View” feature to track customers in real time without their permission, Uber insisted it had strict policies that prohibited employees from accessing users’ trip information with limited exceptions.

But five former Uber security professionals told Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting that the company continued to allow broad access even after those assurances.

Susan J. Fowler, yesterday:

As most of you know, I left Uber in December and joined Stripe in January. I’ve gotten a lot of questions over the past couple of months about why I left and what my time at Uber was like. It’s a strange, fascinating, and slightly horrifying story that deserves to be told while it is still fresh in my mind, so here we go.

[…]

After the first couple of weeks of training, I chose to join the team that worked on my area of expertise, and this is where things started getting weird. On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn’t. He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn’t help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with. It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR.

[…]

Over the next few months, I began to meet more women engineers in the company. As I got to know them, and heard their stories, I was surprised that some of them had stories similar to my own. Some of the women even had stories about reporting the exact same manager I had reported, and had reported inappropriate interactions with him long before I had even joined the company. It became obvious that both HR and management had been lying about this being “his first offense”, and it certainly wasn’t his last. Within a few months, he was reported once again for inappropriate behavior, and those who reported him were told it was still his “first offense”. The situation was escalated as far up the chain as it could be escalated, and still nothing was done.

There is a pattern here; expect more current and ex-employees to report similar incidents.

As I was assembling these excerpts, Mike Isaac of the New York Times got ahold of a company-wide email sent by Kalanick:

It’s been a tough 24 hours. I know the company is hurting, and understand everyone has been waiting for more information on where things stand and what actions we are going to take.

Memo to Travis: nobody cares about the company itself. It’s not hurting; people have been hurt. What matters is that this stuff keeps happening, with apparently little consequence for those responsible.

Kalanick promises in the email to investigate everything Fowler disclosed and Uber’s overall attitude towards diversity in the workplace. He also discloses, for the first time, that 15% of their tech staff is female. This compares to 15% at Twitter (not 10%, as Kalanick claims), 17% at Facebook, 19% at Google (not 18%, as Kalanick claims), and 23% at Apple.

There is a deep, festering, and toxic workplace environment at Uber. It is the manifestation of its bro-ey CEO that doesn’t think that regulations should apply to his company. Creating a workplace that encourages diversity in both gender and ethnicity doesn’t seem to be very high on Kalanick’s priorities.

This is not okay. This has never been okay. Yet the only incident callous enough, in the public’s eyes, to trigger a mass boycott of Uber was when they dropped surge pricing at JFK airport after taxi drivers there went on strike following Donald Trump’s immigrant-restricting executive order.

I absolutely agree with showing support for those put at risk by sweeping policies from big, institutional powers. In this case, Uber’s drivers ought to have joined New York’s taxi drivers in protest, so users’ boycotting of the service is a straightforward way to protest Uber. But the company’s record on women’s rights, in particular, has been appalling — I didn’t even touch on rampant racism. From rape allegations made against drivers to tracking and “throwing mud” against female journalists, and an internal culture that tolerates sexism to an egregious degree, it’s clear that we must respond in force in this case, too.

So grab your phone, and delete Uber.

Update: Added the November 2014 “one night stand” post and the June 2016 report from Austin, thanks to Ryan Jones.

Techdirt Files a Motion to Dismiss Shiva Ayyadurai’s Lawsuit

Mike Masnick:

As we mentioned last month, we are currently being sued for $15 million by Shiva Ayyadurai, represented by Charles Harder, the lawyer who helped bring down Gawker. We have written, at great length, about Ayyadurai’s claims and our opinion — backed up by detailed and thorough evidence — that email existed long before Ayyadurai created any software. Once again, we believe the legal claims in the lawsuit are meritless and we intend to fight them and win. Earlier today, we filed a motion to dismiss (along with our memorandum in support) and a special motion to strike under California’s anti-SLAPP law (along with a memorandum in support). You can see all of those below. I encourage you read through them.

The four documents prepared by Techdirt’s law firm are a well-written legalese-free “fuck you” addressed to Ayyadurai, and are well worth reading. The motion to dismiss and its corresponding supporting document take apart Ayyadurai’s case piece-by-piece in spectacularly detailed fashion. Any reasonable jury would see right through his claims.

Techdirt has also launched a survival fund. If you can, I’m sure they would appreciate your donation to help stomp out lawsuits designed to silence journalists and critics of wealthy individuals.

Acquisitions in Tech Have a Checkered History

Jan Dawson, in what amounts to a response to that dreadful Bloomberg article about Apple’s acquisition strategy:

The reality is M&A is a risky business, with one of the biggest challenges being cultural fit. That’s particularly challenging at Apple because it sees its culture as both unique and uniquely important. That means smaller deals for technology and tight-knit teams of people are a better fit than massive established businesses with large workforces. For other companies with more generic engineering and software cultures, such acquisitions may be easier.

But it’s also fair to say the biggest failures include several attempts to use big acquisitions as levers for massive strategic shifts, while the most successful acquisitions have often been logical extensions of existing businesses. Skype, Nokia, and aQuantive at Microsoft all fell into the former category, for example, whereas Zappos at Amazon, YouTube and DoubleClick at Google, and Instagram at Facebook were all fairly adjacent businesses. Big strategic shifts have rarely been enabled by taking on entirely new and different businesses – those are often best established through organic change or technology acquisitions which enable broader changes.

Apple has made plenty of acquisitions, most of which have been at relatively low prices for what they returned: custom silicon, Siri, NeXT, Steve friggen Jobs, and so on. They just don’t do acquisitions like the investment bankers in that Bloomberg article think that they should.

‘Quasistatic Cavity Resonance for Ubiquitous Wireless Power Transfer’

Matthew Chabalko, Mohsen Shahmohammadi, and Alanson Sample of Disney Research:

Wireless power delivery has the potential to seamlessly power our electrical devices as easily as data is transmitted through the air. However, existing solutions are limited to near contact distances and do not provide the geometric freedom to enable automatic and un-aided charging. We introduce quasistatic cavity resonance (QSCR), which can enable purpose-built structures, such as cabinets, rooms, and warehouses, to generate quasistatic magnetic fields that safely deliver kilowatts of power to mobile receivers contained nearly anywhere within.

This is still pretty experimental — the paper shows the setup in Fig. 3, and it’s transmitting power via a giant copper pole and conductive walls. Still, this appears to be one hell of a leap over previous wireless power solutions in terms of both its compactness and flexibility. One photo in the paper shows an iPhone mounted in a slim case with a receiver.

Just imagine a future where transmitters like these are as ubiquitous as WiFi, and the possibilities that open up when batteries can be that much smaller or, perhaps, unnecessary, in some applications.

Vice: Apple to Fight Right to Repair Legislation in Nebraska

Jason Koebler, Vice:

The legislation would require Apple and other electronics manufacturers to sell repair parts to consumers and independent repair shops, and would require manufacturers to make diagnostic and service manuals available to the public.

[…]

According to the source, an Apple representative, staffer, or lobbyist will testify against the bill at a hearing in Lincoln on March 9. AT&T will also argue against the bill, the source said. The source told me that at least one of the companies plans to say that consumers who repair their own phones could cause lithium batteries to catch fire. Motherboard is protecting the identity of the source because they are not authorized to speak to the press.

[…]

The idea that it’s “unsafe” to repair your own devices is one that manufacturers have been promoting for years. Last year, industry lobbyists told lawmakers in Minnesota that broken glass could cut the fingers of consumers who try to repair their screens, according to Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of Repair.org. Byrne said she will also testify at the Nebraska hearing and “plans to bring band aids.”

I get that Apple, IBM, John Deere, and others would all prefer that this legislation doesn’t pass because it will impact their revenue. As much as I like the idea of this bill, I expect most tech companies to lobby against it. But their arguments are, so far, terrible. Lithium ion batteries and broken glass are dangerous, sure, but give people some credit — it’s not that hard to make a battery or screen swap. If I were a legislator, I wouldn’t be convinced by their arguments.

Update: Koebler in a newer article:

But the prospect of a Cupertino-based megacorporation losing business to local repair shops isn’t a very sympathetic argument at the Nebraska statehouse. And so Apple has tried a slew of other tactics, according to state Sen. Lydia Brasch, who was recently visited by Steve Kester, an Apple state government affairs specialist.

“Apple said we would be the only state that would pass this, and that we would become the mecca for bad actors,” Brasch, who is sponsoring the bill, told me in a phone call. “They said that doing this would make it very easy for hackers to relocate to Nebraska.”

These arguments are still unconvincing, and getting worse.

I don’t get why Apple apparently isn’t making an argument for innovation. For example, they could point to the Touch ID sensor’s pairing system and explain that, while it sacrifices repairability of the home button, it makes the system more secure. I’m not sure if a Nebraskan lawmaker would be convinced by this, but it’s far less bullshitty than the arguments Koebler has been reporting.

Canada and E.U. Set to Ratify CETA

Janyce McGregor, CBC News:

The European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday approved the Canada-EU trade agreement after a noisy and sometimes emotional debate.

Roughly 58 per cent of the members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted to ratify the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), setting the stage for provisional application of nearly 90 per cent of the agreement later this spring.

“This is a deal for the people,” International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne said after the vote, emphasizing how the agreement will offer consumers more choice and lower costs.

The good news is that CETA will generally reduce the price of European imports in Canada, including for cars, wine, and cheese. You can imagine how happy I am.

The bad news is that the intellectual property provisions in the agreement are, generally, pretty poor. The agreement makes it illegal to create, distribute, or market any product or device that could work around DRM; it also makes it illegal for consumers to modify or strip DRM, or distribute any information on how to break DRM. That’s unpleasant.

WWDC 2017 Is June 5–9

The biggest news this year — well, so far, at least — is that it’s heading back to the McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, site of the first-ever WWDC.

John Gruber got to speak to Phil Schiller yesterday about this announcement, and they’re not making the move back to San Jose for the reason I thought they might:

I asked whether the move to San Jose changed the number of people who’d be able to attend. Schiller said it did not — attendance will be about the same.

Moscone West, the site of every WWDC’s labs and sessions since 2003, has a combined floor space of about 300,000 square feet. The McEnery has about 25% more space. But I bet attendance isn’t limited by floor space as much as it is by keeping the employee-to-attendee ratio low.

A cursory glance at a couple of travel sites indicates that it’s going to be a little bit less expensive to stay in San Jose than it is in San Francisco. I’m seeing a bunch of hotels at $150–250 per night which, while not cheap, adds up to some substantial savings over the week. Rooms are going really fast, so if you’re thinking about going for the atmosphere, start looking right away.

Update: It’s a fifteen minute drive drive from the convention centre to Apple Campus 2, so I’m sure they’ll have some events there as well. Perhaps the Bash? It’s only twelve kilometres away; enterprising attendees could walk that route if they felt like it.

Stuart McLean Dies Aged 68

Deana Sumanac-Johnson and Jessica Wong, CBC News:

Stuart McLean, the host of CBC Radio’s The Vinyl Café and an award-winning humorist, has died at age 68 after a battle with melanoma.

McLean’s trademark blend of storytelling — part nostalgia, part pithy observations about everyday life — and folksy, familiar delivery made him a hit with audiences for more than 20 years. But he always maintained that success came as a surprise to him.

McLean’s voice on the Vinyl Café is etched into the minds of many Canadians. I think it’s worth etching into yours as well.

The Fake Market Tactic

Anil Dash:

[…] by carefully describing drivers in their system as “entrepreneurs” and appropriating the language of true markets, Uber has been welcomed by communities and policymakers as if they were creating a new marketplace. That has serious implications for policy, regulation and even civil rights. For example, we can sincerely laud Uber for making it easier for African American passengers to reliably hail a car when they need a ride, but if persistent patterns of bias from drivers arise again in the Uber era, we’ll have a harder time regulating those abuses because Uber doesn’t usually follow the same policies as licensed taxis.

These pseudo-market patterns also mask patterns of subsidy, like the fact that Uber’s current operations are subsidized by investors to the tune of $2 billion per year. That’s a cost that will be immediately passed along to consumers as soon as Uber succeeds in displacing conventional taxis.

A thought-provoking piece on our inability to reconcile the speed of the evolution of marketplaces with the regulations required to control monopolization and consumer-unfriendly behaviours.

Yahoo Notifies Users of Security Breach, in News That Is Not a Repeat From 2012, 2013, and 2014

Shortly after Verizon announced in July their purchase of Yahoo for slightly less than Yahoo paid for Broadcast.com, a series of alarming news articles came out notifying users of one data breach after another. In 2012, 200 million accounts were compromised; in 2013, a billion; and, in 2014, 500 million accounts were breached. In every case, Verizon said that they were unaware of these incidents until just before Yahoo disclosed them to the press and to users.

With three very high-profile incidents like these, the Verizon acquisition felt a little like it might collapse. However, earlier today, Bloomberg reported that the deal was finally ready to go through — for $250 million less than initially announced:

Verizon Communications Inc. is close to a renegotiated deal for Yahoo! Inc.’s internet properties that would reduce the price of the $4.8 billion agreement by about $250 million after the revelation of security breaches at the web company, according to people familiar with the matter.

In addition to the discount, Verizon and the entity that remains of Yahoo after the deal, to be renamed Altaba Inc., are expected to share any ongoing legal responsibilities related to the breaches, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing private information. An announcement of the new agreement could come in a matter of days or weeks, said the people. The revised agreement isn’t final and could still change, they said.

Then, just a few hours after Bloomberg broke this news, the Associated Press reported yet another lapse in security:

Yahoo is warning users of potentially malicious activity on their accounts between 2015 and 2016, the latest development in the internet company’s investigation of a mega-breach that exposed 1 billion users’ data several years ago.

Yahoo confirmed Wednesday that it was notifying users that their accounts had potentially been compromised but declined to say how many people were affected.

There has now been a problem with Yahoo’s security every single year for the past five years. These incidents affect nearly two billion accounts cumulatively, thereby undermining the security of basically all of their users across the web.

First Look at Planet of the Apps

Husain Sumra, MacRumors:

The format of the show is similar to that of fellow talent-based reality shows The Voice and Shark Tank. Aspiring app developers descend down an escalator while pitching four judges on their idea. By the time they get to the bottom, the judges must swipe left or right to demonstrate whether they’re interested. If multiple judges swipe right on a contestant, the contestant gets to choose who they want to pair with. Once paired, the developer goes through an incubator period, getting advise from developers at big companies like Uber, until it’s ready enough to pitch to Lightspeed Venture Partners for funding.

I watched the trailer; it doesn’t look good. I like the “escalator pitch” idea, and I think Gary Vaynerchuk and Jessica Alba will be reasonably competent. But I have reservations about Gwyneth Paltrow and Will.I.Am’s involvement. And then there’s the actual premise of the show:

[Eddy Cue] says Apple is just starting out with original content, but that it wants to do more. When asked whether it could see itself becoming Netflix, Cue said Apple wants to see where it can go with its own strategy. Cue later emphasized that Apple doesn’t just want to buy shows, denying that Apple was ever interested in purchasing The Grand Tour. Instead, Apple only wants to make shows that are unique and “create culture.”

I’ve seen more than a few people write this off as a dramatized version of app development — compiling code and funding rounds, as seen through a reality TV filter. I think that’s overly kind. The premise is derivative, and the clips — so far — seem mediocre and dull. What has been shown so far does a disservice to the vast majority of developers, too.

Meanwhile, for all its faults, the Grand Tour had a genuinely good first season by its end. It may have been a shameless knockoff of the Top Gear format, but it was presented by the same cast that made Top Gear a worldwide phenomenon, and it was a genuine joy to watch. If anything, it managed to make the most recent iteration of Top Gear on the BBC look like the knock-off, not the Grand Tour.

Kirk McElhearn (via Michael Tsai):

A reality show isn’t creating culture, it’s copying a format that is tired. Reality TV is the Android phone of TV shows, and Apple could surely do better.

No matter whether I’m the right audience for this, shouldn’t Apple be shooting for more than a knockoff of X Factor, but with the singing bits replaced with clips of developers asking wealthy VCs for money?

I also think the distribution of this TV show is confused. For some reason, it will be made available through Apple Music within the Music app, despite Apple having an app literally called “TV”.

Sure, the show hasn’t come out yet. I’ll give it a shot — I’m an Apple Music subscriber, so why not? But I’m pessimistic about its chances of clearing my already-low expectations for it.

Facebook to Begin Autoplaying Video With Sound in News Feed

Buried amongst Facebook’s announcements at Code Conference comes this nugget of terrible, per Kurt Wagner:

Autoplay videos in News Feed will now play with the sound on, assuming your phone is not on silent. You can disable this feature in settings.

Anyone else getting the feeling that management at Facebook has nothing but contempt for their users?

Potential National Security Lapses by Flashlight

Philip Bump, Washington Post:

Notice, though, that the photos appear to corroborate an important detail from the CNN report. “The patio was lit only with candles and moonlight, so aides used the camera lights on their phones to help the stone-faced Trump and Abe read through the documents,” Liptak writes. In DeAgazio’s first photo, you can see a phone flashlight being used in that way.

Why is this important? Mobile phones have flashlights, yes — and cameras, microphones and Internet connectivity. When Edward Snowden was meeting with reporters in Hong Kong at the moment he was leaking the material he’d stolen from the NSA, he famously asked that they place their phones in the refrigerator — blocking any radio signals in the event that the visitors’ phones had been hacked. This was considered the most secure way of ensuring that the phones couldn’t be used as wiretaps, even more secure than removing the battery. Phones — especially phones with their flashes turned on for improved visibility — are portable television satellite trucks and, if compromised, can be used to get a great deal of information about what’s happening nearby, unless precautions are taken.

A 2014 report (PDF) by SnoopWall, an anti-malware developer, found that the ten most popular flashlight apps for Android overreached the permissions they required to run. All of them had permission to capture photos and get network access. In a 2016 CBS report, SnoopWall founder Gary Miliefsky said that one flashlight app his company studied captured audio and transmitted recordings to a server in Beijing.

None of this may have happened in this incident — we’re unlikely to ever know because of the inherently secretive nature of the subject — but it could have happened because of careless disregard for basic security precautions.

Update: On February 3, Senators Tom Udall and Sheldon Whitehouse sent a letter to the president asking about what background checks and security precautions are employed at the Mar-a-Lago estate. No administration officials responded.

The Life of Apps Outside of the Mac App Store

A couple of weeks ago, I linked to Jeffrey Johnson’s account of Underpass, his new app, charting in the Mac App Store with a single sale. I wrote:

Of note, most of the apps ahead of Underpass are third-party implementations of popular iOS apps like Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger. And, at number thirteen in the Top Grossing chart, Apple’s long-outdated FaceTime app. That doesn’t sound like a healthy ecosystem.

Underpass is available exclusively in the App Store. Now, I want to look at the opposite of that situation. In the past two months, two other developers have shared their accounts of taking their apps out of the Mac App Store.

First, here’s Bogdan Popescu, writing one hundred days after Dash was removed from the App Store:

All of Dash’s App Store revenue has migrated to direct sales, with a slight increase.

[…]

Most of the App Store users of Dash 3 have migrated their license to the direct version. I was able to use the in-app notification mechanism I had to let them know about what’s going on so that they don’t get cut off from the app they paid for.

Paul Kafasis of Rogue Amoeba, writing about selling Piezo outside of the App Store for a full year:

The Mac App Store previously made up about half of Piezo’s unit sales, so we might have expected to sell half as many copies after exiting the store. Instead, it seems that nearly all of those App Store sales shifted to direct sales. It appears that nearly everyone who would have purchased Piezo via the Mac App Store opted to purchase directly once that was the only option. Far from the Mac App Store helping drive sales to us, it appears we had instead been driving sales away from our own site, and into the Mac App Store.

Remarkable; yet, judging by the condition of the Mac App Store, unsurprising.

The Mac App Store could have been a golden opportunity for developers. In a hypothetical world, having Apple handle credit card processing, automatic updates, quality assurance, and curation, plus putting their marketing muscle behind the store — all of these factors could have made developers happy to give up 30% of their potential revenue. But the large number and aggressive types of limitations required for apps in the store combined with Apple’s rather lax quality controls has made the Mac App Store a combined flea market and glorified Software Update utility.

Google Launches Shareable Location Lists in Maps

Valentina Palladino, Ars Technica:

The new feature adds another layer to the already-existing “save” option in Google Maps. Once you pinpoint a desired location, you can hit the “save” button to reveal a number of premade lists including “Want to Go,” “Starred,” and “Favorites.” Then you can choose the list you want the location to live in, or create a new list with a personalized title like “Vacation.” In Google Maps’ menu, you can find all your saved lists in the “Your Places” folder when you want to recall saved locations. Now each list will have a “share” button as well, which lets you grab its link to share with others or share it via different social networks. This should make it easier to share things like favorite restaurants and shopping locations with visiting out-of-town family and the like.

This is one of those features that most of us aren’t going to use very often, but when we need it, we really need it. If you’re after something similar for Apple Maps, I’ve been using Relay since it launched and I love it.

Deleted Browser History Was Being Synced With iCloud

Vladimir Katalov of ElcomSoft:

Our latest discovery concerns synced Safari history. While researching this sync, we discovered that deleting a browsing history record makes that record disappear from synced devices; however, the record still remains available (but invisible) in iCloud. We kept researching, and discovered that such deleted records can be kept in iCloud for more than a year. We updated Elcomsoft Phone Breaker to give it the ability to extract such deleted records from the cloud. Moreover, we were able to pull additional information about Safari history entries including the exact date and time each record was last visited and deleted!

Katalov says that, since being notified, Apple is now purging records older than two weeks. Apparently, however, they’re retaining synced history items deleted within the past two weeks. I see no logical reason why records of items removed from a user’s browsing history should remain synced for any length of time.

The Web Really Sucks if You Have a Slow Connection

Dan Luu:

A couple years ago, I took a road trip from Wisconsin to Washington and mostly stayed in rural hotels on the way. I expected the internet in rural areas too sparse to have cable internet to be slow, but I was still surprised that a large fraction of the web was inaccessible. Some blogs with lightweight styling were readable, as were pages by academics who hadn’t updated the styling on their website since 1995. But very few commercial websites were usable (other than Google). When I measured my connection, I found that the bandwidth was roughly comparable to what I got with a 56k modem in the 90s. The latency and packetloss were significantly worse than the average day on dialup: latency varied between 500ms and 1000ms and packetloss varied between 1% and 10%. Those numbers are comparable to what I’d see on dialup on a bad day.

Despite my connection being only a bit worse than it was in the 90s, the vast majority of the web wouldn’t load. Why shouldn’t the web work with dialup or a dialup-like connection? It would be one thing if I tried to watch youtube and read pinterest. It’s hard to serve videos and images without bandwidth. But my online interests are quite boring from a media standpoint. Pretty much everything I consume online is plain text, even if it happens to be styled with images and fancy javascript. In fact, I recently tried using w3m (a terminal-based web browser that, by default, doesn’t support css, javascript, or even images) for a week and it turns out there are only two websites I regularly visit that don’t really work in w3m (twitter and zulip, both fundamentally text based sites, at least as I use them).

I’m embarrassed to say that this site, despite my best efforts, remains very slow on a simulated 56K dialup connection, averaging around thirty seconds for the homepage to load. That’s miles better than a typical news site, which would simply fail to load, but it’s nowhere near as good as some of the more stripped-down sites that Luu tested. Since this site has a stylesheet and a little bit of JavaScript, I’m not sure it will ever become that quick, but it’s worth aiming for. Why?

The flaw in the “page weight doesn’t matter because average speed is fast” is that if you average the connection of someone in my apartment building (which is wired for 1Gbps internet) and someone on 56k dialup, you get an average speed of 500 Mbps. That doesn’t mean the person on dialup is actually going to be able to load a 5MB website. The average speed of 3.9 Mbps comes from a 2014 Akamai report, but it’s just an average. If you look at Akamai’s 2016 report, you can find entire countries where more than 90% of IP addresses are slower than that!

Your site may not explicitly target visitors in those countries, but if we’re building websites for the World Wide Web, we ought to be more considerate of users everywhere.

Sufficiently Great

I have a small confession to make. Bad arguments dressed with the tinsel of pseudo-intellectualism are like catnip to me: they drive me crazy, and I’m a total sucker for batting them around. Deep in my heart, I know that’s the intent of the author of any of these articles, yet I can’t help but want to dress them down.

So, here’s Ian Bogost, writing for the Atlantic:

Apple has great design is the biggest myth in technology today.

Alright, I’ll bite.

The only problem with this conclusion: Apple has never accomplished sufficiently great design in its electronics to justify lionizing the pedantry of design at the new Apple campus.

A bold opener. But what is “sufficiently great design”, in the context of industrial design or consumer products? One definition might be that a product becomes widely-imitated, yet never loses its iconic status. Consumer laptops, for example, have coalesced around a blueprint established by the MacBook Air. After the iPhone was released, all smartphones became iPhone iterations. If we reach back a little farther, to before Jony Ive was at Apple, virtually every laptop that succeeded the PowerBook 100 has imitated its layout.

It’s not so much that these products were popular that evidences “sufficiently great design”. It’s that all of these products established the de facto standard for the design of their product category:

  • The PowerBook 100 was the first laptop to be sold with its keyboard near the hinge of the case, creating an area for a palmrest and pointing device below it. That’s been the basic design language of laptops ever since.

  • The first MacBook Air was thin and light, and forecast the way the rest of Apple’s laptops — and then much of the industry’s imitations — would be built. The version first released in 2010 came with solid state storage as standard, and created the blueprint for most of the consumer laptops on sale today.

  • The iPhone’s litany of contributions to the modern smartphone need not be restated. It, once again, set the standard for every phone that followed.

But there’s more to great design than its capacity to be imitated. Design, after all, is about how something works in addition to how it looks. And that’s where Bogost starts to sink his teeth in:

Starting with the iPhone 5S, first released in 2014, Apple adopted a software-controlled fingerprint sensor mounted on the home button. Known as Touch ID, the feature allows users to authenticate to unlock the phone, download products from the App Store, and make payments at participating retailers with Apple Pay. But even the slightest disturbance on a finger makes Touch ID unreliable. Washed your hands recently? Ate a banana? Dug in the dirt of the garden? Touched something too warm, or too cold, for too long? Good luck authenticating with your fingerprint. A mere inconvenience when unlocking the phone, but Apple Pay won’t work at all without Touch ID. So fat chance using that new digital wallet on a rainy day, or after tactically interacting with worldly substances.

Everything that has ever been designed has required a series of decisions based on what’s possible, what’s necessary for the final product, and what reasonable compromises can be made for everything to work correctly. “Sufficiently great design”, in this context, is also about making choices and compromises that produce a better product in typical use.

In this case, the Touch ID sensor allows for a very quick way to authenticate a transaction without requiring anything to be typed or finely-manipulated with one’s fingers. In a typical use case — while holding the phone very close to an NFC sensor at a checkstand, for instance — that’s a better user experience than any currently-available alternative I can think of.

As for Bogost’s specific complaints, I’ve never had anything like those problems with Touch ID on my iPhone. Between the built-in error correction and the fast sensor in my 6S, it works almost unbelievably well virtually every time. On the off chance my fingerprint fails to read, quickly wiping my thumb on a tissue or my jeans is enough to make it work. And, realistically, if your fingers are muddy from digging in the garden, is your first instinct going to be to reach for your smartphone without washing your hands?

In 2008, [Jobs] revealed the first run of the impossibly-thin MacBook Air by sliding it dramatically out of a manila envelope. Amazing! Less so, but not shown: the inch-thick power adapter needed to charge the device. Apple still hasn’t even attempted to reduce the size — and particularly the bulky thickness — of its power supplies, even as it has systematically reduced the girth of its computers.

This argument is silly. AC adaptors are limited by two things: the width of a plug, and physics. AC adaptors are already about the same width as a typical North American or Korean outlet, and they make full use of their available space, mostly for safety reasons.

Bogost’s article contains a series of other complaints: the USB-C ports in the new MacBook Pro, the flaws of autocorrect, iTunes, and larger iPhones that are harder to handle. But poking at these individual products — and I have, too — misses the larger scope of why Apple can be considered great at design. Bogost:

Steve Jobs’s design philosophy was fascist more than it was exacting. The man was a not a demigod of design, but its dictator. He made things get made the way he wanted them made, and his users appreciated his definitiveness and lack of compromise. They mistook those conceits for virtues in the objects themselves.

The argument that Jobs was an unredeeming tyrant has been made countless times while he was alive and since his death. It’s never going to go away. The simple fact is that his general direction was, more often than not, right.

Bogost’s implication that Jobs did not compromise or that he didn’t invite argument or debate is complete bullshit, as has been documented extensively.1 The difference between the compromises that Apple has made while designing their products and those that their competitors have made is that Apple’s have generally been produced from a specific thread of Apple-yness. It’s the reason why Bogost is able to write an article like this where he points out that it’s decidedly unApple-y for the Lightning cable that comes with every new iPhone to require an adaptor to be plugged into a new MacBook. For something like that to feel unApple-y requires a general sense of what does feel Apple-y.

(Also, including the word “fascist” in an article is a great way to get noticed in 2017.)

At a time when every company bows to even the most absurd demands of the consumer, Apple never cared what its customers thought, or wanted. Instead it told them what to like, and how to like it. What a relief! The corporate design autocracy obviates the need for decision-making. Computer users won’t use floppy disks because there is no floppy drive. Later, likewise optical drives. Later, likewise mini-stereo headphone jacks. To ascribe such choices to design — or to courage — is a mistake. As I have argued before, Apple is expert at getting people to commit to Apple’s future without pondering how technology could have evolved differently.

The prior articles Bogost wrote include paragraphs objecting to the superseding of the CD-RW by the iPod and, yes, bemoaning the loss of the floppy disk. Pardon my stating the obvious, but what he fails to acknowledge is that the replacements in every single case he cites are objectively better. An iPod is a far better way to carry around a bunch of music than is a stack of CDs. Going back a generation, I don’t really need to mention how much better it is to listen to real sound recordings than it is the MIDI interpretations of them, because that’s all that would fit on a floppy.

And Apple’s bets have seemed to pay off. While there are myriad flaws in the argument that better products sell more units, the simple fact is that if the issues Bogost raises — including the obligatory whining about the dumping of the headphone jack from the iPhone — were truly show-stopping for most people, most people would not buy one. If you absolutely need a DVD drive in 2017, you’re not going to consider any of Apple’s laptops, and they’re okay with that. Their standpoint on that is, quite literally, by design.

(Also, including the word “autocracy” in an article is a great way to get noticed in 2017.)

The attention to detail around door handles and thresholds might feel like a design methodology so pedantic at the micro-level that it could only ever produce greatness at the macro.

But one could also compare the zombified reality of Apple workers plodding to work over the carefully unperturbed thresholds in their new spaceship headquarters to the sleepy drone of an army built to abide rather than to think, let alone think different. The same invisible doorways lead to and from the authorized chambers of work and gardens of leisure. So exacting!

These are, I think, the paragraphs where Bogost’s argument truly disintegrates. I’ve never worked at Apple, but not a single employee or ex-employee I’ve asked about their time there has responded by stating that they “abide rather than […] think”. When you read anything an ex-employee has written about their time at the company or hear about an interaction that someone has had with a current employee, the clearest thing that comes through is that the people working on these products really, really care about their work. That’s, perhaps, a third pillar of “great design”: true care and passion.

That leads me to addressing an argument that opened Bogost’s essay:

But if Apple designs at its best when attending closely to details like those revealed in the construction of its spaceship headquarters, then presumably the details of its products would stand out as worthy precedents. Yet, when this premise is tested, it comes up wanting. In truth, Apple’s products hide a shambles of bad design under the perfection of sleek exteriors.

“Sufficiently great design” does not, of course, mean “free of imperfections”. But it’s also something that cannot be read solely through details. Bogost’s argument is, therefore, backwards. Apple’s biggest contribution to design has been their ability to project a broader vision of consumer electronics at vast scale while still keeping an eye on the details.

Maybe you’re someone who’s getting bored with Apple. Maybe you’re frustrated by some of the decisions they’ve made — anyone who reads this site regularly will know that I certainly am. But, as I wrote above, great design is a process of compromises and decisions. Apple’s products are not perfect, but the company’s contributions to design from both aesthetic and functional perspectives is impossible to deny. They have, truly, produced some of the most iconic, popular, industry-changing, revolutionary designs of the past fifty years. If that’s not “sufficiently great”, I don’t know what is.


  1. Steve Jobs at D in 2007: “At Apple it’s about ideas, and we argue about ideas constantly.” ↩︎

Apple’s Goals for the Mac Operating System

Stephen Hackett:

In that keynote — which has been mostly forgotten today — Schiller said that Mac OS X was designed to power the Mac “at least fifteen years, or more.”

We now live in that more timeframe.

Schiller’s statement was prescient — last year, around the fifteenth anniversary of his comment, Mac OS X was rebranded to be more in line with the nomenclature used for Apple’s other operating systems.

FCC Chair Ajit Pai, Telecom Companies’ Best Friend

Cecilia Kang of the New York Times summarizes new FCC char Ajit Pai’s first few days on the job:

Mr. Pai took a first swipe at net neutrality rules designed to ensure equal access to content on the internet. He stopped nine companies from providing discounted high-speed internet service to low-income individuals. He withdrew an effort to keep prison phone rates down, and he scrapped a proposal to break open the cable box market.

In total, as the chairman of the F.C.C., Mr. Pai released about a dozen actions in the last week, many buried in the agency’s website and not publicly announced, stunning consumer advocacy groups and telecom analysts. They said Mr. Pai’s message was clear: The F.C.C., an independent agency, will mirror the Trump administration’s rapid unwinding of government regulations that businesses fought against during the Obama administration.

“With these strong-arm tactics, Chairman Pai is showing his true stripes,” said Matt Wood, the policy director at the consumer group Free Press.

“The public wants an F.C.C. that helps people,” he added. “Instead, it got one that does favors for the powerful corporations that its chairman used to work for.”

Hamza Shaban at Buzzfeed:

While Chair Pai has declined to say what measures he will take to dismantle or diminish net neutrality, he made his opposition to the open internet rules clear during his first meeting as the agency’s chief last week. “My present position is pretty simple: I favor a free and open internet and I oppose Title II,” he said, referring to the classification of broadband companies as akin to utilities, subject to more robust regulation.

In response to the criticism of Chair Pai at the press conference Tuesday, a spokesperson for the FCC told BuzzFeed News: “Consistent with the bipartisan consensus dating back to the Clinton Administration, Chairman Pai supports a free and open Internet but opposes heavy-handed Title II regulation. The Internet was free and open before the 2015 party-line vote imposing these Depression-Era regulations.”

The reversal of the decision to classify ISPs as common carriers would be a serious setback for net neutrality. Pai has previously made clear his objection to a Title II classification for ISPs. I don’t see how the principles of net neutrality can be effectively enforced without resorting to Title II.

The State of iBooks and Companion Software

Daniel Steinberg:

I’ve joked that if Eddie Cue loved reading the way he clearly loves music, then iBooks, the iBookstore, and iBooks Author would be amazing. Not only aren’t they amazing, they aren’t even good.

It’s like they’ve assigned a committed carnivore to design the meals and cook for Vegans. You need someone who loves and understands vegetables and shares the commitment to not using meat or meat products.

You’ve probably seen this piece shared all over, and rightfully so: Apple has barely mentioned iBooks in the past year, and — outside of home screen shots — iBooks isn’t featured on any of Apple’s iPad product webpages.

On iBooks Author, Steinberg writes:

iBooks Author could have been a trojan horse into the personal publishing business. It would have been classic Apple. Instead of small authors going to Amazon’s platform, they would have started with iBooks Author. Apple should have made it easy for them to push to Amazon as well. Why? Because these people wanted to publish on Amazon but they weren’t considering publishing with Apple. Thousands of authors would have come to Apple to create content and stayed with Apple after publishing content there.

OK, so iBooks Author is essentially abandonware, what about iBooks and the iBookstore.

Bradley Metrock takes issue with Steinberg’s use of “abandonware”:

Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat: iBooks Author isn’t abandonware, as this post claims. Calling iBooks Author ‘abandonware’ is not just factually false, but it is also a disrespectful slap in the face to the growing, diverse communities of content creators out there using it. I wish that description weren’t in this otherwise strong and insightful post.

iBooks Author was most recently updated in September; prior to that, it was updated almost exactly one year prior. That’s a glacial pace for an app, but it isn’t out of line with many of Apple’s other Mac applications. Pages, for example, saw its last major update to 6.0 in September, and the version prior — 5.6 — was released in October 2015. In between these updates were two minor bug fixing releases.

A 2016 poll by Pew Research indicated that Americans aged 18–29 were the most likely of any adult age group to have read a book in any format in the prior twelve months, and the most likely to have read an e-book in the same timeframe. That figure is likely juiced by required post-secondary reading, but there’s clearly a big market of avid readers out there. Maybe Apple isn’t the right company to go after them, but I think there’s a tremendous opportunity that Apple is sleeping on.

The Best WordPress Client for the Mac

Stephen Hackett reviewed for the Sweet Setup different WordPress clients for the Mac, and came to the correct conclusion:

If you’re like me and would rather use a desktop application than a web app to manage your WordPress site, MarsEdit is the best route. It’s full of features, easy to use, and feels right at home on macOS.

There really is no contest. I only wish I could find something as good as MarsEdit for my iPhone and iPad.

Deteriorating Belief in Silicon Valley

For the Atlantic, Anna Wiener reviewed Alexandra Wolfe’s new book about Thiel Fellowship recipients from 2011 until 2016:

[Wolfe] also undercuts her own point about the disruptive ethos of the place. “Today’s uber-nerds are like the robber barons of the industrial revolution whose steel and automobile manufacturing capabilities changed entire industries,” she writes. “But instead of massive factories and mills, they’re doing it with little buttons.” Portraying Silicon Valley’s powerful as “uber-nerds” who struck it rich is as reductive and unhelpful as referring to technology that integrates personal payment information and location tracking as “little buttons.” The effect is not only to protect them behind the shield of presumed harmlessness, but also to exempt them from the scrutiny that their economic and political power should invite.

The sort of mythology that celebrates a small handful of visionaries and co-founders blurs important social realities. Technology has always been a collective project. The industry is also cyclical. Many failed ideas have been resuscitated and rebranded as successful products and services, owned and managed by people other than their originators. Behind almost every popular app or website today lie numerous shadow versions that have been sloughed away by time. Yet recognition of the group nature of the enterprise would undermine a myth that legitimizes the consolidation of profit, for the most part, among a small group of people.

This is a recurring trope I’ve seen amongst those who report on Silicon Valley — even from technology-centric reporters.

The Neglected Touch Down State

Max Rudberg:

When iOS 10 was introduced, I had hoped to see more borrowed from watchOS, because it does a great job of providing animated feedback to taps of buttons and other elements.

[…]

In comparison, iOS feels stiff to the touch.

This is, as always, a great post from Rudberg. I think his proposed example shows promise, but I wonder if it’s something that would complement 3D Touch actions or distract from them.

Seven Years of ‘A Big iPhone’

Dr. Drang:

The biggest problem for the iPad is Apple’s unwillingness to let it become its own thing. Development of iOS is driven by the iPhone, which probably shouldn’t have the tools of a regular computer. But the iPad needs at least some of those tools if it’s to fulfill Apple’s promise to be a laptop replacement. Being yoked to the iPhone is holding it back.

This feels exactly right to me. The biggest news in iPad in recent years was the introduction of split screen multitasking and picture-in-picture video, neither of which are available on the iPhone.

Apple has long said that the iPad’s big display provides the opportunity to create a completely different app experience. At the first Retina iPad event, Tim Cook even spent stage time mocking Android tablet apps that looked like large phone apps.

But now, five years after that event, it’s not so much the apps that are scaled-up versions of a smartphone, but rather that the operating system seems largely driven by what the iPhone can do. This was an early criticism of the iPad, but I felt it was unwarranted at the time — a larger version of a familiar interface is a great way to introduce a new product category.

Five years on, I wish it felt a little more like the iPad got to be true to itself. I’m not saying that it needs its own operating system or anything, but when I see a screenshot of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro’s home screen that looks broadly identical to an upscaled version of my iPad Mini, I see a less compelling rationale for upgrading.