Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Two Cryptocurrency Links

Even though cryptocurrencies have had a big few years, I don’t really cover them here. That is mostly deliberate; I understand only enough about cryptocurrency to know that I do not understand cryptocurrency.

Happily, Bloomberg’s Joe Weisenthal was on Chris Hayes’ “Why Is This Happening?” podcast for an entertaining discussion about why cryptocurrencies exist and what problems they are trying to solve. I think it is a great listen, especially if you — like me — are the kind of person who kind of gets Bitcoin and also does not get it at all.

The minor reason I do not write about cryptocurrency is that it I find it very silly, as encapsulated by Matt Levine in yesterday’s issue of his Money Stuff newsletter:

Just imagine traveling 10 years back in time and trying to explain this to someone; just imagine what an idiot you’d feel like. “There’s going to be this online currency that people think is a form of digital gold, and then there’s going to be a different online currency that is a parody of the first one based on a meme about a talking Shiba Inu, and that one will have a market capitalization bigger than 80% of the companies in the S&P 500, and its value will fluctuate based on things like who is hosting ‘Saturday Night Live’ and whether people tweet a hashtag about it on the pot-joke holiday, and Bloomberg will write articles and banks will write research notes about those sorts of catalysts, and it will remain a perfectly ridiculous content-free parody even as people properly take it completely seriously because there are billions of dollars at stake.”

If I tried to explain this to my decade-ago self, I think it would break my brain only a little more than reading it now.

Actually, if I could go back in time, I’d tell myself to mine a bunch of that “Bitcoin” stuff I had been reading about, not to worry about understanding it, and not sell it for another ten years because there’s going to be a pandemic and that will make most of the Canadian housing market unattainable for normal human beings.

All Developers Are Equal, but Some Developers Are More Equal Than Others

During a congressional hearing last summer, Tim Cook famously testified that “we treat every developer the same”. This six-word quote has been repeated and shared widely. But in the full exchange, he added a specific qualifier:

Rep. Hank Johnson The App Store is said to also discriminate between app developers with similar apps on the Apple platform, and also as to small app developers versus large app developers. So, Mr. Cook, does Apple not treat all app developers equally?

Tim Cook Sir, we treat every developer the same. We have open and transparent rules — it’s a rigorous process. Because we care so deeply about privacy and security and quality, we do look at every app before it goes on [the store]. But those […] rules apply evenly to everyone […]

The distinction between treating developers equally and applying the same written rules to all developers was again blurred yesterday, during questioning of App Store vice president Matt Fischer, as reported by the Verge’s Adi Robertson on Twitter:

Are the rules for developers different for different developers? “The App Store review guidelines apply equally to all developers,” Fischer says. Nobody gets a special “dispensation” or “special” deal.

“Do whitelisted developers get to do what other developers don’t get to do?” No, says Fischer.

Fischer says from time to time, it wants to test a feature with a small group before rolling it out to all developers.

Alright, let’s look at the things offered to some of those “whitelisted” developers that other developers can expect to see real soon.

Juli Clover, MacRumors:

In 2018, a tweet from developer David Barnard commented about App Store subscriptions being automatically cancelled through the StoreKit API, questioning why there hadn’t been more offers to swap billing away from the App Store .

Matt Fischer asked Cindy Lin about it, and she explained that Hulu is a developer with special access to a subscription cancel/refund API.

Hulu is part of the set of whitelisted developers with access to subscription cancel/refund API. Back in 2015 they were using this to support instant upgrade using a 2 family setup, before we had subscription upgrade/downgrade capabilities built in.

Apple does not further detail who other developers with special access might have been in the correspondence, but these are not features that all developers have access to.

These emails are three years old but surely, any day now, developers will be able to manage subscriptions on behalf of customers instead of telling them to figure out Apple’s subscription mechanisms on their own.

Chance Miller, 9to5Mac:

New internal emails and presentation documents revealed as part of the Epic vs. Apple show how Apple attempted to convince Netflix to continue using the App Store In-App Payments system. As Netflix was plotting its roadmap, Apple made a multitude of last-ditch efforts to win the company over.

[…]

After Netflix had started rolling out its test of removing IAP support, Apple crafted a detailed slide show presentation for the company in an apparent attempt to convince the company to keep supporting the payment method. The presentation was sent by Chapman in July of 2018 — five months before Netflix would ultimately drop IAP support.

At the time this presentation was made, Apple says that it was already featuring Netflix more often in its App Store “Today” stories than anyone else. Apparently, those stories reached an average of about half a million people each and produced a 2% conversion rate. It was also featuring Netflix in many of its direct marketing campaigns. Apple proposed further increasing its specific promotion of Netflix in more channels, including “dedicated emails promoting only the Netflix app”, in-store marketing, and paying for dedicated advertising. It is an astonishing level of commitment to one specific developer.

I imagine all developers will be relieved at the level of support they will receive when they consider removing in-app purchases from their apps.

Also of note, this presentation reveals that Netflix had access to the same subscription management APIs as Hulu and other “original [Apple TV] partners”. That suggests these APIs could date back as far as September 2010. Apple has simply been testing these APIs among a small group of developers for perhaps the last eleven years as it readies a wider rollout; there is no other way to interpret this situation.

Jeremy Provost (via Michael Tsai):

A few months back I was surprised to see that Zoom had somehow been able to tap into using the camera during iPad Split View multitasking. This is an obvious feature for a videoconferencing app so that you can keep one eye on your meeting while you consult notes, look at a presentation, or slack off on Twitter.

I scoured the web and found no reference to how to enable this feature for our own iOS Zoom client, Participant for Zoom. We asked Zoom and to our surprise they gave us the answer, and in the process revealed an apparently private process, available only to those deemed worthy by Apple.

Not only is this entitlement undocumented and — aside from references in Provost’s post and a handful of related links — unmentioned anywhere, Apple provides no official channel for requesting use of this entitlement. I am sure it will eventually get around to it.

These developers are not unique among big developers; there are plenty of other cases where popular apps get access to entitlements unavailable to anyone else. I am not surprised that Apple treats some developers differently than others. I do not think it is inherently wrong for Apple to try to win Netflix’s in-app purchase business with some promotional tie-ins, nor do I think it is unreasonable to briefly test features with trusted partners before rolling them out more widely. Apple grants advanced access to hardware to specific developers to promote new capabilities during keynotes, so it makes sense to do that for software sometimes, too.

But if that is the case, Apple should just come out and say so. That Cook statement from last summer keeps getting brought up because it is so easily proved wrong. Apple does not treat all developers the same. Even if you carefully parse the statements from both Cook and Fischer and concede that all developers follow the same App Store Guidelines, Apple does not respond equally to rule violations.

Thinking Through Flaws Borne of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act

Gilad Edelman, in a paywalled cover story for Wired that I am sure enterprising individuals could find in full elsewhere:

Neither [Trump nor Biden’s] beef with the law is terribly coherent. Section 230 shields platforms from legal liability, but there isn’t anything unlawful in the first place about a sharp-elbowed attack ad that bends the truth. Ditto for Trump’s complaints: Even if social media platforms did discriminate against conservative viewpoints, it’s perfectly legal to have a partisan bias, as every waking second of American life makes clear. More generally, politicians and pundits often seem to blame Section 230 for whatever they happen to dislike about the internet, whether or not it really applies — or they lash out at the law simply because they know it’s precious to companies they loathe.

So, yes, a lot of people who complain about Section 230 don’t know what they’re talking about. And yet the story told by the pro-230 camp contains its share of mythology as well. Section 230 is not the bogeyman of Trump’s stump speeches, but neither is it the pixie dust making the internet a magical place for free speech and innovation. To understand the law, you have to know not just what it says but how it came to be and how it has been interpreted — and sometimes misinterpreted — by judges during its 25-year existence. Once you do that, the picture that emerges is very different from the one painted by either side of the kill-it-or-keep-it debate.

In fact, Section 230 may be more like Dumbo’s supposedly magic feather: a talisman the internet has been clutching for dear life for 25 years, terrified of finding out whether online discourse could fly without it.

I thought this was a well-written essay that raised some of the consequences that have resulted from judicial precedence in the interpretation of Section 230, and how that relates to the history of media law. It is imperfect, however; a good rebuttal comes from Mike Masnick of Techdirt, and reading both of those pieces is worthwhile. In particular, framing the debates over Section 230 as “kill it or keep it” obviously misses a lot of nuance.

Over One Hundred Thousand Albertans Aged Thirty and Older Book Vaccines in First Five Hours of Eligibility

Alex Antoneshyn, CTV News:

Albertans born in 1991 or earlier were able to book a COVID-19 vaccine appointment starting Thursday.

[…]

In less than five hours, 100,000 appointments had been made, AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said.

We are in the midst of two thousand daily positive cases reported every day in Alberta, and some of the strictest measures taken since last spring to try to course correct. This is such welcome news.

I refreshed a couple of seconds after the queue opened up and there were already two thousand people ahead of me in line. I opened a tab on another computer — I know how these things work — and not twenty seconds later there were another thousand people in front. Still, I was able to book an appointment for early next week within a couple of minutes of exiting the queue. An absolutely painless and well-run experience. I am looking forward to a more relaxed summer.

After Twitter’s Acquisition of Scroll, Nuzzel Will Be Shutting Down

Scroll owns Nuzzel; Twitter is buying Scroll. Scroll’s CEO, Tony Haile, wrote about what that means for Nuzzel. Got all that? Cool:

We acquired Nuzzel in late 2018 when we realized that if we didn’t, Nuzzel would shut down. We believed that Jonathan Abrams and team had created something special: a way to make sure you never missed the important story or lost the context of a moment, delivered in a way that emphasized time well spent. We didn’t want to see that go away because it was ahead of its time.

[…]

When Twitter approached us about bringing Scroll into their broader subscription plans, all sides were excited about what we could do with Nuzzel and spent weeks trying to find a way to bring it with us. In the end, we found that the only way for Nuzzel to meet the scalability requirements necessary for a company like Twitter was to rebuild the service from scratch.

Nuzzel is the quintessential expression of what Twitter hopes developers will do with its public APIs. So much time and effort has gone into making it difficult to build superior third-party Twitter clients, with the promise that what Twitter wants are apps like these. Nuzzel surfaced popular links shared by the people you follow and their friends — and that’s mostly it. How great is that? Instead of relying on Twitter’s black box algorithm for surfacing interesting tweets, it is purely based on what is popular; trending links without the trending topic baggage.

But, much like Favstar and Stellar before it, and Favrd before that, Nuzzel seems to have been too good and too simple to last as an independent product. What a pisser.

Apple Expands Its Ad Business With a New App Store Ad Slot

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch:

At the same time as it’s cracking down on the advertising businesses run by rivals, Apple is introducing a new way for developers to advertise on the App Store. Previously, developers could promote their apps after users initiated a search on the App Store by targeting specific keywords. For example, if you typed in “taxi,” you might then see an ad by Uber in the top slot above the search results. The new ad slot, however, will reach users before they search. This can expose the app to a wider audience.

At first glance, it looks a little hinky for Apple to expand its advertising options just a couple of weeks after companies like Facebook spent months equating the introduction of App Tracking Transparency with harming ad-supported businesses overall. But I think this is a good example of how advertising can work in a privacy-friendly way. Check out the targeting options available to developers for these campaigns. The only available targeting that resembles tracking is displaying an ad based on whether someone has already downloaded the app, and it respects the universal tracking opt-out.

My main objection to these ads is that they are gumming up the App Store. Internal Apple emails show a strategy of making the App Store feel like Nordstrom, but the mix of crappy apps and frequent advertising are more like a yard sale. However, in those internal emails, a couple of employees pointed out that shady developers were already paying marketing companies to juice their apps’ positions in the store, so why not make it official? I see where that argument comes from; I wish the App Store was better than any of this.

The California Exception

You know how I linked to that New York Times editorial pleading for regulation of dark patterns? Turns out I missed something in the Timesconvoluted cancellation policies. They give you the choice of speaking with someone over the telephone or speaking with someone using an instant messenger. Both have similar hours of operation, but the latter has a curious carve-out:

Click the “Chat” button to the right or bottom of this page to chat with a Care Advocate. Chat is accessible between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. E.T. on Monday – Friday, and 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. E.T. on weekends and holidays (or 24 hours a day 7 days a week for subscribers in California).

It turns out you have the luxurious option of cancelling at your own discretion in California because there is a law that mandates more flexible unsubscribe options than the Times’ dark patterns permit.

Shan Wang, writing for Nieman Lab in 2018 (via Mustapha Hamoui):

But a California law that went into effect July 1 aims to stop companies from blockading customers looking to cancel their services — along with the practice of sneakily sliding them into another month’s subscription without much clarity on the real, full cost of the service. Among the changes: It bans companies from forcing you to, say, call a hard-to-find telephone number to cancel a subscription that you purchased online.

Once again, I point to Greg Bensinger’s final paragraph in that Times editorial:

Companies can’t be expected to reform themselves; they use dark patterns because they work. And while no laws will be able to anticipate or prevent every type of dark pattern, lawmakers can begin to chip away at the imbalance between consumers and corporations by cracking down on these clearly deceptive practices.

The Times could certainly apply its comparatively generous cancellation policies for Californian users to all subscribers who wish to cancel. There is nothing stopping it from doing so, but it will clearly delay doing so until mandated by national lawmakers.

Facebook and the Weather Network Are Sending Users on an All-Expenses Paid Guilt Trip

Kim Lyons, the Verge:

Facebook is continuing its campaign against Apple’s iOS 14 privacy updates, adding a notice within its iOS app telling users the information it collects from other apps and websites can “help keep Facebook free of charge.” A similar message was seen on Instagram’s iOS app (Facebook is Instagram’s parent company).

You think Facebook’s threat of having to pay to use its services is bad? Wait until you see what Canada’s own Weather Network has cooked up.

Ashkan Soltani:

Well that escalated quickly ;)

“The @weathernetwork helps SAVE LIVES! Allow us to track your activity across apps?”

(Subtext: people will *die* if you block tracking in @Apple iOS14…)

Weather apps are among the greatest abusers of users’ privacy. That is not true for all weather apps — Hello Weather, Carrot, and many others have reassuring privacy policies — but the ones from big companies like the Weather Network, the Weather Channel, and AccuWeather share user data widely. I am disappointed Apple allowed such a disingenuous description in the Weather Network’s permissions request prompt.

A New York Times Editorial Board Member Calls for Regulation of Dark Patterns

New York Times editorial board member Greg Bensinger:

Consider Amazon. The company perfected the one-click checkout. But canceling a $119 Prime subscription is a labyrinthine process that requires multiple screens and clicks.

Or Ticketmaster. Online customers are bombarded with options for ticket insurance, subscription services for razors and other items and, when users navigate through those, they can expect to receive a battery of text messages from the company with no clear option to stop them.

These are examples of “dark patterns,” the techniques that companies use online to get consumers to sign up for things, keep subscriptions they might otherwise cancel or turn over more personal data. They come in countless variations: giant blinking sign-up buttons, hidden unsubscribe links, red X’s that actually open new pages, countdown timers and pre-checked options for marketing spam. Think of them as the digital equivalent of trying to cancel a gym membership.

Design patterns like these sure are unethical, often forcing people to spend a great amount of time to understand byzantine systems of purchasing options and unsubscribe methods.

By the way, how does someone cancel, say, a New York Times subscription?

Speak with a Customer Care Advocate

Call us at 866-273-3612 if you are in the U.S. Our hours are 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. E.T. Monday to Friday, and 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. E.T. on weekends and holidays.

[…]

Chat with a Customer Care Advocate

The Times calls these two choices — speaking or chatting — “several ways to unsubscribe”, but they both rely on someone else cancelling your subscription. A subscriber has no way of doing so themselves. This arduous process is so well-known that it is in the new Dark Patterns Hall of Shame. But, though Bensinger writes extensively about dark patterns and even links to that Hall of Shame, he does not once acknowledge the Times’ subscription cancellation policies, which makes his concluding paragraph especially rich:

Companies can’t be expected to reform themselves; they use dark patterns because they work. And while no laws will be able to anticipate or prevent every type of dark pattern, lawmakers can begin to chip away at the imbalance between consumers and corporations by cracking down on these clearly deceptive practices.

Clearly.

Big Tech’s Surging Growth

Shira Ovide, New York Times:

The U.S. economy is cranking back from 2020, when it contracted for the first time since the financial crisis. But for the tech giants, the pandemic hit was barely a blip. It’s a fantastic time to be a titan of U.S. technology — as long as you ignore the screaming politicians, the daily headlines about killing free speech or dodging taxes, the gripes from competitors and workers, and the too-many-to-count legal investigations and lawsuits.

America’s technology superpowers aren’t making bonkers dollars in spite of the deadly coronavirus and its ripple effects through the global economy. They have grown even stronger because of the pandemic. It’s both logical and slightly nuts.

Richard Waters, Financial Times:

Big Tech’s increasingly outsized impact on the world of business can best be summed up by just two numbers.

One is the combined revenue of Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft, which jumped 41 per cent in the first three months of this year, to $322bn. That points to a rapid acceleration in growth that the leading tech companies have not seen in years, even as they have become some of the world’s biggest companies.

The other is the companies’ profit growth, which has been even more spectacular. After-tax earnings for the five soared by 105 per cent from the previous year, to $75bn. Profit margins rose strongly across the sector, as the biggest companies benefited from the economics of scale while keeping a wary eye on cost expansion during the pandemic.

Waters has a set of charts showing the revenue change at each of those five companies. Aside from the wild growth at four of those companies, the most striking thing to me is the consistency of Microsoft’s revenue. It has grown somewhere between ten and twenty percent per quarter since some time in 2018 — including during the pandemic when every other large tech company was making bank. I assume that is because a bunch of people sold their old computers with Facebook ads, then bought shiny new iPads to use with their company’s existing Office 365 subscription.

By the way, if you think Apple’s margins are grotesque, hold your breath when you see Facebook’s and Microsoft’s. Sure paints a completely different picture of the economy than many people are experiencing.

Epic Games v. Apple Trial Opens With Random People Incoherently Screaming

Matthew Gault, Vice:

Thanks to COVID-19 and general interest in the case, the District Court in California set up a public phone line where the public could call in and listen in to the proceedings.

As first spotted by QZ tech reporter Nicolás Rivero, the phone lines weren’t muted and gamers called in to talk about Fortnite and mention their favorite streamers.

This is more-or-less exactly how I expected this trial to begin.

The E.U. And Australian App Store Antitrust Investigations

The European Commission:

The Commission’s concerns, as outlined in the Statement of Objections, relate to the combination of the following two rules that Apple imposes in its agreements with music streaming app developers:

  • The mandatory use of Apple’s proprietary in-app purchase system (“IAP”) for the distribution of paid digital content. Apple charges app developers a 30% commission fee on all subscriptions bought through the mandatory IAP. The Commission’s investigation showed that most streaming providers passed this fee on to end users by raising prices.

  • “Anti-steering provisions” which limit the ability of app developers to inform users of alternative purchasing possibilities outside of apps. While Apple allows users to use music subscriptions purchased elsewhere, its rules prevent developers from informing users about such purchasing possibilities, which are usually cheaper. The Commission is concerned that users of Apple devices pay significantly higher prices for their music subscription services or they are prevented from buying certain subscriptions directly in their apps.

Note carefully what the Commission is saying: it is not either but both. The combination of these two rules — combined with the rest of Apple’s first-party advantages, like being able to advertise across its platforms — make it onerous for other music streaming services to compete with Apple Music. You could make a similar argument about Apple’s other services and the third-party services they compete against, but the Kindle marketplace and streaming video services other than Apple TV Plus seem to be doing okay.

Tom Warren, the Verge:

Spotify previously claimed that Apple uses its App Store to stifle innovation and limit consumer choice in favor of its own Apple Music service. That complaint was followed up with a similar one by Rakuten, alleging that it’s anti-competitive for Apple to take a 30 percent commission on ebooks sold through the App Store while promoting its own Apple Books service.

Epic Games also joined many developers and companies opposing Apple’s App Store policies, and filed an antitrust complaint with the EU earlier this year. It’s part of an ongoing dispute with Apple, after the Fortnite developer publicly criticized Apple’s App Store policies around distribution and payments. This resulted in Epic attempting to circumvent Apple’s 30 percent cut on in-app purchases in Fortnite, and Apple quickly removing the game from its App Store.

Meanwhile in Australia:

The ACCC’s second Digital Platform Services Inquiry interim report finds that Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store have significant market power in the distribution of mobile apps in Australia, and measures are needed to address this.

From the report (PDF):

The ACCC’s examination of the operation of the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store in Australia has identified a number of significant issues which warrant attention. These include: the market power of each of Apple and Google; the terms of access to app marketplaces for app developers, including payment arrangements; the effectiveness of self- regulation, including arrangements to deal with harmful apps and consumer complaints; and concerns with alleged self-preferencing and the use of data. These issues affect competition with potentially significant impacts for both app developers and consumers.

Michael Tsai has a good collection of developer and press reactions to the App Store antitrust investigations in both of these regions.

This is the flip side of Apple’s long-mandated subscription rules — developers are increasingly furious at the gatekeeping imposed by the company on a majority of smartphone users in the United States and Japan and a large percentage of other markets like Australia and the United Kingdom. Apple’s commission-based model works because it is the easiest — and sometimes only — way to reach all of these users.

The irony of Apple’s model for third-party developers is that it would have an easier time if it were more selective about which apps were allowed to be on its platform. If the iPhone were only open to developers that Apple preselected — something like the old Apple TV model — it would simplify the argument that iOS is not a wholly open platform. By opening it up just enough — by allowing developers to build apps but not launch them without complying with the App Store’s rules, and by mandating that the App Store is the only avenue for distribution — it has written policies that amount to rent-seeking.

Regardless of the outcome of these legal battles, Apple’s position makes its platforms worse for consumers in the long term. Apple can keep playing these games over how it splits revenue with developers, nitpicking app text so that it becomes vague and unhelpful, finding circuitous paths where a digital purchase may not use in-app purchases, and so on, but users always lose. Apple has often had poor developer relations, but it is worrisome that it has broken down into an adversarial relationship with so many high-profile companies.

Resetting the App Store

The European Commission on Friday issued what it called its “preliminary view” of Apple’s allegedly anticompetitive market position in streaming music; the Epic Games trial begins today. I thought this piece from Benedict Evans was a good overview of some of the what-ifs:

$10-15bn [in App Store commissions] is real money, even for Apple, but it’s much more interesting to ask what else might change. There’s a small number of businesses where Apple’s payment rules were prohibitive, in Steve’s words, or at least made things very difficult — most obviously, ebooks and music. What other businesses do use Apple’s payment but would be fundamentally different if they had that extra margin? And what never happened at all? What products could not be built because of the ways that Apple’s sandbox works, that now might change? How significant are the changes in payment models I suggested above?

One could say that this is the classic unanswerable counter-factual — we don’t know what doesn’t exist. But a partial answer is to look at Google’s Android, which has always been run with much looser controls. Name ten really big, important, widely used Android apps that don’t exist on iOS. The obvious one is Chrome (there is an iOS Chrome app but it has to use Apple’s WebKit rendering engine), but what else? No, not something that you use, but something with hundreds of millions of users — that’s what scale means in consumer tech today.

John Gruber’s commentary from ten years ago, when Apple mandated the use of its own in-app purchase system for subscriptions, generally holds up. There are some detail quibbles — Apple has introduced tiers of commissions and created various carve-outs and rule relaxations which amount to a modest minefield for developers — but this is prescient:

This is what galls some: Apple is doing this because they can, and no other company is in a position to do it. This is not a fear that in-app subscriptions will fail because Apple’s 30 percent slice is too high, but rather that in-app subscriptions will succeed despite Apple’s (in their minds) egregious profiteering. I.e. that charging what the market will bear is somehow unscrupulous. To the charge that Apple Inc. is a for-profit corporation run by staunch capitalists, I say, “Duh”.

This has turned out to be entirely true.1 Have Apple’s rules have been an impedance to the growth of companies that depend on subscriptions? That is certainly a tough argument to make. Fortnite effectively printed money for Epic Games even after Apple’s commission. Apple’s statement to the press on the E.U. music streaming findings takes some credit for Spotify’s success; unsurprisingly, mobile users have been key to Spotify’s growth for years, coincidentally since around the time Apple launched this in-app subscription model.

I am not arguing this is right, fair, just, legal, or best for everyone. I really do think Apple pushed its luck too far by making few changes over time and being overly protective of every possible hole in this business model; now, it may end up that regulators will set some of the rules instead of Apple. More importantly, I think a lower commission rate really would make a difference for independent developers that build mostly or exclusively for Apple’s platforms, as they are what makes buying into this ecosystem such a draw. You can get Netflix pretty much anywhere, but you can’t get Deliveries or Obscura or Things or Tweetbot on an Android phone. I wonder what some of those developers could do if they had some of the money that Apple is now using to buy back shares.

But for the big companies that are instigating these lawsuits, Apple’s platforms have netted huge rewards. In-app purchases have unquestionably worked in these developers’ favour. Everyone who thinks that the App Store rules should be overhauled — which is something I agree with — or that sideloading should be permitted on iOS should see this as a ten year counterargument.


  1. Unfortunately, the next and final sentence did not fare quite as well:

    If it works, Apple’s 30-percent take of in-app subscriptions will prove as objectionable in the long run as the App Store itself: not very.

    Now that every developer sees how much money they are required to hand over to Apple if they want to allow purchases in their apps, the pitchforks have never been sharper. ↩︎

Spring

Where I live, my balcony overlooks most of the financial hub of the city. Calgary has the greatest amount of office space per capita of any city in Canada — and, right now, it is lifeless. Has been for over a year. Every now and again, I spot someone walking around one of the floors of the building nearest me, perhaps a member of the maintenance staff or someone coming in to grab a file. Mostly, though, there are only artifacts of the people who used to work there. Some of them have settled into their home offices; some have perhaps been laid off.

I am one of the lucky ones who gets to work from home. I cannot complain. But my apartment gives me a high-level view of the still bizarre and difficult circumstances we are living through.

Calgary’s city centre is in a river valley; the majority of residential areas are on the high hills surrounding it. Off in the distance, behind rows of houses, I can see the airport. On a nice evening, I used to sit on the balcony while reading or writing, keeping one eye on the planes. Every couple of minutes there would be another arrival or departure. It was warm this evening; I stood on the balcony with a glass of wine and stared at the airport, and it stared quietly back. It was a long time before I saw an arrival.

Today was a nice summer-like day, particularly after last week’s wintry conditions. It was also the day we recorded the highest number of new cases and the highest total active cases in Alberta since this pandemic began.

The extremes of spring weather in Calgary sure feel like a metaphor for how things are going. The end of this pandemic seems to be in sight as people get vaccinated. The warm days are going to encourage people to spend less time indoors where viral particles suspended in airborne droplets spread and infect. Before we get to the end, we have to get through this new wave of infections — and it is kicking our ass.

There was this great metaphor that I am sure someone tweeted a little while ago, and I cannot find any record of it. It has been stuck in my head for weeks now, and I thought of it while looking out at the airport tonight. It goes something like this: pilots who are disoriented or lost will often be so distracted by trying to figure out where they are that, by the time they have their bearings again, they are at risk of fuel starvation.1

I hope this does not come across as aloof. I have a very comfortable life, all things considered. I get to work from home and I do not have to spend time around people very often, so it can be easy to forget the global emergency we are living through — only to be jolted back to reality. As I was heading back to my apartment after dropping some laundry off, the elevator stopped on another floor. The door opened to reveal someone in a hazmat suit. I found out there is a positive case on that floor.

The warmth of spring feels fake, like a lie nature is telling to distract from the turmoil and suffering and fatigue and loss. I know that something close to normalcy is perhaps months away, and I may be vaccinated within weeks. But the distance between here and there will be measured in deaths as much as it will be in doses. The statistics in this province have never been more alarming and the future has never felt so reassuring. I feel like I am living in a paradox.


  1. If you know who tweeted this, please get in touch. I would like to give them credit. ↩︎

L’Affaire du Magic Keyboard

Nicolas Furno, writing for iGeneration last week and translated by Google:

While the 2021 12.9-inch iPad Pro is broadly similar to the 2018 and 2020 models, the new tablet stands out on one point: it’s thicker, at precisely 0.5mm. It might not sound like much, but it’s enough for Apple to adjust its Magic Keyboard, the iPad Pro’s dedicated trackpad keyboard. And according to the documentation provided to the Apple Stores that we have been able to consult, the old Magic Keyboard is not compatible with the large iPad Pros of 2021.

Documentation apparently supplied to Apple Stores and independently confirmed by the Verge indicated that the new 12.9-inch iPad Pro would be incompatible with the Magic Keyboard released last year. The new iPad Pro is just a hair thicker — or, if you want to be precise, somewhere between six and twenty-eight human hairs thicker.

Predictably, there was much frustration about this, and why not? The Magic Keyboard is a $350 accessory that makes a huge difference in the functionality of an iPad Pro, so you would expect it to last longer than a single generation of product. Plus, one of the advantages of making the keyboard separate from the computer — unlike, say, a laptop — ought to be that you can make major upgrades to one part while not making the keyboard redundant. On the other hand, if the difference in thickness has such a significant effect, why would Apple sell a poorly-fitting Magic Keyboard for a year? And how many people upgrade their iPad Pro every year anyway?

Well it turns out that many of those frustrated posts were in vain, as an Apple support document spotted by Chris Ball today made clear:

The first generation of the Magic Keyboard (A1998) is functionally compatible with the new iPad Pro 12.9-inch (5th generation) with Liquid Retina XDR display. Due to the slightly thicker dimensions of this new iPad Pro, it’s possible that the Magic Keyboard may not precisely fit when closed, especially when screen protectors are applied.

Last week, Matt Birchler tried to understand how much of an impact the size and weight difference of the new model may have on his 2020 Magic Keyboard:

To test out the difference, I took a few sheets of printer paper, which happen to be almost exactly the size of the 12.9” iPad Pro, and stacked 7 of them on top of each other, closed the Magic Keyboard, and checked the fit.

The thing closed perfectly, and frankly didn’t feel any different from what it feels like without the additional thickness.

I guess we will see how true this is when reviewers get their hands on the new iPad Pro but, if you are one of the rare few upgrading your last-generation model immediately, I do not think there is cause for concern. The white one sure looks nice, though.

Apple Sold a Lot of Stuff in Its Second Quarter

Apple also had a quarterly earnings conference call today. A couple of observations based on Jason Snell’s excellent charts:

  • The Mac had its best quarter ever, with $9.1 billion in sales. The last three quarters have been fairly consistent for Mac sales; in reverse order: $9.1 billion, $8.7 billion, and $9.0 billion. The Mac business is booming.

  • At $7.8 billion in sales, the iPad also had one of its best quarters in years, only surpassed by the previous quarter’s $8.4 billion — unless you rewind to Q1 2015, when Apple sold nearly $9 billion worth of iPads. And that was a massive drop from Q1 2014 with about $11.5 billion in iPad sales.

    The rolling average is now trending up after sitting more-or-less flat for about three years, reflecting Apple’s renewed interest in the product. That is a good sign for its long-term health.

In Its Quarterly Earnings Call, Facebook Discusses the Projected Effects of App Tracking Transparency on iOS

Although App Tracking Transparency only shipped this week as part of iOS 14.5, Apple announced it last year, and it got Facebook all riled up. The company has aggressively campaigned against the feature, arguing that it will harm small businesses because, as Facebook’s Dan Levy wrote, precisely targeted ads bring businesses’ costs down:

This affects not just app developers, but also small businesses that rely on personalized ads to grow. Here’s why. Small businesses have small budgets. For these small budgets to work, they have to be targeted at the customers that matter to small businesses. It doesn’t do a local wedding planner any good to reach people who aren’t planning a wedding. Likewise, it doesn’t do a small ecommerce outfit selling customized dog leashes any good to reach cat owners. Put simply, by dramatically limiting the effectiveness of personalized advertising, Apple’s policy will make it much harder for small businesses to reach their target audience, which will limit their growth and their ability to compete with big companies.

This line of reasoning was thoroughly debunked by Facebook’s ex-employees and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Andrés Arrieta who pointed out that behaviourally-targeted ads are often more expensive than more weakly-targeted versions because of the many intermediaries taking their cut. These types of ads produce mixed results for advertisers, have little benefit for publishers, are not very well targeted, and require us to sacrifice our privacy with few ways of opting out.

Then, in a Clubhouse chat with Josh Constine last month, Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook “may even be in a stronger position” after the introduction of App Tracking Transparency because of Facebook’s uniquely large amount of user data. But that was contradicted somewhat in today’s quarterly earnings report in a comment from CFO David Wehner (emphasis mine):

We expect second quarter 2021 year-over-year total revenue growth to remain stable or modestly accelerate relative to the growth rate in the first quarter of 2021 as we lap slower growth related to the pandemic during the second quarter of 2020. In the third and fourth quarters of 2021, we expect year-over-year total revenue growth rates to significantly decelerate sequentially as we lap periods of increasingly strong growth. We continue to expect increased ad targeting headwinds in 2021 from regulatory and platform changes, notably the recently-launched iOS 14.5 update, which we expect to begin having an impact in the second quarter. This is factored into our outlook.

On the call, Wehner said that the impact would be “manageable” due to the company’s increased investments in e-commerce. How much Facebook’s own revenue will be impacted will, as the company says, be seen later this year. This quarter, however, there are no such worries for Facebook.

Barbara Ortutay, Associated Press:

The company said it earned $9.5 billion, or $3.30 per share, in the January-March period. That’s up 94% from $4.9 billion, or $1.71 per share, a year earlier.

Revenue grew 48% to $26.17 billion from $17.44 billion.

But for the small businesses Facebook ostensibly cares about, things got more expensive:

The average price of ads on Facebook grew 30% from a year earlier, while the number of ads increased by 12%.

Alex Heath of the Information on Twitter:

Takeaway from Facebook earnings:

  • Its pricing power for ads is increasing dramatically as Apple makes cheap ads less efficient

  • The business is becoming more efficient as it grows (43% operating margin!) […]

As is often the case for stories about privacy changes — whether regulatory or at a platform level — much of the coverage about App Tracking Transparency has been centred around its potential effects on the giants of the industry: Amazon, Facebook, and Google. But this may actually have a greater impact on smaller ad tech companies and data brokers. That is fine; I have repeatedly highlighted the surreptitious danger of these companies that are not household names. But Facebook and Google can adapt and avoid major hits to their businesses because they are massive — and they may, as Zuckerberg said, do even better. They are certainly charging more for ads.

That is not to say that we should give up and accept that these businesses destroy our privacy to enrich themselves and their shareholders. If we threw in the towel every time we realized that lawmaking was difficult or that laws would be broken sometimes, we wouldn’t have any laws.

You may have noticed my pivot from Apple’s platform rules to a more regulated approach. That is because I maintain that a legal solution is the only correct one. While I am glad this new control exists in iOS, privacy is not something people should buy. And, pursuant to Facebook’s earnings and forecast, there should not be a benefit from the increased scarcity of data due to better privacy controls.

Microsoft Seeks to Replace Calibri as the Default Office Font

Nathan Mattise, Ars Technica:

“Calibri has been the default font for all things Microsoft since 2007, when it stepped in to replace Times New Roman across Microsoft Office,” the Microsoft Design Team opined in Calibri’s de facto obit. “It has served us all well, but we believe it’s time to evolve.”

Calibri is not quite Microsoft’s universal default. As far as I can tell, the default font for user interfaces is still a variant of Segoe, as it has been since Windows Vista’s debut.

As pictured above, the new potential default fonts are called Tenorite, Bierstadt, Skeena, Seaford, and Grandview. All five are sans serifs — shots fired at the legacy of Times New Roman — and the Microsoft Design Team made a case for each when unveiling these new options.

Last time Microsoft refreshed the default typography in Office, it introduced six typefaces beginning with C: three sans-serifs in Calibri, Candara, and Corbel; two serifs, Cambria and Constantia; and Consolas, a monospaced choice. And, while I have always disliked all of them except Corbel, I think Calibri’s default status has made it more grating over time. But that ubiquity also means it has featured in some pretty interesting stories in its time.

At first glance, I think these new ones are much nicer. My favourite is Seaford; unsurprisingly, it is the one Tobias Frere-Jones had a hand in creating. The lack of a serif option is disappointing.

Toyota Subsidiary Acquires Lyft’s Autonomous Vehicle Development Project

From the company’s press release:

Lyft, Inc. announced today that the company has signed an agreement with Woven Planet Holdings, Inc., (“Woven Planet”), a subsidiary of Toyota Motor Corporation, for the acquisition of Lyft’s self-driving vehicle division, Level 5. The transaction also includes multi-year non-exclusive commercial agreements between Lyft and Woven Planet to accelerate the development and enhance the safety of automated driving technology.

That makes two. Like Uber, Lyft said in its S-1 initial public offering document that autonomous vehicles were a key long-term bet for business sustainability. Neither Uber nor Lyft have turned a profit, though both companies believe they are on the verge of doing so, and the pipe dream of fully autonomous vehicles appears to have been a massive distraction and money sink.

Gorge

While many news organizations were satisfied with covering today’s launch of App Tracking Transparency in iOS 14.5 as a feature that, at most, illustrates a key difference between Apple and Facebook, for example, Mike Isaac and Jack Nicas of the New York Times decided to write a parallel article about the apparently fractured relationship between the companies’ CEOs. And it is a doozy.

I do not like these kinds of articles at the best of times. Regardless of how closely executives are tied to the companies they are involved with, I do not think there is much value in seeing them as inextricably linked. I do not think we can extrapolate personal animosity from competitiveness, and I think the CEO-as-celebrity narrative is a worrisome premise.

So this is the kind of article that I am going to approach with trepidation. Sure enough, it is chock full of anecdotes that do not simply portray Apple and Facebook as two companies that have some competitive overlap and very different approaches to privacy, but an “all-out war” between two bitter enemies in Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg. I did not learn much but, as I re-read the article, a single paragraph stuck out:

Those contrasts have widened with their deeply divergent visions for the digital future. Mr. Cook wants people to pay a premium — often to Apple — for a safer, more private version of the internet. It is a strategy that keeps Apple firmly in control. But Mr. Zuckerberg champions an “open” internet where services like Facebook are effectively free. In that scenario, advertisers foot the bill.

This reads like a Facebook PR person has spun it already, since it is the distillation of the company’s false compromise between privacy and revenue. It also misrepresents how lock-in and opt-in work on the internet.

If you want to talk about control over the internet, you really have to start with Facebook, Google — and, to a lesser extent, Amazon. All three companies insidiously lock people into their data-mining platforms without presenting a real means of consent or opting out. In addition to being de facto infrastructure, these companies never really stop tracking you. They can stop showing you ads based on the personalized data they have collected, but they may continue to slurp up behavioural information anyhow. And that’s only the three biggest companies in this space; there are thousands of other ad tech businesses and data brokers gorging themselves on data you never meaningfully consented to sharing.

Apple’s apparent control over the internet is comparatively meagre. If you rid yourself of all Apple hardware and software, you quit using its services, and you delete your iCloud account, you have zero affiliation with Apple. As far as it knows, you no longer exist. This is undoubtably a tedious, time-consuming, and expensive thing to do — but you can entirely opt out of Apple’s ecosystem. I know many people who have.

It is hard to see how Apple’s greater emphasis on privacy enables it to have more control over the internet in the long run. You would have to be a deeply cynical person who believes Apple would oppose a strict national privacy law — something Cook has repeatedly called for — because it creates a market for Apple’s more privacy-friendly products, and you would have to ignore the overwhelming majority of people who demand greater privacy online for that to be true. Of course Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, would rather you buy your technology products from Apple, but this company policy is not mere veneer. It is a longstanding commitment — though it is imperfect and has its limits — as is the company’s stance towards an open internet.1

But an open internet does not mean one in which all advertising is individually targeted using data farmed through independent apps and websites that serve as proxies for the surveillance practices of Facebook and Google. In the history of advertising, the privacy-hostile premise that these companies are selling is fairly recent. Shooting for pinpoint relevancy is a waste of time and privacy when relevant enough ads can be targeted to someone browsing a list of coffee cake recipes, an article about wedding locations, or a local news story. Mediocre ad targeting was good enough to buy an entire Batmobile.

Forget the apparent “war” between Cook and Zuckerberg personally, or even between the companies they chair. Both Apple and Facebook believe that many users, when presented with the option of whether to allow third parties to track their activity, will say no. But the new thing is not the tracking, it is the request for explicit permission — and Facebook appears to think that it will struggle to convince people it should be allowed to strip-mine their behaviour. We ought to be asking whether this was ever ethical. It seems most people would disagree.

Ads can keep funding the internet; Apple is not eradicating advertising from its platform. It is only requiring that users give consent to how much they would like to be surveilled. It speaks volumes about Facebook that it believes those are necessarily the same thing.


  1. A non-exhaustive list of privacy commitments: device encryption; masking Bluetooth and MAC addresses; Safari’s tracking prevention mechanisms, including ITP and share button tracking; local categorization of images in Photos; privacy labels in the App Store; non-specific location data in apps; and background location notifications. Many of these features are not recent. For example, since the mid-2000s, Safari defaulted to allowing only first-party cookies and cookies from websites you visited. ↩︎

App Tracking Transparency in iOS 14.5 With Craig Federighi

Joanna Stern, Wall Street Journal:

But the most important and most controversial update? App Tracking Transparency — abbreviated to ATT. The privacy feature requires any app that wants to track your activity and share it with other apps or websites to ask for permission.

“We really just want to give users a choice,” Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, told me in an exclusive video interview. “These devices are so intimately a part of our lives and contain so much of what we’re thinking and where we’ve been and who we’ve been with that users deserve and need control of that information.” He added, “The abuses can range from creepy to dangerous.”

The interview is on YouTube, and Apple also put together its own video to explain this feature.

There are lines that stand out in each of those videos that I think are worth consideration. In Stern’s interview, Federighi says that the non-Allow option on the prompt is not labelled “Do Not Track” because “it’s a bit of a cat-and-mouse game around other ways that an app might scheme to create a tracking identifier”; in Apple’s video, the narrator says that “some apps have trackers embedded in them that are taking more data than they need”. Both of these statements reflect the reality of a world where it is valuable to accumulate vast troves of personal behavioural data. Apple says that it will permit no workarounds but, even though it controls the sole native app marketplace for iPhones and iPads, some things will inevitably slip through.

The only way to curb this behaviour is to devalue personal data collection. In my ideal world, advertising could not be targeted based on behavioural characteristics. If that cannot happen, there are other ways of legislating privacy, like creating a framework for personal data usage and ensuring the agency responsible for it has the resources to enforce its rules. Until any of these things happen, the concept of privacy — and the word itself — will be part of a public relations strategy.

To be very clear, I do not mean to imply that Apple does not believe in privacy as a core value. It truly does, and has done for decades. Nor is this pure fluff and marketing; this App Tracking Transparency policy will make a real difference, and you can tell that based on how much Facebook is throwing a tantrum over it. But it bums me out that privacy is not something that people just have, but rather something they must buy — one feature of many on a checklist.

iOS and iPadOS 14.5 Are Out

Federico Viticci of MacStories has a surprisingly deep dive of this .x update, but there are plenty of gems in here. For example, the most noticeable aspect of this update may be the ability to unlock your iPhone while wearing a mask via your Apple Watch; the subtlest but, I have decided, most delightful new thing is this Shortcuts tip:

You can now also control your device’s orientation lock settings via the ‘Set Orientation Lock’ action. With this action, you can either toggle orientation lock, or you can use parameters to specifically set it to ‘on’ or ‘off’. The ‘Set Orientation Lock’ action is going to be particularly useful for all those users (yours truly included) who dislike having to find the proper toggle in Control Center.

I keep orientation lock on at all times but now, when I launch Halide, orientation lock toggles off, and then switches itself back on when I leave the app. This does seem like something Apple could provide an API to developers for — the Camera app is able to rotate its UI and the photos it takes without toggling orientation lock — but it is an excellent workaround.

This is a significant update, and Viticci’s overview is a good place to start while it is installing on your devices.

Max Headroom

Matthew Panzarino of TechCrunch interviewed Greg Joswiak and John Ternus about the new iPad Pro:

One of the stronger answers on the ‘why the aggressive spec bump’ question comes later in our discussion but is worth mentioning in this context. The point, Joswiak says, is to offer headroom. Headroom for users and headroom for developers.

“One of the things that iPad Pro has done as John [Ternus] has talked about is push the envelope. And by pushing the envelope that has created this space for developers to come in and fill it. When we created the very first iPad Pro, there was no Photoshop,” Joswiak notes. “There was no creative apps that could immediately use it. But now there’s so many you can’t count. Because we created that capability, we created that performance — and, by the way sold a fairly massive number of them — which is a pretty good combination for developers to then come in and say, I can take advantage of that. There’s enough customers here and there’s enough performance. I know how to use that. And that’s the same thing we do with each generation. We create more headroom to performance that developers will figure out how to use.

“The customer is in a great spot because they know they’re buying something that’s got some headroom and developers love it.”

I buy this argument, particularly as the iPad is the kind of product that should last years. Since the first-generation iPad Pro, iPads have seemed to be built for software and workflows that are two or three years down the road. But the question about the iPad for about that same length of time is less can you? and more would you want to?, and I hope the answer to that comes sooner than a few years out.

Rich Countries Are Refusing to Waive IP Rights on COVID-19 Vaccines

Sam Meredith, CNBC:

Members of the World Trade Organization will meet virtually in Geneva, Switzerland on Thursday to hold informal talks on whether to temporarily waive intellectual property and patent rights on Covid vaccines and treatments.

The landmark proposal, which was jointly submitted by India and South Africa in October, has been backed by more than 100 mostly developing countries. It aims to facilitate the manufacture of treatments locally and boost the global vaccination campaign.

Six months on, the proposal continues to be stonewalled by a small number of governments — including the U.S., EU, U.K., Switzerland, Japan, Norway, Canada, Australia and Brazil.

These vaccines unquestionably ought to be in the public domain. As with the polio vaccine, huge sums of public funds were directed towards developing all of the major vaccines available in Canada, the United States, and across Europe. It is not like manufacturers will be unable to sell vaccines, but their formulas should not be proprietary.

Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson oppose this measure, with Pfizer saying that it has shared its formula with others to increase production capacity. And it is perhaps the case that production is to blame for the struggle to keep up with literal worldwide demand more than licensing issues. But we should not depend on the whims of companies deciding whether to share their formulas, for how long, and at what cost. These vaccines should not be part of an intellectual property portfolio — an asset for the investor class. They should not even be subject to a temporary waiver. These vaccines are necessary for the world to function and they must be freely available.