Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Italy Becomes the Most Recent Country to Rule Google Analytics Is Illegal

Natasha Lomas, TechCrunch:

Another strike against use of Google Analytics in Europe: The Italian data protection authority has found a local web publisher’s use of the popular analytics tool to be non-compliant with EU data protection rules owing to user data being transferred to the U.S. — a country that lacks an equivalent legal framework to protect the info from being accessed by U.S. spooks.

Earlier this year, Austrian regulators found the use of Google Analytics by a German publisher to be illegal on similar grounds and, as Lomas writes, it was also found to violate GDPR rules by French authorities.

With Roe v. Wade Overturned, the United States Is Not Going Back, It Is Going Somewhere Worse

Jia Tolentino, the New Yorker:

If you become pregnant, your phone generally knows before many of your friends do. The entire Internet economy is built on meticulous user tracking — of purchases, search terms — and, as laws modelled on Texas’s S.B. 8 proliferate, encouraging private citizens to file lawsuits against anyone who facilitates an abortion, self-appointed vigilantes will have no shortage of tools to track and identify suspects. (The National Right to Life Committee recently published policy recommendations for anti-abortion states that included criminal penalties for anyone who provides information about self-managed abortion “over the telephone, the internet, or any other medium of communication.”) A reporter for Vice recently spent a mere hundred and sixty dollars to purchase a data set on visits to more than six hundred Planned Parenthood clinics. Brokers sell data that make it possible to track journeys to and from any location — say, an abortion clinic in another state. In Missouri, this year, a lawmaker proposed a measure that would allow private citizens to sue anyone who helps a resident of the state get an abortion elsewhere; as with S.B. 8, the law would reward successful plaintiffs with ten thousand dollars. The closest analogue to this kind of legislation is the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.

Two data brokers, Safegraph and Placer.ai, said they removed Planned Parenthood visits from their data sets. They could reverse that decision at any time, and there is nothing preventing another company from offering its own package of users seeking a form of healthcare that is now illegal in a dozen states. People have little choice about which third-party providers receive data from the apps and services they use. Anyone using a period tracking app is at risk of that data being subpoenaed and, while some vendors say they do not pass health records to brokers, some of those same apps were found to be inadvertently sharing records with Facebook.

If the U.S. had more protective privacy laws, it would not make today’s ruling any less of a failure to uphold individuals’ rights in the face of encroaching authoritarian policies. But it would make it a whole lot harder for governments and those deputized on their behalf to impose their fringe views against medical practitioners, clinics, and people seeking a safe abortion.

China’s Surveillance State Is Growing

Muyi Xiao, Paul Mozur, Isabelle Qian, and Alexander Cardia of the New York Times put together a haunting short documentary about the state of surveillance in China. It shows a complete loss of privacy, and any attempt to maintain one’s sense of self is regarded as suspicious. From my limited perspective, I cannot imagine making such a fundamental sacrifice.

This is why it is so important to match the revulsion we feel over things like that Cadillac Fairview surreptitious facial recognition incident or Clearview AI — in its entirety — with strong legislation. These early-stage attempts at building surveillance technologies that circumvent legal processes forecast an invasive future for everyone.

Pasta Epiphany

Look, I know you are probably here for technology and not cooking tips from some doofus, but I had a little epiphany the other day and, well, it is my website, so I will share it here.

I was making a dish not too long ago — maybe hot and sour eggplant, but I am not sure — with a corn starch slurry. The corn starch is added to thicken the sauce, yes, but it also helps it adhere to the ingredients — eggplants in this case, but noodles in others.

A lot of cooks will tell you to use pasta water in the same way when you cook a sauced pasta. In a typical telling, you might set aside half a cup of the water the pasta is cooking in just before you strain it, then return the pasta to the pot with a sauce you prepared separately and then some of your pasta water. Tossing the starchy water with the sauce and pasta is supposed to help it bind better.

The little epiphany I had is to add some of the water back first, without the sauce, and let it reduce to a more concentrated state. Here is Albert Burneko in a recent article at about cacio e pepe over at Defector expressing the same sentiment:

What is happening all the while is, the pasta is absorbing a little bit of the moisture from that pasta water; at the same time, the heat is causing the rest of it to evaporate, slowly. As it does, it gradually reduces to a starchy goo, a sauce, which coats the pasta and makes it sticky and gives it a satin sheen. I promise this is happening while you are tossing, and I also promise that if it is not happening then it is because you and not I screwed up somehow.

I have tried this technique for a few different recipes and it is magical. Making this ultra-concentrated starch slurry does require you to undercook your pasta maybe a little more than you might usually for this technique, but the results are worth giving it a try. You get this super silky sauce that completely clings to whatever pasta you have made, in a way I have not found possible even when I cook my pasta in relatively small amounts of water to create a more concentrated cooking liquid. Reducing it later produces much nicer results — I think.

Google’s Declining Search Results

Charlie Warzel, the Atlantic:

There’s a strange irony to all of this. For years, researchers, technologists, politicians, and journalists have agonized and cautioned against the wildness of the internet and its penchant for amplifying conspiracy theories, divisive subject matter, and flat-out false information. Many people, myself included, have argued for platforms to surface quality, authoritative information above all else, even at the expense of profit. And it’s possible that Google has, in some sense, listened (albeit after far too much inaction) and, maybe, partly succeeded in showing higher-quality results in a number of contentious categories. But instead of ushering in an era of perfect information, the changes might be behind the complainers’ sense that Google Search has stopped delivering interesting results. In theory, we crave authoritative information, but authoritative information can be dry and boring. It reads more like a government form or a textbook than a novel. The internet that many people know and love is the opposite — it is messy, chaotic, unpredictable. It is exhausting, unending, and always a little bit dangerous. It is profoundly human.

I am not sure this is the right conclusion to draw from the sometimes questionable results of a Google search these days. As has been repeatedly documented by others, the problem with Google is not that it is surfacing boring results, but that search engine spammers and machine-generated results are winning.

Earlier this year, our washing machine was not completing a cycle correctly. The model number seems to be one of those ones specific to a long-departed retailer; so, after I was unable to find a copy of the manual, I resorted to more general searches. Turns out that appliance troubleshooting seems to be one of the more polluted genres of query. DuckDuckGo and Google searches alike returned page after page of keyword-filled junk intended solely to rank highly.

So many of my searches for all kinds of stuff go this way, and I am not the only one. It is the current status in the ongoing adversarial relationship Google has with spammers and marketers alike. I think Google has been more successful in burying the dregs of the web. All too often, what has replaced them are word-filled pages of emptiness.

Apple’s Feedback Mechanism Is Broken

Casey Liss:

Why is this the accepted way to get the attention of an engineer? For something as simple as a one-line code change, why are my only two options:

  • Wait for June and hope I get an audience with the right engineer at a lab

  • Use one of my two Technical Support Incidents and hope it’s fruitful… and that I don’t need that one for something else later in the year

I understand why Apple sets limits on Technical Support Incidents, but restricting developers to just two per year is a bit like giving employees two sick days per year. Developers can buy more if they run out but they are not cheap and expire a year after purchase, so their use is somewhat disincentivized.

Also, I learned something from Liss’ article. You know how Feedback Assistant disappears from your iOS or iPadOS device when you update to a release candidate version, therefore making it difficult to report bugs from your iPhone or iPad? It turns out the applefeedback:// URL protocol still opens Feedback Assistant on RC versions, and I made the world’s simplest Shortcut to trigger it.

How Period-Tracker Apps Treat Your Data

Nicole Nguyen and Cordilia James, Wall Street Journal:

Different types of data, including information that can be subpoenaed from period trackers, can create an extremely detailed profile of you when combined. Prof. Fowler says she thinks it is likely that user data will have greater importance if more places criminalize abortion.

While period trackers collect and store health data, there aren’t typically special protections governing that information, said Prof. Fowler. Apps can use your data how they choose as outlined in their privacy policies, she said, adding that ideally the data would be stored on your devices — rather than in the cloud — and not be subject to third-party tracking.

Period tracking apps’ sometimes sketchy privacy policies and the legal jeopardy in which they can place users is something explicitly called out in Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s announcement of a bill to curtail data brokers.

Apple’s first-party Health app is the only one that encrypts users’ data end-to-end. Unfortunately, it is halfway between an all-in-one health tracking app and a repository for other apps’ data. I do not have experience with entering a menstrual cycle, but I find manually adding cycling distance or — new in iOS 16 — medication to be confusing and inelegant.

Even if a period tracking app is sharing data with Health, it is worth remembering that its own in-app privacy and data use policies apply.

U.S. Senate Bill Would Ban Data Brokers From Sharing Location and Health Data

Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica:

A bill introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) would prohibit data brokers from selling Americans’ location and health data, Warren’s office said Wednesday.

“Largely unregulated by federal law, data brokers gather intensely personal data such as location data from seemingly innocuous sources including weather apps and prayer apps—oftentimes without the consumer’s consent or knowledge,” a bill summary said. “Then, brokers turn around and sell the data in bulk to virtually any willing buyer, reaping massive profits.”

I do love the sound of this. Though Brodkin says it bans selling certain data types, it is actually more comprehensive — if passed, data brokers would be prohibited from doing just about anything with location and health data “declared or inferred”.

It seems too good to be true, and my hopes were quashed when I read this piece from Jeffrey Neuburger of the National Law Review:

[…] The bill makes exceptions for health information transfers done lawfully under HIPAA, publication of “newsworthy information of legitimate public concern” under the First Amendment, or disclosure for which the individual provides “valid authorization.” The FTC would be responsible for adapting the HIPAA-related term “valid authorization” to fit the location data context. It is possible that the conspicuous notice and consent processes surrounding the collection and use of the data — as is currently in place in many mobile applications — will suffice.

If all big ideas for protecting privacy come down to the same notice and consent laws that have had mixed results around the world, I do not think we will find ourselves in a better place. Everyone will simply be more irritated by the technology they use while finding few privacy benefits. I understand the value of someone consenting to have information collected and shared, but there needs to be a better model for confirming an opt-in and limitations on its use.

Julia Conley, Common Dreams:

Warren noted that location data has already been used by federal agencies to circumvent the Fourth Amendment by purchasing private data instead of obtaining it via a subpoena or warrant and to out LGBTQ+ people.

I continue to wonder how much of a factor it is that law enforcement and intelligence agencies rely on anti-privacy companies and data brokers as a workaround for more scrutinized legal measures.

Apple Watch Series 3 Thankfully Incompatible With WatchOS 9

José Adorno, 9to5Mac (via Matt Birchler):

I honestly think watchOS 9 is the greatest update for the Apple Watch in years, and the main reason is Apple Watch Series 3 going away for good. I know it’s a very affordable wearable for those who just want an Apple device to track their daily activities, but with new Watches coming soon and so many new technologies available, Apple is making the right move to support watchOS 9 only to newer Watches.

Supporting only newer Apple Watches is absolutely the right call. What is not is how Apple continues to sell the Series 3 with little acknowledgement of its forthcoming software dead end. As of writing, the Series 3 marketing webpage contains zero notice of WatchOS 9 incompatibility, and neither does the comparison tool. It is mentioned on the Apple Store page — “compatible with watchOS 8 and earlier versions”, as though one could install earlier versions if they wanted to — and on the WatchOS 9 preview page. WatchOS 9 may not yet be publicly available, but I still do not think it is fair for Apple to continue selling an incompatible model. And, in a perfect world, sales of the Series 3 would have ceased one or two years ago.

Dr. Drang:

You see, things have changed since my defense of the Series 3 back in September. I was still running watchOS 7 then and the experience — apart from OS updates — was perfectly fine. But a couple of months ago, I bit the bullet and went through the multi-hour experience to update to watchOS 8. I had read that watchOS 8 would make the pain of updates a thing of the past. What I had not read was that the occasional pain of long updates would be replaced by the daily pain of a watch that commonly takes a second or two to respond to taps and swipes — if it responds at all.

As someone with a 2012 MacBook Air destined to run MacOS Catalina until its circuits melt, I feel Drang’s pain. It is unfortunate when the final year of software compatibility coincides with an unsatisfactory release on that hardware.

Stage Manager Compatibility

Matthew Panzarino, TechCrunch:

I had a chance to talk briefly with Apple SVP of Software Engineering Craig Federighi last week about the new iPadOS features aimed at enhancing multitasking and multi-app work. We chatted about the timing, execution and reactions to these announcements.

[…]

Stage Manager takes advantage of the more powerful GPU, faster I/O in virtual memory, faster storage and more RAM that the M1 chips brought to the table. That all had to come together to keep the experience fluid and this year, they did, says Federighi.

Michael Tsai:

[…] I honestly don’t understand his argument. I don’t think it’s that pre-M1 iPads couldn’t support virtual memory, since even the A12Z in the DTK did. That processor also had great performance running more simultaneous apps than iPadOS supports. Stage Manager is also supported on older Macs with Intel processors — and older graphics — that are less capable than recent-but-not-M1 iPads.

Tsai’s post includes a roundup of commentary, including several people pointing out how multitasking has existed in MacOS for decades, even on systems running on the apparently asthmatic performance of Intel and PowerPC processors.

Manton Reece:

I think the root issue is that when people choose a computer to buy, they don’t expect the operating system to change significantly for different computer models. You buy a more expensive Mac because it has a larger screen, or is faster, or has more ports. You buy a more expensive iPhone because it has better cameras. You buy a more expensive iPad because it has the latest Pencil support. It is a hardware decision, not a software one.

I love a piece that makes me think more about something I considered settled, and this is one of those. I count myself among those who saw recent iPad Pro models in need of differentiation, and Stage Manager delivers.

Reece frames this limitation as “without precedent” — a set of system features beyond wallpaper and grab bag features choked by high hardware standards. It is almost a reversal of the way system requirements used to work, where you could get bare minimum compatibility all around; if you had better hardware, you could get some bonus features. This is common in games, and readers of a certain age will remember when more capable hardware got you better UI performance in Mac OS X. But even if you ran the least-powerful Mac supported by the operating system, you still got full multitasking.

The restriction of Stage Manager and memory swapping in iPadOS 16 is the complete inverse. No matter which iPad model you have, you will see gorgeous graphics and use super fast flash memory — but you need a recent iPad Pro or Air model to more efficiently multitask. That is kind of weird. Buying a MacBook Pro does not unlock a better workflow model than what is available on a MacBook Air, but buying an iPad Pro means you get exclusive system capabilities. Strange — but perhaps something to get used to as a differentiator going forward.

Taste, Figures, Images

Dean Kissick, Spike:

Images drawn by code make the world seem lighter and less binding still. Reality is concealed below signs that point nowhere: there’s no such thing as a Tubby Cat, not in life or in fiction. Rembrandt never painted raccoons. He never saw a raccoon in his life! These images are not simulacra because they don’t represent or imitate anything. The new modes of figuration don’t refer to anything at all. They are pictures from somewhere else. They are garbled whispers of code in the fall. Containing no meaning, more empty than a black square.

In, as they say, the before times — before all the galleries had to close their doors to visitors — I was an occasional exhibiting artist, and this piece hit home. One of the odder things that happened in the past two years has been this rise in the quality and believability of images generated by machine learning. So far, it has mostly been an outlet for shallow lowercase-“s” surrealism and pop culture jokes. There is nothing wrong with either of those things, but it is still early days for it as an artistic medium — and it shows.

AirDrop Helper Makes Use of MacBook Notches

Ian Keen built a brilliant little utility which transforms the notch area of a recent MacBook Pro or MacBook Air model into an AirDrop collector bin. Keen even made a variant for notchless Macs. It is not yet publicly available, but I would use this in a heartbeat. I AirDrop stuff all the time and the sharing menu feels comparatively clunky.

Struggling to think of a great phrase to describe this kind of first-rate, tip-top effort, but it will come to me.

Nobody Knows How to Watch Movies Anymore

Jason Kehe, Wired:

[…] That’s why simpleminded arguments like “our attention spans are shot” are so rarely, on their own, convincing. You simply attend to different things these days, like TV, or TikTok. (Worse things, some say, less unified, less artistic, but to an alien it looks like complete attention all the same.) In 2022, there’s something uniquely daunting about the prospect of committing to a movie, even for just 90 minutes. So you scroll and scroll and scroll, never quite ready to make a decision, aware, on some level, that you lack the strength to see it through.

Maybe this doesn’t bother you. Movies are a dying art form; TV is ascendant! I suspect, however, it does. The less you watch movies, the more you miss them. You miss the completeness of them, of a story fully told — something TV (or TikTok, neverending) almost never provides. A movie is designed, after all, to be watched all at once, its rhythms and pacing serving the arc of a single emotional journey.

Or at least they used to. Blockbusters are now more than ever shoehorned into never-ending story arcs and expanding universes of characters.

Update: Elamin Abdelmahmoud, Buzzfeed News:

Are you exhausted yet? We seem to have arrived at the nadir of original stories, a cultural moment where many of the TV shows and movies feature names and characters we already know. It does not matter how well we know them — it just matters that the audience is already familiar with the world. We are living through the age of peak intellectual property. Hollywood has learned the safe route, found a reliable pattern: Every time studios push this button, $13 comes out. Why wouldn’t they keep pushing it? But at what cost to originality?

I know plenty of people have complained about the dearth of original cinema for years, but it feels like we have hit a new low point in the risks studios are willing to take. Maybe that is because so many of these movies and shows are inherently expensive to make, with marquee actors and thousands of visual effects shots, so studios demand the closest thing they can get to guaranteed success.

Facebook Plans ‘Discovery Engine’ Feed Change to Compete With TikTok

Alex Heath, the Verge:

In an internal memo from late April obtained by The Verge, the Meta executive in charge of Facebook, Tom Alison, spelled out the plan: rather than prioritize posts from accounts people follow, Facebook’s main feed will, like TikTok, start heavily recommending posts regardless of where they come from. And years after Messenger and Facebook split up as separate apps, the two will be brought back together, mimicking TikTok’s messaging functionality.

Combined with an increasing emphasis on Reels, the planned changes show how forcibly Meta is responding to the rise of TikTok, which has quickly become a legitimate challenger to its dominance in social media. While Instagram has already morphed to look more like TikTok with its focus on Reels, executives hope that a similar treatment to Facebook will reverse the app’s stagnant growth and potentially lure back young people.

Between now and theoretically mainstreaming the metaverse concept, it is interesting to see Meta’s flagship product flail around as it attempts to establish an identity beyond how your parents complain about kids these days. Regardless of your age, does it sound compelling to transform your feed into an infinitely scrolling entertainment and news firehose? Is there room for a bunch of similar networks thirsty for your indiscriminate attention?

Teslas Running Autopilot Involved in at Least 273 Crashes in Past Year

Here is a little update on that NHTSA investigation into Tesla’s autonomous vehicle systems.

Faiz Siddiqui, Rachel Lerman, and Jeremy B. Merrill, Washington Post:

Tesla vehicles running its Autopilot software have been involved in 273 reported crashes over roughly the past year, according to regulators, far more than previously known and providing concrete evidence regarding the real-world performance of its futuristic features.

It is not particularly notable to have under three hundred crashes in cars made by a single automaker selling hundreds of thousands of vehicles in the U.S. in 2021. But if all these crashes occurred while the cars were running Autopilot — more on that “if” below — that means there was a crash, on average, three out of every four days from June 2021 through June 2022 by the same driver.

Here is the “if”:

The new data set stems from a federal order last summer requiring automakers to report crashes involving driver assistance to assess whether the technology presented safety risks. Tesla‘s vehicles have been found to shut off the advanced driver-assistance system, Autopilot, around one second before impact, according to the regulators.

I am not the type to explore conspiracy theories, but it does not look good for Tesla if Autopilot disengages immediately before a crash. If this summary is true, I hope there is a legitimate explanation for it.

The Money Powering the Servant Economy Is Drying Up

Sarah O’Connor, Financial Times:

For some critics, the growth of this new “servant economy” is a symptom of resurgent economic inequality and an underclass without better options. But there is another factor that has powered its rise: investors have been subsidising consumers by funding companies that often charge less for these services than it costs to provide them.

Now that model is in jeopardy. The big problem is that the money is drying up. A decade of cheap money has given way to high inflation, gloomy growth forecasts and higher interest rates. Investors are beginning to get nervous about piling money into lossmaking companies. Shares in listed companies such as Uber, Lyft and Deliveroo have dropped sharply.

These companies have sustained losses far longer and greater than any boring delivery or taxicab business could. In their yawning crater of disruption lays the careers of taxi drivers.

If a business cannot survive without limitless infusions of investor cash and low-interest loans, is it really a business? Is it competing fairly?

CMA Report on Mobile Ecosystems

Dimitrios Katsifis, writing in the Platform Law Blog, published by a British–Belgian law firm:

On 10 June 2022, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published its Final Report on its year-long market study into mobile ecosystems — namely mobile operating systems, app stores, and web browsers. The CMA found that Apple and Google have a tight grip over these increasingly crucial ecosystems, which in turn places them in a very powerful position. As a result, thousands of businesses which rely on these ecosystems to reach their users face restrictions and terms which they have little choice but to accept, while consumers are likely to miss out on new innovations, have less choice, and ultimately face higher prices. In response, the CMA has identified a wide range of potential interventions that could help unlock competition and protect millions of businesses and people.

Even so, ecosystem operators — and Apple in particular — have fiercely opposed any intervention on the part of the CMA, arguing that this would compromise user privacy, security, and safety. […]

Of course there are times when real privacy and security risks conflict with permissive on-platform competition. But the CMA identified several areas where it says Apple and Google overstated those concerns in defence of their platform rules choices. That is a bit of a case of the boy crying “wolf!”. It is difficult to believe platform operators are always making these decisions only in the name of privacy and security when there are conflicts of interest in their own business lines.

Ideally, platform owners should be making decisions about what to allow in their ecosystem because regulators should not be micromanaging.

One other thing; Katsifis:

First, the choice architecture for the ATT prompt — which Apple chose without conducting any user testing — may not maximise user comprehension and thus could unduly influence some users to opt out of data sharing. Among others, the framing of the prompt could result in limited user comprehension, while Apple bars developers from offering any incentives for users to opt in to sharing their data (which in principle is not unlawful under UK privacy legislation).

Permitting tracking and data collection by coercion seems ethically fraught to me. How hard is it to not be creepy? At this point, just wipe the entire digital advertising and data broker industry off the face of the Earth and start from scratch.

Google Says It Bans Gun Ads, but It Will Still Place Them on Websites and in Apps

Craig Silverman and Ruth Talbot, ProPublica:

For roughly two decades, Google has boasted that it doesn’t accept gun ads, a reflection of its values and culture. But a ProPublica analysis shows that before and after mass shootings in May at a New York grocery store and a Texas elementary school, millions of ads from the some of the nation’s largest firearms makers flowed through Google’s ad systems and onto websites and apps — in some cases without the site or app owners’ knowledge and in violation of their policies.

[…]

In reality, Google has two sets of rules for weapons ads. One is for Google Ads, the ads that run on the company’s own ad network and on properties it owns, such as YouTube or Google.com search results. The other is for ads sold by partners, such as ad exchanges, that place ads using Google’s systems. Ad exchanges enable digital ads to be bought and sold via an automated bidding process. For these partners, Google operates as an “exchange of exchanges” — in which it facilitates the buying and selling of ads on other exchanges — and takes a cut of each ad transaction. Partner exchanges are guided by a set of more permissive rules that allow gun ads to flow through Google’s ad systems.

This looks like way for Google to maintain an arms-length distance from the lucrative markets it nominally claims are too dirty to do business with. I opened a private browser window, went to one of the survivalist websites listed in this article, and it took me exactly one attempt to see an ad for a folding semi-automatic rifle served by Google’s DoubleClick and hosted on a Google server.

Apparent Conflicts of Interest in App Tracking Transparency Rules Targeted by German Antitrust Probe

Natasha Lomas, TechCrunch:

A major privacy feature Apple launched last year, called App Tracking Transparency (ATT) — which requires third-party apps to request permission from iOS users to track their digital activity for ad targeting — is facing another antitrust probe in Europe: Germany’s Federal Cartel Office (FCO) has just announced it’s investigating the framework over concerns that Apple could be breaching competition rules by self-preferencing or creating unfair barriers for other companies.

Last year, France’s antitrust regulator declined to preemptively block Apple from implementing ATT — but said it would be watching how Apple operates in the feature. Poland also opened a probe of the feature at the end of last year.

Germany’s Federal Cartel Office, or Bundeskartellamt, published a version of its press release (PDF) in English.

Shoshana Wodinsky, Gizmodo:

The Bundeskartellamt’s investigation is primarily focused on Apple’s App Tracking Transparency Framework (or ATT, for short). For those unfamiliar, ATT is the set of rules that Apple rolled out as part of iOS 14 that require third-party app developers to ask for permission to track the users that download their apps — and when those users say no, ATT is what shuts off these apps’ access to a slew of valuable user data. You might recognize it from the small window that pops up and asks you whether you want to give an app access to your personal information, and you can respond with “Ask app not to track” or “Allow.”

It appears German authorities are not taking issue with App Tracking Transparency in a general sense but, rather, the conditions Apple has set for whether an app must request permission to track users. Apple says developers must get consent for apps that “[collect] data about end users and [share] it with other companies for purposes of tracking across apps and web sites”. Apple does the former, but it is everything after the “and” it does not do — and German regulators are investigating whether that gives it an advantage.

On its face, this investigation seems ridiculous. The App Tracking Transparency framework is merely intervening in third party apps to confirm whether the user is okay with being tracked in plain language. That sounds fine with me. The digital advertising industry is built on data collected illegitimately, with little consent, and with virtually no regulations. It is long past time for those behaviours to be reeled in.

Apple, as platform owner, gets access to a whole lot more ad targeting information than most individual apps, and because it is all first-party information not shared with anyone else, Apple does not need to ask permission for its ad network to use it. This appears okay: users have agreed to a business relationship with Apple, so of course it gets to use information it knows about users to target ads, and none of this is going to anyone else, so it is not creepy.

However, this advantage is difficult to replicate by any individual app or service. Only other gigantic companies, like Amazon and Facebook, can draw upon a trove of first-party data for ad targeting purposes. I have been arguing for the past year how it looks really bad for Apple to be setting privacy rules on its platform that restrict third-party advertisers while running its own ad network.

The solution here is not to empower others to more easily track users. If Apple is found to be illegally self-preferencing, I would hope it is resolved by allowing the continued operation of App Tracking Transparency while requiring Apple to reduce its first-party advantage.

This gives me a good reason to share my favourite Norm Macdonald joke (contains NSFW language, if that is a concern).

Ahead of Their Time

Marques Brownlee posted an exploration of products that, in his words, were ahead of their time. The main focus are three gadgets, but there are actually five early-to-market products explored in this video:

  • electric cars, generally,

  • Vine,

  • Google Glass,

  • the Samsung Galaxy Camera, and

  • the Motorola Atrix.

These are all product curiosities, but it is this idea of them being “ahead of their time” that I find sort of bizarre on its face. Perhaps the best way to explain what I mean is to explore why all of these products failed, and to look at whether modern-day versions are more successful.

As Brownlee explains, electric cars arrived in the 1800s and were around in various capacities before Tesla launched the Roadster in 2008. GM’s EV-1 was released in the late 1990s with mediocre range on a full charge, and under a lease-only agreement. Less than two thousand were delivered to customers — interestingly, not that much less than the number of Tesla Roadsters sold during its production run — until GM killed the project and scrapped nearly every example. I have a hard time believing the EV-1 would have ever been seen as truly desirable, but its failure was famously complex.

Vine, meanwhile, is far simpler: it died because Twitter, its owner, was spectacularly bad at product strategy. Musical.ly, TikTok’s predecessor, launched in August 2014, TikTok began expanding out of China in September 2016, and Vine was shuttered in October 2016. Vine’s problem was its owner and a lack of vision; it bled users to Instagram, which launched a competing short-form video option, and Twitter made the shutdown worse with a confusing Vine Camera app.

A product being “ahead of its time” implies there is eventually an era where it could have made sense or where its ideas solidify. At the beginning, Brownlee says these products “failed, but just because the world wasn’t ready for them yet” and, at the end of the video, says “Vine walked so TikTok could run”. That seems to be the definition we are working with, and it is what makes the other products Brownlee cited as being “ahead of their time” much more interesting. Here is what he highlights from each:

  • Google Glass was the first augmented reality headset designed to be worn outside of a lab or a gaming context.

  • Samsung Galaxy Camera was a full camera with a smartphone back, so you have all the power of an Android phone with the quality of a compact camera.

  • Motorola Atrix was a dockable phone that effectively transformed into a laptop.

Maybe you have spotted the problem already, but none of these product categories has found present-day success. Google Glass, as Brownlee says, is used in limited industrial and enterprise contexts, and he shows examples of more recent products that follow the form set by the Galaxy Camera and the Atrix. But there is no mainstream successful version of any of these.

There are fundamental reasons Brownlee cites for each, too, that have yet to be resolved. The smartphone-as-laptop concept sounds interesting, but nobody is buying one because the ecosystem is not there yet. Brownlee says Apple would rather sell you many devices rather than one, which is true, but it is also better to have each device format be true to itself. There is no evidence that people find a single device concept compelling in practice. People like their separate phone; they can fiddle with it while using their laptop for meetings.

A powerful camera with a smartphone operating system has also proved to be a weird concept because, in so many words, these are enthusiast problems that have enthusiast solutions. If you really care about camera image quality, you have a dedicated camera. If you want to be able to rapidly share images, it creates an ad hoc Wi-Fi network. Meanwhile, smartphone image quality continues gets better all the time.

Google Glass, meanwhile, was just a really dorky object. Followup products — like Snap’s Spectacles, and the Facebook and Ray-Bans collaboration — are barely more than prototypes. People are not convinced.

This ended up being sort of a retort to Brownlee’s video. That is not necessarily how I intended it; his video did inspire me to think about this a little more. I think we should be cautious in assuming any of the three product formats on his list could eventually succeed with mainstream adoption. Maybe they will, but it is not necessarily because the world was not ready for them yet. But maybe they will not because they are fundamentally flawed ideas — and that is okay. Experimentation is fun. We should not conflate that with early versions of eventually successful products, however, especially when those product categories have not proved successful.

Canadian Government to End Use of COVID Alert App

Josh O’Kane, the Globe and Mail:

Ottawa is planning to announce the shutdown of the national COVID-19 contact tracing app this week, months after changes to PCR testing regulations in many provinces had rendered it largely useless across much of Canada.

[…]

The COVID Alert app’s death has been a protracted one. By several metrics, it did not achieve what it was designed to do. Only 6.9 million of Canada’s 38 million residents had downloaded it by last February – which is when Ottawa stopped publishing usage numbers – and Canadians entered only 57,704 codes declaring they had COVID.

COVID Alert is the national exposure notification app built on the troubled joint Apple–Google framework. This is not a success story by any measure, but it is good to see the federal government winding down its use to prevent misuse.

Apple Paid the Netherlands €50 Million as It Dragged Its Feet on Legal Compliance

Apple Developer:

Following productive conversations with the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM), today we’re introducing additional adjustments to Apple’s plan to comply with the regulator’s order pertaining to dating apps on the App Store in the Netherlands […]

The Dutch Authority for Consumers and Markets is satisfied with these changes:

Apple has changed its unfair conditions, and will now allow different methods of payment in Dutch dating apps. With this concession, Apple will meet the requirements that the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) set under European and Dutch competition rules. Until recently, customers of dating apps had only been able to pay using the payment method that Apple imposed. In ACM’s opinion, Apple abused its dominant position with those practices. From now on, dating-app providers are able to let their customers pay in different ways. ACM forced these changes by imposing an order subject to periodic penalty payments. In the end, the sum of all penalty payments totaled 50 million euros.

The changes Apple has made since it announced how it planned to comply with the Dutch regulators’ rules in February have consistently been in the direction of increased ease for developers and a somewhat less petulant response from Apple. I am not sure if there was some technical problem prohibiting Apple from reducing its commission on subscriptions purchased through third-party providers until now, but it looked from the outside like Apple was delaying and minimizing its compliance.

Inside Apple’s iOS 16 Remake of the iPhone’s Iconic Lock Screen

Lance Ulanoff, TechRadar:

The “magazine look” [Alan] Dye mentioned is more than just the overall composition of Lock Screen elements. It’s that fluff of dog fur or the swell of flowing hair that intersects with the time element and, instead of sitting behind the numbers, layers on top of it. It’s an arresting – and professional – look that’s created automatically. Apple calls it “segmentation.”

Creating this look is something Dye, and his design team dreamed of for years.

“We’ve been wanting to achieve this look, but the segmentation’s gotten so good, that we really feel comfortable putting [in there]. Unless the segmentation is just ridiculously good, it breaks the illusion.”

If you have not installed the iOS 16 beta, trust me on this: this segmentation effect is really really good. I am not saying that all photos I have tried work perfectly, but only a handful of images that seem like they should work have not; most portraits create a fabulous and compelling lock screen. What an upgrade.

Ulanoff:

Dye told us that if the system doesn’t think the photo will look great, it won’t suggest it, a point of care and attention that helps guide the user towards more visually arresting Lock Screens.

This is the only thing that worries me. I am sure Apple has trained its machine learning workflows on a wide array of images, people, animals and so forth. Yet I have a hard time shaking Maciej Cegłowski’s description of machine learning as “money laundering for bias”. Apple’s changes have been thoughtful, as demonstrated in this interview with Dye and Craig Federighi, but I always have that worry about subjective choices made by machines.

The Talk Show Live From WWDC 2022

John Gruber has published this year’s episode of the Talk Show Live from WWDC. Topics covered include the redesigned and rebranded System Settings application in MacOS Ventura, CarPlay, developer sentiment, and the fun of using computers. As always, Apple’s executives generally stick to the company’s talking points, but there are revealing moments to better understand Apple’s thinking.

It is worth watching the whole video. It has been a tough couple of years, and things like this in-person recording give me hope that maybe the worst of this pandemic is behind us. I hope it feels the same for those who were there, John and his guests, and you.