Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Mossberg Out

Walt Mossberg penned what is officially the last column of his career for the Verge and Recode, and it’s — as you might imagine — about tech’s journey since he began covering it regularly in 1991, and where it’s going:

I expect that one end result of all this work will be that the technology, the computer inside all these things, will fade into the background. In some cases, it may entirely disappear, waiting to be activated by a voice command, a person entering the room, a change in blood chemistry, a shift in temperature, a motion. Maybe even just a thought.

Your whole home, office and car will be packed with these waiting computers and sensors. But they won’t be in your way, or perhaps even distinguishable as tech devices.

This is ambient computing, the transformation of the environment all around us with intelligence and capabilities that don’t seem to be there at all.

It sounds like Mossberg is excited about this future, if apprehensive about the lack of privacy and security regulations that surround it. While I’m sure he won’t be writing a weekly column, I’d be surprised if we never hear from Mossberg again when there’s so much to discuss.

Thanks, Walt.

These Are the Misleading and Wrong Arguments Against Net Neutrality

Devin Coldewey, writing for TechCrunch before the FCC’s proposal was released yesterday:

It is frequently said that the point is not to remove the rules themselves, just change the authority to something a little less heavy-handed.

This is a puzzling assertion to make when the proposal itself asks over and over again whether the “bright line” rules of no blocking, no throttling, etc should be removed. It’s pretty clear that proponents don’t think the rules are necessary and will eliminate them if they can. Just because they frame their preference in the form of a question doesn’t make it any less obvious.

A sort of corollary to this argument is that internet providers will voluntarily adhere to suggested practices. This is a pretty laughable suggestion, and even if it were true, it self-destructs: if companies have no problem subjecting themselves to these restrictions, how can they be as onerous as they say?

We’ll know more about what is and isn’t on the chopping block when the final text of the proposed rules is made available, at which point I’ll update this story.

That weaselly framing has, indeed, persisted in the FCC’s proposal (PDF):

In the Title II Order, despite virtually no quantifiable evidence of consumer harm, the Commission nevertheless determined that it needed bright line rules banning three specific practices by providers of both fixed and mobile broadband Internet access service: blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization. The Commission also “enhanced” the transparency rule by adopting additional disclosure requirements. Today, we revisit these determinations and seek comment on whether we should keep, modify, or eliminate the bright line and transparency rules.

Make no mistake: the FCC is seeking to hamper or eradicate these rules, as Ajit Pai suggested last month, and replace them with a pinky promise.

Device Backups in iCloud Should Be Encrypted

Rene Ritchie, iMore:

Apple has posted its Report on Government and Private Party Requests for Customer Information for the second half of 2016.

[…]

The TL;DR of it is that demands on the data being stored on our iPhones, iPads, and Macs are, unsurprisingly, up.

In this context, it’s important to remember that while Apple protects messages and other personal data with end-to-end encryption, Apple has to turn over iCloud backups when and if required to do so by law.

Unlike local backups, no option is available to encrypt iCloud backups. Possible technical hangups notwithstanding, I’m surprised that’s something that hasn’t yet been made available in iCloud. If iMessages are worth encrypting in transit, surely they’re worth encrypting in a backed-up state as well.

Update: Well this is embarrassing. Via Laurent Boileau, it appears that iCloud backups are, indeed, encrypted (page forty-one of that PDF). Past Apple documentation claimed that device backups in iCloud were encrypted, but that didn’t include some user data like Notes, iMessages, and SMS messages. I don’t know why I didn’t verify this before posting, but I apologize for the error.

Destroying Internet Freedom

The seventy-five-page document (PDF) released today by the FCC represents the clearest view yet of Ajit Pai’s point of view on what ISPs offer, how to regulate providers, and what he sees as the Commission’s role in making sure that the open web continues to thrive. And, in short, it’s a crock of shit.

I anticipate that Karl Bode and Jon Brodkin will explore this proposal — titled “Restoring Internet Freedom”, like a gigantic middle finger to anyone who truly cares about freedom on the internet — on a much deeper level than I can, but I’d like to present a few excerpts for your review.

Americans cherish a free and open Internet. And for almost twenty years, the Internet flourished under a light-touch regulatory approach. It was a framework that our nation’s elected leaders put in place on a bipartisan basis. President Clinton and a Republican Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which established the policy of the United States “to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet … unfettered by Federal or State regulation.”

During this time, the Internet underwent rapid, and unprecedented, growth. Internet service providers (ISPs) invested over $1.5 trillion in the Internet ecosystem and American consumers enthusiastically responded. Businesses developed in ways that the policy makers could not have fathomed even a decade ago.

These are the opening sentences of the proposal, and they already hint at a misleading document. In the context of this proposal, the implication is that the high investments of internet service providers in the nineteen years prior to the 2015 decision to classify providers under Title II is responsible for the rapid expansion and overwhelming success of online businesses and services. This proposal then goes on to blame Title II classification for an apparent destruction of the internet’s economy:

The Commission’s Title II Order has put at risk online investment and innovation, threatening the very open Internet it purported to preserve. Investment in broadband networks declined. Internet service providers have pulled back on plans to deploy new and upgraded infrastructure and services to consumers. This is particularly true of the smallest Internet service providers that serve consumers in rural, low-income, and other underserved communities. Many good-paying jobs were lost as the result of these pull backs. And the order has weakened Americans’ online privacy by stripping the Federal Trade Commission — the nation’s premier consumer protection agency — of its jurisdiction over ISPs’ privacy and data security practices.

This is complete myth building. ISPs themselves state that Title II has not affected their infrastructure plans, and the vast majority of publicly-traded ISPs actually saw an increase in capital expenditures from 2015–2016, compared to the two years prior. There is no indication that the classification of ISPs as common carriers has impacted either their business or the internet economy as a whole: the stock prices of all major American ISPs have increased over the past five years and, with the exception of Verizon, dramatically so. Of the ten most valuable publicly-traded companies in the world, five are American tech companies — all have a far higher valuation than they did five years ago. Put simply: the internet economy isn’t dying; it’s bigger than it ever has been, and the common carrier designation hasn’t made a dent in that trajectory.

Furthermore, the Commission’s claim that consumer privacy has been affected by the classification of ISPs under Title II is wildly misleading.

But the outright falsehoods in this proposal aren’t nearly as egregious as the way the Commission misinterprets the role of an ISP. The 2015 common carrier designation is based on the FCC’s classification of ISPs as telecommunications companies, rather than information service providers. I’ll get to the latter categorization in a moment, but first, a quick word from the Commission on why ISPs — which categorize themselves in SEC filings as “telecommunications service” companies — are not telecommunications companies:

In contrast, Internet service providers do not appear to offer “telecommunications,” i.e., “the transmission, between or among points specified by the user, of information of the user’s choosing, without change in the form or content of the information as sent and received,” to their users. For one, broadband Internet users do not typically specify the “points” between and among which information is sent online. Instead, routing decisions are based on the architecture of the network, not on consumers’ instructions, and consumers are often unaware of where online content is stored.

What a load of hot garbage. A user specifies what internet connections they wish to make by typing or selecting URLs or addresses over other protocols. That the route chosen by the infrastructure is not directly controlled by the user is immaterial.

The FCC’s argument is akin to them stating that someone isn’t driving to a specific destination because they’re forced to pass through other towns because that’s how roads work, or that FedEx isn’t a courier company because a shipper doesn’t get to choose whether their parcel goes through Memphis.

So how does the FCC define “information service provider”, and why do they think the internet falls under that categorization?

Section 3 of the Act defines an “information service” as “the offering of a capability for generating, acquiring, storing, transforming, processing, retrieving, utilizing, or making available information via telecommunications, and includes electronic publishing, but does not include any use of any such capability for the management, control, or operation of a telecommunications system or the management of a telecommunications service.”

[…]

Whether posting on social media or drafting a blog, a broadband Internet user is able to generate and make available information online. Whether reading a newspaper’s website or browsing the results from a search engine, a broadband Internet user is able to acquire and retrieve information online. Whether it’s an address book or a grocery list, a broadband Internet user is able to store and utilize information online. Whether uploading filtered photographs or translating text into a foreign language, a broadband Internet user is able to transform and process information online. In short, broadband Internet access service appears to offer its users the “capability” to perform each and every one of the functions listed in the definition — and accordingly appears to be an information service by definition.

This is the part where things get necessarily lawyerly. For that, we’ll turn to page twenty-seven of a June 2016 ruling (PDF) from the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals:

In support of its second conclusion — that from the user’s point of view, the standalone offering of broadband service provides telecommunications — the Commission explained that “[u]sers rely on broadband Internet access service to transmit ‘information of the user’s choosing,’ ‘between or among points specified by the user,’” without changing the form or content of that information. … The Commission grounded that determination in record evidence that “broadband Internet access service is marketed today primarily as a conduit for the transmission of data across the Internet.”

The Commission then cited ISPs’ marketing in defence of their position, arguing that their very own ads sell ISPs on the basis of speed and reliability of arbitrary data transfer. That is, they sell themselves as dumb pipes. The Court of Appeals held up the 2015 Title II reclassification in this and many other decisions.

But the significance of all of this is kind of moot, as Mike Masnick explains:

For Pai to successfully roll back those rules, he’d need to show that there was some major change in the market since the rules were put in place less than two years ago. That’s… almost certainly going to fail in court. Again, this is important: Pai can change the rules, but that rule change will almost definitely be shot down in court.

[…]

Congressional net neutrality haters (e.g. those receiving massive campaign contributions from big broadband players…) are well aware that Pai’s plans have no chance in court. Yet, they want there to be this kind of uproar over the plans. They want the public to freak out and to say that this is bad for the internet and all that. Because this will allow them to do two things. First, they will fundraise off of this. They will go to the big broadband providers and act wishy washy on their own stance about changing net neutrality rules, and will smile happily as the campaign contributions roll in. It’s how the game is played.

The second thing they will do… is come to “the rescue” of net neutrality. That is, they will put forth a bill — written with the help of broadband lobbyists — that on its face pretends to protect net neutrality, but in reality absolutely guts net neutrality as well as the FCC’s authority to enforce any kind of meaningful consumer protection. We’ve already seen this with a plan from Senator Thune and this new bill from Senator Mike Lee.

This is really important to keep an eye on. Because, as bad as the proposal released today is — and it’s really bad — the fight won’t be over even if these rules pass, and are then overturned. I’m not very confident that the highly divided and very partisan Congress will get this right.

There are a couple of things you can do if you’re American. First, acknowledge your support for retaining Title II classification for ISPs. Comments will be added to the public record on this, so when this proposal is passed with millions of people opposing, there’s a clear sign that it isn’t in the public interest.

The second thing you can do — if this ever becomes a Congressional issue — is call your public representatives. Urge them to keep the common carrier designation for ISPs. I get that everyone seems to be telling you to call your representatives for a laundry list of reasons, but this is really important. Most everyone seems to agree with keeping the ’net neutral if it’s explained to them, but it can be hard to explain what’s going on here and what is at stake.

And that brings me to the third thing you can do: tell your friends about this, particularly those less technically inclined. Get them engaged, and get them to call as well. Every voice counts, even when it seems like those accountable aren’t listening. They absolutely will be listening if they fuck up the ’net for a generation.

Design Before You Minify

Don Melton:

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use tactics like minification, resource concatenation, server-side compression, etc. to improve performance.

But have a strategy for performance first. Have a design. Consider whether you need all those libraries you’re tempted to include. Consider whether you need to write even more JavaScript, CSS, JSON and Christ-knows-what-all to “improve” the user experience.

Maybe leveraging those Content Delivery Networks will let you get away with it. But maybe they won’t.

Consider, too, the weight of code that isn’t being written directly, instead being added by plugins and addons. Analytics, advertising, and retargeting scripts tend to consume far too many resources each — combined, they’re a recipe for a website that’s disrespectful to its users by being bloated and invasive. That can’t be saved by code minification.

Facebook’s Been Making It Up All Along

Alex Hazlett of Mashable, reacting to the leaked Facebook moderator rulebook:

All we’ve had to go on about Facebook’s guiding principles have been generic platitudes from Zuckerberg until a few months ago, when he gave us a few thousand words of generic platitudes. The company has always clung mightily to vagueness – and secrecy. Facebook says it wants to protect free speech and to avoid censorship. But censorship is something to be avoided because it’s a mis-calibration: Something valuable was prohibited or erased. The banned book was worth reading. The activist’s speech needed to be heard. The silencing was a problem because of the values it acted against. Facebook has never understood that. They’ve operated at the level of the particular, and they have studiously avoided the theoretical that makes that particular worth fighting for.

Sure, if Facebook had decided to take an actual stand, they’d have had detractors. But if they’d been transparent about why, their users would have gotten over it. If you have principles, and you stick to them, people will adjust.

Instead, Facebook seems to change their policies based on the level of outrage that is generated. It contributes to a perception of them as craven and exploitative. This is why Facebook lurches from stupid controversy to stupid controversy, learning the hard way every. single. time.

I think Hazlett is right — Facebook ought to take some sort of stand. But I don’t think they will, because it’s too easy to coast between controversies that most people forget about after a day or two. We have regulatory bodies for a reason; without them, participants in many industries would also be briefly reactionary.

Notes From an Emergency

Maciej Cegłowski, in an infinitely-quotable transcript from a talk he gave at Republica Berlin:

The danger facing us is not Orwell, but Huxley. The combo of data collection and machine learning is too good at catering to human nature, seducing us and appealing to our worst instincts. We have to put controls on it. The algorithms are amoral; to make them behave morally will require active intervention.

The second thing we need is accountability. I don’t mean that I want Mark Zuckerberg’s head on a pike, though I certainly wouldn’t throw it out of my hotel room if I found it there. I mean some mechanism for people whose lives are being brought online to have a say in that process, and an honest debate about its tradeoffs.

Cegłowski points out, quite rightly, that the data-addicted tech industry is unlikely to effectively self-regulate to accommodate these two needs. They’re too deeply-invested in tracking and data collection, and their lack of ethics has worked too well from a financial perspective.

Cegłowski, again:

But real problems are messy. Tech culture prefers to solve harder, more abstract problems that haven’t been sullied by contact with reality. So they worry about how to give Mars an earth-like climate, rather than how to give Earth an earth-like climate. They debate how to make a morally benevolent God-like AI, rather than figuring out how to put ethical guard rails around the more pedestrian AI they are introducing into every area of people’s lives.

The tech industry enjoys tearing down flawed institutions, but refuses to put work into mending them. Their runaway apparatus of surveillance and manipulation earns them a fortune while damaging everything it touches. And all they can think about is the cool toys they’ll get to spend the profits on.

The message that’s not getting through to Silicon Valley is one that your mother taught you when you were two: you don’t get to play with the new toys until you clean up the mess you made.

I don’t see any advantage to having a regulated web. I do see advantages to having regulated web companies.

All of us need to start asking hard questions of ourselves — both as users, and as participants in this industry. I don’t think users are well-informed enough to be able to make decisions about how their data gets used. Even if they read through the privacy policies of every website they ever visited, I doubt they’d have enough information to be able to decide whether their data is being used safely, nor do I think they would have any idea over how to control that. I also don’t think many tech companies are forthcoming about how, exactly, users’ data is interpreted, shared, and protected.

Update: If you — understandably — prefer to watch Cegłowski speak, a video of this talk has been uploaded to YouTube. Thanks to Felix for sending me the link.

Facebook’s Internal Rulebook for Moderators

Nick Hopkins of the Guardian received a copy of about one hundred training manuals used to guide Facebook’s moderation policies:

One document says Facebook reviews more than 6.5m reports a week relating to potentially fake accounts – known as FNRP (fake, not real person).

Using thousands of slides and pictures, Facebook sets out guidelines that may worry critics who say the service is now a publisher and must do more to remove hateful, hurtful and violent content.

Yet these blueprints may also alarm free speech advocates concerned about Facebook’s de facto role as the world’s largest censor. Both sides are likely to demand greater transparency.

I would wager that it’s impossible to come up with a single set of guidelines that can clearly guide the moderation policy for two billion users spread across hundreds of countries. Even being more aware of their existing rulebook is unlikely to be helpful — someone acting nefariously could use them as guidance, while others will certainly see the rules as needlessly prohibitive and claim that Facebook shouldn’t censor any viewpoint, no matter how objectionable.

Facebook currently gets to decide its own level of squeamishness — they’re a private company, of course. But is there a size or scale at which it’s no longer okay for a company to create their own oversight? There has never been a single company that connects a quarter of the world’s entire population until now. Is it okay for that many people in so many places to be communicating using a rulebook developed by twenty- and thirty-somethings in California?

See Also: The Moderators.

Google’s Proprietary Fork of HTML Is Taking Over the Open Web

Ingrid Lunden, TechCrunch:

As Google looks for ways to keep people using its own mobile search to discover content — in competition with apps and other services like Facebook’s Instant Articles — the company is announcing some updates to AMP, its collaborative project to speed up mobile web pages.

Today at the Google I/O developer conference, Google announced that there are now over 2 billion AMP pages covering some 900,000 domains. These pages are also loading twice as fast as before via Google Search. Lastly, the AMP network is now expanding to more e-commerce sites and covering more ad formats.

In Google’s post announcing that AMP pages load faster — which Lunden links to — they also explain some additional capabilities offered to AMP pages:

Many of AMP’s e-commerce capabilities were previewed at the AMP Conf and the amp-bind component is now available for origin trials, creating a new interaction model for elements on AMP pages.

Forms and interactive elements were previously verboten in AMP land, but they’re now allowed through a proprietary — albeit open source — and nonstandard fork of HTML largely developed and popularized by one of the biggest web companies out there.

Scott Gilbertson of the Register:

Quite a few high-profile web developers have this year weighted in with criticism and some, following a Google conference dedicated to AMP, have cautioned users about diving in with both feet.

These, in my view, don’t go far enough in stating the problem and I feel this needs to be said very clearly: Google’s AMP is bad – bad in a potentially web-destroying way. Google AMP is bad news for how the web is built, it’s bad news for publishers of credible online content, and it’s bad news for consumers of that content. Google AMP is only good for one party: Google. Google, and possibly, purveyors of fake news.

Consider this: Google owns the most popular search engine and the biggest video hosting platform in most countries, operates one of the most-used email services on Earth,1 has the greatest market share of any mobile operating system, makes the most popular web browser in many countries, serves the majority of the targeted advertising on the web, provides the most popular analytics software for websites, and is attempting to become a major internet service provider. And, to cap it all off, they’re subtly replacing HTML with their own version, and it requires a Google-hosted JavaScript file to correctly display.

I’ve been pretty open about my distrust with ISPs. I think the FCC’s likely destruction of net neutrality legislation will be regarded as an easily-averted decision driven by dogma, and it will ruin the open web. At the same time, though, we cannot ignore Google’s slow takeover of the web. The world wide web is slowly becoming a Google product, and that’s just as fundamentally flawed as if the web were a division of Comcast.


  1. In the words of Marco Arment, an “email-like product” that doesn’t follow IMAP standards and is, in many ways, a proprietary interpretation of email. ↩︎

Disabling Slack Indexing Seems to Improve Spotlight Performance on iOS

I’ve generally had pretty good luck with Spotlight on iOS, but I’ve long noticed that results are delayed or nonexistent after not using it for a little while, particularly if I haven’t rebooted my phone recently. I thought I was losing my head a little bit, until I found a tip on Twitter from Anand Iyer‏:

Settings > General > Spotlight Search > toggle Slack off

Just like that, Spotlight seems to be running quickly again. Every query I’ve tried is fast and reliable, even if I don’t use my phone for a while. I don’t know why Slack, in particular, seems to make Spotlight perform so poorly — other apps surely index thousands of messages and require network lookups to complete — but this one weird trick seems to make Spotlight performance issues disappear.

Update: John Gruber:

Sounds like there might widespread problems with Spotlight indexing on iOS 10, because a bunch of readers have written to say they have the same problem but don’t even have Slack installed.

I’ve seen this Slack trick working for a few other people, so I wonder what the common thread is between those of us with Slack installed and those without. Perhaps there are issues with indexing large numbers of items, or perhaps toggling a setting simply rebuilds the Spotlight cache.

Update: I’ve seen reports that 10.3.2 fixes this bug altogether. Daniel Shockley says that he improved Spotlight performance by toggling languages, which makes me think that it is — or was — a bug that can be worked around by clearing a cache.

Boring Google

I only loosely followed Google I/O as it was happening, but I’m catching up on its reception. The most pervasive sentiment I’ve seen is that it was, to put it bluntly, boring.

Karissa Bell, Mashable:

That wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t that long ago when Sergey Brin enlisted a group of skydivers to introduce the world to Google Glass. Or when Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) division, the skunkworks behind moonshot ideas like modular smartphones, gesture-sensing radar, and clothing with embedded sensors, was a reliable source of shock and awe for I/O attendees.

This year, though, there was no sign of ATAP, which lost its chief visionary Regina Dugan to Facebook last year.

It’s not just ATAP, either. There was no sign of anything remotely experimental. Instead, we got to see the most polished version of Google’s augmented reality tech yet (which, by the way, started in ATAP nearly four years ago), new skills for Google’s digital assistant, VR features we don’t really need, and yet another fine, but also boring, update for Android.

I get the point that Bell is making here: Google has a reputation for having a bit of a quirky attitude that bubbles through their products and services. But I disagree — I’m glad that Google is being a bit more honest in admitting that they are a bonafide corporate entity, not a gigantic startup. Yeah, it’s a bit boring, but it’s the truth.

Of the experiments that Bell mentions, two — Google Glass and Project Ara — are officially on hold, but I wouldn’t bet on them coming out of hold any time soon. The gestural control system and connected jacket are scheduled to ship later this year, but that also seems to be the case for a lot of Google products: perpetually coming soon.

Ben Thompson:

This is why I think that Pichai’s “boring” opening was a great thing. No, there wasn’t the belligerence of early Google IOs, insisting that Android could take on the iPhone. And no, there wasn’t the grand vision of Nadella last week, or the excitement of an Apple product unveiling. What there was was a sense of certainty and almost comfort: Google is about organizing the world’s information, and given that Pichai believes the future is about artificial intelligence, specifically the machine learning variant that runs on data, that means that Google will succeed in this new world simply by being itself.

Before I/O began this year, Matt Birchler reflected on last year’s event:

Google’s I/O conference last year was big on flash, but little in substance that will actually move users away from iOS. Google Assistant has proven to be a big win for the company, as it has asserted itself as the best voice assistant out there for a lot of things. Google Home, which I don’t own yet, is a strong competitor to the Amazon Echo which has been gaining popularity.

But beyond the Assistant-related announcements, everything else was a bit of a letdown.

This year’s event was nowhere near as flashy. The Android updates seemed a bit obvious — the system now has notification badges for app icons, as an example — and that’s probably a good thing. Google’s big company reality doesn’t really match their wacky persona, and a dizzying array of new messaging apps every year is confusing in the real world. It’s boring, but it’s okay that Google is becoming more reliable and, well, normal.

FCC Votes to Begin Dismantling Net Neutrality

Karl Bode, Techdirt:

Surprising absolutely nobody, the FCC today voted 2-1 along strict party lines to begin dismantling net neutrality protections for consumers. The move comes despite the fact that the vast majority of non-bot comments filed with the FCC support keeping the rules intact. And while FCC boss Ajit Pai has breathlessly insisted he intended to listen to the concerns of all parties involved, there has been zero indication that this was a serious commitment as he begins dismantling all manner of broadband consumer protections, not just net neutrality.

Libby Watson, Gizmodo:

The commission will now consider Pai’s proposal, which would repeal the reclassification of broadband providers as “common carriers” (a little like utilities) under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. Pai’s proposed rulemaking would also “seek comment” on the so-called “bright line” rules—no blocking, throttling, or paid prioritization of internet traffic—likely meaning those rules would be watered down or even erased. We won’t know for sure until closer to the final vote, but without Title II authority, the FCC might not be able to enforce those rules anyway.

Much like a repeal of net neutrality would allow, this vote is a clear demonstration that a few powerful companies have their interests prioritized far higher than the millions of people who don’t have a boatload of cash to spare. This result may have been expected, but that doesn’t make it any less of a pile of horse shit.

Watson, again:

Meanwhile, the other Republican, Mike O’Rielly, laid the groundwork for ignoring pro-net neutrality comments that have already flooded in and will likely continue to do so before the vote, saying FCC rules aren’t decided “like a ‘Dancing With the Stars’ contest.” More than 2.1 million comments have already been filed, though as we’ve reported, hundreds of thousands of those appear to be astroturfed, possibly bot-filed anti-net neutrality comments, submitted under the names of other people. But as much as O’Rielly might want to dismiss the comment process, every comment in favor of net neutrality makes it more obvious that Pai’s proposal is something that only ISPs want.

O’Rielly’s disparagement of democracy and Pai’s refusal to take seriously the millions of comments in favour of Title II regulation says everything you need to know about what these jackasses think of Americans’ values and voices.

Cultured Code Launches Things 3

I’ve been using Things as my primary todo app for as long as I can remember, and it has always been a well-designed and thoughtful app from good people. But the last major version of Things was launched in 2012 and, any way you cut it, that’s a really long time ago for any piece of software. It’s a testament to how good the app is that I — and many others — have stuck with it for so long.

And, now, there’s a new version. I’ve been using Things 3 on all my devices for a while and it’s amazing. I can promise you that this is one of the best-designed apps to grace any Apple platform in a very long time — not just the way it looks, but what it does.

Ryan Christoffel, MacStories:

As with many other task managers, you’ll find a plus button in the bottom area of the screen to add new tasks. But in Things for iOS, that button has a special name: the Magic Plus Button.

In one of the most clever methods of task entry I’ve seen, the Magic Plus Button can be dynamically moved around the screen as a way to add additional data. While its default location will always be the lower right corner, the button can be dragged and dropped into different spaces of the app to do different things. Tap and drag the button into your list of projects to create a new project. Drop it into a list of tasks in Today to create a new task in that exact spot. Drop it into the Inbox icon that appears in the lower left corner to create the task in your Inbox. And, my personal favorite, when viewing your Upcoming list, drag and drop the button on to the day when that task needs to be acted on, and you’ve just assigned its start date.

The idea of a persistent button floating in the lower-right sounds very much like it’s pulled from Google’s Material Design guidelines, but it doesn’t feel that way. Cultured Code has clearly given a lot of thought to the way the Magic Plus Button should work, and its visual appearance is a reflection of that — not the other way around. My favourite little tip for this button: drag it to the left side of the screen within a project to create a section.

There’s lots more to love, like calendar integration and the redesigned Areas function, but at its core, it’s still Things. That means bulletproof sync, lots of little details, and a stubborn refusal to compromise their vision for what apps like this should be. I really like this set of updates.

I’ve written frequently here about supporting developers, the race-to-the-bottom of the App Store, and the lack of good apps on the Mac App Store. Cultured Code bucks the trend of reducing the price of their apps or introducing a subscription model, and these apps are better for it. Supporting good developers comes at a real monetary cost: $10 for the iPhone app, $20 on the iPad, and $50 on the Mac. But if a great task management app is what you’re looking for and you don’t want a company doing sketchy stuff with your data, Things might be worth the investment for you. I know that it is for me.

Twitter Increases Ad Tracking, Now Ignores Do Not Track

Twitter:

As we work to make our content more relevant to people on Twitter, we also want to offer the best and most transparent privacy and data controls.

Today, we’re announcing a suite of industry-leading tools to give you more access to your information and greater, more granular control over how it’s used. We’ve also updated our Privacy Policy to reflect the improvements that we’ve made to Twitter.

With such strenuous emphasis on the ways in which this update “increases transparency” and gives users more control, it’s no surprise that the meat of this post is near the bottom: Twitter will, like Facebook, be using data gathered across the web from embedded posts and sharing buttons to increase targeting options for advertisers.

Tim Peterson, Marketing Land:

At the same time as Twitter is giving people more control over how they are targeted, it is removing support for Do Not Track, which people can use to ask every website they visit not to track their behavior in order to target them with ads. Twitter made a big deal about supporting Do Not Track in May 2012, so its reversal is a surprise — unless you’ve been following the wave of major ad-supported digital platforms opting to ignore Do Not Track requests. When Hulu announced last July that it would no longer support Do Not Track, it joined nine other major digital platforms that do not respond to these opt-out requests. Now Twitter has joined that list.

As Twitter was one of very few major websites that actually honoured browser-based Do Not Track requests, this is more of a conceptual setback. Still, I liked that Twitter did bother to ask users whether they were okay with being tracked; now, they’re just burying that confirmation in the privacy policy that nobody reads.

Like Google and Facebook, Twitter is now displaying the topics it thinks you’re interested in, how old it thinks you are, and what languages it thinks you speak — apparently, I speak Estonian and Portuguese. Twitter goes one step further and allows you to request a list of which advertisers are currently targeting your profile. As of writing, 874 advertisers have included my personal account in over two thousand of their audience lists, while 102 have for the Pixel Envy auto-posting account. I’m not sure how much can really be inferred from this information, but at least I now know that 102 advertisers — including KFC and Uber — are targeting my unmonitored robot-posting account.

JSON Feed

Brent Simmons and Manton Reece:

The JSON Feed format is a pragmatic syndication format, like RSS and Atom, but with one big difference: it’s JSON instead of XML.

For most developers, JSON is far easier to read and write than XML. Developers may groan at picking up an XML parser, but decoding JSON is often just a single line of code.

Beyond developer advantages, one of the really nice things about JSON is that it’s very nearly human-readable, even in code form. Take a look at my JSON feed — the most unreadable parts of it are the raw HTML blocks; everything else is pretty self-explanatory.

WordPress support is handled by an elegant plugin, via Michael Tsai.

Panic

Panic’s Steven Frank shares some arresting news:

Last week, for about three days, the macOS video transcoding app HandBrake was compromised. One of the two download servers for HandBrake was serving up a special malware-infested version of the app, that, when launched, would essentially give hackers remote control of your computer.

In a case of extraordinarily bad luck, even for a guy that has a lot of bad computer luck, I happened to download HandBrake in that three day window, and my work Mac got pwned.

Long story short, somebody, somewhere, now has quite a bit of source code to several of our apps.

That’s the bad news; the good news is that Panic have taken extraordinary steps — steps that even they admit are probably overkill — to help ensure that no harm will befall their customers.

Beyond the situation at hand, this announcement’s honesty and transparency is admirable. They’ve created some truly innovative stuff that would likely be considered proprietary knowledge, like a wicked fast FTP engine and a ridiculous toolbar. But the Panic people are good people, and their handling of this is a model for other companies to follow should they be faced with a similar situation.

Update: I’ve been thinking about this story all day. I wanted to underscore that Panic was able to receive such an understanding and sympathetic reception to this news because they do things right pretty much all the time. They’re good people making good software. I wrote above that this is a model response for other companies, but I’m not sure many others could announce similar news in this fashion: most other companies have too much baggage and aren’t as trusted as Panic. It’s not so much that this response is what other companies should copy; it’s Panic’s entire approach.

BGR: Apple to Discontinue iPad Mini

I never link to BGR, but Jonathan Geller heard an intriguing rumour that I think such a link is worth your time and attention:

First introduced in 2012, Apple’s iPad mini was a welcome alternative to the much larger, thicker, and heavier 9.7-inch iPad. There was no 5.5-inch iPhone Plus, so the iPad mini made a great choice for light reading and effortless web browsing, email, and gaming. The market doesn’t stand still, however, and we’re now looking at a redesigned iPad Pro to be launched this summer that should offer everything the current 9.7-inch iPad features, but in a smaller footprint with a larger 10.5-inch display.

On the other side, there’s the 5.5-inch iPhone 7 Plus, which is large enough to negate the need for a tablet for many users. The device you take everywhere, that’s always with you, that has the best camera, and that has everything else you need. The device that you already own. Therein lies the problem, and that’s why we have heard from a source close to Apple that the iPad mini is being phased out.

There’s a fair amount of news to unpack here, so let’s start with the headlining item, which isn’t really a surprise when you think about it: the new 9.7-inch iPad has a starting price $100 less than the Mini, and the Mini is only available in a 128 GB configuration that’s priced identically to the 128 GB iPad. If Apple wanted to keep the Mini around, they would likely also retain its differentiated price, or at least keep the 32 GB model in the lineup.

I’ll miss the Mini, though. Quite apart from size, the weight difference between the Mini and the 9.7-inch iPad makes the smaller model so much nicer to hold with one hand. The Mini also has the highest-density display that ships in any iPad which, combined with the weight and size, makes it perfect for reading.

Geller also mentions that the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is being replaced this summer with a 10.5-inch model, a rumour which has been corroborated by multiple websites. However, no report I’ve seen yet mentions the 12.9-inch Pro, and that doesn’t make any sense to me: the 9.7-inch Pro was introduced more recently than its larger sibling and has features that the bigger model still doesn’t, like a True Tone display and higher-quality cameras. It would surprise me if Apple updated the 9.7-inch Pro first, or didn’t make a meaningful upgrade to the 12.9-inch model at the same time — yet, I haven’t seen a single rumour about the big iPad Pro. Very peculiar.

See Also: Neil Cybart’s analysis of iPad Mini sales relative to the rest of the iPad line.

Inside Apple Park

Apple is clearly excited about Apple Park; they’ve been showing it off to journalists at a regular clips. In March, they gave Steven Levy a tour, and he published his account of it today in Wired:

Of course I’ve seen images of it, architectural equivalents of movie trailers for a much-awaited blockbuster. From the day Jobs presented to the Cupertino City Council, digital renderings of the Ring, as Apple calls the main building, have circulated widely. As construction progressed, enterprising drone pilots began flying their aircraft overhead, capturing aerial views in slickly edited YouTube videos accompanied by New Agey soundtracks. Amid all the fanboy anticipation, though, Apple has also taken some knocks for the scale and scope of the thing. Investors urging Apple to kick back more of its bounty to shareholders have questioned whether the reported $5 billion in construction costs should have gone into their own pockets instead of a workplace striving for history. And the campus’s opening comes at a point when, despite stellar earnings results, Apple has not launched a breakout product since Jobs’ death. Apple executives want us to know how cool its new campus is — that’s why they invited me. But this has also led some people to sniff that too much of its mojo has been devoted to giant glass panels, custom-built door handles, and a 100,000-square-foot fitness and wellness center complete with a two-story yoga room covered in stone, from just the right quarry in Kansas, that’s been carefully distressed, like a pair of jeans, to make it look like the stone at Jobs’ favorite hotel in Yosemite.

Investors who prioritize lining their own pockets over improvements for employees are gigantic assholes, but this is a pretty indulgent project, even by Silicon Valley standards. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — as I’ve written before, it’s as much an Apple product as the stuff that you can find in a retail store, just on a vastly larger scale. It wouldn’t be very Apple-y to build their new office without considering every way of making it more elegant.

There’s an anecdote Levy shares midway through the article where he and Jony Ive are looking at the concrete structure of some of the parking garages. Ive points out that many of the utility needs — plumbing, wiring, and so on — were incorporated into the beams instead of being left exposed, as is typical. It’s the kind of detail that, when repeated across all of the buildings at Apple Park, probably increased construction costs considerably. As a result, most companies would have probably nixed it early on. But Apple’s treatment is far more considered and resolved.

I was intrigued by some of the criticisms of the building that Levy chose to include in his article:

As Apple Park inches toward completion, its critics are getting louder, and what began with aesthetic judgments of the digital renderings — the Los Angeles Times’ architecture critic called the Ring a “retrograde cocoon” — has lately turned to social and cultural critiques. That the campus is a snobby isolated preserve, at odds with the trendy urbanist school of corporate headquarters. (Amazon, Twitter, and Airbnb are all part of a movement that hopes to integrate tech employees into cities as opposed to having them commute via fuel-gobbling cars or numbing Wi-Fi-equipped buses.)

I don’t necessarily object to these criticisms, but I have three observations:

  1. The rise of employees working from home or in remote locations means that the physical location of any corporate headquarters isn’t necessarily as impactful as it once was.

  2. I live in a city with a well-defined downtown core full of office towers, surrounded by largely-residential neighbourhoods. At night and on the weekend, the downtown core can feel apocalyptic.1 Corporate campuses outside of a city centre are kind of like an inverted version of that: their employees return to the city centre on weeknights and weekends, rather than leaving it.

  3. Apple Park really isn‘t that far away from major commercial strips in Cupertino and San Jose, and it‘s surrounded by residential neighbourhoods. If employees wish, they can live within walking or cycling distance of Apple Park.

Levy also notes that Apple Park lacks childcare facilities. In a 2014 Fortune story, Apple explained that their paternity leave policies extend to a total of eighteen weeks for expectant mothers, and up to six weeks for other expectant parents. Is that really enough support for new parents?


  1. This is changing. I’ve lived in the downtown core for about three years and I’ve noticed loads more people lately spending their evenings and weekends in the commercial core than I used to see. ↩︎

Apple’s New Retail Store at Piazza Liberty

How fitting is it that sixteen years after Steve Jobs showed the world the original format of the Apple Store comes what is likely their most ambitious location yet?

Piazza Liberty will be much like their Fifth Avenue and Pudong store locations, with the actual store located underground. But instead of a giant glass-encased Apple logo sitting above the entrance, they’re envisioning a massive renovation to the square, and placing the entrance behind a water feature.

I’ve been a little skeptical of Angela Ahrendts’ proposal to overhaul the stores to become the “third place” for groups of teenagers and young adults. It seems a little strange to go hang out at a computer shop. But the Piazza Liberty location looks like it could be a completely different kind of concept, because it really uses the historical space to give a true common area that just happens to be near an Apple Store.

Sending iTunes to a Farm Upstate Somewhere

MG Siegler comments on Microsoft’s announcement that iTunes would be coming to the Windows Store:

Anyway, the jokes came fast and furious on Twitter after the news was announced. But what’s actually funny here is that the jokes are basically the exact opposite of the one Steve Jobs made. Whereas Jobs noted that many Windows users would write to Apple to tell them that their favorite software on Microsoft’s OS was iTunes, no one says that anymore. In fact, no sane macOS user, myself included, would dare say such a thing about iTunes. Because it has been awful for the better part of this past decade now.

In fact, at this point, it’s old hat to rag on iTunes. It has been so bad, for so long, that the joke is stale. And yet, somehow Apple doesn’t seem to be in on the joke. Because if they were, surely iTunes would no longer exist.

I’ve long argued against the idea of splitting up iTunes into its myriad functions. I see the value in it — iTunes has almost become its own self-contained operating system — but I’ve long felt like it could be more complicated. To buy an album, put a few tracks in a playlist, and then sync it to your iPhone, you’d have to open the iTunes Store, purchase the record, then open the Music app to add the songs to a playlist, then open the Sync app — or whatever — to pop it onto your iPhone.

Except, that’s not right any more, at least not for many customers. To add a few songs from an album to a playlist on their Mac and then sync the playlist to their iPhone, they just have to add the songs in the Apple Music view of iTunes to the playlist of choice, and then iCloud should handle the rest.

The other piece of evidence that I had for why Apple would be reluctant to split iTunes into several core apps is that it would likely mean doing the same for Windows. But that investment would be far easier to stomach if they were required to make major changes in order to release iTunes on the Windows Store.1

I can’t think of many new features I’m aching for in the next major version of MacOS. One item that has persisted on my wish list for about ten years is a totally overhauled iTunes. Maybe that’s not what’s needed; it’s time to kill it and replace it entirely.


  1. Will Apple really be paying Microsoft’s 30% Windows Store fee for songs purchased in iTunes? ↩︎

Reports of the MP3’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

You may have heard that the company that invented the MP3 codec just recently killed it off, but you have heard wrong. If anything, it’s almost the opposite: the MP3 format has been set free.

Jason Koelber, Vice:

Fraunhofer’s announcement notes that the company is “terminating” the “licensing program” for the MP3, opening the door for royalty- and licensing-free use of the format. While it’s true that there are more efficient and higher quality methods of encoding audio these days (Spotify, iTunes, and other streaming services use OGG or AAC), this means that it’s now easier to make MP3s than it has ever been.

“If you look carefully, they weren’t announcing the death of the mp3, they’re announcing the end of their licensing program,” Witt told me. “That program has been in decline for years because of streaming, but now you no longer have to go to Fraunhofer to get their permission to use it. Fraunhofer made many billions of dollars of this thing, but as a profit source for them, it’s over. Now it’s kind of free technology and free use.”

The MP3 spec represents an antiquated way of compressing audio — compared to today’s formats, it requires a higher bitrate to achieve quality comparable to an AAC file, and isn’t nearly as good at preserving anything in the extremes of the audible spectrum. But it’s not dead and, unlike AAC, a license is no longer required to encode or decode an MP3 file.

How to Accidentally Stop a Global Ransomware Attack

“MalwareTech”:

I woke up at around 10 AM and checked onto the UK cyber threat sharing platform where i had been following the spread of the Emotet banking malware, something which seemed incredibly significant until today. There were a few of your usual posts about various organisations being hit with ransomware, but nothing significant…yet. I ended up going out to lunch with a friend, meanwhile the WannaCrypt ransomware campaign had entered full swing.

When I returned home at about 2:30, the threat sharing platform was flooded with posts about various NHS systems all across the country being hit, which was what tipped me of to the fact this was something big. Although ransomware on a public sector system isn’t even newsworthy, systems being hit simultaneously across the country is (contrary to popular belief, most NHS employees don’t open phishing emails which suggested that something to be this widespread it would have to be propagated using another method). I was quickly able to get a sample of the malware with the help of Kafeine, a good friend and fellow researcher. Upon running the sample in my analysis environment I instantly noticed it queried an unregistered domain, which I promptly registered.

The key takeaway in this story is that “MalwareTech” followed their usual protocols; the effect was simply far more profound in this instance. Incredible stuff.

Today’s Global Ransomware Attack Justifies Apple’s Stance in the San Bernardino iPhone Case

Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times:

Law enforcement agencies may want a way into highly secure gadgets and apps to further their investigations — such as when the FBI pressed Apple last year to hack into the iPhone used by a gunman in the San Bernardino terror attack. But the companies have repeatedly pointed out that there’s no safe way to build an entry point just for trusted government organizations.

Though the NSA hasn’t confirmed it was hacked, the purported leak of its tools shows that even supposedly secret vulnerabilities can get into the wrong hands.

“It goes back to the mafia expression,” said John Bambenek, threat research manager at Fidelis Cybersecurity. “The only way to keep a secret is for three people to know it and two of them to be dead.”

Because the potential contents of the San Bernardino iPhone involved such a high-profile and politically-charged case, Apple’s decision sounded, to some, like they were being either insensitive or overly politically correct. Most people with a technical background could see the implications if Apple was compelled to create a special version of iOS that would allow the FBI to breach that iPhone’s passcode. However, intervening time and major security breaches have proved their stance to be correct. Good for Apple to withstand political and public pressure to do what was right.

Alexa Doesn’t Support Caller Blocking

Nicole Nguyen, Buzzfeed:

To use Alexa calling and messaging, users need to verify their phone number and import their entire address book, which a spokesperson says is stored “securely in the Amazon cloud.” Your phone number essentially becomes your username and, like on WhatsApp and Signal, anyone with your phone number will be able to contact you on your at-home Echo or Echo Dot (including, er, PR people, much to the chagrin of this reporter). The key difference is that WhatsApp and Signal allow users to block certain contacts, while Alexa does not.

[…]

There are other privacy concerns as well. There’s no password protection to use Alexa calling, which means anyone in your household can make an Alexa call using your account. They can also ask your Echo device, “Play my message” when you receive a new text or voice message (Alexa calling does not support voicemail) and listen to that message without your consent.

The worst part of all of this? You need to phone Amazon to get them to deactivate it. Yeah — you can enable it via the app, but you have to wait on hold for someone else to deactivate it. That’s atrocious.