Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for November, 2015

A Smarter App Store Search Engine

In happier App Store news, Sarah Perez reports for TechCrunch that Apple has launched a massively reworked search engine:

According to multiple sources, including developers who tracked their own rankings, as well as app store analytics firms, the change that began November 3 included several adjustments. Apps are now ranking in search results on a mix of contextual keywords for the app, including partial keyword matches, along with competitor brand names and other matches.

It’s also the first time the App Store has ranked apps for keywords that are not in the title or the “keyword” slot, we understand.

Historically, Apple’s search efforts have been pretty awful. This is a big step in the right direction, and I hope they apply a similar amount of work to the Maps search engine.

Of note, I’m not entirely sure if this revamped search engine has made its way onto the Mac App Store. Queries like “photo editor” kept high-quality apps such as Acorn and Napkin buried below low-quality, poorly-rated apps.

Not on the Mac App Store

Some of the biggest and best names in Macintosh software aren’t even available on the Mac App Store, and it isn’t so hot for indie software discovery either. I’m struggling to understand why any developer would want to use the Store, particularly with the technical and administrative hurdles it presents.

Google Redesigns and Pivots Google+ Again

Google’s Eddie Kessler:

Today, we’re starting to introduce a fully redesigned Google+ that puts Communities and Collections front and center. Now focused around interests, the new Google+ is much simpler.

How many times will Google change Google+’s focus before they realize that even they don’t know who it’s for or why it exists?

Apple Pay (Kind Of) Launches in Canada

Gary Ng:

Apple Pay is now live in Canada…

Woohoo!

…with support for American Express cardholders

Crap.

According to a 2010 Canadian government report (PDF), American Express garnered a mere 5% share of purchase volume in 2009, compared to 20% for MasterCard and 40% for Visa. Our banks’ proprietary debit transaction form, Interac, had a 35% share of purchase volume.

Anick Jesdanun reports for the Associated Press:

Jennifer Bailey, Apple’s vice president for Apple Pay, said the company is starting with American Express in Canada and Australia because it’s both the card issuer and the payment-network operator, so coordination is easier. With Visa and MasterCard, individual banks issue the cards, and each bank has its own way of verifying a customer’s identity when setting up Apple Pay, for instance.

For giggles, I tried adding my bank-issued Visa card to Apple Pay; it was, of course, rejected. Keep your eyes peeled for changes to this file; specifically, the PaymentSetupFeaturedNetworks key.

Rdio Bites the Dust

Janko Roettgers, Variety:

Oakland, Calif.-based Pandora announced Monday after the close of markets that it is acquiring assets of music streaming service Rdio for $75 million in cash. The announcement came minutes after Variety exclusively reported about the deal being imminent.

Pandora said in an announcement that the acquisition includes “technology and intellectual property from Rdio.” In addition, it will extend job offers to “many members of Rdio’s team.” As part of the acquisition process, Rdio is filing for bankruptcy, likely to rid itself of accumulated debt. Rdio will also shut down its existing service in all markets.

Last year, Rdio was valued at about $500 million.

The Imagined Apple

John Gruber wrote a kick-ass piece on the scale of various parts of Apple’s business:

Apple’s total revenue for last quarter was $51.5 billion. The iPhone accounted for $32.2 billion of that, which means Apple’s non-iPhone business generated about $19.3 billion in revenue. All of Microsoft in the same three months: around $21 billion. All of Google: $18.78 billion. Facebook: $4.5 billion. Take away every single iPhone sold — all of them — and Apple’s remaining business for the quarter was almost as big as Microsoft’s, bigger than Google’s, and more than four times the size of Facebook’s. And this is for the July-September quarter, not the October-December holiday quarter in which Apple is strongest.

Nothing in the world compares to Apple’s iPhone business, including anything else Apple makes. But a multi-billion-per-quarter business here (Mac), a multi-billion-per-quarter business there (iPad), a “Services” division that generates more revenue than Facebook, and an “Other” category (Watch, Apple TV, Beats, iPod) that booked $3 billion in a non-holiday quarter — and it’s clear that Apple’s non-iPhone businesses, combined, amount to a massive enterprise.

The iPhone is such an outsized part of Apple’s business — and, in fact, tech businesses as a whole — that it makes little sense to compare any other part of Apple’s business against it. When looking through the iPhone sales lens, everything else looks like a flop.

Yet, almost every article I’ve come across from writers that see little potential in the success of the iPad Pro or the Apple Watch are declaring them flops by comparing them to the iPhone.1 There’s little question that either product — perhaps even both, combined — will sell fewer units than the iPhone for the for the foreseeable future, but that’s not a realistic sales target. The smartphone is the perfect convergence device. The iPad Pro and Apple Watch are more specialized, and that’s fine: both are good examples of refined and focused products that fit right in with Apple’s other products and ecosystem. Anyone who can’t see their place in the history of Apple’s product lineage is imagining the past or confused about the present.


  1. I’d rather not link to obvious clickbait, but you can find these articles by the dozen if you look. ↩︎

The Advertising Bubble

Maciej Cegłowski:

The problem is not that these [ad tech] companies will fail (may they all die in agony), but that the survivors will take desperate measures to stay alive as the failure spiral tightens.

These companies have been collecting and trafficking in our most personal data for many years. It’s going to get ugly.

Indeed.

Advertisers Using Inaudible Sound to Connect Ad Profiles on Different Devices

Dan Goodin, Ars Technica:

The ultrasonic pitches are embedded into TV commercials or are played when a user encounters an ad displayed in a computer browser. While the sound can’t be heard by the human ear, nearby tablets and smartphones can detect it. When they do, browser cookies can now pair a single user to multiple devices and keep track of what TV commercials the person sees, how long the person watches the ads, and whether the person acts on the ads by doing a Web search or buying a product. […]

The technology, which is typically not disclosed and can’t be opted out of, makes it possible for marketers to assemble a shockingly detailed snapshot of the person being tracked.

Here’s a good test: if a new product or service is something which won’t gather any traction by allowing users to opt-in, it’s probably a privacy nightmare. That it remains a mystery to adtech firms why we find this intrusive and unlikable shows just how out of touch they are.

Vizio Sells “Highly-Specific Viewing Data” to Advertisers

Julia Angwin, ProPublica:

Vizio’s technology works by analyzing snippets of the shows you’re watching, whether on traditional television or streaming Internet services such as Netflix. Vizio determines the date, time, channel of programs — as well as whether you watched them live or recorded. The viewing patterns are then connected your IP address – the Internet address that can be used to identify every device in a home, from your TV to a phone.

IP addresses can increasingly be linked to individuals. Data broker Experian, for instance, offers a “data enrichment” service that provide “hundreds of attributes” such as age, profession and “wealth indicators” tied to a particular IP address.

This is hugely disappointing. I’m casually in the market for a television, and Vizio’s seem to offer the best value for money; this news makes me seriously reconsider.

All of Vizio’s on-TV apps — like those for Netflix and YouTube — appear to be affected by this, as well as live television programming. Vizio has instructions on how to opt out of “Smart Interactivity”, as they euphemistically dub this, on their website.

Update: Or you could simply not connect your TV to the internet, as Josh Calvetti points out.

Apple Patches Mac App Store Certificate Bug

Philip Elmer-DeWitt, Fortune:

A security certificate Apple installed to protect users from malware had expired on Nov. 11, 21:58:01 GMT—precisely five years after its original creation—and nobody at Apple had thought to renew it.

The company fixed the problem — pushing through a new certificate that expires in 2035 — but not before breaking untold numbers of Mac apps and confusing and inconveniencing countless Mac owners.

So it’s fixed, right? All I have to do is just keep using my computer as normal?

The only way I could get Tweetbot working again was to log back into the App Store, remember my password, re-install something I had already bought and paid for, and re-boot my computer.

It’s not just Elmer-DeWitt who found that a reinstall was necessary — it’s the fix recommended by Jim Matthews, creator of Fetch:

If your copy of Fetch from the Mac App Store does not open, drag it to the trash, empty the trash, and download a fresh copy from the App Store.

For years, I’ve been recommending the use of Mac App Store apps wherever possible to friends and family: updating is easier and the security of the store gives those of lesser technical ability more confidence in trying new software.

This issue bites those people in the ass most. The warning dialog displayed after launching an app affected by this problem is vague and scary, and could give the impression that it’s the developer’s fault, not Apple’s.

If Apple cannot maintain the Mac App Store in even the most basic capacity, it’s time for them to get rid of it or turn it into a glorified Apple updater for their own software.

See Also: Michael Tsai’s excellent-as-usual roundup.

On the iPad Pro’s Unchanged Springboard

Kontra:

Two ways to interpret this:
1. Apple no longer cares
2. New Springboard design coming in 2016

(The “this” refers to the observation that the icons on the iPad Pro Springboard are spaced wider than the width of the first iPhone’s display.)

I’m not a betting man, but it’s probably a good time to re-read Shawn Blanc’s 2012 piece on redesigning the iOS Springboard:

A new iOS Home screen is Apple’s chance to get the “front-door interface” right. When they change the Home screen it’s going to be a big deal, and it will become a core part of iOS for the next decade.

iOS 10 is expected next year. “10” is a funny number, isn’t it?

No One Minding the Store

Today’s ongoing certificate expiration issue is yet another reminder that Apple needs to commit more talent and resources to the Mac App Store, or get rid of it.

Update: Craig Hockenberry has a clever workaround for the certificate issue:

Just verified that you don’t need to reboot to work around the Mac App Store certificate problem. Instead:

$ killall -KILL storeaccountd

The Apple Pencil

The Pencil has been getting rave reviews. Lauren Goode of the Verge:

But the Pencil is just plain fun. It is indeed Apple white, and there are Apple-y things about it — for example, the fact that it is weighted, and won’t roll away on a table top, and always stops rolling with the word “Pencil” facing upward on its metal band (seriously, I’ve tried this at least a dozen times).

Nice.

The Smart Keyboard

Like any new Apple product I can think of, the iPad Pro launches with some surprising limitations. This isn’t bad; it’s what you’d expect in a first-generation product that’s just launched.1 Most of the complaints I’ve seen so far are for the Smart Keyboard, and how it interfaces with iOS. John Gruber:

Trying to use the iPad Pro as a laptop with the Smart Keyboard exposes the seams of an OS that was clearly designed for touchscreen use first. These seams aren’t new — I’m sure anyone who has tried using an iPad of any sort with a paired Bluetooth keyboard has run into the same things. This is simply the first time I’ve tried using an iPad with a hardware keyboard for an extended period for large amounts of work. […]

On iOS 9.1, Safari tries to support [paging down with the spacebar as on the Mac], but it is dreadfully buggy. Instead of paging down just less than one screen-height of content, it pages down about 1.5 screen-heights of content. It literally scrolls right past huge amounts of content, rendering the feature completely unusable.

This can all be fixed in software.

This, though, cannot. Federico Viticci:

Like the software keyboard on the iPad Pro, the only layout available for now is US English (Apple told me they’re working on more international layouts). For the first two days, I couldn’t type on it – I was constantly getting the keys wrong and struggling with the smaller keys and shorter travel. On the third day, the Smart Keyboard clicked with my brain (no pun intended), and I’ve written the majority of my review on it.

Since the software issues can be fixed in an update, I’m surprised that the Smart Keyboard is not available at launch.


  1. The first iPhone couldn’t cut, copy, or paste. It launched without MMS support. There was no App Store. You couldn’t reorder the home screen. The first iPad didn’t support third-party multitasking. The Apple TV has gone through multiple iterations where each has launched with significant features missing. The first iPod didn’t have a legal way to purchase music online, and was FireWire- and Mac-only.

    I would consider the iPad Pro as more of a new product of the aforementioned calibre than a size-based evolution, a la the iPad Mini. ↩︎

Federico Viticci’s iPad Pro Review

When Apple announced the iPad Pro, I immediately hoped that they would provide a review unit to Federico Viticci. The man uses an iPad full-time unlike anyone else I’m aware of, so his impressions are critical, as far as I’m concerned:

There’s a lot to discuss about the iPad Pro, and I’ll have to continue unwrapping the nature of this device for weeks to come. But I want to make one thing clear from the outset:

This is less of a “just for media consumption” device than any iPad before it. The iPad Pro is, primarily, about getting work done on iOS. And with such a focus on productivity, the iPad Pro has made rethink what I expect from an iPad.

It sure sounds like he took the device through its paces. There are shortcomings, but the Pro sounds like a promising — if focused — evolution of the iPad lineup.

Visiting Amazon’s New Bookstore

Dustin Kurtz, a former bookseller himself, visited Amazon’s new physical location for the New Republic:

Matching online prices is crucial to the conceit of Amazon Books: the store is not just an overcrowded ex-sushi restaurant with limited selection and a creepily insistent smile in its logo, but a physical extension of the site itself.

Each book in the store is displayed face-out.This display method limits the stock that can be carried. Amazon Books stock about five titles per three linear feet of shelving, while most bookstores more than triple that. It may also be meant to mimic the way books are presented on Amazon’s site.

I doubt Amazon will want to open a lot of bookstores. But Amazon retail stores – that seems more their style.

Belgian Court Tells Facebook to Stop Tracking Non-Users

A strange defence was sent to the AFP:

“We’ve used the datr cookie for more than five years to keep Facebook secure for 1.5 billion people around the world,” a spokesman said in a statement emailed to AFP.

“We will appeal this decision and are working to minimize any disruption to people’s access to Facebook in Belgium.”

This doesn’t concern the 1.5 billion users of Facebook; this is for everyone else. And how does saying “we’ve been tracking non-users for five years” really help their case?

I must wonder: Will Belgium and other countries with sensible privacy laws change their policy, or will tech companies do a better job of protecting user privacy?

Comcast’s Memo on Their New Data Caps

As reported by Dante D’Orazio of the Verge, this is a memo from Comcast’s PR people to their customer service reps. This is especially telling:

There are also a few other interesting details in the leaked documents, including the company’s policy for dealing with customers who use certain buzzwords that Comcast doesn’t like. If a customer utters the words “net neutrality,” or dares to ask about what is and isn’t counted under the data cap, they’ll get transfered to a different customer service team. Calls will also be escalated if customers make “observations about how Xfinity services are or are not counted relative to third party services.” Representatives are instructed “not address these items with the customer” according to the documentation. Historically, Comcast’s own internet streaming services, like its Xfinity app for Xbox, have not counted against caps, while competing services like Netflix do.

For all the things my ISP does wrong — and Shaw does a lot wrong — at least the streaming service they built with the other Canadian ISPs does not enjoy special treatment. That Comcast’s does sure sounds like some kind of anticompetitive violation, does it not?

The Guilded Age

John Herrman, the Awl:

Let’s say you don’t have any, or many, qualms about this “broader evolution” in capitalism and all the changes it may entail in our ideas about labor, ownership, and capital itself. Or just that you’re directly invested in it: you use or drive for Uber; you use or host on Airbnb. Your interests, in the near term, would obviously align with Uber’s and Airbnb’s! They’re fighting for your ability to use Uber and Airbnb. Of course you want that. You have demonstrated that you want that! These companies are fighting on your behalf in a real way. But they’re doing so as an unavoidable side effect of fighting for themselves. irbnb in particular is comfortable speaking as a perfect representative of the concept it popularized, and the types of laws it would seek to defeat or enact would have to be somewhat well-aligned with the general idea of person-to-person nightly room rentals. But an ascendant Airbnb is different from a dominant Airbnb. An Uber battling with taxi companies is different from an Uber that has replaced taxi companies.

An intelligent and nuanced review of the post-Prop. F precedent.

The New Favicon

Some great research from Craig Hockenberry and Anthony Piraino of the Iconfactory into the new mask-icon format, currently used for “pinned” tabs in Safari.