Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for February, 2016

The Shirt and Hair Show

John Gruber was lucky enough to have Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi on the latest episode of the Talk Show. Blessedly, it’s just an hour long as opposed to the usual monolithic three-hour shows, and it’s full of really interesting tidbits.

Of note, Gruber raised the recent complaints with Apple’s apps. To their credit, Cue and Federighi indicated that they understood and empathized with Mossberg and others, but they disagreed with the sentiment that Apple’s software quality has gotten worse — in fact, they indicated that it has become better in the last five years than at any point in the past.

I have no doubt that their metrics and indicators show fewer crashes and reduced performance than in the past, and their view largely reflects my own. But my interpretation indicates that the parts that are frustrating aren’t significant bugs so much as aspects of new and updated software that don’t feel fully considered.

I regularly file bug reports, and my records show that I’ve filed far fewer bugs about data loss and similar serious issues. However, my reports have become largely about irritations and things that don’t work as I’d expect. Yesterday, I discovered that copied links from Apple Music shared through iMessage from a Mac to an iOS device cannot be acted upon by the recipient; it was marked as a duplicate. Little things like that — where a series of Apple services and devices do not work harmoniously — are maddening in aggregate.

I think Apple’s public relations stance prevented Cue and Federighi from being as open about this topic as they’d like to be. Externally, they project an air of confidence, estimating that the vast majority of users don’t run into these issues. It doesn’t matter whether this is true to users for whom it is true, and their public statements can come across as detached or aloof. I don’t think that’s their intention, and I think they’re hard at work internally, investigating common threads of complaint. Or, at least, I hope so.

One more item of note: Cue states that a refresh of iTunes will be coming with the next version of OS X next month. A launch event is rumoured for March 15. I wonder what version of OS X will be debuted.

Twitter Addressing the Dot-Reply Convention

From Twitter’s quarterly earnings (PDF):

We are going to fix the broken windows and confusing parts, like the .@name syntax and @reply rules, that we know inhibit usage and drive people away.

Replies are limited to followers of both the sending and receiving accounts for a reason: ostensibly, only those users care about both voices. But there are lots of instances where a reply should be more public and go out to all of the followers of the sender account — hence, the dot-reply syntax. These rules are too complex for many new users to understand, but I’m interested in seeing how Twitter “fixes” them without junking up everyone’s timeline.

Here Comes the Algorithmic Timeline

Speaking of Twitter, they’ve decided to expand the “while you were away” algorithmic feature introduced last year. Yoree Koh, Wall Street Journal:

Twitter Inc. is under intense pressure to figure out how to get more people to use the service. But on Wednesday it is releasing a change that is aimed at charming its most ardent fans.

Twitter said it is inserting more tweets at the top of the timeline that a user missed while they were away from the service. Since last January, Twitter has included five tweets as part of a feature called “while you were away.”

Now, Twitter says it will separately include a host of “best” tweets at the top of the timeline each time a person reopens the app or website, displayed in reverse chronological order.

I disagree with Koh’s assessment that this is meant for the biggest Twitter fans, many of which use third-party clients instead. This seems to be more for casual users who check Twitter occasionally, rather than having an app always open. It’s a good move for that group; most of those users probably follow a bunch of public figures and don’t have time to sift through their timeline chronologically. As long as a real-time option and third-party clients are still available for junkies like me, I think this move is fine.

Twitter Links to Be Fixed in Next Major Version of Safari

Dieter Komendera (via Allen Tan):

Apple just sent back my radar about t.co urls not working in Safari, saying it’s fixed in latest 10.11.4 beta.

It’s so great that Twitter decided to shorten every link posted to their service with their proprietary one, except for when t.co is for whatever reason unavailable and none of the links posted through Twitter works. Also, this is a ridiculous bug in Safari that only affects Twitter, and I don’t understand that.

Google Deprecated Security Questions

Elie Bursztein and Ilan Caron of Google, in May 2015 (via Michael Tsai):

[Despite] the prevalence of security questions, their safety and effectiveness have rarely been studied in depth. As part of our constant efforts to improve account security, we analyzed hundreds of millions of secret questions and answers that had been used for millions of account recovery claims at Google. We then worked to measure the likelihood that hackers could guess the answers.

Our findings, summarized in a paper that we recently presented at WWW 2015, led us to conclude that secret questions are neither secure nor reliable enough to be used as a standalone account recovery mechanism. That’s because they suffer from a fundamental flaw: their answers are either somewhat secure or easy to remember — but rarely both.

A few years ago, I began using a random password generator to create answers to security questions, if they’re required to create an account somewhere. But even that level of protection is rarely enough, especially when nefarious parties almost never attempt to brute-force a password or security question, especially when a human phone operator is so much easier to fool.

So, security questions are typically either easy to guess or hard to remember, yet it’s usually more straightforward to utilize the weakest link in the security chain — consistently people. What are they good for? Phasing them out was the right move for Google.

The Apple Watch and Mechanical Watches

Marco Arment’s Apple Watch got him hooked on mechanical watches:

Logically, I shouldn’t like these. I’m a usually-rational software developer and computer geek. Mechanical watches are ancient technology that’s outclassed in every objective metric — accuracy, reliability, simplicity, cost — by any inexpensive quartz watch, let alone the high-precision timekeeping and unmatchable connected-computer features on the Apple Watch. […]

But I simply like mechanical watches more. I’ve completely converted, and I don’t foresee myself wearing the Apple Watch much in the future — the additional functionality it offers isn’t useful enough to me (your needs may vary) to overcome the far greater joy I get out of wearing a nice mechanical watch.

Conversely, Jack Forster — the respected high-end horology journalist — can’t stop wearing his Apple Watch:

The big picture, though, is that you get something that has enormous thought put into every detail – both hardware and software – to such an extent that it would be oppressive if it weren’t in general so good. What scares me about luxury watchmaking nowadays is that it often forgets that good design, and getting the details right, still matter. Yes, luxury is storytelling to some extent, but that often turns into products and companies that over-deliver on marketing and under-deliver on product quality, and when the gap between the story and the product becomes too noticeable people simply lose interest.

I find these two articles, which were published within days of each other, completely compelling in their disagreement. Arment is a long-time tech guy who does not find Apple’s effort good enough — in many places, he sees it as unfinished. Forster, meanwhile, is someone who wrote a book on Cartier’s watches, and is used to wearing tiny lumps of metal on his wrist that are worth more than a car. Two completely opposing experiences from two totally different writers.

Press Coverage of Twitter’s Announcements From Today

“Wait, Nick,” you begin, “Twitter’s announcements? As in, with an ‘s’?”

Indeed, dear reader, Twitter made two announcements today, but if you were looking at much of the press coverage, you might have only heard about one. Ingrid Lunden, Techcrunch:

Today Twitter is unveiling a new video ad unit called First View. Advertisers opting for a First View position will essentially jump to the front of the queue in Twitter’s ad network, getting the top ad spot the first time a person opens Twitter, for a period of 24 hours.

At launch, First View will be video only — pushing Twitter’s drive to expand its offerings in rich media.

Autoplaying video placed in the first position in a user’s timeline is only slightly less intrusive than an interstitial ad, but no matter — I’m more interested in the second thing Twitter introduced today that received less coverage than I think it should have. It’s called the Trust and Safety Council; Patricia Cartes explains:

To ensure people can continue to express themselves freely and safely on Twitter, we must provide more tools and policies. With hundreds of millions of Tweets sent per day, the volume of content on Twitter is massive, which makes it extraordinarily complex to strike the right balance between fighting abuse and speaking truth to power. It requires a multi-layered approach where each of our 320 million users has a part to play, as do the community of experts working for safety and free expression.

They have a long list of advocacy and outreach organizations they’re working with to try to improve Twitter’s quality of dialogue, all of which represent topics of concern — bullying, LGBT rights, crime, youth safety, and the harassment of women. It’s a great start to tackling such vital platform-wide issues, but that it took this long to look into this shows a massive disconnect between the priorities of Twitter as a company and Twitter’s users.

A thought exercise: imagine if just half of the effort that went into developing new advertising formats instead went to combatting bullying and harassment online.

Zero Rating and Net Neutrality

Nitasha Tiku, Buzzfeed:

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has released their long-anticipated ruling on net neutrality in India. The regulators have ruled against differential and discriminatory pricing of mobile data on the basis of content.

This ruling will affect Free Basics — Facebook’s controversial plan to offer free, but limited Internet access — in India. Mark Zuckerberg has been campaigning to bring increased digital connectivity to the developing world. Free Basics, which claims to have 15 million users in more than 35 countries around the globe, is part of Facebook’s quasi-philanthropic efforts.

Klint Finley, Wired:

Verizon has confirmed that any video streamed through its new Go90 service won’t count towards the data plans of Verizon customers. That’s bad news for Netflix, YouTube, and other competing streaming video services, which will continue to count against your data cap—unless perhaps those companies participate in one of Verizon’s FreeBee program, which allows companies to underwrite their app’s bandwidth costs on behalf of users.

The practice of exempting some internet usage from a data cap is known as “zero rating,” and most major internet providers are now dabbling in one form of it or another. T-Mobile exempts video and music streaming from various partners through its Music Freedom and Binge On services. AT&T has been experimenting with various forms of sponsored data in recent years. Sprint’s prepaid service includes some zero rated content. And Comcast allows viewers to watch its Stream TV service, which it classifies as a traditional cable television service, on their computers without having it count towards data limits.

Although these services certainly violate the spirit of network neutrality by allowing providers to give certain partners or themselves an advantage over competitors, zero rating isn’t necessarily banned by the FCC’s Open Internet Order. Instead, the FCC reserved the right to address data cap issues on a case-by-case basis, and there is also a “general conduct” provision that states that bans “unreasonable interference” with internet traffic. That may or may not be enough for the FCC to end zero rating.

It’s very important to emphasize the neutrality word in “net neutrality”. Not only should providers and ISPs be prevented from punishing connections, they ought to be prevented from favouring anything, too.

This is especially important since many major ISPs, cable companies, studios, and distributors are one and the same in North America. Comcast — the ISP and cable TV provider — owns NBCUniversal, which produces and distributes television shows and movies. Time Warner used to be the holding company for Warner Communications, the entertainment company. In Canada, Shaw owns a bunch of TV networks as well as providing cable TV and internet service. Rogers and Bell do the same. There is an inherent conflict of interest in all of these cases, between each company’s various divisions.

Similarly, Facebook was providing free access only to websites and services of their choice, and who entered into an agreement with the company. This entirely undermines the spirit of net neutrality.

It’s easy to see why we might get suckered into this stuff: we like free things. But, if zero rating becomes a standard practice for ISPs and providers, it will be looked at years from now as a short-sighted deal that traded a short-term bonus for poor long-term internet policy. It creates an awful precedent, and should be abolished.

Apple TV to Gain Dictation, Siri App Store Search

Juli Clover, MacRumors:

There’s now support for onscreen text entry via dictation in countries where Siri is available. When updating to tvOS 9.2 beta 3, users will be prompted to enable or disable dictation. With dictation, Apple TV users can dictate text and spell user names and passwords rather than typing them. […]

Siri is now able to search for App Store apps, improving the app discovery process in the App Store. It’s now possible to ask Siri to search for an app or to search for a category of apps, such as games and bring up a listing.

I resist the use of the “f” word — finally — but these are two features that should not have taken several months after launch to be added. tvOS is based on iOS, which already has dictation enabled systemwide in text input fields. Whatever the case, this should solve an awful lot of frustrating back-and-forth single-line keyboard manoeuvres.

It’s the same story for App Store search. I frequently forget that I cannot find apps with Siri until I try to do it, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

As a whole, Siri on tvOS seems inexplicably weaker than it does on iOS. Last night, I was watching Law & Order: SVU on Netflix, and I forgot Ice-T’s real name. I held down the Siri button and asked what it was. Siri understood, but told me “sorry, I can’t find that information”, or something to that effect. I asked Siri on my phone, and a Wolfram Alpha result was returned. The tvOS version clearly doesn’t use the same data store as the iOS version, but I’ve got to wonder why it doesn’t, and why it can’t answer similar — and pertinent — questions.

Tangentially, I hereby declare a new barometer for password effectiveness: if you can reliably enter your password by using dictation, it’s too weak and needs to be changed.

Trusty Support

Sarah Jeong, Vice:

In a remarkable meta-commentary on Twitter’s Report Abuse system, the parody account @TrustySupport, which mocks Twitter for failing to suspend harassing accounts, was, uh, suspended. […]

This story also raises some questions about resource allocation and corporate priorities at Twitter. It’s a little weird that a parody account, whose chief criticism of Twitter is that it doesn’t do enough about harassment, was shut down because of trademark enforcement. And it’s even weirder to find out that the decision was made with apparent care and actual internal discussion at the company.

The argument is not that Twitter should suspend accounts with less oversight; it’s that they ought to prioritize which accounts are suspended. Minor trademark issues with obvious parody accounts should be of a significantly lesser importance compared to users who harass and intimidate repeatedly, and get away with it.

On the most recent episode of the Tomorrow podcast, Joshua Topolsky talks about the kind of threats he got for merely mentioning Gamergate in a New Yorker column. There is no doubt in my mind that it would have been an order of magnitude more awful were he a woman.

There’s a lot going on with Twitter, but the harassment that continues to permeate the platform and dominate so many of its discussions is, without a doubt, a problem that is absolutely critical for them to solve. The internet will always have assholes, but restricting their ability to subject others to their intolerance and abuse should be a priority of any communication platform.

Jeong’s article is admirably funny for an issue with such deep implications.

Google Cracking Down on Ad Blockers in the Play Store

Allison Schiff, Ad Exchanger:

In an episode reminiscent of Google’s removal of ad-blocking privacy app Disconnect last September, Adblock Fast got booted out of Google Play on Wednesday for violating the section of Google’s Developer Distribution Agreement that prohibits developers from creating anything that interferes with or disrupts how another app or service does business. […]

Google pays a “‘ransom’ to Eyeo, creator of Adblock Plus, “to the tune of millions of dollars a year,” Kane said, whereas Adblock Fast, which just received its Play store pink slip, declares on its website that it “doesn’t, nor do we intend … to ever, make any money. … Unlike other ad blockers, we don’t sell out to support our project.”

As of this writing, Adblock Plus was still live in Google Play.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this; Google has every right to control what they have in their store. In some ways, it matters a little less than an app being booted from Apple’s App Store as Android users can always sideload apps. But there’s a greater price paid on the developer’s reputation. Steve Troughton-Smith:

Also, Google handing out policy strikes for apps that they decide they don’t like? That’s way nastier than how Apple handles it

Ouch.

Tim Cook Holds Town Hall

Good report from Mark Gurman. Particularly interesting is Cook’s comment on Watch sales over the holiday quarter:

Cook also called the Apple Watch one of the “hottest” holiday gifts, and he claimed that sales of the device exceeded those of the original iPhone in its first holiday quarter in 2007.

We may not have Watch sales figures, but we can dig up those referenced iPhone sales. In the 2007 holiday quarter (“Q1 2008” in Apple’s counting system), they sold 2.3 million iPhones;1 for comparison, they sold 4.3 million a year later. So they likely sold somewhere between those figures, otherwise I’d assume that Cook would reference the second figure.


  1. And over 22 million iPods. ↩︎

Brown Note

While we’re all lamenting a noticeable degradation in Apple’s software quality, here’s Joe Rosensteel writing about the Music app on his iPhone:

Going down this rabbit hole of fuckery just made me realize how much I absolutely loathe the Music app. What was once a major strength of Apple — a simple-to-use music player and digital storefront — turned into the kind of garbage software that runs on cable company set-top-boxes. The experience has been turned into something more akin to a website for a print publication. You’re constantly jumping in and out of various things, which slide in from different directions, the stuff you want is buried several taps deep in hierarchical menus, and it’s centered around getting you to sign up for Apple Music. Full page ads are for morally-bankrupt growth-hackers. UI chrome that functions if you pay for something is a gnawing reminder of this. Even with the option to show “Apple Music” disabled, you still have have to deal with a hierarchy of icons that devotes half the persistent navbar to “Radio” and “Connect”. Radio is useless without a subscription now, and Connect is useless even if you had an Apple Music subscription.

I’m not sure I’d go as far as saying that it’s as bad as set-top-box software, but Music has become centred around Apple Music and everything that it entails, to an almost cartoonish extent: if you switch on the option to only show music available offline, you’ll get a redundant icon beside every item to let you know that it’s a local file.

Unlike Rosensteel, I don’t think the UI is bad; it feels far more organized than it has for a long time, and the “Recently Added” section across the top of the My Music section is something I’ve wanted for ages. I like that tapping on a song in the list won’t open the full Now Playing screen — the subtle “mini player” across the bottom typically reduces the amount of taps needed to change songs.

Rosensteel’s comparison to a publication’s website is absolutely apt, though, for at least one big reason: the gross interstitial ad that appears if you launch Music without having Apple Music enabled, and the tiny tap target on it to close the ad without purchasing a subscription. Interstitial ads are gross, inelegant, and completely antithetical to Apple’s design legacy.

More than that, they completely erode customer goodwill by frustrating users until they either pay $10 per month to get rid of the ad, or jump ship to another music player (or an entirely different platform altogether).

In their latest earnings call, Apple bragged about having a billion of their devices in use around the world, and they also noted that they had over ten million Apple Music subscribers. Even after accounting for devices used in regions where Apple Music is not available, devices owned by subscribers, and devices — like Macs — where an interstitial full-screen ad doesn’t appear, that still leaves hundreds of millions of devices used by tens of millions of people who see that gross interstitial ad as frequently as every single day.

Infuriatingly, Apple Music even contaminates simple things like sharing. Nearly every aspect of the interface as a share button buried somewhere in it. That’s wholly dedicated to generating links to music in Apple Music. If you try to share something purchased on iTunes, but not in Apple Music, it doesn’t generate an iTunes link, it generates nothing. It succeeds at generating nothing, which is the really wild part, since obviously, I wanted to send a completely empty tweet. That’s been like that since the beta. Brilliant work. Kudos.

If I scroll down to my “Various Artists” listing, tap on the ellipsis, and then tap Share, I’m able to send a blank tweet with no attached link. It’s like having a super-secret write-only Twitter client built into the OS. It’s also a really obvious bug.

I think Rosensteel’s critique speaks to the very public challenges Apple is facing when they play in the cloud- and internet-services sandbox. Their revenue model is shifting. They used to be able to sell hardware and make a decent profit, sell software at a lower — but not discounted — rate, and sell some optional internet services on top of it all. But the market has entirely changed over the past decade or so: the typical price of software has dropped dramatically,1 and cloud services have exploded in popularity. There is an increasingly clear disconnect between the current software marketplace and Apple’s existing business model. They’re adapting and shifting, but it takes a long time to turn a big boat.


  1. Partially helped along by free operating system upgrades, and the App Store, of course, but also by the subscription pricing model. When faced with a choice between paying a lot of money now or smaller amounts of money over time, consumers will typically pick the latter. It’s how cell phone contracts have worked for ages, for example. ↩︎

Walt Mossberg: Apple’s Apps Need Work

Walt Mossberg, in his column for the Verge:

[Most] of the time, in most scenarios, I find the core Apple apps work well enough, sometimes delightfully well. Otherwise, I couldn’t recommend the hardware. I love iMessage, the new Notes, Apple Pay, Touch ID, Safari, AirPlay, and more. And it isn’t as though the core apps made by competitors are generally fabulous.

But the exceptions are increasing. And I hold Apple to its own, higher, often-proclaimed standard, based on all those “It just works” claims and the oft-repeated contention by Mr. Jobs and his successor, Tim Cook, that Apple is in business to make “great products.” Apple’s advantage is that it designs and builds software together, so if the software isn’t excellent, it does the superlative hardware a disservice.

Mossberg goes on to list a series of ongoing and persistent issues with Apple’s software, including iTunes — pretty much just iTunes, as an entity — and ongoing iCloud issues.

I’ll add one more to the mix: since watchOS 2.0, I haven’t been able to launch native third-party apps on my Watch. Apps from TestFlight work fine, as do WatchKit apps, but native third party apps continue to experience an issue associated with the FairPlay DRM that prevents them from loading — they simply crash at launch.

I understand that not everything can take the same level of priority as the iPhone, that this is not a widespread issue, and that they’re working on it.1 But can you imagine any current Apple product launching without the ability for third-party apps to run on it for even a small number of users, especially considering that native third-party apps are a banner feature of watchOS 2.0? As an increasing number of third-party apps become native, I am able to run far fewer than I ever used to. My calendaring app of choice, some third-party email apps I’ve been testing, various news apps that I use, and my favourite public transport app all do not launch on my Apple Watch, and there’s nothing their developers can do about it.

As I wrote in one of the bug reports I filed on this, I cannot believe watchOS 2 launched in this state.

Apple Event Rumoured for March 15

Matthew Panzarino of TechCrunch:

Now, it looks like the date has solidified. March 15th is the date, according to sources, and we should indeed be seeing a rumored 4″ iPhone and a new iPad. Reports from 9to5Mac and Buzzfeed News earlier today are also marking that date and those products.

A new 4-inch iPhone sold alongside the 4.7- and 5.5-inch models might offer a glimpse into one of my favourite thought exercises: how many iOS users circa 2012 begrudgingly stick with a smaller phone because they enjoy iOS, versus how many former iOS users put up with Android just to have a larger display? Or, to make it extra complicated, how many people put up with iOS just to have a smaller display, and how many of those users might be enticed by a new small iPhone?

Oh, and Gurman’s report indicates the potential for a nylon NATO-style strap for the Apple Watch1. Two words: yes, please.


  1. I doubt it’s really a “true” NATO strap — a real one works as a pass-through loop across the back of the watch. Because the Apple Watch has sensors and all sorts on the back, it likely won’t function similarly. While the Hermès cuff-style strap runs across the back of the Watch and accommodates the sensors with a cutout, I doubt that’s in the cards for a nylon strap because it will be far more susceptible to fraying. ↩︎

Firewatch Is Now Available for Preorder

I don’t really do video games, but Firewatch looks amazing. Nathan Ditum of the Guardian got a peek into the game’s development

The outdoors in Firewatch isn’t like the outdoors in most games. It feels somehow bigger. This is a game set in Wyoming’s Yellowstone national park, a vast wilderness of lakes, mountains and hiking trails. When the sun began to set on my first day in the park – as the lead protagonist Henry, the volunteer fire lookout – it reminded me of rushing home at dusk while playing out as a kid, of escaping the dark as a small person in a big world.

This is all very deliberate. Firewatch is a relatively small and simple game, designed to engage players emotionally with a handful of basic, believable parts.

I’m excited. It’s out next Tuesday, but you can preorder it now for less than $20 on Steam.

Uber Is Paying Some of Its Workforce Less Than Minimum Wage

Dave Craige:

There is a startling new trend that is happening in the ridesharing world. Many ridesharing companies like Uber now have some of their workforce receiving less than minimum wage for numerous shifts. […]

Uber drivers are not given health insurance. Not even the drivers who are driving full time. Uber has officially gone too far. They have been cutting drivers paychecks for years (This is the third year in a row of January cuts). They have pushed this issue too much. […]

I find it disingenuous how Uber has cut the drivers’ payment while increasing their cut of the profit. They call this the “safe riders fee” and has increased from $1 to $2.30.

But they have a new logo, so it’s all good, right?

Apple Relaunches “Shot on iPhone” Campaign for the 6S

I stand behind my belief that the iPhone — like any other smartphone — is not yet a dedicated camera replacement, but this is a powerful demonstration of the (somewhat trite) adage that “the best camera is the one that you have with you”. Time has more photos from the campaign.

As best as I can tell, most of these were culled by someone at Apple searching through photos on Twitter and Instagram with the “#ShotOniPhone” (and similar) hashtag. So, if you want a shot at having your photo on a billboard, tag your photos. I’d like to think my lack of tags is the reason my ’grams aren’t featured, but after looking at these photos, I know the real reason: too many buildings; not enough babies.