Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for June, 2016

A Sociological Perspective on the Moral Economy of Tech

Kieran Healy was also a speaker on the SASE “Moral Economy of Technology” panel. He’s an associate professor of sociology, which makes this particularly notable:

Contemporary social theorists no longer expect to be priests of a new society. These days they are mostly outside the bubble, spending their time coining terms to describe it. Meanwhile, in recent years, the technology sector has massively accelerated the demand for the collection and analysis of data while also gradually diminishing the role of specifically social-scientific expertise in its evaluation. A few people are lucky enough to get access to private treasure-houses of data at places like Facebook or Uber. But mostly, these firms are managing and analyzing their data for themselves. The ideology of progress has been cut loose from social science and grafted itself on to big data and its handmaiden, data science.

This is absolutely worth reading alongside Maciej Cegłowski’s talk. I hope that the other participants — Stuart Russell and AnnaLee Saxenian — soon put their contributions online as well.

Apple Reportedly Exploring a Tidal Acquisition

Daisuke Wakabayashi , Hannah Karp, and Patience Haggin, Wall Street Journal:

Apple Inc. is in exploratory talks to acquire Tidal, a streaming-music service run by rap mogul Jay Z, according to people familiar with the matter.

The talks are ongoing and may not result in a deal, these people said. Apple is exploring the idea of bringing on Tidal to bolster its Apple Music service because of Tidal’s strong ties to popular artists such as Kanye West and Madonna.

This doesn’t surprise me in the least for the very reason the Journal cites: artist connections.

Streaming music services are all pretty similar in premise: ten bucks a month gives you access to a massive library of music. One of the ways they differentiate themselves is to swoon artists enough for them to make their newest releases exclusive to a platform for a short amount of time before it’s generally released. A bunch of these exclusives over the past year went to Apple Music, but those they didn’t get — the newest albums from Kanye West, Rihanna, Beyoncé, and other high-profile artists — all went to Tidal. If Apple were to maintain those relationships post-acquisition and keep the ones they have, they’d have the exclusive release market effectively cornered.

Though that sounds like kind of a dick move, I’m not so sure it will be. In practical terms, that might prove a net positive for consumers, as there’s no need to subscribe to two or more streaming music services just to get exclusive releases from favourite artists.

There’s another positive, too: if this deal even marginally increases the chance of a full Jay-Z album produced by Dr. Dre, I’m all for it.

Update: Perhaps it’s less about Apple buying Tidal than it is about Tidal selling to Apple.

Apple Is Reportedly Not Approving a Spotify App Update

Peter Kafka, Recode:

Last fall, Spotify started a new end-run via a promotional campaign offering new subscribers the chance to get three months of the service for $0.99 — if they signed up via Spotify’s own site. This month, Spotify revived the campaign, but [Spotify general counsel Horacio Gutierrez] says Apple threatened to remove the app from its store unless Spotify stopped telling iPhone users about the promotion.

Spotify stopped advertising the promotion. But it also turned off its App Store billing option, which has led to the current dispute.

Both the old and new App Store Review Guidelines limit the ways that apps may reference and use subscriptions purchased outside the app. Neither version says that an app must offer a subscription option using in-app purchases.1

It’s unclear how Spotify notified users about the promotion. If it was via an Apple mechanism — such as push notifications or an in-app notice — I understand the initial threat to remove the app. If it was via an email newsletter or another outside method, that stretches over the line. An app update that doesn’t allow for an in-app billing option does not appear to be a violation of the App Store guidelines, and should not have been rejected.

Amidst an ongoing inquiry into potential anti-competitive behaviour from Apple, this feels like it’s stepping over a line. Spotify is being passive-aggressive, but that’s no reason to reject the app. And, while it’s Apple’s store and nobody has the right to have their app on it, this feels wrong.

Update: This is, of course, assuming that Kafka was provided with the full context from Spotify, which I’m not so sure about. There’s something missing here. This may well turn out to be nothing more than a miscommunication, but Spotify is pretty good at the PR game and, as noted, Apple is already being looked at for this sort of thing.

Update: Christina Warren, quoting Apple in 2011 when the then-new subscription model launched (emphasis mine):

Apple does require that if a publisher chooses to sell a digital subscription separately outside of the app, that same subscription offer must be made available, at the same price or less, to customers who wish to subscribe from within the app. In addition, publishers may no longer provide links in their apps (to a web site, for example) which allow the customer to purchase content or subscriptions outside of the app.

I assume that rule still stands, making Spotify in violation of it when they launched their more expensive IAP subscription option.

Update: Jonas Wisser:

For the record, as recently as last week I got that offer of three months for $0.99 as a a Spotify ad. […]

I don’t remember it explicitly _saying_ I had to go to the website, but there was no other way to act on it.

An ad within Spotify’s player is a pretty sneaky way to try to skirt Apple’s rules.


  1. “Apps may allow a user to access previously purchased content or subscriptions (specifically: magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, video, access to professional databases, VoIP, cloud storage, and approved services such as educational apps that manage student grades and schedules), provided the app does not direct users to a purchasing mechanism other than IAP.” ↩︎

Facebook Is Updating Their Feed Rankings to Prioritize Friends

Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab:

Has your employer built its audience strategy around Facebook traffic? Welp, today’s not a good day for you. Facebook announced today it is changing its News Feed algorithm to give more weight to content and links shared by friends and family — and less weight to what publishers share.

[…]

This is another step in the continued devaluation of large publisher followings on Facebook; the social network has over time reduced the share of your fans who see each of your posts (though they’re happy to take your ad dollars to show them to more!). Add in Instant Articles and the strong preference given to Facebook-native video and you see, once again, the primary hoarder of Internet attention consolidating its position.

I can’t help but think that this is — in part — a reaction to last month’s controversy about editorial decisions that seemingly left stories of interest to conservatives out of the Trending Topics feature. Today’s announcement is about the algorithmic News Feed, not the manually-edited Trending Topics element. Nevertheless, I see it as a way for Facebook to wash their hands of any questions about what news appears in a user’s feed because most news stories they’ll now see are those that their friends are sharing or commenting on.

The Tenth Anniversary of the Switch to Intel

It’s hard to overstate just how badly IBM screwed up their opportunity to be the provider of processors for every Macintosh sold in the past ten years. Apple has consistently outpaced the overall PC industry in growth figures for all of that time, and IBM can share none of that glory.

MFi Specifications for Lightning Headphones

Last week’s article from the Journal about the next-generation iPhone’s lack of a headphone jack produced as much of the teeth-gnashing as I expected. There are some valid criticisms, I think, of the rumoured change to Lightning and Bluetooth for headphones, but there seems to be some misinformation out there. As much of this subject is still rumoured, that’s understandable; however, some details — particularly with regards to MFi Lightning headphones — are known and documented.

As an example, I saw some concern about a cheapening of the digital-to-analog converter and the amplifier. For instance, Steve Streza:1

Removing the analog headphone port means you’re removing the DAC and the amplifier from the phone into the headphones. This is good news for the high-end, but awful news at the low end. Cheap DACs sound really, really bad, and that’s what you’re going to get in cheap headphones (which is what a lot of high school and college kids who lose their EarPods end up with). But no matter which you get, you will be paying a premium for it in your headphones, so Apple can save a few cents on one of the most commoditized components you’ll find in an iPhone.

According to a 2014 report from 9to5Mac’s Jordan Kahn, the MFi program mandates specific hardware requirements for Lightning headphones:

Apple will allow two configurations for the headphones. Standard Lightning Headphones are described by Apple as using minimum components when paired with a digital-to-analog converter supported by the Lightning Headphone Module. It also has an Advanced Lightning Headphones specification that allows digital audio processing features like active noise cancellation and uses a digital signal processor and digital/analog converter. Manufacturers building the Standard configuration have to use this Wolfson digital-to-analog converter.

The DAC in question — the WM8533 — is a fairly standard DAC that has previously been used in Apple’s Lightning-to-dock connector adapter and it is, by all reviews that I can find, decent.

I don’t mean to pick on Streza here; I saw a similar sentiment from many of those reacting to the news. But it seems like Apple considered the likelihood of headphone manufacturers using cheap and inferior parts, and will use the MFi program to control that. Since the technical details of the MFi specification are confidential, I’m not sure what other base-level requirements Apple may have for Lightning headphones. There’s no way they’re willing to let third parties ruin their standards, though.

Update: While I was drafting this post, Cirrus announced a Lightning headphone development kit. Though the press release doesn’t mention what DAC is used, I’ll note that Cirrus owns Wolfson.


  1. I disagree with Streza’s interpretation of Apple’s motives here. I sincerely doubt they’d do this to “save a few cents”. Even at Apple’s scale, that saves only a few million dollars every year against billions of dollars in profit. ↩︎

The Moral Economy of Tech

Maciej Cegłowksi has published his remarks from a SASE conference panel on Sunday:

In our attempt to feed the world to software, techies have built the greatest surveillance apparatus the world has ever seen. Unlike earlier efforts, this one is fully mechanized and in a large sense autonomous. Its power is latent, lying in the vast amounts of permanently stored personal data about entire populations.

We started out collecting this information by accident, as part of our project to automate everything, but soon realized that it had economic value. We could use it to make the process self-funding. And so mechanized surveillance has become the economic basis of the modern tech industry.

If you want a smart ten-minute summary of many of the most pressing issues facing the tech industry today — and what it has beget — this is a landmark essay.

Update: Chris Chelberg has posted a video of Cegłowski’s speech.

Facebook Admits, Then Denies, Using Location Data to Suggest Friends

Kashmir Hill, Fusion:

On Friday, and again on Monday, Facebook told me that it uses smartphone location data to recommend new friends to its users. After I reported this, lots of people said that this explained why certain people had popped up in their “People You May Know” box on Facebook.

[…]

But on Monday night, after lots of negative feedback, Facebook reversed course. A spokesperson told me that the company had dug into the matter further and determined that “we’re not using location data, such as device location and location information you add to your profile, to suggest people you may know.”

I have reportorial whiplash. I’ve never had a spokesperson confirm and then retract a story so quickly. So here’s how we got here.

Let’s assume that the spokesperson is correct in stating that Facebook does not use location data for friend suggestions, and ask yourself how creepy is it that they can be so accurate without that information. Is using location data more of a violation of your privacy? Definitely. But, with Facebook’s level of accuracy and knowledge, does it matter? It seems intrusive either way.

Chris Vickery Has a Copy of the World-Check Crime Watchlist

Security researcher Chris Vickery — you may remember him as the guy who found 90 million Mexican voting records online, or for finding a database of 191 million American voters’ records — has announced on Reddit that he has a 2014 copy of the Thompson-Reuters World-Check database. World-Check is, according to Thompson-Reuters’ 2011 press release announcing their acquisition of the company, a “leading global provider of financial crime and corruption prevention information”:

World-Check provides information that profiles entities and individuals and is used in the due diligence processes of the international business community. More than 5,400 clients in over 150 countries, including 49 of the world’s top 50 banks, 200 enforcement and regulatory agencies, and 45 of the world’s top 100 corporations, rely on the World-Check database.

Vickery:

The current-day version of the database contains, among other categories, a blacklist of 93,000 individuals suspected of having ties to terrorism.

[…]

This copy has over 2.2 million heightened-risk individuals and organizations in it. The terrorism category is only a small part of the database. Other categories consist of individuals suspected of being related to money laundering, organized crime, bribery, corruption, and other unsavory activities.

Vickery is currently soliciting comments in that Reddit thread asking whether he should post the list publicly. I think it would be best to pass it along to a well-regarded media company that can appropriately handle highly-sensitive information.

See Also: Vice’s explanation of how someone might end up on the World-Check list.

Twitter’s Temporary Following Feature

Alex Kantrowitz, Buzzfeed:

Twitter is built on a follow model, which is great for some use cases, but also means you’re going to miss a lot of great stuff from people you don’t follow. Unless you followed certain Democratic lawmakers, you likely missed lots of action from the House floor during the sit-in this week. But there’s a solution to that: A Twitter that temporarily inserts relevant tweets from the right people at the right moment into your timeline would be a much more useful Twitter. Amazingly, this Twitter already exists but is buried puzzlingly deep within the platform’s user interface.

Instead of following users, this feature enables the temporary following of events. Tweets from so-called “influential” or “relevant” users will be inserted until the event ends. Of course, this is only available in Twitter’s official apps.

Bafflingly, instead of emphasizing features like this that are core to the entire experience of Twitter, the company has instead introduced stickers.

Homescreen App Rejected by Apple for ‘Intellectual Property’ Violation

Préshit Deorukhkar (via Michael Tsai):

Over time, we realised that the easiest way to upload your homescreens would be directly via your mobile device. Long story short, we started building a native iOS app in early 2015 which would let you do that, and a lot more.

[…]

After about a week of being “In Review”, Apple rejected our app for reasons that we still can’t wrap our heads around. After the initial rejection, we tried to work through it via multiple iterations — but it just didn’t work out for them.

What did we get rejected for?

Apple executives explained to us that we cannot showcase a homescreen springboard image within the app — stating that the springboard was Apple’s IP and it was against Apple’s Brand guidelines.

Is it, though? Because two years ago, Betaworks launched a similar app called “#Homescreen” which, though it had app review issues of its own, was never sanctioned for intellectual property issues. Betaworks pulled the app from the store earlier this year on their own volition. I can’t see a good reason why Deorukhkar’s app would or should be treated differently.

New in Notifications

Filip Radelic:

When you see a WWDC session titled Introduction to Notifications, you might think it’s silly that after 7 years of using notifications, developers need an introduction to them. However, iOS 10 actually brings us a complete overhaul of notifications APIs and convergence of push and local notifications. They are now just called User Notifications, represented by UNNotification instances and they look and work the same no matter where they come from. All the related functionality has moved from UIKit into UserNotifications framework that also packs a ton of new functionality and is available in iOS, watchOS and tvOS.

Key highlights include the ability for apps to push updates to existing notifications, ensuring that things like sports scores and weather alerts are current. The level of interactivity now offered to notifications is also a huge improvement.

Unfortunately, these enhancements haven’t made their way into MacOS.

U.S. Customs Proposes Collecting Social Media Handles of Foreign Travellers

Mario Trujillo, the Hill:

Foreigners traveling to the United States without a visa would be asked to provide the government with their social media handles under a new proposal from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The optional question on arrival and departure forms would ask about a traveler’s “social media identifier,” but not passwords. People could leave it blank. The extra information would be used for vetting and contact information, according to the proposal.

“Collecting social media data will enhance the existing investigative process and provide [the Department of Homeland Security] greater clarity and visibility to possible nefarious activity and connections by providing an additional tool set which analysts and investigators may use to better analyze and investigate the case,” according to the proposal.

Earlier today, I had some down-time at an event I was attending, so I tried to connect to the venue’s WiFi network. The connection page I was presented with had the usual checkbox for the terms and conditions, but below that were fields for my name, email address, and postal code, along with checkboxes to subscribe to various newsletters.

It took me a minute to realize that only the terms and conditions checkbox was required; the email-related fields weren’t, but were added to trick guests into subscribing.

Official forms have far greater implications. They should require no more information than they absolutely require. How many people plotting “nefarious activities” are really going to write their Twitter account on this form, anyway?

Grey Group Childishly Defends ‘I Sea’ App

Cyrus Farivar, Ars Technica:

On Thursday, a Grey Group spokesman, Owen Dougherty, insisted to Ars that “the app is real… the attack on us by [an] unnamed ‘tech blogger’ is the fraud in all of this. [It’s] not worthy of comment let alone coverage.”

[…]

We responded: “What impact and results did this have? Were any migrants helped via this app?”

Dougherty dodged the question: “Great idea, great strategy… great spotlight on the migrant issue until we were vilified for trying to be of service,” and added four minutes later: “3 out of 4 not bad don’t you think?”

What might you expect happened to this atrocious fake app during this year’s Cannes Lions advertising awards? If you answered “disqualified”, you’re wrong — it received a third-place ranking. Not really a surprise when you see some of the other ethically-challenged events surrounding the awards.

Differential Privacy Features Will Be Opt-In in iOS 10

Ina Fried of Recode has clarified with Apple how the company plans on collecting and using data through differential privacy in iOS 10. I think this is an astute summary:

While Apple is clearly pitching this as a just-right balance, it runs the risk of losing some of its privacy points while still not getting the kind of data it needs to truly rival Google and Facebook in the machine intelligence game.

You, as I, may see this is a good thing — that it is hard to implement these features in a privacy-conscious way. It’s a principled stance that user privacy has such importance that they’re willing to bet the company’s reputation for innovation and feature quality on it.

Others may be more pragmatic, and wish that Apple would relax their hard-lined stance on privacy in favour of a more rapid pace for launching new features. I understand where that comes from, but I also don’t see any other company in the Valley that’s standing up for users’ rights to the extent that Apple is.

Apple Discontinues the Thunderbolt Display

Long-time readers will know that I like my Thunderbolt Display far more than I probably should. I bought it about four years ago; at the time, it was already a year-old product. But it’s the end result of an obsession of mine that started when I first saw a 30-inch Cinema Display in person, and I still regard it as my favourite piece of computer hardware that I own.

Anyway, surely that rumoured 5K display will be along in no time, right?

Update: John Paczkowski’s sources tell him that the integrated GPU display is still in the works. Apple’s not out of the display business; they’re just going to make it worth the money. Start saving now.

The Path of Least Resistance

Dr. Drang:

The opinions of the people who make the products you use cannot be dismissed as easily as those of some randoid on Twitter. If they think you should doing things this way when you’ve spent years doing them that way, they can make it hard for you to stick to your guns.

Now where have I heard that before?

Ian Parker, writing for the New Yorker last year:

[Steve Jobs] craved products that didn’t force adjustments of behavior, that gave what [Laurene] Powell Jobs called a “feeling of gratitude that someone else actually thought this through in a way that makes your life easier.” She added, “That’s what Steve was always looking for, and he didn’t find it until he worked with Jony … They were really happy, they relished each other.”

The way I read this is that well-designed products are those that slot neatly into an existing behaviour and work as expected; this doesn’t preclude products that oust common ideas or technologies, modify expectations, or otherwise change the cause of a behaviour.

For example, even though all smartphones used to have a physical keyboard, that doesn’t mean the iPhone should have had one as well. The benefits of dropping it outnumbered the drawbacks, and new technologies — like a virtual keyboard that adjusts the tappable area of different keys based on the most likely letters to be used next — were invented to compensate. Now, we look back on smartphones with physical keyboards as quaint relics; those with big displays that can adapt to their needs are clearly far superior.