Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for December, 2016

How China Built ‘iPhone City’

David Barboza, New York Times:

The state-of-the-art facility was built several years ago to serve a single global exporter: Apple, now the world’s most valuable company and one of China’s largest retailers.

The well-choreographed customs routine is part of a hidden bounty of perks, tax breaks and subsidies in China that supports the world’s biggest iPhone factory, according to confidential government records reviewed by The New York Times, as well as more than 100 interviews with factory workers, logistics handlers, truck drivers, tax specialists and current and former Apple executives. The package of sweeteners and incentives, worth billions of dollars, is central to the production of the iPhone, Apple’s best-selling and most profitable product.

It all centers on Zhengzhou, a city of six million people in an impoverished region of China. Running at full tilt, the factory here, owned and operated by Apple’s manufacturing partner Foxconn, can produce 500,000 iPhones a day. Locals now refer to Zhengzhou as “iPhone City.”

Barboza replied to a reader’s comment:

About labor costs, you are right about the huge differences. But what fascinates me about China is not just the difference between wages there and in the U.S., but the way the system works in China.

Let me tell you a brief story. When I arrived in China and started visiting factories, I was astounded by the factory system. In eastern and southern China, there were all these factory zones — mile after mile of huge, gated factory complexes with dormitories right next to the production sites. Workers were generally 16 to 24 years old, living in dorm rooms with eight to ten roommates. The ate at the factory canteen, worked 60 to 80 hours a week, and then, after two or three years or so, quit and moved back home with their savings.

It is illegal to work more than 20 hours of overtime a week at a Chinese factory, but very few companies paid any attention to this law. Even Apple’s suppliers had repeatedly violated this, because demand swings can be sharp and the companies would some time go into 24-hour production cycles. Apple has now forced its suppliers to comply with the law. But this type of things persists in many factories. The system was set up to dramatically reduce the cost of manufacturing. And wages, in 2004, when I arrived in China, were generally about 25 cents an hour.

I say all this to explain that this is one part of a system that drives costs down. The government offered cheap land, energy subsidies, overtime violations. There were poor environmental and workplace safety standards. So you shouldn’t just think about the cost of labor, but the entire package of what makes a region or a place competitive. And also other things about the culture. Things have improved dramatically in China over the past decade. The factories have gotten better, the laws are enforced more, and global brands are working harder to comply with the law. But it’s still a pretty dark area, if you visit enough factories.

This article is breathtaking — in terms of the scale of operations required by Apple’s operations — and troubling: while there’s little explanation of labour conditions, Barboza explores the various economic “sweeteners” and tax structures offered to companies like Apple. Cumulatively, it’s pretty clear that Apple cannot upend their manufacturing operations and bring them to the United States, despite political pressure.

I think there’s maybe a way to bring part of the production line to the United States, however, should whole-product imports from China be taxed at rates that would make it economically unviable to retaining the current manufacturing setup. If iPhones are brought to the U.S. in parts and are assembled largely robotically, I could see this being viable from a labour and cost perspective, if only for the American market. It would also allow Apple to circumvent new security restrictions:

Apple has agreed to the government’s request to store more of its local data on Chinese servers. It must also undergo “security audits” on new models of the iPhone before gaining approval to sell the product.

That can’t make Tim Cook very happy.

Barboza’s report contains photography from Gilles Sabrié, who also photographed “iPhone city” last year.

The ‘K iPhone’

Mike Wehner of BGR:

KryptAll says its modified iPhone utilizes modified components, a custom firmware, and the company’s own VoIP app to make end-to-end encrypted phone calls to anyone in the world. But while it can make calls to any number, it can only take incoming calls from other KryptAll devices, to ensure security. The company says that phone calls made of its encrypted network cannot be tapped or tracked, and that not oven KryptAll has any way of knowing the details of the calls.

[…]

That makes a lot of sense, because in order to afford one of these custom iPhones you’ll definitely need a pretty healthy paycheck. The devices, which the company sells on eBay for some reason, are several thousands of dollars each, and the current price of the iPhone 7 version is over $4,500.

So let me get this straight: for over five times the cost of an actual iPhone, you can purchase — from eBay, the natural habitat of hucksters — a modified and jailbroken iPhone with sketchy software made by a company you’ve never heard of. Given that the iPhone is recommended by security experts and that there are plenty of secure calling apps available for iOS, why would anyone buy one of these?

Moreover, does anyone find BGR’s unblinking rehash of KryptAll’s press release not just lazy but dangerous? A jailbroken iPhone introduces all sorts of security vulnerabilities, and it’s necessarily impossible to keep up with Apple’s iOS updates. Put another way, BGR has fallen for the marketing of a less secure and more expensive iPhone. Awful.

Prospects for the American Press

Jay Rosen:

For a free press as a check on power this is the darkest time in American history since World War I, when there was massive censorship and suppression of dissent. I say this because so many things are happening at once to disarm and disable serious journalism, or to push it out of the frame. Most of these are well known, but it helps to put them all together. Here is my list.

Any one of the things on Rosen’s list would be troubling; he lists seventeen factors and conditions of that nature. I would add an eighteenth: the likely demise of net neutrality policies, the result of which will threaten news organizations large and small.

Untraditional Media Companies

Samuel Gibbs, of the Guardian:

Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, appears to have finally conceded that the social network is a media company, just not a “traditional media company”.

In a video chat with Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, Zuckerberg said: “Facebook is a new kind of platform. It’s not a traditional technology company. It’s not a traditional media company. You know, we build technology and we feel responsible for how it’s used.”

Alex Kantrowitz, Buzzfeed:

At a time when social media companies shirk the “media company” label, Twitter, which has also balked at such descriptions in the past, seems to be embracing the role. Twitter is hiring editors and testing breaking news push notifications. It’s regularly announcing deals for new, premium live video content traditionally associated with “media” companies (last week, it was a Golden Globe pre-show). It’s making daily calls on what’s news and what’s not in its Moments tab and on Periscope. And after years of being classified as a “social networking” application in Apple’s App Store, it’s found a new home in the store’s “news” category.

Now that two of the most notable purveyors of fake news are identifying themselves as being in, you know, the news business, will they start taking on the responsibilities of other news organizations? I’m not solely referring to a commitment to accuracy, though that is obviously necessary, but also defending the public’s access to high-quality journalism.

World War Three, by Mistake

Eric Schlosser, writing in a rather pleasant and lighthearted piece for the New Yorker about America’s outdated and buggy nuclear control system:

Missiles launched from Russia would give the President about twenty minutes to make a decision, after consultation with the head of the U.S. Strategic Command. The President might have as few as five minutes, if missiles had been launched from Russian submarines in the western Atlantic. A decision to retaliate at once, to launch Minuteman missiles before they could be destroyed, runs the risk of killing millions of people by mistake. A decision to wait — to make sure that the attack is for real, to take no action until Russian warheads began to detonate in the United States — runs the risk losing the ability of the command-and-control system to order a retaliation. In that desperate situation, with the fate of the world in the balance, the temperament of the President would be less important than the quality of the information being offered by the system. Could you trust the sensors?

Happy New Year, everyone.

Innovation in Desktop Macs

Dan Moren, Macworld:

On its laptop line, the company continues to solve for weight, thinness, and battery life, and for good reason: those are what most consumers want in a laptop. But some of those design decisions have rubbed off on the desktop line, such as the impetus to make the iMac super thin, or to redesign the Mac Pro as an objet d’art.

As the Mac shifts more and more to a power machine, the truck to the iPad’s car, it may be time for Apple to take a step back and reconsider those design decisions. Does the iMac really have to be that thin to look good? Could some width be traded for performance? And while hiding away all the cables on the most recent Mac Pro made good aesthetic sense, accessing them by rotating the machine — when it’s already plugged in to a bunch of cables — isn’t necessarily a usability coup.

Since it is, ostensibly, far more consumer orientated, I don’t mind the iMac getting thinner or having a more adventurous enclosure.

But the Mac Pro is, first and foremost, a professional desktop computer. It should have maximum power, frequent updates, and great flexibility, in the quietest possible package. I think a lot of professional users would have been totally fine with a refreshed version of the previous Mac Pro — the one with the hardware design that goes back to the Power Mac G5 — if it meant a more frequent update cycle.

The “new” Mac Pro has its advantages, of course: it’s basically a powerful core to which a tonne of peripherals can be attached, which means it’s adaptable to nearly any industry. Yet, it has been sold in the exact same configurations at the same price points for three years now, and its externally-focused extensibility creates a lot more clutter. Either the hardware is preventing Apple from making regular updates, or it’s simply not their focus. Whatever the case, it’s not acceptable to professionals.

Apple’s innovation in desktops for 2017 could simply be to update the products they think are valuable, and kill the ones they don’t.

Goodbye Mint, Goodbye Fever

Shaun Inman:

As of today I’m officially suspending sales and support of Mint and Fever. But! As self-hosted software, absolutely nothing changes and you can continue using both Mint and Fever as you were yesterday.

Mint remains one of the lightest and most user-respecting analytics packages around. The default installation basically lets an administrator see how many people accessed their site over different time periods, and how they — in aggregate — got there. That’s about it, and that’s why I’ve continued to use Mint despite it clearly being at end-of-life status for the past two years.1 Thankfully, as Inman didn’t build Mint on a subscription-based software-as-a-service model, my copies of it will continue to work just fine.


  1. There wasn’t a single tweet from Inman about Mint between him announcing that it turned nine and him announcing that it had turned ten↩︎

Google Is Adjusting Results to Compensate for Holocaust Denialist Sites

Danny Sullivan, Search Engine Land:

Several days after Google put a search ranking change into place, the first page of results for “did the holocaust happen” now appears to be entirely free of denial sites.

The algorithm change happened earlier this week. As we covered, it caused the Stormfront denial site that was ranking tops for that search to slip to the second spot, bumped behind the authoritative US Holocaust Memorial Museum site. Now Stormfront is entirely gone while USHMM remains.

[…]

So buckle up. Google’s likely to be on a long ride of having one problematic search after another get raised. As I’ve said before, it definitely deserves criticism over this. As I’ve also said before, Cadwalladr deserves huge praise for bringing attention to these problems. But as I’ve also said before, it’s not something that I expect will get solved easily, nor is it just a “right-wing bias” problem or solely a Google problem.

There’s no way this is sustainable if Google’s engineers have to make case-by-case adjustments. Disreputable sites are pretty good at gaming search engines to raise their profile, especially since many of these publications like to reference each other. This can look to search engines as though these publications are reliable, since they’re so heavily cited — they’ve even been getting links from mainstream publications in articles fact-checking their erroneous claims.

For this to work, search engines will have to get better at distinguishing between reputable sources and crappy websites that fit the patterns of reputable sources. But, with websites in the latter category are already deliberately blurring the lines between themselves and actual journalism, I’m not sure that it will make a difference. Those who are driven more by narrative than facts will always find the narrative that defines their world view.

Redefining ‘Fake News’

Jeremy W. Peters, New York Times:

In defining ”fake news“ so broadly and seeking to dilute its meaning, they are capitalizing on the declining credibility of all purveyors of information, one product of the country’s increasing political polarization. And conservatives, seeing an opening to undermine the mainstream media, a longtime foe, are more than happy to dig the hole deeper.

“Over the years, we’ve effectively brainwashed the core of our audience to distrust anything that they disagree with. And now it’s gone too far,” said John Ziegler, a conservative radio host, who has been critical of what he sees as excessive partisanship by pundits. “Because the gatekeepers have lost all credibility in the minds of consumers, I don’t see how you reverse it.”

Conservative commentators aren’t the only ones trying to frame mainstream news reports under the guise of “fake news”; so-called “alternative” news sites, many of which are not explicitly conservative — Infowars, NaturalNews, Zero Hedge, and Global Research — have all run stories recently that redefine “fake news” as anything published by a mainstream source.1

These sites have all thrived from promoting a stance that anything appearing in mainstream publications is false, while anything written by “alternative” sources2 or uploaded to YouTube is totally legitimate. This must be undone, but any opposition to it will be seen as a reason to fortify their stance. “Alternative” and partisan media has successfully built an impenetrable fact-free fortress that grows stronger with each punch thrown against it. That scares me.


  1. I’m not linking to any of them because they thrive on ad views and sales of “herbal supplements”, but you can preview these stories with a quick web search↩︎

  2. They also like the word “independent”. Both of these terms mask the narrative-driven approach that defines these kinds of publications, and makes them different from independent and reputable media entities. ↩︎

Assorted Year-End Lists

The Atlantic has published National Geographic’s collection of the best nature photography of the year. It’s inspiring.

Poynter’s list is their annual roundup of the best media corrections, including this gem from the New York Times magazine:

An article on March 20 about wave piloting in the Marshall Islands misstated the number of possible paths that could be navigated without instruments among the 34 islands and atolls of the Marshall Islands. It is 561, not a trillion trillion.

Pure gold.

The Times also asked a bunch of public figures about what they read in 2016. For what it’s worth, my favourite reads of the year, in no particular order:

  • “Weapons of Math Destruction” by Cathy O’Neil. A bit of a corny title doesn’t undermine a critical look at what “big data” has wrought.

  • “One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place Left to Hide” by Christian Kiefer. Written as a film, a story about an installation artist wrestling with the complexities of balancing his life with his craft.

  • “The Jokes” by Stephen Thomas. If you like Lydia Davis’ punchy style of flash fiction, you’ll dig Thomas’ wry debut.

  • “We Gon’ Be Alright” by Jeff Chang. An immediate, urgent collection of essays touching on various aspects of the modern concept of race in America, including a particularly brilliant piece on Asian-Americanness.

  • “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” by Carlo Rovelli. A very short set of explanations of the rules governing our universe that, while presented in plain English, never feels dumbed-down.

Meanwhile, every music review site has published their best-of-2016 lists: Pitchfork, Spin, NME, and the Quietus. You’ll probably find something you like from each of those; the latter has some especially strange stuff that no other reviewer would touch.

Countering Consumer Reports’ MacBook Pro Battery Tests

Following Consumer Reports’ wildly inconsistent battery life tests of the new MacBook Pro lineup, Phil Schiller tweeted:

Working with CR to understand their battery tests. Results do not match our extensive lab tests or field data.

It’s pretty strange, isn’t it? Their test seems basic enough:

For the battery test, we download a series of 10 web pages sequentially, starting with the battery fully charged, and ending when the laptop shuts down. The web pages are stored on a server in our lab, and transmitted over a WiFi network set up specifically for this purpose. We conduct our battery tests using the computer’s default browser — Safari, in the case of the MacBook Pro laptops.

If anything, I’d argue that their test is far too basic and doesn’t do a good job of simulating real-world activity; very few people are just browsing the web on any laptop. But to get such inconsistent results from something as straightforward as web browsing makes me think that there’s some edge case at play here.

Anyway, get ready to close all your apps and spin up your fans — more skepticism comes from Rene Ritchie of iMore:

Those results make very little sense and I’d take apart my chain, link by link, until I found out what was going on. I’d check and re-check my tests, I’d watch the systems like a hawk, and I’d do everything possible to find what was causing the variance. I’d even — gasp — try testing different machines and something other than web pages to see if that revealed more information.

Something truly doesn’t seem right with these tests. Matthew Panzarino’s sources say that they’re not seeing this kind of variance in real-world data, and having such a wide range of results is something you’d think would be caught during Apple’s testing, if it’s something that’s typical for these models.

That’s not to say that these benchmarks are wrong, necessarily. If Consumer Reports managed to get 4.5 hours in one version of their test and nearly 20 in another, something is clearly wrong. The question is whether it’s with the hardware, the software, or their testing methodology.

Update: Walt Mossberg also saw unpredictable battery life, though not to the extent that Consumer Reports did:

The biggest surprise in my tests was just how inconsistent the Touch Bar Pro’s battery life was. I have tested hundreds of laptops over the years and Macs have almost always excelled at meeting or beating their promised battery lives, both in my longtime battery test regime and in typical daily use. But the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar wasn’t as reliably consistent as previous Macs.

Mossberg’s reporting was the result of his impressions more than a controlled test.

Consumer Reports Finds Wildly Inconsistent Battery Life With New MacBook Pros

Jerry Beilinson, Consumer Reports:

For instance, in a series of three consecutive tests, the 13-inch model with the Touch Bar ran for 16 hours in the first trial, 12.75 hours in the second, and just 3.75 hours in the third. The 13-inch model without the Touch Bar worked for 19.5 hours in one trial but only 4.5 hours in the next. And the numbers for the 15-inch laptop ranged from 18.5 down to 8 hours.

Those were just a few of the results; we tested battery life on these laptops repeatedly.

This doesn’t look good.

Strangely, Beilinson writes that a handful of tests performed using Chrome instead of Safari yielded more consistent and longer battery life than tests using Safari. If you’re seeing bizarre battery performance with your new MacBook Pro, maybe give Chrome a shot. This seems counterintuitive to me, though — Chrome has always been a battery hog.

FCC Republicans Vow to Gut Net Neutrality Rules “As Soon as Possible”

Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica:

FCC Republicans Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly sent a letter to five lobby groups representing wireless carriers and small ISPs; while the letter is mostly about plans to extend an exemption for small providers from certain disclosure requirements, the commissioners also said they will tackle the entire net neutrality order shortly after President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20.

“[W]e will seek to revisit [the disclosure] requirements, and the Title II Net Neutrality proceeding more broadly, as soon as possible,” they wrote, referring to the order that imposed net neutrality rules and reclassified ISPs as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act. Pai and O’Rielly noted that they “dissented from the Commission’s February 2015 Net Neutrality decision, including the Order’s imposition of unnecessary and unjustified burdens on providers.”

The “burdens” placed on providers included rules designed to expose hidden fees, average real-world network performance, and a ban on creating a tiered system of individual service availability or speed. These are reasonable rules, and the way Pai and O’Rielly frame it as “burdensome” on “small business” ISPs is farcical.

The day when this entirely partisan debate formalizes into law that more money means a greater freedom of speech is the day that will be remembered as a gigantic mistake.

In Latest Bid to Compete With Facebook, Twitter Unveils Grossly Inflated Video Ad Metrics

Alex Heath, Business Insider:

A bug in a recent version of Twitter’s Android app inflated video advertising metrics by as much as 35%, a person familiar with the matter told Business Insider.

[…]

“We recently discovered a technical error due to a Twitter product update to Android clients that affected some video ad campaigns from November 7 to December 12,” the spokesperson said. “Once we discovered the issue, we resolved it and communicated the impact to affected partners. Given this was a technical error, not a policy or definition issue, we are confident it has been resolved.”

As Nicholas Thompson says, “weird that all the recent bugs seem to inflate numbers.”

Apple Indefinitely Delays ATS Requirement

Apple Developer Relations:

App Transport Security (ATS), introduced in iOS 9 and OS X v10.11, improves user security and privacy by requiring apps to use secure network connections over HTTPS. At WWDC 2016 we announced that apps submitted to the App Store will be required to support ATS at the end of the year. To give you additional time to prepare, this deadline has been extended and we will provide another update when a new deadline is confirmed.

No concrete reason has been provided for the delay, but I hope a hard deadline comes soon and that Apple sticks to it. It’s easy to confirm that a connection is private on the web; it isn’t within an app.

AirPods Latency

Justine Ezarik:

…..there’s a pretty big delay in audio using AirPods on my MacBook […] can’t edit!!

It’s not just MacBooks. Stephen Coyle:

I just received my AirPods yesterday, and I love them. As advertised, they paired easily, switch between devices seamlessly and sound great. So, the natural thing to do was test their latency and compare it to the previous results. For the sake of consistency, I also re-ran the test with a wired connection and the Brainwavz earphones I compared originally. The latter two gave almost identical results to the first test, so I’m happy that there’s a pretty good degree of consistency between the tests. For reference, the latency I’m measuring is the difference in time between tapping on the glass, and when a sound is actually produced.

Disappointingly, and contrary to what I expected, AirPods have the worst latency of everything I’ve tested so far.

This doesn’t matter too much when listening to music or podcasts, but for something like a game, as Coyle demonstrates, it can mean the difference between playable and not. While iOS seems to compensate for wireless latency when playing back media — including video — it clearly isn’t doing so for all audio output. Perhaps this is something that ought to be baked deep into both iOS and MacOS as a way to keep Bluetooth devices in sync for all apps.

CRTC Declares Broadband Internet Access a Basic Service

Matthew Kupfer, CBC News:

Until now, local landline telephone service was the only service deemed “basic” or essential by the CRTC, although Blais has previously called internet service “vital” and essential to life and success.

With today’s ruling, the CRTC has set new targets for internet service providers to offer customers in all parts of the country download speeds of at least 50 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of at least 10 Mbps, and to also offer the option of unlimited data.

This is an important step for ensuring the protection of internet access for all Canadians, and for treating it more like a utility than a privately-controlled service. But, without direct involvement in pricing, I worry that this will push prices up overall. Canadians already pay some of the highest bills for internet service anywhere in the world and we have little choice for providers. My internet bill goes up like clockwork as it is, and I wouldn’t be surprised if my ISP chooses to use this decision as an excuse to pad their quarterly report.

AirPods Post-Launch Round-Up

Now that Apple’s AirPods have been shipping for about a week, some initial impressions and reviews have started to roll in.

iFixIt, naturally, tore into their pair and discovered a world of glue and tightly-packed components, to nobody’s surprise. But they did discover something in the case, as Mitchel Broussard explains on MacRumors:

iFixit took a few x-ray shots of the charging case’s internals, and found “quality issues” within the chip’s solder joints. A few empty spaces can be seen, referred to as “voiding,” which iFixit said “could be evidence of low quality standards, or a rushed product release.” This suggests that the source of the AirPods’ delay was with the charging case and not with the AirPods.

I’m not sure how well this squares with what John Gruber’s little birdies told him, but — with admittedly little information that is publicly known — it seems to make sense.

Meanwhile, I’ve seen nothing but rave reviews from those who bought a pair.

Federico Viticci:

No issue with double-tapping AirPods whatsoever. [They] fit better than EarPods and whole thing is so elegant and clever. A+ for now.

Steven Aquino:

Fast-forward to the present, and I’ve been using a set since last Friday. My overall take after a few days with them is short: It’s a great product. They’re yet another example of quintessential Apple—the weaving of hardware and software that works so well you’d swear it’s due more to wizard-like magic than it is to bonafide engineering prowess. Along with Apple Pencil, AirPods is the best, most Apple-y product the company has released in a long time. Both may be accessories, but they’re nonetheless important. They’re every bit as technologically advanced and forward-thinking as an iPhone 7 or iPad Pro.

Joanna Stern:

Every time someone stares at my Airpods on the train I just want to say: “Yes, they’re real and they’re spectacular.”

Dom Esposito:

If I’m being honest, AirPods are my favorite Apple product of 2016.

I’ve seen some complaints with audio quality and the lack of buttons, but I’ve also seen Esposito’s point echoed elsewhere: the AirPods are a classic Apple product. I wish they fit my ears, because they sound like a jewel. Hopefully, for those of us with incompatible ears, Apple will create an AirPods-like version of their premium in-ear headphones with silicone tips.

Uber’s Losses May Hit $3 Billion by Year’s End

Eric Newcomer, Bloomberg:

Even as Uber Technologies Inc. exited China, the company’s financial loss has remained eye-popping. In the first nine months of this year, the ride-hailing company lost significantly more than $2.2 billion, according to a person familiar with the matter. In the third quarter, Uber lost more than $800 million, not including its Chinese operation.

[…]

Uber, a closely held company based in San Francisco, has stayed mum about its financial performance even as its valuation has soared to $69 billion, making it more valuable on paper than General Motors Co. and Twitter Inc. combined.

For what it’s worth, Pixel Envy has a more modest revenue stream and valuation, but it’s on track to earn approximately $3 billion more than Uber this year.

Twenty Years Ago, Apple Acquired NeXT

Stephen Hackett:

I’d argue that this is probably the single most important tech acquisition of all time. What came out of this deal not only saved Apple and the Mac, but made the iPhone, iPad and more possible as well.

I can’t think of an acquisition that has produced greater real-dollar returns than this, nor — more importantly — as much of a groundbreaking product portfolio.