Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for July, 2017

Tech Company Executives Won’t Commit to a Congressional Testimony for Net Neutrality

Tony Romm, Recode:

Amazon, Facebook, Google and Netflix — along with their telecom industry foes — have not committed to sending their chief executives to testify before the U.S. Congress in September on the future of net neutrality.

Not a single one of those companies told the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is convening the hearing, that they would dispatch their leaders to Washington, D.C., in the coming weeks, even at a time when the Trump administration is preparing to kill the open internet rules currently on the government’s books.

The panel initially asked those four tech giants, as well as AT&T, Charter, Comcast and Verizon, to indicate their plans for the hearing by July 31. For now, though, the committee told Recode on Monday it isn’t giving up and would extend its deadline, as it continues its quest to engage the country’s tech and telecom business leaders on net neutrality.

If someone is running a multibillion-dollar company that is at all affected by the survival or elimination of net neutrality regulations — that is, if someone is running a multibillion-dollar company at all — the very least they can do is show up to defend their position. Their tepid response belies the seriousness of what they’re being asked to do. Step up.

Update: Representatives from these same companies have now been asked for input by August 7. Oddly enough, Apple has not been invited to participate.

FTC Complaint Filed Over Google’s Store Sales Measurement Technology

Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg, Washington Post:

A prominent privacy rights watchdog is asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate a new Google advertising program that ties consumers’ online behavior to their purchases in brick-and-mortar stores.

The legal complaint from the Electronic Privacy Information Center, to be filed with the FTC on Monday, alleges that Google is newly gaining access to a trove of highly sensitive information — the credit and debit card purchase records of the majority of U.S. consumers — without revealing how they got the information or giving consumers meaningful ways to opt out. Moreover, the group claims that the search giant is relying on a secretive technical method to protect the data — a method that should be audited by outsiders and is likely vulnerable to hacks or other data breaches.

While Google may be one of the most well-known companies to broker and use data that would normally be considered private, they’re certainly not the only ones from which it is difficult or impossible to opt-out.

Spoiler Alert

Apple nearly did it. After a last year’s internal secrecy missteps, including too-early ads for the iPhone 7 and a framework in a MacOS update that showed the new MacBook Pro design before it launched, they pledged internally to tighten up even more and prevent leaks from within the company.

And then, on Friday, a firmware file for the to-be-released HomePod was pushed to public servers — presumably an accident when sending an over-the-air update to those privileged to be using a HomePod today. Along with details about the HomePod itself,1 the firmware file also contains information about a next-generation iPhone.

I’d love to know how so much could be made public with a leak like this. Why could a firmware file for an unreleased product accidentally be pushed to public servers at all? Why aren’t there greater controls in place to prevent something like that from happening? Why would seemingly-finished illustrations of a next-generation iPhone — an unannounced product, and Apple’s biggest annual release — be included in that firmware instead of placeholder graphics?


  1. It has a screen in the same way that a scoreboard is technically a “screen”, but the reported resolution is the same as the 38mm Apple Watch — strange for a device with an ostensibly circular display. ↩︎

The Video Pivot

Felix Salmon, in a Twitter thread yesterday:

This video from @WIRED, which [sic] is basically a 7-minute long video advertorial for Tesla

It’s got over a million views already, so on that level it’s a success! But it doesn’t have @WIRED’s normal journalistic rigor

If you follow @businessinsider on Twitter or FB you’ve seen many similar pieces, generally very fluffy and positive about #brands

All of this is a function of the simple fact that video is expensive!

A similar point was made by Jack Marshall today in the Wall Street Journal:

Some suggest the repackaging and reposting of ads highlights the “pivot to video” mentality many publishers now demonstrate. The push to churn out video content to feed platforms and to attract potentially lucrative video advertising is increasingly viewed as a potential solution to an increasingly challenging business model problem.

For publishers, repackaging a commercial is often a simple process that can take an experienced video editor relatively little time, and the result is a win-win situation for all parties. The publisher gets some quick and easy video content it can post to social media and potentially sell advertising against, the platforms get to brag about the millions of videos being uploaded to their services, and the company that originally produced the video gets more exposure.

This will only get worse as Facebook and other large referral sources emphasize video, and as long as videos generate more ad revenue than other kinds of media.

“Our audience on Facebook loves this content. It’s what works in the news feed where people scroll quickly with the sound off,” said Cheddar Chief Executive Jon Steinberg, adding that videos about “gadgets and cool visual tech or gizmos” perform particularly well.

No kidding people like these videos: they’re ads. Ads are designed to be eye-catching. News isn’t — not that it can’t be visually compelling, but that isn’t and should not be its objective.

P&G Cut Over $100 Million in Digital Ad Spending With No Effect on Business

Alexandra Bruell and Sharon Terlep, Wall Street Journal:

Procter & Gamble Co. said that its move to cut more than $100 million in digital marketing spend in the June quarter had little impact on its business, proving that those digital ads were largely ineffective.

Almost all of the consumer product giant’s advertising cuts in the period came from digital, finance chief Jon Moeller said on its earnings call Thursday. The company targeted ads that could wind up on sites with fake traffic from software known as “bots,” or those with objectionable content.

Keep in mind that this is against an estimated total U.S. ad spend of $2.5 billion last year, or about $620 million per quarter. This shows that about one-sixth of their quarterly spend was completely wasted. I don’t understand the appeal of automated placements in gigantic ad networks.

Automatic Lens Correction for RAW Files in Photos

Kirk McElhearn:

If you shoot RAW files, many apps that process these files can also apply lens correction, using metadata stored with the files, to create better images. In some cases, this can even be using a huge database of information about lenses and cameras.

It’s interesting to know that Apple’s Photos app also applies lens correction, yet doesn’t tell you anything about it. This lens correction is not only applied in the Photos app, but also within macOS; if you have a RAW file and view it using Quick Look (select the file and press the space bar), lens correction is applied.

For what it’s worth, I’ve found that the automatic preprocessing done in Photos is less visually pleasing than that in Lightroom. Chromatic aberration correction in Lightroom, in particular, seems a little better — not necessarily more accurate but better. This might vary by camera, though.

FCC Chairman Won’t Change His Mind on Net Neutrality

Jon Brodkin of Ars Technica reports on Tuesday’s House testimony by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai:

The FCC has received more than 12 million comments on its proposed net neutrality rollback, but not all comments count the same. Pai has previously said that the “raw number” of comments supporting or opposing net neutrality rules “is not as important as the substantive comments that are in the record.”

[U.S. Representative Michael Doyle] asked Pai, “what kind of comment would cause you to change your mind?” Pai responded, “economic analysis that shows credibly that there’s infrastructure investment that has increased dramatically” since the net neutrality rules went into effect. Pai said he also would take evidence seriously if it shows that the overall economy would suffer from a net neutrality rollback or that startups and consumers can’t thrive without the existing rules.

Advocacy group Free Press has presented analysis that it says shows a 5-percent increase in ISP investment during the two-year period after the net neutrality vote and capital increases at 16 of 24 publicly traded ISPs. But Pai has expressed disdain for Free Press, calling it “a spectacularly misnamed Beltway lobbying group” that demands government control over the Internet. Meanwhile, different studies that showed investment declines have been cited favorably by Pai.

Pai heavily references noted anti-net neutrality advocate Hal Singer in the so-called “Restoring Internet Freedom” proposal (PDF) in regard to ISP capital expenditures in footnote 116:

See, e.g., Free Press, Internet Service Providers’ Capital Expenditures (Feb. 28, 2017), <a href=”https://www.freepress.net/[…] (noting a decrease in investment from 2015 to 2016, but claiming an increase in investment in the 2-year period of 2015–16 compared to 2013–14). We observe, however, that these figures showing increased investment do not incorporate the generally accepted accounting practice of maintaining consistency over time, as they include AT&T’s foreign capital expenditures in Mexico as well as expenditures related to DirectTV, see Hal Singer, Tracing AT&T’s Capital Expenditures Over Time, https://haljsinger.wordpress.com/…, and do not adjust for Sprint’s changed accounting treatment of leased handset devices from an operating expense to a capital expense. See Hal Singer, 2016 Broadband Capex Survey: Tracking Investment in the Title II Era, https://haljsinger.wordpress.com/….

I think Pai’s rejection of Free Press’ ’13–’14/’15–’16 comparison is disingenuous.1 Both incorporate full years, and allow for the broadest possible context for comparison — given how long Title II classification has been implemented. Singer’s 2016 article on ISP capital expenditures compares the 2014, 2015, and 2016 calendar years, and it appears to be a very selective scale. The broadband industry’s own trade organization shows that 2014 was a year of outsized expenditures — higher than any year since 2001. Singer, Pai, and others may argue that 2014 was larger by only a relatively small amount — $2 billion greater than the preceding year, and $1 billion greater than the succeeding year, against $70-odd billion total — but that means that a supposed drop in expenditures is only by a slight amount, too.

Pai is pretty dead-set that he’s going to destroy net neutrality — logic, reasoning, and facts be damned. That’s what blind ideology looks like.


  1. Also, his slight against Free Press as a “spectacularly misnamed Beltway lobbying group” is ridiculous. They say that they’re independently funded and don’t take money from businesses. Meanwhile, Singer has previously provided services for AT&T and Verizon. ↩︎

Apple Discontinues the iPod Shuffle and iPod Nano

Valentina Palladino, Ars Technica:

You’ll see no mention of the iPod Nano or iPod Shuffle on Apple’s website anymore. Today, the company removed the two media players from its website, and reports suggest the company is discontinuing both devices. A report from Business Insider includes a statement from an Apple spokesperson citing the “simplifying” of the iPod lineup.

“Today, we are simplifying our iPod lineup with two models of iPod Touch now with double the capacity starting at just $199 and we are discontinuing the iPod shuffle and iPod nano,” reads the statement from an Apple spokesperson.

This effectively marks the end of the music player class of iPods — the iPod Classic was discontinued in 2014, and only the historical artifact that is the iPod Touch remains in 32 GB and 128 GB capacities.

But this was only discovered after the product pages were dropped from the website and, while it’s typical of Apple that the products weren’t given a cinematic sendoff or anything like that, I’m a little surprised that there wasn’t even an announcement. The iPod was the product that made Apple capable of doing the iPhone and everything that has followed, and the iPod Nano was a big part of that success story. I know I still have an emotional attachment to my fifth-generation iPod, even though I no longer use it.

By the way, how amazing is it that the iPod Shuffle lasted twelve and a half years as basically the same device? There’s little indication of how many of them were actually sold over the past few years — I’d wager very few — but its longevity is a testament to the power of its simplicity. What a run.

A Conversation With Trent Reznor

Trent Reznor — of Nine Inch Nails, How to Destroy Angels, and Apple — speaking to David Marchese in a wide-ranging interview:

We did a record with Saul Williams. I probably spent 18 months working on it with him — a real labor of love. We thought he was going to be signed to Interscope, but that didn’t work out. So I said, “Let me use your record as an experiment. I’ll cover the losses if it doesn’t work out.” I wanted to test out a simple scenario. It went something like this: To my database of people, we sent out a message saying, “Here’s a collaborative album I’ve worked on for X amount of time with Saul. Click on this box if you want the full album, not copy-protected, free. I know you can steal it anywhere you want anyway. All I want in return is your email address. Or, click on the box next to it: five dollars; it goes directly to Saul. You can have it for free or you can pay. I’m calling your bluff. Are you going to do the right thing?”

Maybe 30,000 downloads occurred in the next week and less than 20 percent were paid for. I thought that second number would be higher. At the time, I felt I was making a genuine offer, worded simply and confrontationally, for something I thought had genuine value. So I was bummed out by the result. It took the wind out of my sails as far as thinking of direct-to-customer as a sustainable business for a musician. In a way, that experience gave me a preemptive look at music today. You’re not making money from albums; instead they’re a vessel for making people aware of you. That’s what led me to thinking that a singular subscription service clearly is the only way this problem is going to be solved. If we can convert as many music fans as possible to the value of that, in a post-ownership world, it would be the best way to go.

I see this part of the interview as related to the handful of pieces I’ve linked to recently about different pricing models within an indie app developer context. It’s worth reading the whole thing, even if you’re not a fan, but Reznor’s thoughts on music as an art form as well as a business are eye-opening.

By the way, the Saul Williams album Reznor references here is available on iTunes and Amazon, and it’s really good. You can see the first two songs from Nine Inch Nails’ first performance in three years — in Bakersfield, where this interview was conducted — from the stage on YouTube.

The Evolution of Trust

Nicky Case recently released a very impressive HTML5-based demonstration of how trust works between different parties, with references. I’d recommend carving out at least twenty minutes of your day to play around with some of these experiment; it’s totally worth it.

WSJ Magazine Visits Apple Park

Christina Passariello and Mikael Jansson (photographer) of the Wall Street Journal got an inside glimpse at progress on Apple Park, and a wonderful profile of Jony Ive in the process. Most of this story is one you’ll already know, to some extent or another, but there are some interesting details. For instance, the new offices:

The thousands of employees at Apple Park will need to bend slightly to Ive’s vision of the workplace. Many will be seated in open space, not the small offices they’re used to. Coders and programmers are concerned that their work surroundings will be too noisy and distracting. […]

I work in an open office — anyone who has knows that noise and distractions are absolutely a concern. However, a modicum of reassurance comes several paragraphs earlier in the piece:

[…] The team quickly discovered that early versions of the small offices on each side of the central area were noisy — sound bounced off the flat wood walls. Foster’s architects suggested perforating the walls with millions of tiny holes and lining them with an absorbent material. In the completed section of workspace, Ive snaps his fingers to demonstrate the warm sound it creates.

Sound-absorbing holes in the walls won’t reduce visual distractions, of course, but this attention to detail indicates that Apple and Foster and Partners are at least aware of how open offices are perceived and how they may be distracting to their employees.

No matter how many of these photo essays get published — Wired got their tour in May, and I suspect there will be at least one or two more as employees begin to move in — I can’t wait until I see some photos of what it looks like when these offices are filled with people. After all, that’s what this building is all about, isn’t it?

Trump Said That Tim Cook Says That Apple Will Build Three U.S. Factories

Tripp Mickle and Peter Nicholas, Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Trump, in a 45-minute interview with The Wall Street Journal, said Mr. Cook promised him Apple would build “three big plants, beautiful plants.” Mr. Trump didn’t elaborate on where those plants would be located or when they would be built.

“I spoke to [Mr. Cook], he’s promised me three big plants—big, big, big,” Mr. Trump said as part of a discussion about business-tax reform and business investment. “I said you know, Tim, unless you start building your plants in this country, I won’t consider my administration an economic success. He called me, and he said they are going forward.”

This is purely my own speculation, but I doubt Trump is representing Cook’s comments accurately, which should come as no surprise. Consider which one of these scenarios is more likely:

  1. Apple, which owns a single factory of its own, in Ireland, is planning a radical change to its supply chain and manufacturing processes by quadrupling their factory ownership; or,

  2. Cook told Trump that their primary contract manufacturer is looking at three factory sites in the U.S. to make products for Apple and, potentially, other companies.

I’m not a gambler, but the second scenario sounds far more likely to me. Not only is it consistent with Alex Webb’s report for Bloomberg yesterday, it also fits with previous geographic expansions by Foxconn in Brazil and India, and Flextronics — another one of Apple’s contract manufacturers — in the U.S..

Furthermore, I’m surprised anyone in tech continues to associate with Trump. I understand that Cook probably felt compelled to placate Trump’s incessant whining about China and delay the implementation of a potential import tariff, but Trump frequently does not accurately represent what he’s told. That’s another reason I doubt it’s the first situation: like everyone else, Cook knows that Trump cannot keep his mouth shut, and — without pretending that I know at all what Cook’s thoughts are — I doubt that he’d want an unpopular president spoiling such a significant announcement.

Politics, Not Necessarily Business, Is Helping Shape Foxconn’s American Manufacturing Plans

Alex Webb, Bloomberg (autoplaying video warning):

A month after Donald Trump was elected president, Taiwan-based Foxconn was one of the first companies to announce plans to invest billions to help create jobs. Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio are fighting to secure the factory, according to people familiar with the process. The logic behind those sites has as much to do with political imperatives as it does business.

[…]

Yet there’s less business rationale for favoring the Midwest over other places, according to Freund and other analysts. The region is isolated from many of Foxconn’s customers, has mediocre transport connections and fewer skilled workers than other regions. Contract manufacturers like Foxconn also lean on extensive supplier ecosystems on their doorstep in Chinese cities like Shenzhen and Zhengzhou. The U.S. Midwest doesn’t have those networks.

According to Webb, Detroit, Columbus, and Racine are the areas being considered by Foxconn. Of these, Detroit has the largest population, at over 700,000 for the city proper and around 4,000,000 for its greater area. Columbus has a similar city population and fewer in its region, while Racine has less than 200,000 people in its entire metro area. For comparison, Foxconn employs over a million people in China alone.

But population doesn’t matter nearly as much as the optics of these factories, especially when you consider that they would be largely-automated affairs making displays, not iPhones:

Bringing display manufacturing to the U.S. may help Foxconn convince the Trump administration not to impose import duties on the iPhone. Since the rationale for such a tax bill would be to create U.S. jobs, Foxconn could argue that it’s already doing this, making levies redundant.

“It’s a politically expedient thing for Foxconn to do, to bring jobs to the U.S.,” said Shannon Cross, an analyst at Cross Research. “It’s trying to head off incremental pressure from the U.S. administration.”

Building factories in the United States will create some real jobs, regardless of their reason for being. But the resulting economic impact — especially when you consider the reported “hundreds of millions of dollars” of tax credits and other incentives that Foxconn is demanding, and the long-term impacts of automation — could be unrewarding, leaving politics as those factories’ only rationale.

See Also: Scot Ross in the Cap Times, a local Madison, Wisconsin paper.

The ‘Million Dollar Homepage’ as a Decaying Digital Artifact

John Bowers, writing for Harvard’s Library Innovation Lab blog:

Over the decade or so since the Million Dollar Homepage sold its last pixel, link rot has ravaged the site’s embedded links. Of the 2,816 links that embedded on the page (accounting for a total of 999,400 pixels), 547 are entirely unreachable at this time. A further 489 redirect to a different domain or to a domain resale portal, leaving 1,780 reachable links. Most of the domains to which these links correspond are for sale or devoid of content.

[…]

What, then, is to be done about the Million Dollar Homepage? While it has clear value as an example of the internet’s ever-evolving culture, emergent potential, and sheer bizarreness, the site reveals itself to be little more than an empty directory upon closer inspection. For the full potential of the Million Dollar Homepage as an artifact to be realized, the web of sites which it catalogues would optimally need to be restored as it existed when the pixels were sold. Given the existence of powerful and widely accessible tools such as the Wayback machine, this kind of restorative curation may well be within reach.

The Million Dollar Homepage is not a beautiful object to be restored to a non-decayed state; its beauty comes from the decay. As Bowers points out, the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine already provides a glimpse of its fully-functional state, but its slow death over time is what makes it a unique slice of the web. I would hate to see it changed at all; in fact, the one significant change made to the site since it was fully sold — the addition of a prompt to follow its creator on Twitter — is a scar. Alas, it’s now part of the site’s history; it, too, should not be removed, even if Twitter dies before the Million Dollar Homepage.

Adobe Announces Flash’s End of Life in 2020

Steve Jobs in April of 2010, just as Apple was preparing to ship the first-generation iPad:

Flash was created during the PC era – for PCs and mice. Flash is a successful business for Adobe, and we can understand why they want to push it beyond PCs. But the mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short.

The avalanche of media outlets offering their content for Apple’s mobile devices demonstrates that Flash is no longer necessary to watch video or consume any kind of web content. And the 250,000 apps on Apple’s App Store proves that Flash isn’t necessary for tens of thousands of developers to create graphically rich applications, including games.

New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too). Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind.

Adobe, today:

Adobe has long played a leadership role in advancing interactivity and creative content – from video, to games and more – on the web. Where we’ve seen a need to push content and interactivity forward, we’ve innovated to meet those needs. Where a format didn’t exist, we invented one – such as with Flash and Shockwave. And over time, as the web evolved, these new formats were adopted by the community, in some cases formed the basis for open standards, and became an essential part of the web.

But as open standards like HTML5, WebGL and WebAssembly have matured over the past several years, most now provide many of the capabilities and functionalities that plugins pioneered and have become a viable alternative for content on the web. Over time, we’ve seen helper apps evolve to become plugins, and more recently, have seen many of these plugin capabilities get incorporated into open web standards. Today, most browser vendors are integrating capabilities once provided by plugins directly into browsers and deprecating plugins.

Given this progress, and in collaboration with several of our technology partners – including Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Mozilla – Adobe is planning to end-of-life Flash. Specifically, we will stop updating and distributing the Flash Player at the end of 2020 and encourage content creators to migrate any existing Flash content to these new open formats.

Flash had its place and time on the web — the place being in games and highly-interactive websites, and the time being in the early 2000s. But we are long past that now, so — for many — this announcement is perfunctory: I bet most people don’t come across a single .swf file in a typical day of web browsing. In fact, I’m genuinely surprised that they set its end-of-life so far in the future. I haven’t had Flash on my Mac for several years now and I’ve only found a handful of sites in that time with a missing element.

I cited Jobs’ letter not because I think Apple caused the end of Flash on the web, but because Apple’s products dramatically accelerated its demise. If you wanted to, you could put the blame on Adobe — or assign them credit, depending on your perspective — for failing to ever ship an acceptable implementation of Flash for any mobile browser. But one of the biggest pushes came in 2007, with the launch of the iPhone and the Apple TV, both of which had a YouTube app; the second push came in 2010, with the immediate success of the iPad. Even by then, it was clear to all but the most stubborn Adobe employees that Flash would eventually be gone.

Photos Posted in Public Are Not Necessarily Free to Use, Obviously

Max Dubler, PetaPixel:

I don’t put huge watermarks in the middle of my photos or charge individual skaters to use them on social media because skaters are mostly broke teenagers, watermarks ruin the picture and don’t stop people from stealing your photos, and I make an okay living from freelance work and my steady gigs. The second-hand stoke is enough of a reward for me. I do charge for-profit companies a fee to use my photos because they are making money off my work. This is a pretty straightforward distinction.

A few days ago an established, successful small longboard brand downloaded one of my pictures from an event in Canada and posted it to their Instagram account.

In the previously-linked article about Instagram-friendly restaurants, Casey Newton of the Verge writes:

Nearly everyone in photos posted from The Riddler looks as if they are having the time of their life. It’s hard to imagine a better advertising campaign; indeed, most of the photos on The Riddler’s own Instagram account were first posted by customers.

I frequently see big-name musicians, personalities, and businesses taking users’ photos and republishing them, often with little more than a username-mentioning credit, as though Instagram were the world’s largest royalty-free stock photo library. I’m sure there are plenty of people who are cool with this — which is why the Creative Commons license and other “copyleft” schemes exist — but permission still needs to be granted first. Businesses love when their customers do their marketing for them; that doesn’t mean that anything those customers do or say with the business in mind is automatically the property of that business.

Restaurants and Bars Are Designing Themselves for Instagram Fame

Casey Newton, the Verge:

For years now, Instagram has sat at the center of trends in food and beverages. Rainbow-colored “unicorn foods” are often designed with Instagram in mind, and entrepreneurs responsible for popular treats like the galaxy donut and Sugar Factory milkshake often see lines around the block after images of their products go viral. Firms like Paperwhite Studio specialize in turning restaurants into Instagram bait by designing twee sugar packets, menus, and coasters bearing slogans like “hello, my sweet” and “hug more.”

Now some entrepreneurs are taking the idea a step further, designing their physical spaces in the hopes of inspiring the maximum number of photos. They’re commissioning neon signs bearing modestly sly double entendres, painting elaborate murals of tropical wildlife, and embedding floor tiles with branded greetings — all in the hopes that their guests will post them.

It’s easy to be cynical about this — I know that I’ve never felt pandered-to more than when I’m sitting in any restaurant or bar and I see clear signs that they want me to post a picture. But the inverse situation — a place that actively forbids customers from taking photos — can feel downright oppressive.

If anything, I’d argue that these restaurants aren’t going far enough. It’s pretty clear that people won’t put their phones away during dinner service so, instead of coaxing customers into taking pictures of the decor, why not make their devices a complete extension of the dining experience? I don’t know how — I don’t want to be served a caper vinaigrette placed on the plate in the form of a QR code — but it would be a more earnest use of technology, in a futurist cooking-esque kind of way.

Verizon Wireless Is Testing Capping Streaming Video at 10 Mbps

Will Johnson — Verizon’s SVP of Federal Regulatory & Legal Affairs — on July 12, the net neutrality “Day of Action”:

But we’re NOT backing off our consistent support for policies that ensure that consumers will always be able to go where they want, and do what they want, online or that allow any innovator to dream up the next big thing.

Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica, today:

Verizon Wireless customers this week noticed that Netflix’s speed test tool appears to be capped at 10Mbps, raising fears that the carrier is throttling video streaming on its mobile network.

When contacted by Ars this morning, Verizon acknowledged using a new video optimization system but said it is part of a temporary test and that it did not affect the actual quality of video. The video optimization appears to apply both to unlimited and limited mobile plans.

But some YouTube users are reporting degraded video, saying that using a VPN service can bypass the Verizon throttling. The Federal Communications Commission generally allows mobile carriers to limit video quality as long as the limitations are imposed equally across different video services despite net neutrality rules that outlaw throttling. The net neutrality rules have exceptions for network management.

In documentation on their website, Verizon says that they’re throttling indiscriminately:

The optimization techniques are applied to all content files coming from the Internet Port 80 that use the most common compression formats. The form and extent of optimization depends on the compression format of the content file, but does not depend on the content of the file, the originating web site, or the user’s device. No distinction in the application of these techniques is made based on the source website or originator of the content. The system optimizes files based strictly on the type of file and the relevant file formats (recognizing that some file types are not modified). Accordingly, all content, including Verizon Wireless branded content, of the same type will be subject to the same process.

I get what they‘re doing here, but it’s still discriminating against streaming video as a category. And if net neutrality laws were not currently in place for broadband, do you really think that Verizon would hesitate to apply the same throttling across the board, except for their own media? Of course not.

Subscription Blues

Trecento” comments on Michael Tsai’s site:

When developers switch to subscription models, they are putting themselves in the same category as all the other things that send me a bill every month. Comcast. Verizon. The mortgage company. Netflix. Car insurance. Other insurance. Do I enjoy paying those people every month? (No.) Do I have good feelings about the quality of service they provide? (No.) Do I need to have another thing hitting my monthly paycheck, that I have to spend some mental overhead on keeping track of or evaluating the usefulness of? (No!)

Absolutely right, but there are some things that one might feel good about paying for month after month. I subscribe to two newspapers, and I’m very happy to send both my money every month. A subscriber to MacStories, NPR, or a Patreon member — for example — might also feel pretty good about supporting their favourite people and organizations.

But that good feeling doesn’t seem to translate directly for app developers. I had this thought last night, during a discussion on Twitter I had with Jonathan Joelson. I’m very happy paying $10 for a new version of Tweetbot, but I wouldn’t feel as happy paying $1 or $2 per month for it. Likewise, the latest version of Transmit was an instant purchase for me, but I would have to think harder about sending Panic a few dollars per month to use it.

I think there are a few reasons for that. I think Trecento is right — that it becomes yet another monthly bill. But I think there’s something else, too, as Stuart Breckenridge points out:

However, I also believe that people are wary of subscriptions because they don’t know what will happen at the end of their subscription period.

I know what happens when I stop paying my Apple Music bill: I don’t have access to Apple Music. I know what happens when I stop paying my ISP’s bill, too, for that matter, or my rent. So I would expect the same thing to happen with software, and that’s where things become a harder sell. I don’t think I want to feel like I’m renting an app. A service, sure; but an app? No.

See Also: Oluseyi Sonaiya’s piece from 2013, and Riccardo Mori’s piece from just after App Store changes were announced last June.

Productivity Apps and Subscription Pricing

Michael Tsai:

It’s certainly true that people are wary of subscriptions. But I wonder how much of the recent backlash is due to the subscription model itself and how much is due to the fact that, in practice, transitions to subscriptions have effectively been large price increases.

I think it’s absolutely this combination of factors. While Tsai points out that subscriptions have increased the price of software for their typical lifespan, let’s not forget that some people are comfortable using an older version of software for longer. I still run Photoshop CS5.1, which was released in 2011, because newer versions of the software don’t offer additional features that are relevant to me. If Creative Cloud was the only option at the time that I bought Photoshop, I would have committed at least $720 USD. True, I would be running the latest version at any given time, but that isn’t something I value.

Perhaps that price barrier is the goal here. Instead of being able to get away with paying once for software every ten years, customers now need to decide just how valuable the software is to them. But I think one thing a lot of developers might forget is that their subscription is not the only one a user has to make a decision on: as more apps adopt this model, users have to make more decisions about which software they can really afford.

Tsai:

The benefits to the developer are obvious, and provided that development continues at the same pace it seems fair to the customer as well. (Let’s put aside for now the concern that subscriptions change incentives, so that you’d be paying the same price but not getting the type of development that you want.) It may even be beneficial because the costs are more predictable, and you can avoid large up-front payments for big apps.

The concern about changing incentives, as stated by Peter Lewis:

This model ensure that I am working as much for existing customers as for new users, and that I am incented to add new features that add value for existing customers and new customers as fast and effectively as I can.

I don’t necessarily disagree with this, but what happens when software becomes effectively feature complete for some customers? The subscription model also arguably increases the likelihood for bloat to creep in, as new features provide justification for a monthly bill to every user.

I feel the subscription model works especially well when there’s an ongoing service attached to an often-used app. I’m happy to pay $13 every month for my iCloud subscription because I’m paying for synchronization services and cloud data storage; even if the price were increased, the recurring cost would make sense to me because of how tightly integrated it is with the apps and devices I use. It’s harder for me to justify paying a monthly fee for Dropbox because I use it far less.

Applying this same model to apps — the so-called “software-as-a-service” model — means users have to make harder choices about where they spend their money. Few people will commit to a monthly payment for an app they use only occasionally, which means that users will likely seek free alternatives. On the other hand, Adobe — for example — is in a fortunate place with Photoshop, as it is the de facto standard across multiple creative professions; there are few true alternatives, and none which are as universally used. Subscription pricing, therefore, most benefits developers of apps at either extreme: must-use apps, and free alternatives. The apps that are in between — those used infrequently, non-standard apps, and similar — seem like they aren’t a good fit for a subscription-based model.

Update: You can see many of the same concerns in both paid apps and subscription-based apps, but I see the subscription model as exaggerating those concerns. There’s incentive to add bloat in order to justify paid updates, for instance, but an app on a subscription model is expected to be updated more frequently and, as a result, may incentivize greater bloat. Upgrading apps annually is expensive, but paying for smaller upgrades all the time may be even more expensive. And so on.