Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for July, 2017

Apple Launches Machine Learning Journal

Ryan Christoffel, MacStories:

Apple has historically been secretive when it comes to its machine learning research, a stance which many speculated had put the company at a disadvantage in the area of recruiting talent. It’s understandably hard to build a noteworthy reputation as a machine learning researcher if you’re unable to talk about any of your work. But near the end of last year Apple’s director of AI research, Russ Salakhutdinov, signaled that change would be coming to the company’s policies surrounding secrecy. The launch of a public journal featured on Apple’s website is very clear evidence of that change arriving.

Apple’s journal probably shouldn’t necessarily be considered a “journal” in the academic sense — there’s no authorship information, and it isn’t peer-reviewed. It’s more like a journal in a synonym-for-a-diary sense, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If it’s updated regularly, it will provide a glimpse into the ways Apple is developing machine learning technologies in a way that should be beneficial to researchers within the company and those who are working on it in other capacities.

For some reason, the virtually all-text site includes on every page a 1 MB JavaScript file. The first published article is a 4 MB page which, while not an egregious file size generally, is pretty ridiculous for something that’s largely text. A great deal of the additional bulk comes in the form of images that could easily be compressed: the lead image is a 110 KB PNG file, which I losslessly compressed to 30 KB by running it through a basic image optimization tool. It’s a little thing, but the little things stack up to a text-based article that wastes multiple megabytes of bandwidth.

Clips, Four Months Later

Remember Clips, Apple’s little app for making little videos? Ben Lovejoy of 9to5Mac remembered that it exists recently:

But I have to say that I don’t actually know anyone in the real world who uses the app, and I haven’t seen anything created with it shared on social media. Clips so far appears to have largely disappeared without trace.

Searching Instagram for hashtags associated with Clips reveal a handful of posts — 2,300 for “#appleclips”, 2,200 for “#madewithclips”, and a little over 500 for “#clipsapp”. I know nobody who uses it regularly or sends me anything made with it.

Lovejoy:

But the thing that would really bring it to life would be augmented reality features. Instead of static stickers and emoji, and the short-lived novelty of captions, offer people the opportunity to interact on-screen with virtual elements. 3D objects, cartoon characters, you name it.

Sure, that might give the app a little boost, maybe. But here’s the thing: Clips was last updated on May 3. Snapchat and Instagram were last updated yesterday, and they ship new effects on a near-daily basis. As I wrote when Clips launched:

I’d be more concerned with how likely it is that Apple remains committed to delivering updates — other experimental apps they’ve shipped, like Music Memos and Cards, quickly became neglected after launch. Apps like these are hard to get right, and I don’t think Clips is a hit yet. One day, I think it could be really great, but only if Apple sees it as a long-term commitment.

I’m not sure if Clips could ever gain the kind of traction that established players and huge social networks have, but it certainly won’t retain many users if nothing about it changes for months at a time.

Update: As of 16:48 Calgary time, Matt Birchler has sent me the first thing since April that I’ve seen made in Clips. Of course, it was made in April.

Update: A day after publishing this, Apple shipped a Disney/Pixar-themed update. I assume the next update will be Halloween-themed. The app apparently has over a million monthly unique users, which genuinely surprises me.

In ‘Error’, HTC’s Default TouchPal Keyboard Was Displaying Ads

Jon Fingas, Engadget:

It’s one thing to voluntarily put up with ads on your phone in return for a lower price or free apps, but it’s another to have ads delivered without warning… and unfortunately, HTC owners are dealing with that right now. An updated TouchPal keyboard (which HTC uses as its default on some devices) has started serving banner ads to unsuspecting users of phones like the HTC 10. You’re not stuck with the keyboard, of course, but most people would rather not have to switch keyboards just to avoid crass commercialism (and, for that matter, reclaim screen real estate).

TouchPal, the third-party developer behind the keyboard, offers their keyboard with ads by default and a subscription is required to remove them.1 It sounds like HTC has an agreement with TouchPal for an ad-free default keyboard, and the ad-supported version was mistakenly shipped to HTC users.

I know HTC is struggling, but it still seems a bit creepy that the primary text input on some of their phones is provided by a third party developer, and that this error can easily be fixed server-side. That sounds like a privacy nightmare to me.


  1. They also claim in the app description that their keyboard can “boost battery charging speed”, though it’s unclear how a third-party keyboard is supposed to do that. ↩︎

The Lightroom Manifesto

Jim Harmer (via Michael Tsai):

Adobe has made VERY few updates to Lightroom (computer version) in the last two years. The pace of innovation has been so slow that I felt certain they were working behind the scenes on a complete re-write of the program to vastly improve the speed and put it on par with programs like Capture One or Photo Mechanic (for culling). After yesterday’s poll, it seems apparent that they are just now seeing that there is an issue in the first place.

I went from Aperture — RIP, friend — to Lightroom and I remember it being lightning quick at processing RAW files. One of the hardest adjustments I had to make after adopting Lightroom is just how much slower it feels, even when handling RAW files off my phone — never mind how it feels when using the much larger files from my camera. It’s not slow because I have a 2012 MacBook Air; it’s slow compared to other apps that process RAW files on the same machine.

[Since 2015], we have another option for stitching a pano, another way to straighten lines in photos, and a way to compare two photos on the screen. Everything else was just bug fixes and camera/lens support updates. This pace of innovation simply does not warrant paying monthly for a subscription.

Subscription-based pricing isn’t a suitable model for every app, and it places a big burden on developers. They must iterate and update frequently to justify the cost of a subscription, but they must not alienate existing customers by doing too much — consider every angry tweet and status update every time Twitter or Facebook make a major change.

I’m not sure, but I think complaints — even valid ones, like those raised by Harmer — would be less frequently hurled at developers if their apps were not priced on a subscription basis. Shipping apps that can be updated at any time might also set up the expectation that they will be updated all the time.

Panic Launches Transmit 5

It’s a big day for Panic because they’ve just launched Transmit 5, the first new x.0 version of Transmit since 2010. And, because of the app pricing climate of 2017, they are pulling out all the stops to assuage the inevitable complaints:

Q: Is there an upgrade discount?

A: No, it’s one price for all customers. (Fun fact: it’s been seven years since we last charged for an update to Transmit!)

I’ve used half a dozen file transfer clients over the past few years — due to various circumstances out of my control — and none come anywhere close to the elegance, quality, reliability, or speed of Transmit 4. Transmit 5 promises to be even better. The regular price of $45 probably isn’t an impulse buy for a lot of people, but if you rely on file transfer for your job, I can think of no better app.

Also, check out the sweet spinning truck at the top of the app page, if you need something to fidget with today.

Update: One more thing. Sasser:

Q: Is it in the Mac App Store?

A: No, just from us. This allows us to distribute a demo which we think is extremely helpful for people considering Transmit. (We’ll constantly re-evaluate the Mac App Store, though, and hope to return.)

I suspect there are other reasons why Transmit isn’t in the Mac App Store, but — as a well-known high-quality indie app — it’s the kind of app you’d think would be perfect for the App Store. The reality of the App Store begs to differ.

Creation and Consumption

Benedict Evans:

There’s a pretty common argument in tech that though of course there are billions more smartphones than PCs, and will be many more still, smartphones are not really the next computing platform, just a computing platform, because smartphones (and the tablets that derive from them) are only used for consumption where PCs are used for creation. You might look at your smartphone a lot, but once you need to create, you’ll go back to a PC.

There are two pretty basic problems with this line of thinking. First, the idea that you cannot create on a smartphone or tablet assumes both that the software on the new device doesn’t change and that the nature of the work won’t change. Neither are good assumptions. You begin by making the new tool fit the old way of working, but then the tool changes how you work. More importantly though, I think the whole idea that people create on PCs today, with today’s tools and tasks, is flawed, and, so, I think, is the idea that people aren’t already creating on mobile. It’s the other way around. People don’t create on PCs – they create on mobile.

Evans is obviously exaggerating when he says that people don’t create on PCs; he acknowledges that high performance requirements limit some functions — app development, 3D movie making, etc. — to traditional PCs. But most people are using mobile devices to create more stuff, generally speaking. This is a line of thought that I was trying to articulate in my review of the base-spec iPad, and I think Evans does a much better job of it. I encourage you to read his whole piece, as I think it pairs well with my iPad piece.

One thing I’d like to point out specifically is related to the above quote, and expands on something I wrote near the end of my review:

That question is something I’ve thought about a fair bit with this iPad — not in the context of how I use it, but more in the sense of why, specifically, someone would choose an iPad over an iPad Pro, or vice-versa. With the exception of drawing software that supports the Apple Pencil, you can run a lot of the same kind of software on this iPad as you can on the latest iPad Pro. My best guess is that new software built specifically for the iPad Pro’s high-performance processors and capabilities will help materialize a lot of the advantages of choosing one over the other. But, while there are plenty of Mac apps that would be amazing on the iPad, developers have repeatedly pointed out that the economics of building an iPad app just aren’t favourable.

There’s an interplay between how customers actually use these devices and the capabilities Apple can give the devices through hardware, the operating system, and third-party apps. The side effects of the simplification of the iPad — compared to, say, a PC — are making some things1 far nicer to do, but also making other tasks2 more cumbersome. I think that became very obvious over the past few years, as people began using iPads in higher-performance environments — governments and businesses went crazy for the thing.

So I repeat this from Evans:

First, the idea that you cannot create on a smartphone or tablet assumes both that the software on the new device doesn’t change and that the nature of the work won’t change. Neither are good assumptions. You begin by making the new tool fit the old way of working, but then the tool changes how you work

He’s right, but this really only works if there‘s significant encouragement and commitment to a new device. The frustrations many critics — myself included — have expressed with the iPad3 is not that you couldn’t create anything on it; it’s that it didn’t feel like you could create enough on it — or, if you could, that it wasn’t easy enough.4 iOS 11 is the beginning of what I hope is a series of releases that will reinforce Apple’s position that the iPad really is the next generation of computing platforms. The irony is that, to make some complex things simpler, more complexity will be added throughout the system — just in a simplified way.


  1. Web browsing, emails, basic image editing, watching movies, simple games, and the like. ↩︎

  2. Juggling between a few different apps to compile a research paper, for instance. ↩︎

  3. I didn’t mean to transform the framing of Evans’ piece into a rebuttal of the tired the iPad is just for consumption argument, but — in many ways — it serves that purpose well. ↩︎

  4. I admire that Federico Viticci is able to do so much stuff with his iPad, but it will never be truly easy to use URL schemes and scripts to bridge functional gaps. ↩︎

We Are Still in Notification Hell

Om Malik:

For some odd reason “apps” think that every “like,” “message” or “comment” is of life-changing importance and thus needs to be viewed instantly. I mean, if I wanted notifications, I would have turned them on. Like I do for iMessage and Telegram. Those are important and have a time-value attached to them. When there isn’t value, I don’t turn them on. And that is why I find persistent nudging to turn on dumb notifications annoying.

It’s not just how many apps want to light up your phone, but what types of apps seem to think they deserve that privilege. I’m looking through my Notifications settings right now and there are photo editing apps, wallpaper apps, online shopping apps, video streaming apps, and other oddballs that have been denied their request — or, usually, demand — that I turn on push notifications. Why would I want any of these apps to be able to buzz my phone or tap my wrist?

And then there are notifications that amount to little more than ads. Apps from the biggest companies are the worst for this — Steven Aquino received a spammy notification from Amazon, while Pinterest and Postmates send out all sorts of garbage. These sorts of notifications are supposed to be prohibited by Apple’s guidelines:

4.5.4 Push Notifications must not be required for the app to function, and should not be used for advertising, promotions, or direct marketing purposes or to send sensitive personal or confidential information.

But is Apple really going to take the Amazon app off the store or disable their push notification privileges unless they comply? I think they should, but I also don’t run a multibillion-dollar public company that has to deal with other multibillion-dollar companies.

The 2017 iPad

You know the story. Back in 1998, with the introduction of the first iMac, Steve Jobs presented a two-by-two grid that represented Apple’s product strategy: one consumer model and one professional model in each a portable and desktop format. That thinking has largely remained consistent, even to this day, and it has even spread into their non-Macintosh product lines with the introduction of the iPad Pro. Both sizes of iPad Pro represent Apple’s ideals of what tablet-based computing should look like: responsive, big, wide colour displays, very fast custom processors, lots of RAM, and Apple Pencil support.

So what is the rightful place for non-Pro iPads? What kind of users should they attract? What separates them from the iPads Pro?

I’ve been using a 2017 iPad — the no-suffix, 32 GB, WiFi-only base model that represents the cheapest entry point into the iPad line — since June 5. It is even less expensive than the iPad Mini, because you can’t get a Mini with anything other than 128 GB of storage. It’s the first new iPad that I’ve bought since the Mini 2 back in 2013 because I’ve been confused by the iPad line since. We’ll get to that in a bit.

The 2017 iPad — the fifth-generation product that is, somehow, not necessarily a successor to the iPad Air 2 — is, internally at least, a bit like the kind of one-pot meal you make from whatever leftovers you have in the fridge. It’s a blend of a couple of years’ worth of iOS devices: the A9 processor from the iPhone 6S, the display and chassis from the iPad Air — except with the handsome matte chamfer of the iPhone SE — the same amount of RAM as in the iPad Air 2, a camera similar to that in the iPhone 5S with a slightly different aperture, and the first-generation Touch ID module from pre-2017 iPads.

What that means, though, is that it is a bit of a downgrade from the Air 2. The display is the standard 9.7-inch size for an iPad, and has a full RGB colour gamut. But unlike the Air 2 — or, indeed, the iPad Mini 4 — it isn’t a laminated display, which means that there’s a slight air gap between the cover glass and the LCD. I’ve never owned an iPad with a laminated display, but I’ve used them for long enough that it is noticeable; but, for me, it isn’t a deal-breaker. It’s also a slightly thicker and heavier device than the Air 2, but only slightly.

The first-generation Touch ID module, though, is a very noticeable difference between my iPhone and iPad. I’ve become so used to the speed that my iPhone 6S reads my fingerprint that the module in my iPad feels really sluggish. I regularly fail to keep my finger on the home button for the right amount of time.

The rest of this iPad screams, though. It’s really fast. I rarely feel like I’m waiting for it — even in Safari, which has long been one of my biggest iPad pet peeves — and, as a result, I’ve been using it far more than I have any previous iPad. About a third of what I’ve posted on Pixel Envy in the last month has come from this iPad directly — and that’s a greater compliment than you might imagine, given how much I like MarsEdit on my Mac. This review was, of course, written on my iPad.1 I’m planning my iOS 11 review with Things on this iPad. It really has become an integrated part of my workflow.

None of that is revolutionary any longer, though. That people use their iPads for work is something that really only surprises people who, for whatever reason, are still attached to their computers. And there remain a lot of valid reasons for doing so: many development tools and professional applications are only available for traditional computers, the virtual keyboard and available accessory keyboards are still somewhat clunkier to use than a physical unit — and the virtual keyboard covers half the display area — the cursor gesture is imprecise, and it’s still not as elegant of a multitasking environment as is the Mac.

But despite the potential power of the Mac, it probably isn’t the device many of us use most frequently, or do the most stuff with — that honour would probably go to our smartphone. Even though there’s plenty of raw power inside our computer, we frequently choose our smartphone to send email, browse the web, shop, chat, and lots more. So, it’s only logical that we would gravitate towards a device that combines the user-friendliness of a smartphone with the bigger size and some of the greater power of a traditional computer. That’s a similar point to the one Apple made when they launched the first iPad in 2010, and we bought it.

But things are a little different now, because the iPad line is no longer as simple as the iPad, with the introduction of the iPad Pro:

It used to be that one of the most exciting things about a new iPad is the sense that this is the best that Apple could do in an iPad that year; now, I get the sense that they’re trying to create a division between iPad users and iPad Pro users. Will the standard iPad eventually support the Apple Pencil or sport a ProMotion display? I’m not sure; those features are, so far, reserved for iPad Pro users. I don’t think that’s wrong, but it is a relatively new line of thought for the iOS device lineup.

So what makes these devices different breeds? What delineates the difference between an iPad user and an iPad Pro user? My best short answer to both questions is that it’s similar to the difference between MacBook users and MacBook Pro users, but not the same.

Price is an obvious consideration: much as the MacBook is less expensive than the MacBook Pro, this iPad starts at just slightly more than half that of the least-expensive iPad Pro, which makes it pretty great value for the kind of user who just wants an iPad to be their big screen web-browsing-and-email-device.

Performance is another thing: the A10X SoC in the 2017 iPads Pro performs comparably in single core benchmarks to the 2013 Mac Pro and the 2016 13-inch MacBook Pro; for multi-core performance, it beats that same MacBook Pro model. Both sizes of iPad Pro also pack 4 GB of RAM.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference, though, is that the iPad Pro line is where Apple’s highest iPad technologies ship. They both have ProMotion display controllers, so they support contextual refresh rate adjustments. They both have wider-gamut laminated displays with antireflective coatings and True Tone, to match the display’s white balance to the environment, and, of course, both support the Apple Pencil. The Pro models also come with more speakers, newer Touch ID sensors, better cameras — at the expense of a bump — have Apple’s Smart Connector for accessories, and are available with greater storage options. Oh, and you can get the 10.5-inch model in Rose Gold.

This iPad — and the Mini, but I doubt that will hang around much longer — is presumably for people who don’t know why they would need those things, or aren’t convinced those high technologies will help their workflow. If they are using their iPad primarily for their favourite apps, browsing the web, listening to music, and reading books, they probably aren’t clamouring for MacBook Pro-equivalent power.

And, if I’m honest with myself, I am that user with my iPad. It may not have the processing power of a laptop, but it doesn’t need to have that for me to use it instead of my MacBook Air for many of the things I do daily. If you liked what you could do with an iPad a couple of years ago and you’d like to keep doing those things better and faster, you’ll like this iPad.

That, for me, raises the obvious question of where this type of iPad goes next. What, in that giant list of high technologies in the iPad Pro, fits the context of an iPad for lighter users? Aside from bumps in processing speed, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a True Tone, laminated, less-reflective display in a future base level iPad, given how great those things are for text-centric use. At some point, the base iPad could conceivably get a newer Touch ID sensor, better cameras, and greater storage options. All of these things would make the base iPad even better for what I do with it, but they don’t change its function for me. In terms of the technology afforded to it, is the base iPad destined to retain the same kind of role for the conceivable future?

That question is something I’ve thought about a fair bit with this iPad — not in the context of how I use it, but more in the sense of why, specifically, someone would choose an iPad over an iPad Pro, or vice-versa. With the exception of drawing software that supports the Apple Pencil, you can run a lot of the same kind of software on this iPad as you can on the latest iPad Pro. My best guess is that new software built specifically for the iPad Pro’s high-performance processors and capabilities will help materialize a lot of the advantages of choosing one over the other. But, while there are plenty of Mac apps that would be amazing on the iPad, developers have repeatedly pointed out that the economics of building an iPad app just aren’t favourable.

iOS 11 is coming this fall with plenty of enhancements specifically for the iPad, but it will also introduce a new App Store. My hope is that a combination of daily editorial components, greater visibility for non-game apps, better search, and other enhancements will make the iPad a more compelling investment for developers and a more valuable platform for users. In turn, a greater amount of professional software could be available specifically for the iPad Pro, and the case for two unique models should, I hope, become clarified beyond price and pure performance.


  1. Every aspect of this review was made on this iPad, with the exception of taking the photo at the top and transferring it from my camera’s SD card. ↩︎

No, Steve Jobs Didn’t Mislead the Audience at Macworld 2007

Gene Marks, writing for Entrepeneur:

Have you ever purposely misled a customer? The public? The media? Steve Jobs did. And he did it to change the world.

Wow, this guy got “Steve Jobs”, “change the world”, and “misled” into the opening paragraph. This is going to be good, where by good I mean bullshit.

The story goes back to 2007, when Apple was first introducing the iPhone. Jobs knew that he had a product that would have an enormous impact on the way humans use technology — and also have an enormous impact on his company’s future profits.

Unfortunately, Jobs had a big problem: the iPhone didn’t really exist.

Apart from, well, it did. It had been in development for at least two years by this point. There were iPhones on stage. It only “didn’t really exist” if you have the loosest possible definition for the word “exist”. Words have meaning, you know.

Yet in January of that year, he planned to demo the iPhone to an audience at the company’s Macworld conference that included customers, partners, tech media…and the world. All he had to show them was a flawed, unfinished model and some big ideas. So what did Jobs do? He decided to mislead his audience.

Marks is referring to the kludges Apple engineers implemented to ensure that the demo ran smoothly: preprogramming a full signal strength indicator, setting up a so-called “golden path” for a more predictable demo, and having additional phones available onstage in case the current demo phone became unstable. This is framed by Marks not as a way to get a great demo of a product that wouldn’t be shipping or months, but as a deceptive move:

Sure, there was no way that Jobs was fully certain that all the features he promised on the iPhone would actually work in the real world.

The iPhone wouldn’t ship for six months after Macworld. The only feature that was shown onstage but didn’t end up shipping was the split view inbox in Mail. He may not have been certain but he was certain enough to state in the same presentation that the iPhone would ship by the end of June, and it did. In volume.

But he plowed ahead anyway with his fake demonstration. Why? Because he believed he was doing the right thing.

I’m starting to think that Gene Marks really doesn’t know the meaning of the words he uses. The idea that a live onstage demo was, in any way, “fake” is utterly laughable. And he did the demo because the he knew the iPhone was a great fucking product that was capable of being shown publicly.

ISPs Support Internet Legislation Because They Know They’ll Get to Help Write It

T.C. Sottek, the Verge:

There’s one thing Republicans and Democrats can agree on, and that’s taking money from ISPs. The telecommunications industry was the most powerful lobbying force of the 20th century, and that power endures. It’s no secret that lobbyists in Washington write many of the laws, and the telecom industry spends a lot of money to make sure lawmakers use them. We’ve already seen net neutrality legislation written by the ISPs, and it’s filled with loopholes. It’s not just in Congress — companies like AT&T have deep influence over local and state broadband laws, and write those policies, too.

Some pro-net neutrality advocates are also arguing today that Congress should act, and there are some good reasons for that. Laws can be stickier than the judgements of regulatory agencies, and if you want to make net neutrality the law of the land that’s a job for Congress. But there’s a reason the ISPs are all saying the same thing, and it’s because they’re very confident they will defeat the interests of consumers and constituents. They’ve already done it this year under the Republican-controlled government.

Mike Masnick of Techdirt is the “pro-net neutrality advocate” cited by Sottek, and he addresses the influence of ISPs on lawmakers in the post:

So, the fight at the FCC matters, but the end game is Congress. And we all know that bad stuff can happen in Congress (especially when it comes to broadband providers writing legislation themselves). But (and this is the important part): the best way to stop bad stuff from happening in Congress is to speak up. This is what killed SOPA five years ago, even though a ton of people in Congress had signed on as co-sponsors. We’ve talked about this in the past: lobbyists win in Congress all the time, but only on issues where the public isn’t speaking up. Congress relies on lobbyists to fill in the gaps (and sometimes that’s even okay!). The problems come in when the public interest and the lobbyists’ interest diverge — and if the public isn’t speaking up, then the lobbyists win. But if the public is speaking up — and doing so loudly — it can stop bad bills in their tracks (witness Congress’s recent inability to pass any major bad legislation).

This must be exhausting for Americans to hear, but call your representatives. Of course it’s important to tell the FCC how you feel, but it’s also important to stress to your representatives at the local, state, and federal levels that you support net neutrality. The FCC, under Ajit Pai, will likely vote to strip ISPs of today’s net neutrality rules, but Congress can overrule that and impose strong consumer protections, but only if they know that consumers care enough.

Designed Lines

Ethan Marcotte:

In our industry, we’re getting better at talking about the commercial costs of slow, heavy websites. But there’s a human cost, too.

This is, of course, once we get past the many, many inequalities woven into the institutions and infrastructure that provide internet access to Americans. For one example, take this study suggesting that AT&T has engaged in a form of “digital redlining”, excluding poor Cleveland neighborhoods from quality, reliable broadband.

Because broadband has become far more commonplace, there seems to be a tendency to assume that virtually everyone — with the exception of those in developing nations — has a connection capable of supporting dozens of tracking scripts, autoplaying videos, and gigantic header images. Two observations:

  1. Slow internet speeds persist in developed nations, whether on a temporary basis — such as on a smartphone in a crowded city or low-signal zone — and on a more permanent, designed basis, as AT&T has created in Cleveland.

  2. Why create a website that’s exclusionary to those who do live in developing nations with slower-speed connections? Building lightweight, fast websites benefits everybody.

Comcast and Verizon, Counting on Ignorance, Claim to Support Net Neutrality

David L. Cohen, Senior Executive Vice President1 and Chief Diversity Officer at Comcast:

We wanted to reinforce today — to the public, our customers, regulators, and legislators — what we’ve been saying and doing for years. We support permanent, strong, legally enforceable net neutrality rules. We don’t and won’t block, throttle, or discriminate against lawful content. We also believe in full transparency; you’ll know what our customer policies are.

Apart from that time that Comcast throttled peer-to-peer traffic, or when they fucked up their throttling so badly that it broke a bunch of other applications, or that other time that they were allegedly fiddling with VoIP calls. Apart from that, there’s simply no indication that they would ever employ discriminatory practices. Or remember that time that they paid homeless people to fill seats and prevent critics from attending an FCC hearing?

Will Johnson, SVP of Federal Regulatory & Legal Affairs at Verizon:

Like those participating in the Day of Action, Verizon supports the open Internet. We’ve said so for a long time now – the open Internet is good for consumers and critical for our business. We have invested billions of dollars in dozens of content providers and producers. Our Oath subsidiary includes more than 50 brands reaching more than one billion people every month – including AOL and Yahoo, the Huffington Post, Yahoo Sports, Tumblr, Engadget, and TechCrunch. And our Verizon Digital Media Services keeps online video and other data moving across the Internet in ways that improve consumers’ experience. Like other Internet companies, these businesses depend on the ability to reach customers over other Internet Service Providers’ (ISP) networks. And if ISPs – or other Internet companies, for that matter – started engaging in practices that undermined the open Internet, we would be hurt.

It turns out that Verizon is at a disadvantage here — Comcast owns NBCUniversal, while AT&T has been trying to acquire Time Warner. Verizon, meanwhile, has been buying up whatever 1990s relics they can find for cheap, like AOL and Yahoo. If they were to deeply invest in cable and buy a movie studio, they could play in the same sandbox as Comcast and AT&T.

But that’s the thing: all of these big players want their own traffic to be given priority or, at least, treated equally, but they also want to be able to discriminate against competitors through traffic management or so-called “zero rating” policies.

Jon Brodkin of Ars Technica in December:

Separately, Wilkins sent a letter to Verizon yesterday about the company’s FreeBee Data 360 program, which also charges online service providers for data cap exemptions. The FCC’s wireless bureau “believes that the FreeBee Data 360 offering to edge providers unaffiliated with Verizon, combined with Verizon’s current practice of zero-rating its affiliated edge services for Verizon subscribers, has the potential to hinder competition and harm consumers.”

The “primary participant” in Verizon’s zero-rated data program is Go90, a video service offered by Verizon itself, the FCC said. Ars wrote about Verizon’s treatment of Go90 compared to competing video services 10 months ago.

This FCC investigation was closed earlier this year.

But these are just ISPs being ISPs, right? They’re gigantic and terrible ogres that are slowly increasing their domination of every aspect of communications and entertainment technology. Tech companies aren’t like that, right? Like, for instance, Google:

Internet companies, innovative startups, and millions of internet users depend on these common-sense protections that prevent blocking or throttling of internet traffic, segmenting the internet into paid fast lanes and slow lanes, and other discriminatory practices. Thanks in part to net neutrality, the open internet has grown to become an unrivaled source of choice, competition, innovation, free expression, and opportunity. And it should stay that way.

As I pointed out earlier this year, though, Google has their fingers in so many of the web’s pies that they’re as great of a threat to net neutrality as Comcast, AT&T, or Verizon are. They’re not alone, either: Facebook just crossed two billion active users, owns some of the most popular mobile apps, tries to keep users within their ecosystem by mirroring news articles with Instant Articles, and has one of the biggest advertising networks out there.

The coalescing of control behind a handful of very large companies is a move that’s bad for the web, any way you cut it. Pragmatically, it doesn’t matter whether those companies are ISPs, media conglomerates, or tech companies. An open and distributed net is what’s best for net neutrality. Keeping ISPs regulated under Title II is important, but so too is reducing the power of other very large companies.

One step at a time.


  1. Helluva job title. How many layers of management do you think Comcast has? ↩︎

Google Has Reportedly Been Paying Academic Researchers for Favourable Policy Papers

Todd Haselton, CNBC:

Google has paid researchers and academics who have worked on projects that support the company’s positions in battles with regulators, a report in The Wall Street Journal said on Tuesday.

Google’s practice might not sound all that different from lobbying, but The Wall Street Journal revealed that some of the professors, including a Paul Heald from the University of Illinois, didn’t disclose Google’s payments. Heald is one of “more than a dozen” such professors who accepted money from Google, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Brody Mullins and Jack Nicas, Wall Street Journal:

In some years, Google officials in Washington compiled wish lists of academic papers that included working titles, abstracts and budgets for each proposed paper—then they searched for willing authors, according to a former employee and a former Google lobbyist.

Google promotes the research papers to government officials, and sometimes pays travel expenses for professors to meet with congressional aides and administration officials, according to the former lobbyist. The research has been used, for instance, to deflect antitrust accusations against Google by the Federal Trade Commission in 2012, according to a letter Google attorneys sent to the FTC chairman and viewed by the Journal.

There’s a lack of ethics in much of what went on here — including with one of the sources of Mullins and Nicas’ report. The Campaign for Accountability’s 35-page report was published yesterday, and it makes many of the same claims as the Journal article — the Journal cites it as a source.

But the Campaign for Accountability is a kind of sketchy firm itself: they have repeatedly refused to disclose their funding sources, as Google’s Leslie Miller pointed out in a post addressing this study. When I contacted them earlier today to ask for information on their donors, Daniel Stevens, their executive director, simply sent me a copy of their response to Miller, accusing her of deflecting. I haven’t heard back from Stevens with anything more substantial or, indeed, less ironic.

KeyBanc Capital Markets: Next iPhone Might Not Have Apple Pay at Launch, and Other Tales of Fiction

KeyBanc analysts Andy Hargreaves, John Vinh, and Josh Beck, in a note to their clients republished by Tiernan Ray of Barron’s, are among those sounding the alarm on the availability of Touch ID in the next iPhone:

We believe it would typically take 12 weeks from placement of fingerprint IC orders to full volume production of iPhones. Consequently, if Apple is able to solve its fingerprint problems and place orders for fingerprint ICs before August, it would likely be able to reach volume production in late October or early November.

I think it would be extraordinarily unlikely for Apple to bump the traditional late September release of the next iPhone to early November, but it wouldn’t be unheard of for them to delay a highly-anticipated product. Yet, stories of component troubles and difficult engineering circulate every single year and the iPhone is still released like clockwork.

This, though, smells like bullshit:

Further, we do not believe facial recognition would be initially qualified as an acceptable verification method for Apple Pay. While Apple could achieve this over time, the likelihood for an initial lack of Apple Pay could adversely affect demand.

I’m not certain about a lot, but I am certain about this: there’s no way Apple is launching the next iPhone without Apple Pay. No chance.

Major Tech Companies to Participate in Net Neutrality ‘Day of Action’

Jeff John Roberts, Fortune (autoplaying video alert):

Until now, Google and Facebook—which have been staunch supporters of net neutrality in the past—have stayed out of the debate. But this week, they confirmed they will join other companies in telling consumers to oppose the FCC’s plan to tear up the current rules.

The participation of Google and Facebook in the day-of-action campaign could be a game-changer because their sites are visited by hundreds of millions of Americans, and a message from them could rally new opposition to the FCC plan.

The two tech giants have yet to explain what specific actions—such as displaying a banner on their homepage—they will take. In emails to Fortune, spokespeople for Facebook and Google confirmed the companies will participate but declined to provide additional details.

You know who else is participating? AT&T. Yeah, really — here’s their SVP of External and Legislative Affairs Bob Quinn:

Tomorrow, AT&T will join the “Day of Action” for preserving and advancing an open internet. This may seem like an anomaly to many people who might question why AT&T is joining with those who have differing viewpoints on how to ensure an open and free internet. But that’s exactly the point – we all agree that an open internet is critical for ensuring freedom of expression and a free flow of ideas and commerce in the United States and around the world. We agree that no company should be allowed to block content or throttle the download speeds of content in a discriminatory manner. So, we are joining this effort because it’s consistent with AT&T’s proud history of championing our customers’ right to an open internet and access to the internet content, applications and devices of their choosing.

That “proud history of championing [their] customers’ right to an open internet” includes notable moments like when they blocked FaceTime over cellular unless customers were subscribed to one of a selection of very specific data plans — a move which Bob Quinn shamelessly defended — and when they favoured their own DirecTV service over competing streaming video platforms.

Pro

John Gruber speculated last week that this year’s radical nearly-bezel-free OLED iPhone might begin at a far higher price point than iPhones have ever started at. Put another way, instead of the company replacing the iPhone 7 at a similar price point, they might replace the 7 models with 7S versions, and then add the luxurious so-called “Pro” model at a higher price point above the 7S and 7S Plus:

If it’s true that Apple is going to release three new iPhones, my bet is that they’re named the iPhone 7S, iPhone 7S Plus, and iPhone Pro. And I hope the iPhone Pro starts at $1500 or higher. I’d like to see what Apple can do in a phone with a higher price.

Gruber justified that reasoning later in the week:

Furthermore, why shouldn’t there be a deluxe “Pro” tier for phones? For many people, phones are every bit as much an essential professional tool as their laptops. For some people, even more so. And I’d bet my bottom dollar there are more people who consider their iPhone a “pro” tool (and be willing to pay “pro” prices) than who think so regarding their iPad, and we’ll have had iPad Pros for two years by the time new iPhones are announced in September. If there are iPad Pros and MacBook Pros, why not iPhone Pros?

Aspects of this line of reasoning are similar to my piece last month on what I called a “boutique” smartphone — a reaction to Andy Rubin’s unveiling of the Essential phone:

That’s what I’m hoping to see from Essential. Maybe it’s all marketing bullshit, but I really like the idea of a company that is more comfortable experimenting with ideas than gunning for sales. It’s early days, so I hope to see the kinds of technologies that can only be built into phones at a scale of, say, hundreds of thousands of units instead of tens of millions. Any market is better when there are more entrants and crazier ideas.

I don’t think Apple can get away with an experiment as unadulterated by sales figures as I’m suggesting here, but — broadly speaking — this is the line of thought I’d like to see from the so-called “iPhone Pro”. If past years are any guidance, the iPhone 7S should be a respectable update, even if it lacks a new hardware design. But the addition of a Pro model should give Apple the opportunity to experiment a little more without worrying about trying to get enough components for sixty million units every three months.1

But I think that the addition of Pro models across Apple’s lineup has also introduced a new question of cost and value. It used to be that one of the most exciting things about a new iPad is the sense that this is the best that Apple could do in an iPad that year; now, I get the sense that they’re trying to create a division between iPad users and iPad Pro users. Will the standard iPad eventually support the Apple Pencil or sport a ProMotion display? I’m not sure; those features are, so far, reserved for iPad Pro users. I don’t think that’s wrong, but it is a relatively new line of thought for the iOS device lineup.

There’s a similar story happening with the MacBook Pro, with Touch Bar models being priced higher than the non-Touch Bar 13-inch. I get the feeling that the Touch Bar models are the true interpretation of what Apple considers a “MacBook Pro” — they just weren’t able to get the price down to where they wanted the MacBook Pro line to start.

The addition of an iPhone Pro would, I think, create a similar sort of bifurcation. Its introduction would make the 7S seem like it’s the best Apple could do for the price, but the iPhone model they really want everyone to have would be the Pro. You can count on it appearing in the vast majority of their marketing materials, and it’s the one that Apple employees will show off. The 7S — if it’s effectively an upgraded but not redesigned iPhone 7 — would effectively be the budget option, even if it’s the same price as the iPhone it replaces.

That’s not to say I don’t think the iPhone Pro isn’t a good idea. I think it could be amazing to see what can be done with a couple-hundred extra dollars’ worth of parts and research per unit. But I’ll be interested to see how Apple navigates the introduction of a truly next-generation iPhone while trying to market a relative spec bump as the everyday choice.2


  1. Some of my favourite supply chain stories come from the fast food industry, like when Wendy’s needed two years to get enough blackberries for their salads. ↩︎

  2. This wouldn’t be the first time Apple tried something like this: they brought out the iPhone 5C and the 5S at the same time, but it was clear that — despite how much Apple showcased the 5C — the 5S was the true next-generation device. But the 5S was introduced at the same price point as the outgoing 5; the rumours, so far, indicate that the Pro will be starting above the price points of the outgoing devices. ↩︎

Andy Rubin’s Essential Phone Misses June Release

Steve Kovach, Business Insider:

When he announced the Essential smartphone at Recode’s Code Conference in May, Rubin said it would start shipping within 30 days, The Verge reported. The company also started accepting pre-orders for the $699 device.

But more than 30 days have passed since then, and Essential isn’t shipping the phone yet.

An Essential spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Harshil Shah nails it:

All you need to know about this story is that it took journalists a full week to realise this.

Essential tweeted on June 28 that they were “working hard to make sure each product meets our quality standards”, which sounds like a PR-friendly way of saying “this product is delayed for an indeterminate amount of time”. They’re still saying that it will be out “this summer”, which gives them until mid-September.

SMS Two-Factor Authentication Doesn’t Protect Against Human Error

Some asshole switched Justin Williams’ cell number to a different SIM card and used that to bypass the two-factor authentication for his PayPal account:

I have spent the morning trying to evaluate my security practices and there’s not much I can think about that I’d do otherwise. Twitter tells me I shouldn’t use SMS-based 2 factor authentication and should use app-based 2 factor instead. I agree! The problem is that some sites like PayPal don’t offer the better security. The alternative is to just go back to single factor, which I am not so sure is the best solution either.

Williams’ security setup is similar to mine: unique passwords generated by a password manager, two-factor authentication switched on everywhere I can, encrypted everything — the usual. But all these barriers seem like they’re simply a minor inconvenience to someone who is intent on breaching my accounts.

Williams:

I don’t even place blame on PayPal for this directly. The fault lies with the AT&T call center representative who let someone manipulate my account without knowing my passcode.

The security questions and secondary authentication mechanisms that users set should prevent anyone from accessing the account without a correct answer, including customer service representatives; a policy like that, however, will likely get pushback from anyone not sufficiently technically-inclined. It’s hard to balance customer service with security, but changes to actual service functionality — cancelling an account, changing the SIM card, updating the address, and so on — should always require a greater level of authentication or be done in person.

Rob Marquardt Buys a Kitchen Faucet

Yesterday, I linked to Lauren Goode’s review of the Amazon Echo Look which, among other things, suggested that she buy a blue blouse similar to the blue blouse she already owns.

Well, Rob Marquardt bought a kitchen faucet a year ago from Amazon and they simply won’t let him forget about it. How many faucets does Amazon think one person needs in their kitchen? Is it two? Is it six? Nobody is quite certain. But I don’t think I’ll be letting the Echo Look pick my clothes in the morning, or do my shopping for me.

Amazon’s Echo Look Reviewed

Lauren Goode tried Amazon’s outfit-picking robot for the Verge, and it didn’t exactly thrill her:

I’m finding as I get older, however, that what I’m wearing is less about what’s cool right now right this minute and more about practicality. Is this item appropriate for a funeral? Is this too casual for an interview, or too precious for a casual coffee? Am I going to be freezing at a friend’s wedding if I wear this? If the answer is yes: why are you not recommending I buy a jacket or shawl for that? Is this something that someone half my age would wear? (Yes, if it’s in the Juniors department.) I’m looking for more context, basically. Amazon, perhaps more than any e-commerce company, has the ability to do this. Amazon says this is “just the beginning” with the Echo Look and that it will get smarter over time, but the Echo Look app is just not there yet.

I sometimes forget to check the weather before getting dressed for the day and end up wearing something grotesquely inappropriate for the conditions. About a week ago, I wore a light sweater because I stepped out on my balcony before work and it was a bit chilly. It ended up being nearly 30°C, which is only sweater weather if you spend a lot of time on the Sun’s anvil.

That’s the kind of thing I feel the Echo Look should be best at doing, but it doesn’t sound like those kinds of recommendations are necessarily reliable.

It seems to be a fairly confused kind of a device. On the one hand, it can keep track of the outfits you wear daily so that you don’t find yourself wearing the same one to meet with the same clients a week apart, which should be appealing to those more fashion-conscious. On the other hand, if you’re fashion-conscious, you probably wouldn’t place much trust in a robot telling you what to wear, or what to buy:

I wasn’t really expecting spot-on clothing recommendations from Amazon just yet, try as it might to establish itself in the fashion world. But it never recommended shoes or accessories (which I am most likely to buy from Amazon), and it had a tendency to suggest I shop for other items in a similar color pattern (if I already have a blue blouse I don’t need another blue blouse). It also once suggested I might be interested in a similar top from the Junior’s department even though I haven’t shopped in that section of a store in a very long time.

Steven Frank in 2015:

“I see you bought a vacuum cleaner. Do youuu… want another one?” — Amazon

I rag on Siri a lot, but Amazon almost certainly has the world’s largest database of shopping trends. Surely they could do better than suggesting stuff that’s identical to what you already own or just bought. If their AI can’t get that right, why would you trust it to dress you every day?