Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for October, 2017

Seeking Trust

Yesterday, “Ellie” tweeted:

ATTENTION ALL GIRLS ALL GIRLS!!! Go to your photos and type in the ‘Brassiere’ why are apple saving these and made it a folder!!?!!?

This realization went viral; Christine Teigen posted about it, too. And, arguably, rightfully so — if you found out that your phone was, somehow, making it easier for you to search semi-nude photos, you might find that creepy, and you’d probably want to warn a lot of people about that.

Readers of Pixel Envy, on the other hand, probably aren’t surprised to hear this. You’re probably tech savvy, and you probably know that iOS’ Photos app attempts to make the contents of pictures searchable. You likely even know that this is done entirely on the device in a very private way.

None of that has been effectively communicated to users, though, if the outrage over this search term and the results of a recent poll are anything to go by. It was commissioned by the Verge and conducted by Reticle Research, and Apple didn’t fare very well against its rivals when it came to trust:

Participants trusted Amazon the most, which is not all that surprising given its e-commerce store’s ubiquity and the company’s overall drive to provide more value for lower prices with Prime and other services. Yet participants trusted Apple less than even Google, a company with a primary business model of collecting consumer data for targeting advertisements.

A question about trust, broadly, does not fully represent what people find more trustworthy about Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and respondents’ banks compared to Apple. Maybe they don’t trust Apple’s reliability, or software updates, or any number of things. But the survey finding that Google, of all companies, is more trustworthy than Apple is pretty alarming for anyone who knows anything about their business model.

What’s more, even the ability to search a photo library for pictures of bras isn’t unique to iOS. Dami Lee, the Verge:

For the record, Google Photos does the exact same thing when you search “brassiere,” except your photos are stored on the cloud, in Google’s servers. If anything, this should be the bigger security concern that’s freaking out people on Twitter.

I completely agree. When they debuted the feature at WWDC 2016, Apple said that they used freely-available public and stock photography to train their machine learning library. Google’s privacy policy, meanwhile, gives them the ability to train their search engine using the photos uploaded to their cloud services.

Yet, average users don’t seem to understand that the way Apple approaches privacy is fundamentally different than the way their competitors do. I know people who have refused to register their fingerprint with Touch ID for several years because they think it gets uploaded to Apple’s servers; even so, they happily use Google’s suite of products. Apple’s generally privacy-respecting practices get lumped in with others’ unsavoury approaches, and — I think — that leads to controversies like this one.

There’s something else, too, that’s bothering me about this: I wonder if most people — and, let’s face it, “people” is too broad a term; “women” is much more accurate — want to search for photos of bras in their image library. That is, even if this capability and the privacy protections in place had been effectively communicated, is this something that users want catalogued?

I don’t know how many women are on Apple’s machine learning teams specifically, but just 23% of their technical employees are women. Judging by Twitter users’ incredulity, it seems like something women may not actually want, and I wonder if a higher percentage of women in technical roles might have caused object recognition to be filtered more carefully.

Perhaps not, though. Perhaps this functionality sailed through all sorts of gender and ethics tests. In that case, I think it comes back to it being poorly-communicated in poisoned waters. Google is still seen as friendly and trustworthy; Apple is, apparently, not seen that way as much. In that case, perhaps Apple ought to calibrate their functionality for their privacy-cavalier competitors, or run a campaign to build trust in their brand again. Or, maybe Silicon Valley just needs to go a little slower and let us all catch up.

Mashable’s Interview With Apple Executives About the iPhone X

Lance Ulanoff of Mashable spent time with Phil Schiller, Craig Federighi, Alan Dye, and Dan Riccio to talk about the development of the iPhone X. They mostly reiterated the talking points of past statements and events, but there are some new things as well. For instance, they revealed that they had originally intended this iPhone to debut in 2018, but fast-tracked it for release this year, and that required some tough decisions to be made in a tight timeframe:

When Apple made the choice to drop the home button and Touch ID fingerprint scanning in favor of Face ID, Riccio said they went “all in” with that functional decision. “We spent no time looking at [putting] fingerprints on the back or through the glass or on the side,” he said. Apple did it because they believed in the quality of Face ID security and screen unlocking, with executives describing it as good as second-generation Touch ID, but also because there simply wasn’t time.

Matthew Panzarino of TechCrunch was told the same thing, and it seems to put to rest the sketchy photos published prior to the iPhone X’s debut indicating that a rear-mounted fingerprint reader was being tested. I’m very excited to give Face ID a shot on my own iPhone, especially after reading Nicole Nguyen’s review at Buzzfeed.

Ulanoff:

Unlike the home button, this gesture bar serves one purpose: swiping up to open the iPhone X. However, even after people learn the new gesture, you can’t switch off the bar, confirmed Federighi.

I was curious about whether there would be a toggle for that, perhaps buried deep in Accessibility settings. Even though it can’t be, I’m excited to see where Apple can take the iPhone’s on-screen interface once users get the feel of a home button-free device.

Consumer Reports Unceremoniously Shitcans Consumerist.com

This is the entirety of the notice published earlier today on Consumerist.com:

This is our last post on Consumerist.com. We’re deeply proud of all the work we’ve done on behalf of consumers, from exposing shady practices by secretive cable companies to pushing for action against dodgy payday lenders.

We’ve had a tremendous run as a standalone site. Now you’ll be able to get the same great coverage of consumer issues as part of Consumer Reports, our parent organization.

Come check it out at CR.org.

That’s it. The Consumerist was started nearly twelve years ago and has long been the publication that exposed sketchy corporate practices, bait-and-switch schemes, and unfair advertising. And, according to (former) deputy editor Chris Morran, they did so without warning and ungraciously:

To clarify: @ConsumerReports never ONCE gave @consumerist revenue or subscription goals, but we got the ax for not meeting them?

[…] I hung up on the call. That’s right… they shut down the brand via conference call.

Shameful.

Apple’s Intriguing New PR Strategy for the iPhone X

Joe Rossignol, MacRumors:

In addition to journalist Steven Levy’s first impressions of the iPhone X, Apple recently invited a number of YouTube channels to try out the highly-anticipated device at a nondescript building in New York City.

The YouTube personalities invited to a building that appears to be 144 Duane Steet include two reporters from Highsnobiety, “Soldier Knows Best”, Enobong Etteh of BooredAtWork.com, and Sam Beckerman of Fashion magazine. Not on that list include notable personalities like MKBHD and iJustine.

This sort of stuff interests me, for no reason other than it’s different than Apple’s usual pattern. It’s not important, in the big scope. It won’t change how you use the iPhone, when yours will arrive, or the company’s engineering and design. But it’s interesting to me, at least, and maybe you.

For the past few years, Apple has invited tech journalists from around the world — mostly from big newspapers and magazines, but increasingly from web-only publications as well — and a few YouTube personalities to their unveiling event in California. There, they get hands-on time with the new products. Some of these journalists and YouTubers then get review units; they’re covered by an embargo that almost always lifts at the same time for everyone, allowing them to speak freely about their thoughts.

But this is, obviously, different. None of the personalities invited to the event in New York nor any of the handful from other channels that received early access to the iPhone X were at Apple’s September unveiling, as far as I know. And Apple followed their usual review blueprint for the iPhone 8 models launched last month.

My guess is that the month-long lag between the September event and the iPhone X’s release merited a different strategy. The round of YouTube videos posted today are effectively a new round of the first impressions that event attendees get in the hands-on area after the event. They serve as a reminder of the iPhone X’s imminent release. The in-depth reviews that you would expect from some writers and prominent YouTubers will likely be posted tomorrow or Wednesday.

That leaves Steven Levy’s piece in Wired as the outlier, and it seems like it’s a nostalgia trip. Levy:

I’ve had this phone since last Tuesday. Apple had given me this early peek in part because I was one of the first pre-release reviewers of the original iPhone. Given that history, we all thought it would be interesting to get my impressions of what the company clearly believes is the next milestone in a journey that has pretty much altered our relationship with technology.

It’s a deviation from Apple’s normal PR strategy, but the release of two different models of iPhone this year — one markedly higher-end than the other, and with a delayed launch — also represents a deviation from their normal release strategy. If next year’s iPhones launch on a single date, I wouldn’t expect to see this PR strategy, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if the in-person hands-on experience is repeated for those outside of Apple’s typical sphere of tech-centric YouTubers.

Again, this isn’t really important. But because Apple tends to have a fairly predictable and deliberate playbook, and this is different, it’s an interesting case study, especially for those in a marketing, PR, or media job.

Update: Soldier Knows Best was, in fact, at the September event. Sorry for the mistake, and thanks to Alec for catching it and emailing me.

Update: I want to clarify something: I’m pointing out that this PR strategy is different, but I am not claiming that it is a better strategy: Levy’s “insider” articles are already too puffy for my tastes, and these YouTubers are not reviewing the product with a critical eye.

To be fair, they are first impressions, not reviews. I hope Apple has provided other publications with proper review units, and for enough time that they can form more rounded opinions of them; I certainly hope that Apple’s PR department isn’t simply looking for people to read the press bumf.

It isn’t negativity or some supposed “balance” for the sake of balance that makes for a good review; it’s criticality. That doesn’t necessarily need to be published before a product ships — especially when it’s backordered by several weeks — but it’s valuable nevertheless.

Update: Last one, I swear, on this post. Mike Allen of Axios received a review unit which, apparently, he passed along to his nephew. I didn’t realize that was something Apple allowed under their prerelease review nondisclosure agreement. At any rate, he noted that:

Ina Fried, Axios chief tech correspondent, will have our official review soon.

So I think my initial hunch was right: these early previews are buzz, and the full slate of reviews is still to come. The question remains whether other reviewers have been able to spend enough time with their devices to be able to make well-considered observations.

The Onion’s New Layout Feels Like a Deep Betrayal

Me, back in August, after the A.V. Club migrated their website to the ex-Gawker Kinja platform:

All of this is to say that I hope Clickhole and the Onion don’t look like Deadspin when they launch on Kinja. They’re very different websites, and their design should articulate that. I think the Onion would be markedly less funny if it didn’t look like a hard news website, and giving it the generic Kinja treatment would be a bleak milestone for one of the most consistently brilliant places on the web.

The Onion has now been publishing on Kinja for about a week and, frankly, I think I was right. It doesn’t feel like a satirical take on hard news any more; it’s more of a parody of the Gizmodo Media Group family of websites. The writing is still hilarious, but plopping that writing into Kinja’s generic layout robs it of its potency.

Google Responds to Pixel 2 XL Display Complaints

You may remember a series of news articles last week regarding the sub-par OLED display in the new Pixel 2 XL.

Google VP of engineering Seang Chau has now responded to those complaints in a lengthy post on the Google Product Forums. First, on the muted and downright weird displayed colours:

We’ve received some feedback about the Pixel 2 XL displays not appearing as saturated as other phones. We attribute this perception to our choice to calibrate the Pixel 2 XL for delivering natural, accurate colors, taking advantage of the new color management support in Android 8.0 Oreo.

I don’t fully buy this explanation. A well-calibrated display is great, but I’ve never seen the same kind of complaints about colours not displaying correctly on recent models of iPhone, which feature the same P3 colour gamut as the Pixel 2 XL’s display and are also calibrated for accuracy. I also haven’t seen the same complaints about the standard Pixel 2 which has a Samsung-supplied display, suggesting that this issue is specific to the limited viewing angles of the LG-supplied display in the XL model.

Nirave Gondhia, Android Authority:

If you look at the Pixel 2 XL screen at even a slightly off-centre angle, the screen adopts a blue tint. It’s not a bright blue hue, but more of a darkening and cooling of the display. It weakens the screen’s overall color reproduction.

Chau also writes that Google has no indication of abnormal image retention, despite users seeing it on their devices, but also says that they will be issuing a software update to fade the on-screen navigation buttons while they’re not actively being used.

If anyone is wondering why Apple is reportedly entirely dependent on Samsung for the iPhone X’s display, here’s your answer: almost nobody else makes OLED displays in large quantities, and other manufacturers simply aren’t delivering the quality that Samsung does.

iPhone X Pre-Order Demand

Aishwarya Venugopal and Arjun Panchadar, Reuters:

Pre-orders for the much-anticipated 10th anniversary phone started from 12.01 am PT (0701 GMT) on Friday.

I saw that this was true for lots of people, but not for me — neither the website nor the Apple Store app opened for me until about ten minutes later.

“We can see from the initial response, customer demand is off the charts,” an Apple spokeswoman told Reuters.

“We’re working hard to get this revolutionary new product into the hands of every customer who wants one, as quickly as possible.”

I’ve been through enough high-demand product sales that my problems accessing the store don’t really surprise me. They do, however, mean that estimated delivery dates for my iPhone are November 21–28. Shipping is now at 5–6 weeks in the United States and Canada.

If you’re hoping to get an iPhone X within the next couple of weeks and would rather not camp at your local Apple Store or cell carrier, I’d recommend trying to score an in-store reservation. The app tells me that November 4 at 8:01 AM is the earliest time I could try making a reservation; it may be different where you live.

The Most Revolutionary Thing About Tesla and Uber Would Be Their Long-Term Success

The Economist:

Investing today for profits tomorrow is what capitalism is all about. Amazon lost $4bn in 2012-14 while building an empire that now makes money. Nonetheless, it is rare for big companies to sustain heavy losses just to expand fast. If you examine the members of the Russell 1000 index of large American firms, only 25 of them, or 3.3%, lost over $1bn of free cashflow in 2016 (all figures exclude financial firms and are based on Bloomberg data). In 2007 the share was 1.4% and in 1997, under 1%. Most billion-dollar losers today are energy firms temporarily in the doldrums as they adjust to a recent plunge in oil prices. Their losses are an accident.

Ryan Felton, Jalopnik:

Oftentimes, talk about the bottom line of Tesla gets distorted because, really, the automaker could theoretically stay afloat in perpetuity, so long as Musk secures investors who’re willing to wait an unusually long time for profits to be delivered. (Again, this is unusual.) But, as the Economist puts it, “the longer it goes on for, the harder it gets.” More debt gets added on, the bigger the liability grows, and maintaining projections of huge, stable profits somewhere down the line just isn’t so easy.

If Netflix and Tesla were to go out of business, it would be sad, but likely trivial. The biggest worry would be for Tesla owners looking to repair their cars — parts would be scarce and repairs could require reverse-engineering the car’s software.

But the end of Uber would be deeply worrying indeed. Remember Wash.io? It was a Bay Area firm that offered an on-demand laundry service, and went out of business about a year ago. Andray Domise summarized its legacy in a series of tweets:

To recap, wash.io drives up the price of laundry, pushes laundromats out of business, makes cleaning clothes difficult for poor people…

And then crashes and burns anyway. Leaving bankrupt businesses behind, and entire neighbourhoods where you can’t even wash your damn clothes

Something I hear frequently from the people I know who use Uber is how much less expensive it can be than taking a cab. But it doesn’t occur to them that the reason it’s cheaper is because Uber can afford to hemorrhage $2.8 billion in a year, a rate of loss that no local taxi company could sustain. To be fair, the company’s losses shouldn’t be something for riders to consider, but it feels utterly predatory. And now Uber and Lyft are going after public transit.

So what happens if Uber shuts down, long after taxi drivers have suffered from their business practices? Is there a renewed appreciation for taxis and public transit? Or will people who cannot afford or cannot drive a car simply be left with few affordable transportation options?

Equifax Was Warned

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, Vice:

Late last year, a security researcher started looking into some of the servers and websites that Equifax had on the internet. In just a few hours, after scanning the company’s public-facing infrastructure, the researcher couldn’t believe what they had found. One particular website allowed them to access the personal data of every American, including social security numbers, full names, birthdates, and city and state of residence, the researcher told Motherboard.

The site looked like a portal made only for employees, but was completely exposed to anyone on the internet. It displayed several search fields, and anyone — with no authentication whatsoever — could force the site to display the personal data of Equifax’s customers, according to the researcher. Motherboard saw multiple sets of the data they were able to access.

I know I shouldn’t be surprised at Equifax’s carelessness. I know that after the exposure of the Social Security Numbers of practically every American with a credit card or a loan, after the company allowed three executives to sell shares in the days after the breach was discovered, after the company took six weeks to notify consumers, after failing to responsibly respond to their breach, after launching a botched self-check service, after promoting their insecure credit freezing service, after sending some people to the wrong website, and after the company allowed its CEO to retire with a full compensation package, that I should not be surprised when it comes to their unique ability to be completely hopeless with information security or corporate responsibility.

And yet, every week seems to bring a new chapter in this saga — a new example of how Equifax has managed to fuck this up at a truly catastrophic level. For at least six months, Equifax knew that they had a freely-accessible search engine for the personal details of millions of Americans. And they did nothing.

Equifax’s stock price is up today, and is trading at about $17 per share — or about 18% — higher than the day the company announced that they had been breached.

A Tale of ‘Trons’

David Munns, writing in Aeon:

Sprawling across the 20th century, ‘trons’ marked out humanity’s hubristic desire for techno-supremacy. Today they are an endangered species. So where did the trons go, with their thrill of centralised control over particles, plants or programming? With the end of the Cold War, the term lost much of its political and social power.

There’s something about the “tron” suffix that connotes a specific time and place in history, and Munns captures that story well in this piece. Munns asks what the equivalent today is, and I’m not sure that’s possible to answer yet. Missing vowels reference a specific period on the web — ahem — as does “CamelCase”, but it’s hard to know what today’s identifying language characteristics are without the benefit of hindsight.

Apple Rumoured to Be Pushing for More Family-Friendly Original Programming

Lucas Shaw, Bloomberg:

Erlicht and Van Amburg have agreed to remake Steven Spielberg’s anthology series Amazing Stories with NBCUniversal and are in the bidding for another show, about morning TV show hosts played by Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston. Apple wants to have a small slate of shows ready for release in 2019. “I think for both NBC and Apple, it’s about finding that sweet spot with content that is creative and challenging but also allows as many people in the tent as possible,” says Jennifer Salke, president of NBC Entertainment.

However, Apple isn’t interested in the types of shows that become hits on HBO or Netflix, like Game of Thrones — at least not yet. The company plans to release the first few projects to everyone with an Apple device, potentially via its TV app, and top executives don’t want kids catching a stray nipple. Every show must be suitable for an Apple Store. Instead of the nudity, raw language, and violence that have become staples of many TV shows on cable or streaming services, Apple wants comedies and emotional dramas with broad appeal, such as the NBC hit This Is Us, and family shows like Amazing Stories. People pitching edgier fare, such as an eight-part program produced by Gravity filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón and starring Casey Affleck, have been told as much.

I’m not saying that every show needs to have nudity, profanity, and gore galore, but interesting stories, history, and real day-to-day life are rarely as sanitized as a G or PG rating requires.

If it’s their brand they’re concerned about, I don’t get why Apple doesn’t pull a Disney and create their own version of Touchstone Pictures. Aljean Harmetz, reporting for the New York Times in 1984:

In an attempt to recapture its lost teen-age and young adult audience, Walt Disney Productions announced today that it will keep some of its new movies as far away from the Disney name as possible. The Disney label will be replaced by the name Touchstone Films. The Disney name will be kept, however, on its traditional movies for young children.

I understand that Apple is taking a fairly cautious approach with their original programming efforts. Their first two shows were X Factor but for apps, and an idea purchased from late night television about celebrities singing in the car. I’m sure there’s more ambition ahead. But it’s really hard to combine this rumour with the lacklustre series they’ve released so far and not feel a bit concerned, especially when Netflix’s first original series was the rightfully-admired House of Cards. And that is not a family-friendly affair.

I don’t care where good television comes from. I don’t even care that we have way too much TV as it is, though I wish there wasn’t the expectation that I am somehow able to keep up with every hot show plus all the franchises and cinematic universes that they are somehow connected with. I just like good art. I think Apple has the taste to be the money behind some really great work — they already have. But Netflix is already there with critically-acclaimed shows and big names. Apple could do that too, which makes their very cautious — and, so far, weak — approach all the more curious.

On Bloomberg’s Report That Apple Downgraded the Accuracy of Face ID to Improve iPhone X Production Speed

Alex Webb and Sam Kim, Bloomberg:

As of early fall, it was clearer than ever that production problems meant Apple Inc. wouldn’t have enough iPhone Xs in time for the holidays. The challenge was how to make the sophisticated phone — with advanced features such as facial recognition — in large enough numbers.

As Wall Street analysts and fan blogs watched for signs that the company would stumble, Apple came up with a solution: It quietly told suppliers they could reduce the accuracy of the face-recognition technology to make it easier to manufacture, according to people familiar with the situation.

The implication at this point in the story is that the facial recognition technology that will be shipping to consumers may not necessarily be as thorough as Apple has been promoting it in its iPhone X marketing materials:

Face ID revolutionizes authentication on iPhone X, using a state-of-the-art TrueDepth camera system made up of a dot projector, infrared camera and flood illuminator, and is powered by A11 Bionic to accurately map and recognize a face. These advanced depth-sensing technologies work together to securely unlock iPhone, enable Apple Pay, gain access to secure apps and many more new features.

Face ID projects more than 30,000 invisible IR dots. The IR image and dot pattern are pushed through neural networks to create a mathematical model of your face and send the data to the secure enclave to confirm a match, while adapting to physical changes in appearance over time. All saved facial information is protected by the secure enclave to keep data extremely secure, while all of the processing is done on-device and not in the cloud to protect user privacy. Face ID only unlocks iPhone X when customers look at it and is designed to prevent spoofing by photos or masks.

All biometric technologies are subject to an elevated level of scrutiny. Even before Touch ID was announced, early skeptics predicted that it could be easily fooled like other fingerprint readers. Now, it’s Apple’s take on facial recognition that’s encouraging the same kinds of pre-launch dismissals and high levels of skepticism. That’s probably why Apple describes it in such detail in that press release excerpt above, and it’s likely also why they felt it necessary to issue a statement on Bloomberg’s report — something they rarely do for rumours:

“Customer excitement for iPhone X and Face ID has been incredible, and we can’t wait for customers to get their hands on it starting Friday, November 3. Face ID is a powerful and secure authentication system that’s incredibly easy and intuitive to use,” an Apple representative told Business Insider. “The quality and accuracy of Face ID haven’t changed. It continues to be 1 in a million probability of a random person unlocking your iPhone with Face ID.”

“Bloomberg’s claim that Apple has reduced the accuracy spec for Face ID is completely false and we expect Face ID to be the new gold standard for facial authentication,” the representative continued.

Apple’s statement here is not phrased in a deceptive or weaselly way. It is clear: Face ID won’t be worse in consumer devices than they have previously promised. This is a very clearly-worded dismissal of Bloomberg’s claim that facial recognition will be less accurate.

So what, if anything, is true in Bloomberg’s report?

Well, I can think of a few things, if we read between the lines a little later in the report:

The dot projector is at the heart of Apple’s production problems. In September, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple was having trouble producing the modules that combine to make the dot projector, causing shortages. The dot projector uses something called a vertical cavity surface-emitting laser, or VCSEL. The laser beams light through a lens known as a wafer-level optic, which focuses it into the 30,000 points of infra-red light projected onto the user’s face. The laser is made of gallium arsenide, a semiconductor material, and the lens is constructed of glass; both are fragile and easily broken. Precision is key. If the microscopic components are off by even several microns, a fraction of a hair’s breadth, the technology might not work properly, according to people with knowledge of the situation.

[…]

To boost the number of usable dot projectors and accelerate production, Apple relaxed some of the specifications for Face ID, according to a different person with knowledge of the process. As a result, it took less time to test completed modules, one of the major sticking points, the person said.

I only know what has been published by Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal, and what is in Apple’s press statement. Even with that limited information, though, I think it’s possible to guess at different ways that Bloomberg’s report may be a reflection of the complexity of producing the iPhone X at scale and how Apple’s statement reflects the shipping product:

  1. Apple may have over-engineered a component, or found a simpler way to make it without compromising accuracy or reliability.

  2. The testing may have been overly and unnecessarily cautious, and it was able to be relaxed slightly without compromising accuracy or reliability.

  3. Early components were required to meet more stringent requirements because the software needed a higher level of precision. Adjustments could have been made to the Face ID software to make it more reliable and exactly as accurate with components that aren’t quite as perfect as the earliest batch of components.

There is overlap between all of these possibilities — and I’m sure there are more — but I think my first guess is a reasonable interpretation of Bloomberg’s report and Apple’s statement. It also takes into account production ramp factors and last-minute adjustments that, while not ideal, are not entirely uncommon. These changes are usually made under the hood, but occasionally the results of these adjustments may be visible. For example, some early-batch first-generation iPhones had a bell icon on the ring/silent switch, for example. The point of a production ramp is that potential issues are found and, to the best they can be, eliminated so later production runs more smoothly. And it appears that this is the case, according to Bloomberg’s report:

For months, Apple investors have fretted that a shortage of iPhone Xs would send consumers into the arms of rival smartphone makers such as Samsung and Huawei Technologies Co. Apple seems to have overcome the biggest production hurdles. Sharp is working to bring the production yield for dot projectors above 50 percent, while LG Innotek has already surpassed that level, which both companies consider acceptable. Meanwhile, Apple is working with Taiwan’s Himax Technologies Inc. to boost production of lenses to make up for lower-than-needed output from Heptagon, a Singaporean company that so far has been the only lens supplier.

The iPhone X is clearly a very advanced device to produce, especially at the scale customers would like to see. But, while the facial recognition sensors seem to be a primary obstacle to that scale, Apple’s statement refutes the notion that Face ID will be compromised in any way. That doesn’t mean they haven’t taken steps to make production easier; it simply means that the production ramp is doing its job, albeit perhaps within a tighter timeframe.

I am not worried about the accuracy of Face ID today any more than I was yesterday, or any time previously. And, though I understand general skepticism of the technology, I don’t think you should worry about it any more than you might have before. The biggest worry I have is whether I’m going to get my order in fast enough to be able to get an iPhone X delivered to my door next Friday.

The Zuckerberg Bargain

Maya Kosoff, in a Vanity Fair piece with the exceptional headline “Facebook Casually Considers Annihilating the Digital Media Industry”:

Last week, Facebook launched a secondary news feed called Explore, which features posts from Facebook Pages that users don’t follow. (Facebook Pages are profiles for businesses, media organizations, public figures, and other groups.) This is different from News Feed, the primary feed where users are shown posts from Pages they follow, and from their friends. In six markets, The Guardian reports, Facebook is running a test wherein it removes all posts published on Facebook Pages from the main News Feed, integrating them into the “Explore” feed instead. Now, users’ main News Feed is only for posts from friends, advertisements, and posts that groups running Facebook Pages pay to promote. In other words, in markets where the test is active, Facebook is no longer a free playing field for digital publishers.

Cambodia is one of the six markets where this separation is being tested. Alexis C. Madrigal of the Atlantic writes about the impact it has had on publishers there:

“It’s too early to say anything definitive about the impact this is having on our traffic and reach,” Jenni Reid, the web editor at The Phnom Penh Post, told me. “The two feeds still don’t seem to be fully separated yet for some people here in Cambodia, but so far it doesn’t look positive.”

[…]

These changes are significant for the broader media ecosystem in Cambodia, Reid said. “Last year, Facebook edged ahead of television as the number-one source of news for Cambodians according to one survey. Post Khmer, the Khmer-language Facebook page for the Phnom Penh Post, has the fourth-most likes in the country, and seven out of 10 of the most popular Facebook pages here are news websites or newspapers,” she told me. “That’s striking compared to, say, the United States, where there isn’t even a news publisher in the top 50 most popular pages among Facebook users.”

The arguments you’re about to hear you’ve heard before. I get that.

You would have to be completely deluded to think that Facebook does not enjoy having two billion people using its website monthly, especially for their data-collecting ad-centric business model. One of the reasons they’ve been able to grow and retain such a large user base — in spite of how much we hate it — is because it’s constantly full of stuff: status updates, photos, videos, games, and news stories. The media is critical to Facebook’s growth; the company previously made changes to its News Feed to improve the rankings for shared links to publishers from users and pages.

But now, Facebook is considering cutting the free version of that off. Publishers can either pay to promote their stories in users’ feeds, or they can be relegated to a secondary feed that very few people will read.

I think it’s pretty easy to say that publishers should not be reliant upon traffic from any third-party source, but that minimizes the responsibility these companies now have on a worldwide scale. As companies like Facebook and Google increasingly dominate actual publishers for how users get their news, even creating proprietary formats like Instant Stories and AMP for preferential treatment, shouldn’t their practices be scrutinized to a greater degree? Is it really fair for the rug to be pulled out from under publishers’ feet when their primary referrer decides it’s convenient for their business model? Does it make sense for the future of the worldwide digital media economy to be decided by a few young men in California? To return to the argument against publishers’ reliance upon traffic sources like Facebook and Google, is it possible to build a successful new publication without them?

I don’t know the absolute answers to any of these questions. I suspect that any of them would inspire a lengthy debate. My best guesses, though, are absolutely, but not by this American administration, not entirely, no, and I doubt it.

Apple Says That the iPhone X Will Have Walk-in Availability

Apple:

iPhone X, the future of the smartphone, featuring a revolutionary new design with a stunning all-screen display, wireless charging and an incredible rear camera with dual optical image stabilization, will be available to customers for pre-order on Friday, October 27 at 12:01 a.m. PDT on apple.com/ca and the Apple Store app.

This is nitpicking, but “all-screen display” is a silly phrase. You’ve probably read Ken Segall’s commentary on Apple’s use of “all-screen”, but that’s in the context of Apple’s marketing webpage which bills the iPhone X as a phone that’s “all screen”, immediately above a photo that clearly indicates that this isn’t the case. While “all-screen display” isn’t a lie, it’s no better from a description perspective: all displays are “all-screen”. That’s just redundant.

iPhone X will be available in more than 55 countries and territories, and in Apple Stores beginning Friday, November 3 at 8:00 a.m. local time. Stores in most countries will have iPhone X available for walk-in customers, who are encouraged to arrive early.

Don’t count on it being easy, though. Nikkei reporters say that the initial iPhone X shipments from now until the end of the year will total just 20 million. For comparison, Apple shipped over 78 million iPhones between October and December last year. If you want an iPhone X before, say, March, you’ll want to be awake at midnight Pacific time on Thursday night — Friday morning, for the more pedantic readers — and try not to mis-tap the “buy” button. In some countries, you may also want to phone your bank or credit card company, just to be safe. Good luck.

The FBI Can’t Stop Fearmongering About Encryption

Dell Cameron, Gizmodo:

Never in the past century has the FBI ever had greater access to consumer data than it does today. It has never been easier to locate a person of interest — be it a terrorist, a counterfeiter, or a child predator. The quickening pace of technology has given rise to new forms of surveillance, the likes of which, two decades ago, no federal agent would’ve ever thought possible.

Yet, for years now, the FBI has argued just the opposite, painting for the American public a picture of its agents fumbling around in the shadows without a flashlight, hindered by privacy-enhancing consumer technology, helping countless criminal suspects and terrorists evade arrest. Despite a steady year-to-year increase in search warrants, subpoenas, and National Security Letters served on technology companies, the bureau assures us that its investigations are “Going Dark.”

Cameron makes good counterarguments against FBI Director Christopher Wray’s complaints today that the FBI has been unable to decrypt nearly 7,000 devices, but I think he missed one critical argument: a fundamental right to privacy.

Rewind twenty years and ask average American adults whether they would be comfortable wearing a device everywhere that allows the government to know where they are, who they’re talking to, what they watch, and what they buy. I bet nobody would willingly agree to that. In fact, if you asked that of someone today, I doubt anyone would oblige; it’s only because we are under the impression that our cellphones are relatively private spaces that we use them the way we do.

The problem is not that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies cannot read the data on our devices; the problem, for them, is that they cannot interpret this data. When we write a letter, we are under no obligation to add enough context to that letter to make it intelligible to an FBI agent. We are not obligated to write our letters in a language they can understand, nor are we obligated to ensure that the letter isn’t protected by a cypher. An average person probably will not encode their mailed correspondence, of course, but there is nothing to prevent them from doing so if it is not connected to a crime.

Suppose letters had to be written in English, and could not be encoded; if they were in any other language or happened to be encoded, imagine you had to send a translation dictionary or a copy of the cypher to your local FBI field office. Now imagine that instead of a letter, it’s the key to every webpage you visit, instant message you send, transaction you make, and location you visit. And imagine that, instead of this information being in the hands of the FBI, it’s in the hands of every law enforcement agency in the Five Eyes alliance at least.

No, there is no obligation for us to provide meaningful interpretation of the data we accumulate about our daily lives and, no, there should not be. It may absolutely make an FBI agent’s job harder to prosecute a crime if they do not have access to encrypted evidence. But we create enough evidence incidentally that is unencrypted and available to third parties. Agents should feel free to battle the legal departments of those companies to obtain this information when necessary. But I see no good reason to add a law enforcement-only door to the world’s devices. Chances are, it’s not a door that will usually remain closed, nor will it remain solely in the hands of law enforcement.

The Essential Phone Gets a $200 Price Cut

This comes less than two months after the Essential first started shipping, and less than a month after a report from BayStreet Research estimated that only about 5,000 Essential Phones were sold to consumers in the United States in September. Even if that number is off by an order of magnitude, that still represents a very low share of phones shipped. Not selling the most is, of course, Essential’s framing for this phone, and if they’re comfortable only selling a handful of these devices, I would prefer to see a more experimental product rather than a fairly generic Android phone.

Astute readers may recall that the 8GB model of the original iPhone also received a $200 price cut about two months after it was released, and the 4GB configuration was discontinued. For comparison, Apple sold their millionth iPhone just a few days after that price cut was announced.1


  1. If you subtract Q4 sales — July through September — from the Q3 numbers, Apple sold around 270,000 iPhones in its first few days. ↩︎

The Mac Mini Is Three Years Old

Brian Stucki of MacStadium:

It’s been three years since the current Mac mini was released on Oct 16, 2014. “All About That Bass” was the number one song in the land. Four hundred million humans have been born since that day and have never known a new Mac mini. My daughter is one of them. She already walks and talks and just moved to her big-girl bed. Three years is a long time.

It’s a very long time. At the time that Stucki published this post — on Monday, the third birthday of the current-generation Mac Mini — the last we had heard about the product came from Phil Schiller at the Mac Pro private press briefing in April:

The Mac Mini remains a product in our lineup, but nothing more to say about it today.

Yesterday, though, Tim Cook responded to a MacRumors reader’s email:

While it is not time to share any details, we do plan for Mac mini to be an important part of our product line going forward.

That statement isn’t entirely confidence-inspiring for me. I don’t think Cook is lying or exaggerating the role that he feels the Mac Mini may have in the future, but it’s such a vague remark for a product in such dire need of an update. The best you can say about his reply is that it’s an admission that the Mini isn’t dead.

The Mac lineup — particularly the desktop Mac lineup — feels stagnant. It feels like they’re stuck in a place where they want to re-envision those products but haven’t been able to deliver those updates in a timely fashion. What I don’t understand is their inability or reluctance to ship spec bump updates on a regular basis: prior to this summer’s iMac update, its most recent update shipped in October 2015; prior to the October 2014 Mac Mini update, its most recent was in 2012.

Spec bumps are not as splashy or as exciting as introducing a new model; they don’t afford Apple the opportunity to think about ways that the product could change to better meet customers’ needs. But, over the past few years, you’ve likely noticed a growing concern across the web that Apple doesn’t care about the Mac any more. I doubt that sentiment would be as significant or as pervasive if Apple were providing spec bump updates along the way.

Also, for what it’s worth, I think it’s difficult to justify charging the as-new price on a Mac that hasn’t been updated in three years. Not from a sales perspective, mind you, but from an ethics perspective — Macs aren’t houses, for example, and 2014 was a long time ago in technology terms.

Sarah Jeong Profiles William Alsup, the Judge on Oracle v. Google

Sarah Jeong, the Verge:

On May 18th, 2012, attorneys for Oracle and Google were battling over nine lines of code in a hearing before Judge William H. Alsup of the northern district of California. The first jury trial in Oracle v. Google, the fight over whether Google had hijacked code from Oracle for its Android system, was wrapping up.

The argument centered on a function called rangeCheck. Of all the lines of code that Oracle had tested — 15 million in total — these were the only ones that were “literally” copied. Every keystroke, a perfect duplicate. It was in Oracle’s interest to play up the significance of rangeCheck as much as possible, and David Boies, Oracle’s lawyer, began to argue that Google had copied rangeCheck so that it could take Android to market more quickly. Judge Alsup was not buying it.

“I couldn’t have told you the first thing about Java before this trial,” said the judge. “But, I have done and still do a lot of programming myself in other languages. I have written blocks of code like rangeCheck a hundred times or more. I could do it. You could do it. It is so simple.”

Alsup is the kind of judge that’s critical in trials that concern technical matters; he easily saw through Oracle’s claims in a way that less technically-inclined judges likely wouldn’t. I think there’s good reason to encourage judges with experience for highly-technical and nuanced cases like this. However, their expertise in a specific field is reminiscent of when someone with a background in an industry is appointed to regulate that industry: they’re likely to understand it in a way that outsiders may not, but they likely come with baggage. Interestingly, Alsup would be the exception to that — he learned to code as a hobby.

Tech Companies Are Resistant to Attempts to Scrutinize Employee Diversity

Will Evans and Sinduja Rangarajan, writing for Reveal, a publication by the Center for Investigative Reporting:

Diversity numbers rarely generate positive headlines, but they can make companies confront reality.

“Internally, it’s that, ‘Oh man, our numbers are coming out again, how do we look?’ ” said Judith Williams, who was head of diversity at Dropbox and a diversity manager at Google. “It forces a conversation both externally and internally.”

[…]

If they disclose any numbers at all, most companies offer limited pie charts on diversity webpages or in corporate diversity reports. They say the government reports don’t reflect how they view their own workforce. The firms invariably use percentages instead of raw numbers.

“I think they don’t want people checking their math,” Williams said.

EEO-1 reports, which reveal raw numbers instead of percentages, are kept private by the U.S. government; companies can choose to publicize their reports themselves, but few do. Percentages are, of course, not a terrible way to compare companies. But there is something powerful about recognizing that the 0.5% of Facebook’s new employees in 2015 that were black is equivalent to just seven people. Seven.

If you’re wondering why I didn’t publish a roundup of tech company diversity reports yet this year, by the way, this article largely explains the reason: companies are no longer motivated or encouraged to update their public diversity stats in a timely manner. Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon haven’t updated their reports since summer of last year; Google and Twitter updated theirs in January of this year, while Facebook updated theirs in August. Unfortunately, there’s seemingly little pressure to reveal these figures, despite the importance of a highly-diverse staff.