Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for April, 2018

Overcast 4.2

Marco Arment introduces the Overcast 4.2 update:

In Overcast 4.2, the login screen now prominently encourages anonymous accounts by default.

If you already have an account in iCloud, it’ll pop up a dialog box over this screen asking if you want to use it.

And the first time you launch 4.2, people with email-based accounts will be encouraged to migrate them to anonymous accounts.

Most often, you hear about new features in apps that require you to give over more information. Facebook will introduce yet another thing that uses the camera and microphone, or Snapchat will add a map of all of your friends and automatically opt you into sharing your own location. How frequently do you see app updates that are designed to reduce the amount of information that’s being collected?

I’d like to see more of this kind of thing. Kudos.

Subscriptions Should Be Easier to Manage on iOS

Stephen Hackett:

To review what subscriptions are active on your account, you have to do some exploring in the App Store, starting by tapping on your account photo, then again on your account info, then scrolling down to Subscriptions […]

Once there, you can scroll through all of your active and past subscriptions, seeing renewal details and making any changes you see fit.

This interface is slow and a little buggy at least on the iPhone X, but my biggest complaint is that it is so far buried.

This interface isn’t just buried in a semi-logical part of the system — it’s totally confusing and only available in this one very silly place. When I reviewed VSCO for the Sweet Setup earlier this year, I subscribed to VSCO X for its additional features, but had a hell of a time trying to unsubscribe. I started by looking in Settings because that’s where Apple Pay and all my other payment details are, but there’s nothing there. I had to search Apple’s knowledgebase for the answer and, even then, got a little confused because the user picture that you have to tap is only visible in three of the five App Store tabs.

I get that this is the kind of thing that users don’t need to see all of the time, but the complement to that observation is that when users want to see it, they usually really need to see it.

Update: Michael Rockwell points out that there is, indeed, a way to manage subscriptions via the Settings app. And, yeah, it’s convoluted:

[You] can also access subscriptions through the settings app: Settings > iTunes & App Store > tap on Apple ID > View Apple ID > Subscriptions

You’re probably better off using, Ryan Jones’ single-serving domain that redirects to Apple’s subscription management: manageapplesubscriptions.com.

It Has Been 229 Days Since the AirPower Charging Mat Was Announced

My Twitter timeline has been full of speculation about when the AirPower mat is likely to ship and whether its launch is technically delayed. Here is, I think, a better question: why do we know about this product at all?

Back when the HomePod’s delayed release date was announced, I wondered about a similar thing:

The announcement of this product at WWDC has confused me from the start. Some reports have compared the HomePod’s delay to that of the AirPods but, while the shipping delay on the latter product was regrettable, its announcement alongside the iPhone 7 — the first iPhone without a headphone jack — made complete sense. It finished the story.

This, though, is just bizarre. All things considered, a delay of about a month and a half isn’t terrible. But what difference would there have been if Apple had announced the HomePod when it was ready and simply pending regulatory approval? I don’t see any reason why the HomePod had to be announced at WWDC last June.

I see echoes of that announcement in that of the AirPower. Why was it announced alongside the iPhones 8 and the iPhone X? What story does it complete? It can’t be the inductive charging story: surely the entire point of using the Qi standard was that there were already loads of charging mats on the market that you could buy — Phil Schiller said as much during that keynote. So what’s the advantage in letting us know about the AirPower far in advance of when it would be available?

Imagine an alternate universe where the AirPower and the wireless charging case for the AirPods weren’t announced until, say, the opening keynote of WWDC this year with same-day availability. Sure, buyers of iPhones and Apple Watches that were released last year would have to suffer through several tedious months of wondering why Apple didn’t make their own charging pad because many of the ones out there right now aren’t very good, but the reaction to its then-immediate availability would have been a classic example of underpromising and overdelivering.

Contrast that with the more testy and impatient reaction reflected by Mike Wuerthele of AppleInsider:

Nobody but Apple can get away with such a long period of time between announcement and shipping. Narratives spin out of control in the interim, predicting doom and gloom which is nearly never warranted to the magnitude that’s on display.

There’s probably a great reason why the AirPower and compatible AirPods case haven’t yet been released. They’re probably going to be good products, too. But I don’t see any reason why we should be aware now that they’re on the way.

Apple Officially Exits the WiFi Router Business

Rene Ritchie, iMore:

Apple is ceasing production of its AirPort Express, AirPort Extreme, and AirPort Time Capsule Wi-Fi routers. I had a chance to speak to Apple briefly about the decision, and here’s the statement I was given:

“We’re discontinuing the Apple AirPort base station products. They will be available through Apple.com, Apple’s retail stores and Apple Authorized Resellers while supplies last.”

This has been expected for a while, but it’s still a bummer. The AirPort Extreme that this post was transmitted through I’ve owned for about six years and it’s still going strong; my parents’ Extreme is ten years old and it works just fine.

Zac Hall of 9to5Mac points out that most of the AirPort lineup’s functions have been eclipsed by a bunch of other stuff Apple has introduced since the last time they updated anything in the AirPort range. One thing that doesn’t yet have a replacement, though, is the Time Capsule’s backup functionality. Almost no third-party routers support backing up a Mac over WiFi, and even though I would love to see the introduction of Time Machine in the Cloud, backing up my Mac would occupy about half of my 2TB storage plan, which costs about twice as much per month as Backblaze.

Facebook’s Privacy Scandal Appears to Have Little Effect on Its Bottom Line

Sheera Frenkel and Kevin Roose, New York Times:

The Silicon Valley company reported a 63 increase in profit and a 49 percent jump in revenue for the first quarter, driven by continued growth in its mobile advertising business. Mobile advertising now represents more than 90 percent of Facebook’s advertising revenue.

The company also said that it added 70 million monthly active users last quarter, bringing it to 2.2 billion monthly active users as of March.

The results sent Facebook’s shares up more than 7 percent in aftermarket trading on Wednesday, reflecting Wall Street’s willingness to shrug off the company’s privacy issues as long as the money keeps flowing in.

Facebook’s stock is still down compared to its pre-exposé high, but recall what I wrote a few weeks ago: I’d bet good money that Facebook’s value will return to its previous high within a year or so. Investors won’t punish the company unless users do first, in droves.

Google Debuts a Standalone To-Do App, Google Tasks

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch:

Along with today’s big reveal of the redesigned version of Gmail, Google also more quietly introduced a new app that ties into its suite of productivity applications: Google Tasks. The app, as the name implies, offers you a dedicated place to create, view and edit your task list and to-dos, including those created from within the new Gmail or from Google Calendar.

Like most Google apps, Tasks feels like you’re using an Android app that has been lazily ported to iOS. Unlike most of their other apps, though, Tasks uses an inconsistent mix of Roboto, their old brand typeface, and Product Sans, their new one. The two faces don’t look good together — it’s like when Apple shipped apps that used both Helvetica and Lucida Grande.

According to their announcement of Product Sans and their new logo, the typeface was supposed to be used in promotional materials and lockups, but there’s no mention of it being used for product UIs. In fact, the only other product I can find that has this same inconsistent mix is the new Gmail.com, also previewed today.

It isn’t just about what these typefaces look like, either, but how they’re used. For example, when entering a new task, the name of the task is set in Product Sans; when it is added to the list, it becomes Roboto. Tapping on the task takes you to a details view where, now, the name of the task is in Product Sans. There are three options to add more information: if you want to add details, you’ll do it in Roboto, but adding a due date will be in Product Sans. The “add subtasks” button — well, text in the same grey as everything else except other buttons that are blue — is set in Product Sans, but the tasks are set in Roboto.

I sound like I’m nitpicking, but I’m really not. This is a simple app; the only reason it has added complexity and confusion is because Google wants their iOS apps to look like their Android apps.

Google’s Mass Data Collection

Christopher Mims, Wall Street Journal:

As justifiable as the focus on Facebook has been, though, it isn’t the full picture. If the concern is that companies might be collecting some personal data without our knowledge or explicit consent, Alphabet’s Google is a far bigger threat by many measures: the volume of information it gathers, the reach of its tracking and the time people spend on its sites and apps.

New regulations, particularly in Europe, are driving Google and others to disclose more and seek more permissions from users. And given the choice, many people might even be fine with the trade-off of personal data for services. Still, to date few of us realize the extent to which our data is being collected and used.

“There is a systemic problem and it’s not limited to Facebook,” says Arvind Narayanan, a computer scientist and assistant professor at Princeton University. The larger problem, he argues, is that the very business model of these companies is geared to privacy violation. We need to understand Google’s role in this.

This conversation is long overdue, but it’s vital we have it. How comfortable are we with (two) large American companies collecting and storing the vast majority of our online activities? If you are, that’s fine — Google and Facebook should have no objection to fully disclosing the extent of their tracking to gain your entirely-knowledgeable permission for doing so, but you should be able to turn it off any time you want. If you aren’t comfy with that — as, I think, the past couple months’ worth of stories about Facebook have suggested — shouldn’t that be fully respected by having none of your browsing tracked? Default cookie settings play a big role in the implied consent to tracking, of course, but more insidious means have also surfaced and which are impervious to changes in cookie settings, and with no easy way of opting out. Isn’t that obviously unethical?

SmugMug Acquires Flickr

Jessica Guynn, USA Today:

Flickr has been snapped up by Silicon Valley photo-sharing and storage company SmugMug, USA TODAY has learned.

SmugMug CEO Don MacAskill told USA TODAY he’s committed to breathing new life into the faded social networking pioneer, which hosted photos and lively interactions long before it became trendy. 

SmugMug, an independent, family-run company, will maintain Flickr as a standalone community of amateur and professional photographers and give the long neglected service the focus and resources it deserves, MacAskill said in an exclusive interview. 

He declined to disclose the terms of the deal, which closed this week.

The last time Oath — née Yahoo — showed any interest in Flickr was five years ago when they rethought the platform and gave everyone a terabyte of storage for free, and unlimited storage for just $25/year. And then they just sort of sat on it.

This is potentially good news because Flickr was, until this week, a Verizon company, and I think that it’s a little bit weird for an ISP and cable TV provider to be in charge of hosting your precious photographs. SmugMug, though, is a much smaller company, and it’s a good question whether they’ll be able to revitalize Flickr while retaining those high storage accounts.

Tim Cook Reiterates That Apple Isn’t Going to Merge the iPad and the Mac

Peter Wells of the Sydney Morning Herald interviewed Tim Cook after Apple’s education event last month in Chicago:

“We don’t believe in sort of watering down one for the other. Both [The Mac and iPad] are incredible. One of the reasons that both of them are incredible is because we pushed them to do what they do well. And if you begin to merge the two … you begin to make trade offs and compromises.

“So maybe the company would be more efficient at the end of the day. But that’s not what it’s about. You know it’s about giving people things that they can then use to help them change the world or express their passion or express their creativity. So this merger thing that some folks are fixated on, I don’t think that’s what users want.”

Cook said basically the same thing a few years ago in an interview with Independent.ie.

One comment that he made in Wells’ interview stood out at me:

“I generally use a Mac at work, and I use an iPad at home,” Cook tells me, “And I always use the iPad when I’m travelling. But I use everything and I love everything.”

In 2014, Cook told the Wall Street Journal that he did about 80% of his work on his iPad; this is a subtle change in how he’s communicating what he uses to get work done. I’m not sure how much you should read into his comment — Apple kremlinology is often a waste of time — but it’s an interesting shift, I think.

‘Login With Facebook’ Data Hijacked by JavaScript Trackers

Josh Constine, TechCrunch:

Facebook confirms to TechCrunch that it’s investigating a security research report that shows Facebook user data can be grabbed by third-party JavaScript trackers embedded on websites using Login With Facebook. The exploit lets these trackers gather a user’s data including name, email address, age range, gender, locale, and profile photo depending on what users originally provided to the website. It’s unclear what these trackers do with the data, but many of their parent companies including Lytics and ProPS sell publisher monetization services based on collected user data.

The abusive scripts were found on 434 of the top 1 million websites including cloud database provider MongoDB. That’s according to Steven Englehardt and his colleagues at Freedom To Tinker, which is hosted by Princeton’s Center For Information Technology Policy.

There are clearly problems with trusting third-party code, and it is the responsibility of developers to adequately audit that code and ensure it is safe for end users. It’s getting to the point where scripts like these ought to be treated as potential malware.

U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn Favourably Compares Internet Fast Lanes to TSA Precheck

Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica:

Congressional Republicans want to impose “net neutrality” rules that allow Internet service providers to charge online services and websites for priority access to consumers. Making the case for paid prioritization Tuesday, US Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said that paying for priority access would be similar to enrolling in TSA Precheck.

Blackburn is clearly counting on the public’s well-known admiration of the TSA to sell this proposal to them, whether it’s because they’re waiting in line for two hours, being groped by an agent, or having their knitting needles confiscated and their shampoo tossed in the trash.

Blogging Is Most Certainly Not Dead

Jason Kottke:

Social media is as compelling as ever, but people are increasingly souring on the surveillance state Skinner boxes like Facebook and Twitter. Decentralized media like blogs and newsletters are looking better and better these days…

They certainly are. I look forward to opening my RSS reader on my iPhone, even, in a way I don’t for any social media app. I even enjoy receiving the latest editions of the handful of email newsletters that I subscribe to.1 The former consists of stories from websites I trust in reverse-chronological order, and nothing more; the latter is a daily dose of links curated and placed into context by smart, reputable people.


  1. Brian Stelter’s “Reliable Sources”, Charlie Warzel’s “Infowarzel” — truly a terrific name, too — and Dave Pell’s “NextDraft”. ↩︎

The Facebook Media Backlash

Charlie Warzel, Buzzfeed:

Using publicly available information pulled from the APIs of USA Today, the New York Times, the Guardian, and BuzzFeed, researcher Joe Hovde compiled over 87,000 articles about Facebook published by the four outlets between 2006 and 2018. Then he ran a sentiment analysis on them, scoring words on a positive-to-negative scale of -5 to +5 — for example, a negative word like “fake” was scored -3, while a more positive word like “growth” was scored +2. The results were grim.

Hovde’s chart shows a steep increase in almost exclusively negative sentiment about Facebook beginning in late 2016, around the time of the presidential election. It also reveals a steady decline in positive sentiment between 2006 and 2016.

What this study seems to show is that the media is reacting solely to the remarkably shitty outcome of the 2016 American presidential election, arguably partially enabled by Facebook’s micro targeted ads. What it actually reveals is that Facebook — and Silicon Valley firms more generally — should have been covered with much more scrutiny and skepticism for years. The growing influence of algorithmically-tailored information based on mass data collection has always been worrying for now-obvious reasons, and more mainstream outlets should have explored that angle sooner and more frequently.

Dieter Bohn’s Suggestions for Improving iOS Notifications

Dieter Bohn, the Verge:

The iPhone, though… Apple and I have fundamentally different philosophies about how we should relate to notifications. I see them as a new kind of email: annoying, necessary, and ultimately super useful. I want a framework for managing notifications — just like I have a framework for managing email.

Apple seems to believe that I shouldn’t go in for all that. Notifications are fundamentally distracting, so I think Apple’s solution is to convince us to stop giving them so much attention. Turn them off, let them float by, don’t worry about reaching “notification zero” (so to speak). My colleague Vlad Savov called it “an endless scrolling list of puffy notification clouds” and I think that’s apt. The result of this philosophy, I think, is that the tools Apple provides for dealing with notifications are blunt instruments. But I also think it’s the wrong philosophy. Some notifications are actually super important, but they’re too easy to miss in that endless pile of clouds.

Via John Voorhees at MacStories:

[…] I agree with Bohn that adding the ability to jump directly to an app’s notification settings from the notification itself would go a long way on iOS. As Federico and I discussed recently on AppStories, periodically evaluating and adjusting notifications is essential to avoiding notification overload on iOS, but it’s also something that becomes a project because it requires a lot of hunting and tapping. With a system like Android’s, I can imagine making fine-tuned adjustments to notifications more frequently because doing so would be less likely to disrupt what I was doing when I’m interrupted.

More than almost anything else on the system, managing notifications on iOS can quickly become a lot of work. I think a big reason for that it because we think of notifications as varying in importance — from high-priority phone calls and iMessage conversations right down to ads — but the system treats the vast majority of notifications similarly. There are basically four levels of notification, roughly in order of attention prioritization:

  1. Screen takeover, used for things like phone calls and the timer that have the highest priority notifications.

  2. Persistent banners.

  3. Temporary banners.

  4. Icon badges.

Most apps default to using temporary banners regardless of the notification’s priority, but that style is often way too intrusive, yet not helpful enough. With the exception of badges, notifications almost always cover part of an open app, which isn’t as passive as a “puffy notification cloud” ought to be. In addition, ways to handle notifications without having to open the spawning app have been added over time, with features like inline replies and richer notifications, but many apps don’t take full advantage of these characteristics.

In my ideal world, notifications would somehow not cover what I’m looking at, would be less prone to inundating me, and would do a better job of managing themselves without my intervention. I have no idea how to get to that point, but one thing I absolutely do not want, from Bohn’s list, is the ability for apps to add themselves to the status bar. That seems like an easy recipe for clutter, particularly with the notched status bar of the iPhone X.

Gurman: Apple Plans a News Subscription Service

Mark Gurman, Bloomberg:

Apple Inc. plans to integrate recently acquired magazine app Texture into Apple News and debut its own premium subscription offering, according to people familiar with the matter. The move is part of a broader push by the iPhone maker to generate more revenue from online content and services.

The Cupertino, California company agreed last month to buy Texture, which lets users subscribe to more than 200 magazines for $9.99 a month. Apple cut about 20 Texture staff soon after, according to one of the people.

The world’s largest technology company is integrating Texture technology and the remaining employees into its Apple News team, which is building the premium service. An upgraded Apple News app with the subscription offering is expected to launch within the next year, and a slice of the subscription revenue will go to magazine publishers that are part of the program, the people said. They asked not to be identified discussing private plans. Apple declined to comment.

If this is anything like Apple Music, I’d like to think that it could offer subscribers the opportunity to explore different perspectives in journalism while ensuring each publication gets paid.

With iCloud and Apple Music already, plus Apple News and a Netflix-like service rumoured, Apple is soon to offer a lot of subscription services. Is there a point at which it makes sense for them to offer something like an all-access pass for, say, $40 a month?

Also, for some reason, Gurman asked Gene Munster for comment on this article. You know — that Gene Munster. That Gene Munster.

Update: On a related note, I certainly hope Apple News comes to users outside of the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia. Not just this rumoured subscription — though I hope that’s more widely available as well — but Apple News as an app.

Mignon Clyburn Steps Down From FCC

Kim Hart, Axios:

Clyburn, an Obama nominee, was a consistent advocate for low-income, minority and other marginalized communities. She was a strong supporter of net neutrality, media ownership reform and lowering prison phone rates. Clyburn often clashed with current chairman Ajit Pai over policy decisions.

While Clyburn’s resignation had been expected for some time, her departure leaves an open seat on the five-member commission until a replacement is nominated by President Trump and confirmed by the Senate.

The FCC is now a four-member commission with only one remaining Democrat — and, not coincidentally, only one remaining supporter of net neutrality in its policy-deciding directorship.

Fifty Shades of Grey

To be fair, Michael Steeber of 9to5Mac has catalogued only twelve shades of greys and blacks that Apple has used since 2012. Several of those variations show very minor differences; I wonder if the shades of white and even the plain anodized aluminum shades Apple has used over the same time period also show similar — albeit more subtle — variations in colour.

The Hilarious Life and Agonizing Death of Online Comedy

Alison Herman and Victor Luckerson of the Ringer wrote a fantastic look at how online comedy sites have evolved over the past couple of years, with major changes to Facebook’s News Feed algorithms, the rise of the present American administration, and — to borrow Onion editor-in-chief Chad Nackers’ term — the “Onionization” of the world. I thought this was revealing:

Newell estimates that less than 10 percent of Reductress’s traffic is direct. Most users follow a link from an external site like Facebook or Twitter rather than navigating to the site’s homepage. Social media has so fundamentally altered internet users’ behavior that it’s difficult for individual sites to overcome. “Nobody goes on their computer and types in ‘Funnyordie.com,’” says Adriana Robles, a former staff writer at Funny or Die. “You don’t type in any website like that.”

This, in turn, created a feedback loop in which companies put fewer resources into websites and other hubs that could compete with social media. “We’re now at a point where, because everyone became dependent on Facebook, we all let our websites atrophy,” Klinman says. The big Onion website redesign in 2015 was undone when the company was acquired by Univision just eight months later and, late last year, transferred all its articles to Kinja, the same aesthetically spare publishing system used by Gizmodo, Jezebel, and other former Gawker Media sites that now share a corporate umbrella with The Onion.

The Onion is now a Gawker blog,” Klinman says. “We’ve just erased the idea that things have had importance on the internet — that it’s important to have a home, that it’s important to have a place that’s distinct and is what your brand is. Instead, we’ve flattened everything out so that it will do well on Facebook’s version of the internet.” And on Facebook’s version of the internet, everything looks the same, making it difficult for individual websites to stand out and build a distinct reputation — even voicey, incisive sites like The Onion, Reductress, and Very Smart Brothas, which have a well-honed ability to announce themselves with catchy, clever headlines.

Herman and Luckerson also profile websites like McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, which have managed to adjust, stabilize, and even grow.

Previously: I wrote a little about the ruinous sameness of Kinja websites.

Techniques for Locking Down Your Privacy and Security Online

Natasha Lomas and Romain Dillet of TechCrunch have assembled a good guide on how to remain more private and secure online. If there’s one thing I took away from this list, it’s that it’s doable, but often very difficult. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try — you should, and you can pick-and-choose — but know that you’ll also find your newly-private browsing somewhat less convenient and straightforward.

I loved this, by the way:

Are you really getting so much value from an app that you’re happy for the company behind it and anyone else they partner with to know everywhere you go, everyone you talk to, the stuff you like and look at — even to have a pretty good idea what you’re thinking?

Think about that: how much are you actually getting out of the apps and services you use; and, how much are they getting out of you?