Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for May, 2018

Favstar Is Shutting Down in June

Speaking of the influence Twitter’s API changes are having on third parties, Tim Haines has announced that Favstar is shutting down:

Favstar started in May 2009, and in it’s early years was a huge hit with people new to Twitter, up-and-coming comedians, tech folk, reporters, celebrities, and people looking for a quick route to the best tweets. You could visit Favstar, and almost be guaranteed a laugh, whatever your sense of humor.

[…]

Favstar will go offline on June 19th 2018.

Haines’ announcement comes just shy of the two year anniversary of Stellar.io’s goodbye, which had a similar purpose. I miss Stellar, and I’ll miss Favstar greatly.

Twitter hasn’t cared about their ecosystem of third-party apps for ages. Unfortunately, they are often the best way to experience Twitter.

Hacker Breaches Now-Ironically-Named Securus, a Company That Provides Cellphone Location Monitoring Software

Hey, remember Securus, the company I told you about last week that provides software that can monitor the location of most cellphones in the United States with only a phone number?

Joseph Cox, Vice:

A hacker has broken into the servers of Securus, a company that allows law enforcement to easily track nearly any phone across the country, and which a US Senator has exhorted federal authorities to investigate. The hacker has provided some of the stolen data to Motherboard, including usernames and poorly secured passwords for thousands of Securus’ law enforcement customers.

Although it’s not clear how many of these customers are using Securus’s phone geolocation service, the news still signals the incredibly lax security of a company that is granting law enforcement exceptional power to surveil individuals.

Cox reports that users’ passwords were hashed using MD5 which, as of a decade ago, was considered by the U.S. Office of Cybersecurity and Communications to be “cryptographically broken and unsuitable for further use”. I disagree with the notion that a private company can offer this sort of software with little legal oversight or scrutiny, but even if you think that’s totally okay, surely tracking the live location of hundreds of millions of people should be guarded with more than an email address and a badly-encrypted password.

Future of Many Third-Party Twitter Apps in Question as New API Pricing Is Shared With Developers

Juli Clover, MacRumors:

Third-party Twitter app developers will be required to purchase a Premium or Enterprise Account Activity API package to access a full set of activities related to a Twitter account including Tweets, @mentions, Replies, Retweets, Quote Tweets, Retweets of Quoted Tweets, Likes, Direct Messages Sent, Direct Messages Received, Follows, Blocks, Mutes, typing indicators, and read receipts.

Premium API access, which provides access to up to 250 accounts, is priced at $2,899 per month, while enterprise access is more expensive, with pricing quotes available from Twitter following an application for an enterprise account.

That is a huge lump of money: over $10 per user per month from developers for real-time activity if they have just 250 users; can you imagine the rate for tens of thousands of users? Let’s be generous and assume that they’ll give third-party developers operating at that scale a remarkable deal of $1 per user per month. At $12 per user per year, that’s probably unsustainable for developers like Tapbots and the Iconfactory to be charging a flat rate.

I know lots of people — myself included — who have proposed paying a monthly fee to continue using third-party clients. Loathe as I am to suggest it, perhaps a subscription model is one way for these apps to stay afloat. Given the choice, I’d rather pay five bucks per month to continue to use Tweetbot than use the official Twitter app, especially as there isn’t a first-party Mac client.

I bet I’m in the minority, though; I bet this is Twitter’s way of slowly turning the taps off for third-party apps that replicate the consumer Twitter experience. What a pisser.

As an aside, Twitter developer relations has mastered the art of the sleazy redirection:

There’s no streaming connection capability as is used by only 1% of monthly active apps. Also there’s no home timeline data. We have no plans to add that data to Account Activity API or create a new streaming service. However, home timeline data remains accessible via REST API.

The 1% of monthly active apps that make use of streaming could represent hundreds of thousands of users, maybe even millions. Only Twitter knows that for certain, but they’re not sharing it, because it would give away an approximate number of users who reject Twitter’s own apps while still using the platform.

Notifications on Android P vs. iOS 11

Michael Simon, Macworld:

Even before the public beta of version 9.0 landed this week, Android’s system of notifications was far superior to Apple’s. As someone who regularly bounces between the two platforms, I actively ignore the iOS Notification Center, but on Android, I use it regularly to catch up on things I might have missed. The Android notification shade isn’t just for messages and alerts; it’s an information center for your entire digital life.

As it stands, I have far fewer complaints about notifications on Android Oreo than I do on iOS 11, but the system has its kinks and annoyances just like it did on previous Android version, Nougat and Marshmallow. But in Android P, notifications are nearly perfect. Google hasn’t overhauled the notification system in Android P, but it has implemented a series of meaningful tweaks that work to make notifications useful, whether you want to interact with them, control what you see, or just keep them at bay.

And I hope someone on Apple’s iOS team is taking notes.

Making notifications the centre of my phone sounds like my idea of hell, but I certainly hope iOS 12 includes significant refinements to the notification system. It’s messy, it’s astonishingly interruptive, notifications cover app controls and a mis-tap can send you to a completely different app, and there isn’t always something you can do from the notification so you end up having to launch the app anyway. Notifications may necessarily be an interruption, but they shouldn’t be quite so intrusive.

UIs That Amass Memories

I’ve been watching this tremendous Twitter thread started by Marcin Wichary since yesterday:

Fascinated by UIs that accidentally amass memories. One of them is the wi-fi “preferred networks” pane – unexpected reminders of business trips, vacations, accidental detours, once frequented and now closed cafés.

Another? The alarm page and its history of painful negotiations with early mornings. (One of these, I’m sure, was for a lunar eclipse; another for sending a friend in Europe a “good luck” text.)

I like that both of these places require you to coax your memory a bit to remember.

What else like this is out there?

People replying have suggested logs of completed reminders, weather app, and composing a new iMessage to an infrequent contact as more memory-laden UIs. Another two suggestions, from me: open tabs, and web browser history. I have a hard time with remembering to close tabs on Safari for iOS, and there’s an animation bug where, sometimes, opening a new tab will scroll through the entire list, giving me glimpses of articles and websites I opened weeks prior. Also, Safari on the Mac defaults to keeping history items for a year, and trudging through those can be a trip down memory lane — again, articles that I was reading, recipes, job hunting, trying to find a new apartment, and the like are all in there.

I love all of those suggestions, but the one I keep coming back to is WiFi history, especially because it’s collected almost passively. I hadn’t checked my own history in a while and found it absolutely full of memories: the network I set up for my parents in my childhood home, which they’ve since sold; there’s a hotspot for a Gloria Jean’s Coffee location, which I could have connected to in Kuta when I got lost there, or it could have been from another time in Los Angeles. Wonderful.

The Media’s Paywall Obsession Won’t Work for Most

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

This is an important point, and one we’ve tried to make a few times in the past, highlighting that all of the metrics you hear about concerning audience side are complete bullshit, but everyone in the ecosystem has strong incentives to keep up the charade. At least they do while they’re pitching advertisers. When the actual hard subscription numbers come down, it can be a real wake up call. I’m reminded, of course, of the newspaper Newsday that implemented a paywall with great fanfare… and three months later had a grand total of 35 subscribers. Thirty. Five.

And they were hardly the only one. We’ve written time after time after time after time of paywalls failing for newspapers, and actually doing a lot more overall harm in terms of reducing both audience and influence.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. What follows is not exactly new, but I want to set something up in your mind.

You used to have to pay for the entirety of your local paper if you wanted news in print form, and it worked even if you only read a few stories a day, and you had to flip through loads of big ads to get to the handful of stories you actually cared about. All of this came from one or two sources, largely because you couldn’t live in, like, Lowell, Indiana and get that day’s Los Angeles Times dropped on your doorstep every morning. It didn’t matter that the local paper was comprised of a mix of original and syndicated reporting; it was the only way to get the news.

Now, you can read far more stories in a day and never touch your local paper. And why would you when, through a horrible downward spiral of business choices, it may now be almost entirely Associated Press stories that you can get anywhere? Besides, the big scoops largely go to the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Just look at this year’s list of Pulitzer Prize winners in journalism — of the fourteen award categories, fully half were won by the Times, Washington Post, Reuters, and USA Today. Compare the clustered wins of 2018 against the more widely-awarded prizes twenty or thirty years ago.

Many of us will, therefore, only pay a monthly fee towards one or two publications that we find really valuable; and, for most of us, that’s probably a national broadsheet “paper of record” rather than a thin local edition. But the national papers of record can’t realistically cover all local news of relevance across an entire country. Also, I’ve focused on American papers here, but this is a massive problem in Canada as well, and around the world.

Like I mentioned at the top of the preceding paragraphs, I’ve been thinking about this quandary a lot, for reasons of obvious importance — the continued existence of a press covering all levels of government and activities is crucial — but also for selfish concerns: I want to find a way for Pixel Envy to support itself. What ails the news industry also affects, albeit to a far lesser extent, independent blogs and web-only publications. Relatively large websites like the Onion and Gizmodo Media Group are struggling; the Awl shuttered earlier this year. Maybe the web cannot support all of these fantastic sites — that it did at any time was maybe a silly fluke. But I think giving up and treating the web as a place for giants and nobody else would be a mistake and a great shame.

Perhaps new legislation and the reclamation of our privacy online will spur the creation of small, privacy-focused advertiser networks again, akin to the Deck Network or something like the Outline’s ad strategy. Perhaps we need more networks of bloggers, too, allowing readers to subscribe to several related websites at the same time, without creating barriers to readership with paywalls. Maybe there’s a third and fourth source of money beyond readers and advertisers — I’m not sure. But non-giant entities, whether web-only or in print, need a funding solution for the future that isn’t solely reliant upon massive traffic, Facebook referrals, or subscriptions.

The Toronto Star’s Plan to Save Itself

Brett Popplewell, the Walrus:

Shortly after his arrival in 2017, John Boynton, Cruickshank’s replacement as publisher of the newspaper and Torstar CEO, called a town hall in the newsroom. Boynton is a fifty-four-year-old turnaround specialist with no real journalistic experience but a record of success in running Aeroplan and other multi-million-dollar loyalty programs. The job of saving the Star has fallen to him. What he inherited when hired wasn’t just the fate of Torstar’s 3,800 employees but the legacy of the Star’s costliest and most valuable resource: its reporting.

According to sources, Boynton, standing near the empty desks of the men and women who’d been hired and then fired as a result of Star Touch, looked at what was left of his staff and said: “We can’t be a department store anymore.” The Star needed to transform into a publication less concerned with being everything for everyone on the streets of Toronto. It needed instead to do what tech companies like Facebook and Google were doing — study its readership algorithmically, learn what readers want, and stop feeding them what they don’t.

“We’re going to kill some sacred cows,” he said. The words alarmed many. Someone asked what the Star would consider a sacred cow. “We need the data,” Boynton replied. The response didn’t ease any concerns. In the old model, every reader counted. Soon, only those whom data science indicates have a propensity to pay may end up mattering to the Star — and any other newspaper still standing after the next presidential election. The trend won’t just redefine the value of certain journalists but the value of certain types of journalism as well.

No matter how much I want the Star to succeed and cannot imagine the pressures it faces, along with almost every other newspaper, this sort of thinking worries me. The present U.S. administration has probably caused subscriptions to the Washington Post and New York Times to shoot higher, but that’s not because we want to read more hard news; we like spectacle, and we’re getting that in spades. We also need news coverage with less intrigue, but still carries great importance, and that remains a hard sell.

Last year, I read “Saving the Media” by Julia Cagé, and its proposal fascinated me. Cagé proposes a new way for media organizations to be recognized in a business sense, which, she says, would give greater control over a newspaper’s editorial direction to its staff, and more diversified funding sources without editorial influence. I don’t know how scalable this business model is for, say, a local-only paper to something more like the Star, but it’s a proposal worth considering. Try to find the book at your local library or independent bookshop.

GDPR and the Adtech Bubble

In just two weeks, the E.U. can begin fining GDPR violators. This is a must-read essay by Doc Searls, touching on the law itself, consent, and adtech. There’s a lot in this piece that is quotable and brilliant, but I think this is a truly critical paragraph:

And that’s on top of the main problem: tracking people without their knowledge, approval or a court order is just flat-out wrong. The fact that it can be done is no excuse. Nor is the monstrous sum of money made by it.

In addition to GDPR, Apple’s anti-tracking feature in iOS 11 and MacOS High Sierra has also, apparently, caused great concern amongst adtech companies that rely upon users’ implied consent, as most browsers’ default preferences permit the setting of third-party cookies. In cases where they don’t — for example, in Safari — adtech companies actively try to subvert your preferences. For example, Criteo:

Criteo may use non-cookie technologies in limited cases where the by-default settings of your browser aim to prevent the use of cookies for cross-site personalization and only if you have unambiguously accepted our services after being asked to do so (and offered the possibility to refuse subsequently).

A reminder that Criteo’s idea of unambiguous consent has long been represented by a banner across the bottom of the screen that indicates that any further clicks on the webpage will be construed as consent, and that you can opt out in the future if you read the banner in full and managed to remember the name of the third-party company that is now tracking you across the site.

It’s obvious — but no less revealing about their suspension of morality — how adtech companies will take full advantage of browser defaults to imply consent, but will actively fight against browser defaults through nefarious behaviours when it impacts their business.

Searls’ next paragraph is key, too:

Without adtech, the EU’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) would never have happened. But the GDPR did happen, and as a result websites all over the world are suddenly posting notices about their changed privacy policies, use of cookies, and opt-in choices for “relevant” or “interest-based” (translation: tracking-based) advertising. Email lists are doing the same kinds of things.

Understanding that the GDPR is the direct result of widespread bad behaviours is truly critical. I don’t think this will eliminate bad actors, but it will provide a framework for adequate consequences. If a company cannot bear the legal blowback from a failure of responsibility to adequately protect users’ information, they should not be collecting it in the first place.

Google Duplex and AI Ethics

Natasha Lomas, TechCrunch:

Yet Pichai said Google had been working on the Duplex technology for “many years”, and went so far as to claim the AI can “understand the nuances of conversation” — albeit still evidently in very narrow scenarios, such as booking an appointment or reserving a table or asking a business for its opening hours on a specific date.

“It brings together all our investments over the years in natural language understanding, deep learning, text to speech,” he said.

What was yawningly absent from that list, and seemingly also lacking from the design of the tricksy Duplex experiment, was any sense that Google has a deep and nuanced appreciation of the ethical concerns at play around AI technologies that are powerful and capable enough of passing off as human — thereby playing lots of real people in the process.

Zeynep Tufekci:

Google Assistant making calls pretending to be human not only without disclosing that it’s a bot, but adding “ummm” and “aaah” to deceive the human on the other end with the room cheering it… horrifying. Silicon Valley is ethically lost, rudderless and has not learned a thing.

Instead of worrying about humanoid robots becoming self-aware and destroying us all, I think it’s more satisfying and intellectually stimulating — and, of course, more practical — to ask questions about the ethics of the pseudo-automated systems we’re so quick to applaud.

See Also:Who Will Command the Robot Armies?” by Maciej Cegłowski.

Despite Announcing Otherwise, Google’s Revised Privacy Policy Still Permits It to Mine Users’ Gmail Accounts for Advertising

Paris Martineau, the Outline:

Though Google announced that it would stop using consumer Gmail content for ad personalization last July, the language permitting it to do so is still included in its current privacy policy, and it without a doubt still scans users emails for other purposes. Aaron Stein, a Google spokesperson, told NBC that Google also automatically extracts keyword data from users’ Gmail accounts, which is then fed into machine learning programs and other products within the Google family. Stein told NBC that Google also “may analyze [email] content to customize search results, better detect spam and malware,” a practice the company first announced back in 2012.

It’s bothersome that Google was scooping up users’ emails for ad targeting purposes in the first place, then said that they would stop doing it — after way too long — and has now given itself permission to keep doing so if they want to. But it isn’t going to make a difference: the popularity of Gmail and, more broadly, how deeply we’ve allowed surveillance capitalism to become embedded in the way we live and work on the web.

Apple Cracking Down on Applications That Send Location Data to Third-Parties

Chance Miller, 9to5Mac:

In the instances we’ve seen, the apps in question don’t do enough to inform users about what happens with their data. In addition to simply asking for permission, Apple appears to want developers to explain what the data is used for and how it is shared. Furthermore, the company is cracking down on instances where the data is used for purposes unrelated to improving the user experience:

You may not use or transmit someone’s personal data without first obtaining their permission and providing access to information about how and where the data will be used.

Data collected from apps may not be used or shared with third parties for purposes unrelated to improving the user experience or software/hardware performance connected to the app’s functionality.

Good — there’s almost no circumstance in which a third-party has any business in receiving location data when it isn’t connected with what the app actually does. But this is also the kind of thing I wish App Review was better at catching in the first place. Apps that request permission for location data, or access to contacts, or access to the photo library — in particular — ought to be subject to a degree of scrutiny that would prevent malicious uses of this functionality from appearing in the App Store in the first place. I’m not saying that they don’t catch this behaviour; rather, that there shouldn’t be enough apps in the store abusing location permissions to warrant a “crackdown”.

Securus Software Can Track Location of Cellphone in U.S. With Little Oversight

Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, New York Times:

Securus offers the location-finding service as an additional feature for law enforcement and corrections officials, part of an effort to entice customers in a lucrative but competitive industry. In promotional packets, the company, one of the largest prison phone providers in the country, recounts several instances in which the service was used.

In one, a woman sentenced to drug rehab left the center but was eventually located by an official using the service. Other examples include an official who found a missing Alzheimer’s patient and detectives who used “precise location information positioning” to get “within 42 feet of the suspect’s location” in a murder case.

Asked about Securus’s vetting of surveillance requests, a company spokesman said that it required customers to upload a legal document, such as a warrant or affidavit, and certify that the activity was authorized.

“Securus is neither a judge nor a district attorney, and the responsibility of ensuring the legal adequacy of supporting documentation lies with our law enforcement customers and their counsel,” the spokesman said in a statement. Securus offers services only to law enforcement and corrections facilities, and not all officials at a given location have access to the system, the spokesman said.

To be clear, all that this software requires is for users to type in a phone number, upload a supporting document, and check a box certifying that it’s a legal request. The location of the phone attached to that number will then be revealed; there appears to be no intermediary step of verifying that the location search is legally justified. No wonder this news story is about the abuse of such a flawed system.

Tesla Adds Fremont Factory to Its Line of Credit Collateral

Alexandra Scaggs, Financial Times:

While observers were preoccupied with its CEO’s personal life, Tesla disclosed it has added its Fremont, Calif. factory to a pool of collateral backing its US asset-based revolving credit line from nine banks.

CreditSights analysts called attention to the addition of the Fremont factory — a 5.3m-square-foot facility that was previously home to a famous joint venture between GM and Toyota — in a Tuesday note. The electric carmaker also said vehicles in or on their way to Belgium could be included in the base of collateral for its Dutch borrowings.

About six months ago, the Economist wrote about the rarity of future success for firms with billion-dollar debts. Watch this space.

Microsoft’s New Fee Structure for App Developers

Microsoft:

Starting later this year, consumer applications (not including games) sold in Microsoft Store will deliver to developers 95% of the revenue earned from the purchase of your application or any in-app products in your application, when a customer uses a deep link to get to and purchase your application. When Microsoft delivers you a customer through any other method, such as in a collection on Microsoft Store or any other owned Microsoft properties, and purchases your application, you will receive 85% of the revenue earned from the purchase of your application or any in-app products in your application.

This kind of arrangement doesn’t necessarily mean that developing for one platform is necessarily more lucrative than another. However, it might be a pretty good incentive for major developers to submit their apps to the store, as Microsoft isn’t garnering a third of their earnings.

I wonder if we’ll see anything about App Store fee structures at WWDC. I’d like to see Apple adopt something more like a progressive tax rate: for example, the first thousand downloads of an app could be at a 0% rate, then 5% for the next 10,000 downloads, then 10% for another 25,000, and so on. Their current 30% cut looks comparatively antiquated on the back of Microsoft’s announcement.

The Equifax Breach That Can’t Get Any Worse Gets Worse Again

Sean Gallagher, Ars Technica:

On May 7, executives of Equifax submitted a “statement for the record” to the Securities and Exchange Commission detailing the extent of the consumer data breach the company first reported on September 7, 2017. The data in the statement, which has also been shared with congressional committees investigating the breach, reveals to a fuller extent how much personal data was exposed in the breach. Millions of driver’s license numbers, phone numbers, and email addresses were also exposed in connection with names, dates of birth, and Social Security numbers — offering a gold mine of data for identity thieves and fraudsters.

Equifax had already reported that the names, Social Security numbers, and dates of birth of 143 million US consumers had been exposed, along with driver’s license numbers “in some instances,” in addition to the credit card numbers of 209,000 individuals. The company’s management had also reported “certain dispute documents” submitted by about 182,000 consumers contesting credit reports had been exposed as well, in addition to some information about British and Canadian consumers.

A reminder that, instead of pushing for record fines and legal repercussions in the wake of the worst data breach in American history, the head of the CFPB — you know, the regulatory agency that’s responsible for financial industry oversight — doesn’t feel the need to proceed with his agency’s investigation into Equifax.

What Happened to Apple’s Whimsy?

Peter Cohen, reflecting on the first iMac on its twentieth birthday:

I hope that Apple finds an opportunity to go full circle with the Mac yet again. It probably won’t be the iMac, but I hope that some future Apple device, whether it’s a phone, tablet, laptop or desktop machine, or some hitherto unimagined gadget, regains that sense of whimsy and wonder we’ve seen before. Something to help us emotionally connect with it and that essential Apple user experience in a way that’s different, and less invisible, than how we do today.

I’ve been thinking about the original iMac and iBook a lot recently, on occasion of the iMac’s birthday and the cancellation of the AirPort, the first generation of which was introduced alongside the iBook. The vibrant colours and translucent plastics — and the handles, of course — made these computers feel approachable and human.

I’m not sure that I would like to see too more of that goofiness, though. It’s not that I hate fun; rather, I think that Apple’s increasingly austere take on industrial design has made them better at shipping products that feel almost invisible. I appreciate that. It reduces the hardware to a tool, but not an appliance, yet I think Apple’s products feel even more approachable than they used to because so much of what they make is entirely straightforward. They don’t need to mask the complexity of the software with a layer of gumdrop plastic; in many ways, the software has become simple enough that the hardware can reflect that.

Then again, now that the iPhone has a gorgeous glass back, why can’t it be sold in a range of highly-saturated colours?

VI Months With the iPhone X

The way that tech product reviews work is pretty simple: most companies give select members of the tech press a review unit before the product is available to the general public. Reviewers typically can’t talk about it until a later date, usually around the time that the product will be on sale. The time between when reviewers receive the product and when they’re allowed to publish a review is usually extremely short — often, about a week. That’s enough time to get a general feel but, in my opinion, not enough time to adequately review it. For various reasons — many of them good! — reviewers typically feel like they have to publish something as soon as they’re able to, and most don’t do a followup because they’re not using nineteen smartphones on a daily basis.

Anyhow.

I’m not a member of the tech press and, therefore, do not get review units. I did publish some initial thoughts on the iPhone X about a week after I bought mine, but I wanted to write some more about what it has felt like after several months of using it. I’m keenly aware that many of you probably have owned and used an iPhone X for as long as I have, and so you might not find anything here particularly newsworthy. Apple has sold tens of millions of them, too, so it’s not like these thoughts are particularly exclusive. They are, however, mine.

Hardware

Let’s start with the easiest thing about the iPhone X: its hardware is damn nice to look at and to use. It is still the most beautiful product Apple has ever shipped; it still feels impossibly good, like a prototype, like a fine watch, et cetera, et cetera. The body combined with the display’s extremely high resolution and True Tone — which has been so accurate in most environments that the white on screen is practically identical to the white surfaces my iPhone has rested upon — and it looks like a concept render brought to life without sacrifice.

I’ve kept my iPhone in a case for most of its first five months because a) it’s been a long-ass winter, which necessitates gloves, thick jackets, and other things that make for clumsy handling; b) I’ve been travelling; and c) I paid a lot of money for this thing, so you bet I’m keeping it as pristine as I can. I’ve been using Apple’s cases the entire time — a purple leather one, and an orange silicone one — so three sides and the back glass are all perfect. Of the exposed parts, the bottom of the stainless steel band looks great to my eye. It doesn’t appear to be scratched, even around the Lightning port.

However, the display has not remained blemish-free. There are a few small but noticeable hairline scratches, especially in the area where my right thumb swipes upwards to unlock or scroll. I haven’t treated this iPhone any differently, nor is the skin on my thumb any different than it used to be, as far as I know. However, after comparing the screen of my iPhone X against my old iPhone 6S, it seems to be scratched more obviously. I’ve been hesitant to write about this because there seems to be complaints about this every year though I don’t know how much actually changes year-to-year, and I also think that the first scratches that appear tend to be the most noticeable. But based on what I’ve heard from others, my perception of it being more scratch-prone does not appear to be isolated. Apple says that the glass in the iPhone X is the “most durable” in any smartphone, but they don’t elaborate on what “durable” means.

The screen itself continues to be amazing. Colours are rich without being inaccurate, and pixels appear to be closer to the glass than in any previous model. I maintain that there is no reason to treat this OLED display any differently than its LCD predecessors: you don’t need to use the dark mode in apps or have an all-black wallpaper if you don’t want to. You don’t need to worry about burn-in. It’s just a damn good screen, exactly as you would expect from any iPhone.

Cameras

The one component of the iPhone’s body that I’m torn on is the camera bump. Instead of being sloped like it is on the iPhones 7 and 8, it’s a giant sharp-edged jutting-out rounded box. Because my phone has been in a case for most of the time I’ve used it, I haven’t been bothered by how the bump sits on a table or another hard surface, but every time I pop the case off, I’m struck — in both very positive and quite negative ways — by all of these attributes.

On the one hand, it almost looks like there’s a piece of the phone that wasn’t assembled quite right. Its construction is clearly quite refined, but there’s not a lot to resolve the transition between the lens cover, the bezel, and the back glass. It doesn’t look bad; it just looks odd.

But, I must say, its crisp edges do look precise. The bump on my old 6S looks sheepish by comparison, as though Apple was embarrassed to have it. This one looks like they’re very comfortable with the cameras not fitting flush, and they’re making the most of that.

The cameras themselves, though, do not confound me: they’re amazing. I want to separate my assessment of them into software and hardware because there are two stories to tell.

I usually shoot in RAW, which means that the sensor data is saved directly, bypassing Apple’s imaging processing algorithms. Those algorithms remove noise, sharpen the image, and adjust the colours to a palatable palette that’s saturated, but not cartoonishly so. My iPhone 6S captured generally smooth and good-looking images, but a closer inspection of scenes with a lot of foliage or fine detail tended to look painterly. It was one of my chief complaints with that phone’s camera. Apple clearly spent some time working on the image processor in the iPhone X to perform better at these kinds of scenes, and every photo I’ve shot with it has been noticeably far better in its details than the 6S.

Yet, no matter how much better the new noise reduction algorithms are, they’re still no match for the detail you can see in a RAW photo. That’s part of the hardware story: both of these cameras are truly sublime. And I do mean “both” — I’ve been using the 56mm “zoom” camera about as often as I have the 28mm standard camera, and its performance has been just as solid.

The combination of the hardware and software stories merge with Portrait mode. Introduced with the iPhone 7 Plus, it uses the two rear cameras to assess the relative distance of objects in the frame and create a pseudo shallow depth-of-field image. It’s really fun and, now that Darkroom allows manual adjustment of the foreground and background parts of the image, a feature that I like playing around with. But its depth maps aren’t usually accurate — hair and glasses frequently seem to confuse it — and the default blur is often too exaggerated for my taste.

On the front side, the highlight feature is clearly Animoji and they are so much fun. I’ve sent a few videos, but I usually use them as stickers. In fact, they’re so good, its a real shame they’re included solely as a Messages feature. I’ve spent quite a lot of time around toddlers recently, and it’s hilariously good fun to sit with them and play around with Snapchat lenses, language barriers be damned. There’s no equivalent standalone app for Animoji, and I think there ought to be; using it within Messages feels clumsier than simply opening Snapchat. Animoji is, hands-down, the feature that my friends want to play around with most after I got this iPhone.

Face ID

One of the benefits of writing about a product months after it was released is that initial controversies and *–gates tend to be resolved in the interim. Case in point: Face ID.

Apparent Controversy Number One: switching from the accurate and much-liked Touch ID home button to the usually flawed world of facial recognition was sure to be a flop. After all, facial recognition requires a clear and mostly direct line-of-sight to your face, so you can’t use it while the device in your pocket or while it’s on a table beside you. It is also impeded by some facial coverings, like scarves and sunglasses.

In practice, Face ID has turned out to be astonishingly good — it is, dare I say, so good that it feels magical. (I know.) In virtually every common circumstance, Face ID has performed at least as well as Touch ID had, or even better. For example, on cold days, I don’t cover my face in a way that renders me unrecognizable to Face ID, but I do wear gloves, which would need to be removed for Touch ID to work correctly. After a swim or when I finish washing dishes, Touch ID would sometimes get confused, but Face ID works just fine.

The best thing about Face ID is that it feels like it gets rid of the authentication step entirely. Instead of having to place your thumb on a fingerprint reader, wait for authentication, and then move it to the display, you just swipe on the display while looking at it, which you were probably doing anyway. I decreasingly see the graphic indicating that it’s unlocking; my phone just unlocks, and it’s ready to use. And that’s something that the initial batch of reviews published around the iPhone X’s launch couldn’t capture: it really does seem to be learning the characteristics of my face and getting more accurate over time.

So, as far as I’m concerned, Apparent Controversy Number One is a non-issue for me. You may, quite reasonably, feel differently — perhaps you wear a full face covering, or your sunglasses block Face ID’s scanner, or maybe you typically hold your iPhone at a distance from your face that isn’t ideal for Face ID. I think these are all things that can be sorted out with future iterations; however, this version has worked consistently brilliantly for me. I entirely prefer it over Touch ID and would not want to switch back.

Which brings me to Apparent Controversy Number Two: Face ID’s hardware requirements have spoiled an otherwise-perfect near-bezel-free display with the addition of a gigantic notch at its top.

I didn’t mention this in my first look because, quite honestly, I barely noticed the notch after using the phone for a few minutes. Ever since, my experience has been more of the same. In day-to-day use, the notch sort of disappears along with everything else in the status bar area from what I consciously see on the display. Would the iPhone X be better, in some way, if it had a completely uninterrupted display? I think that would be nice, yes, especially in landscape. But is the notch a fair trade-off for having an authentication system that works better than Touch ID — again, in my use? Absolutely.

Battery, Charging, and Wireless Musings

I have no formal way to test battery life but it has been excellent so far. Even after using beta releases constantly since I got mine, which tend to be less refined and harder on the battery, I still easily get a full day’s use without needing to “top up”.

Like an ape, I still plug a Lightning cable into my phone to charge it. Inductive charging is clever, but because the chargers are expensive and they stop charging as soon as you move your cellphone a couple of millimetres — at least, according to the reviews I’ve read — I haven’t felt compelled enough to buy one yet.

Of course, plugging in a Lightning cable means that I can’t simultaneously charge and use the slightly higher-tech version of two cans and some string that I call “my headphones”. Apple has clearly been moving in a wireless and wearable direction, but I haven’t been able to keep up: EarPods don’t fit my apparently alien ears, and I’m still using a Series 1 Apple Watch. Therefore, the AirPower that they’re apparently going to release soon doesn’t have the same appeal to me as it might someone with Apple’s latest and greatest.

Apple has promised that they’re going to contribute the refinements they’ve developed for the AirPower to the Qi wireless charging standard, so I look forward to more reliable inductive charging in the future.

Software

The hardware-specific attributes of the iPhone X are pretty damn good. What about iOS? Well, upgrading to the X from a 4.7-inch iPhone feels a lot like the transition from the iPhone 4S to the iPhone 5: everything gets taller but, as there’s no increase in width, a lot of things remain similar. In the case of the X, however, the hardware has reduced the display’s bezels so much, it feels almost like the device disappears and you’re just holding the software. That’s the major difference. Even without that refined approach to hardware, though, the extra display height is totally great for basically everything I do: reading long articles, skimming my email inbox, and so forth. I’ve rarely used any iPhone in landscape mode, so anything Apple can do to make the portrait orientation better, I’m all for it.

Of course, the exaggerated height also highlights the foibles of an operating system that still retains some conventions from when it first shipped with a 3.5-inch display. The home screen still follows a pattern of starting in the upper-left corner. Tapping the back button that appears after one app launches another now requires a warmup of finger callisthenics, and an active AppleCare agreement, just in case. And bringing down Control Centre by dragging from the upper-right “ear” still feels bizarre and unfinished. I sincerely hope these aspects, in particular, are rethought with iOS 12.

The gestural navigation that replaces the home button is, frankly, ingenious. Jumping between apps and the home screen feels fun, and switching between apps by swiping across the home indicator is second nature. But, now that I’m used to the way the iPhone X works, the home indicator feels redundant. While it’s not particularly visually noisy, I also wish there were a way to hide it, simply because I don’t need to see it any more.

I also feel like the flashlight and camera buttons on the lock screen are peculiar. Unlike any other button on the system that I’m aware of, they have no action when they’re tapped, instead requiring a firm press into the display. They’re not customizable, either, and the camera button is redundant — swiping right-to-left across the lock screen also launches the camera. I don’t get them. I don’t mind these buttons, really, but after six months with this phone, I still don’t get them.

There are also some curious bugs I’ve seen on my iPhone X that I’ve never seen elsewhere. If you set a very light wallpaper, for example, the clock on the lock screen and the Springboard icon labels will be a dark grey instead of white; however, when you wake the iPhone, it flashes through white before arriving at the dark grey colour. It’s very strange. Also, the clock and dock occasionally disappear.

Other than that, the iPhone X might be the best iOS 11 experience, as you would probably hope. With it in hand, a bunch of the software design decisions Apple has made for years shine even brighter. I have problems with the notification system in iOS, but the floating bubbles that slide from the top help the display feel effectively limitless, as do the chrome-less home screen and 3D Touch menus. The iPhone X is the ultimate showcase for Apple’s increasingly refined post-iOS 7 visual approach. I’m excited to see where it leads.

The Best iPhone

What more can I say? The iPhone X is the most elegant iPhone Apple has made since the iPhone 5S married to the best iOS experience they’ve ever shipped. It feels like it sets the standard of the platform for the next ten years. It feels futuristic but not alien. It is refined but not precious. It is the hundred-and-ninety-proof distillation of what an iPhone is.

Requests for Personal Data From Apple, Google, and Facebook Compared

Jefferson Graham of USA Today requested a copy of his personal data from each of three major tech companies:

The zip file I eventually received from Apple was tiny, only 9 megabytes, compared to 243 MB from Google and 881 MB from Facebook. And there’s not much there, because Apple says the information is primarily kept on your device, not its servers. The one sentence highlight: a list of my downloads, purchases and repairs, but not my search histories through the Siri personal assistant or the Safari browser. 

I don’t think the story here is that Apple retains very little customer data; the story here is that Facebook and Google have a staggering and deeply concerning amount, with extraordinary granularity, and that it reaches back years.

Twitter Logged a Bunch of Users’ Passwords in Plain Text

Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal on the company blog:

When you set a password for your Twitter account, we use technology that masks it so no one at the company can see it. We recently identified a bug that stored passwords unmasked in an internal log. We have fixed the bug, and our investigation shows no indication of breach or misuse by anyone.

Interestingly enough, this was posted with the title “Keeping your account secure”, as opposed to a more accurate headline, like, “Oops, we stored your password in plain text”, or “We know the president’s password, for real”.

The euphemistic and misleading headline upsets me. What’s even more worrying is Agrawal’s reaction in a tweet:

We are sharing this information to help people make an informed decision about their account security. We didn’t have to, but believe it’s the right thing to do.

You “didn’t have to” let Twitter users know that their account password was saved as plain text in the company’s infrastructure? Fuck you. Even if there isn’t a legal obligation to tell users, isn’t there a moral one?

Agrawal later apologized for saying that, but that’s a ridiculous initial reaction for the chief technical officer of a gigantic company.

Lie of the Day: ‘Cambridge Analytica Is Shutting Down’ Notifications

If you’re like me and have notifications turned on for several news apps, you probably got a flood of alerts today proclaiming that Cambridge Analytica was shutting down.1 Here’s what Ben Collins, Anna R. Schecter, and Vladimir Banic of NBC News wrote:

Cambridge Analytica and its parent company SCL are shutting down, citing a “siege of media coverage” that drove away its customers, NBC News has confirmed.

The data gathering firm at the center of Facebook’s controversy over user privacy has been under intense scrutiny from both the U.S. and U.K. governments for pushing advertisements to potential voters on the social network using improperly obtained profile data.

“The company is immediately ceasing all operations,” the data firm announced in a surprise statement on Wednesday, noting that “parallel bankruptcy proceedings will soon be commenced.”

There’s only one problem with this announcement: it isn’t representative of what’s actually happening, as is revealed later in this NBC report:

Paperwork filed with the British government last month, however, shows that many of Cambridge Analytica‘s top executives have been preparing to staff up a separate data firm under a new name: Rebekah Mercer and her sister Jennifer joined the board of a new data gathering company called Emerdata on March 16, but it is unclear what their roles will be.

In a British government filing declaring her new role as director at Emerdata, Rebekah Mercer listed her correspondence address as 597 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan — Cambridge Analytica’s New York office.

I doubt anyone actually believes that this is little more than a rebranding, but headlines on the reportage around this — including the one for this NBC report — give the impression that Cambridge Analytica’s overall operations are ceasing. That clearly isn’t the case, and the headlines should more accurately reflect that.


  1. The Times had a more relevant notification too, but I think I opened the app and it disappeared. ↩︎