Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for June, 2018

Europe’s Proposed New Link Tax Will Enshrine Big Tech’s Stranglehold Over the Internet

Cory Doctorow, in an op-ed published by Vice:

On Wednesday, a European Union committee will vote on Article 11, a proposal to create a new copyright over links to news stories. If the proposal is adopted, a service that publishes a link to a story on a news website with a headline or a short snippet would have to get a license before linking. News sites could charge whatever they want for these licenses, and shut down critics by refusing to license to people with whom they disagreed. And the new rule would apply to any service where a link to a news story can appear, including social media platforms, search engines, blogging platforms, and even nonprofits like Wikipedia.

This is a ridiculous proposal that would likely undermine the basics of the web.

Why We Don’t Read, Revisited

Caleb Crain, the New Yorker:

Television, rather than the Internet, likely remains the primary force distracting Americans from books. The proportion of the American population that watches TV must have hit a ceiling some time ago; in the years studied by the American Time Use Survey, it’s very stable, at a plateau of about eighty per cent—roughly four times greater than the proportion of Americans who read. But America’s average TV time is still rising, because TV watchers are, incredibly, watching more and more of it, the quantity rising from 3.28 hours in 2003 to 3.45 hours in 2016.

Set aside the depressing decline in reading — this is an astonishing figure. Who has the time to watch over three hours of television a day?

HomePod Can Now Read the News in Canada, France, and Germany

Joe Rossignol, MacRumors:

Ahead of the HomePod launching in Canada, France, and Germany in three days from now, the speaker has gained the ability to read the news in those countries.

Siri can now provide news briefs from a handful of sources in Canada, for example, including CBC, Global TV, CTV, and CNN. To start, say “Hey Siri” and then say something like “read me the news” or “what’s the news today?”

That’s interesting, because Apple News isn’t currently available in these three countries. Perhaps this is foreshadowing.

Best Before

Here we are again: a stale Mac hardware lineup. Let’s assume that we’ll be waiting until WWDC next year — at the earliest — to hear anything about the next-generation Mac Pro, and that the MacBook Air only exists because Apple can’t hit the same price point with the MacBook yet. The iMac Pro is still pretty new, and it has received near-universal acclaim. That leaves four Mac models unaccounted for.

Just before the keynote last Monday, a good friend unaware of WWDC messaged me to say that he was thinking about going to the store that day and picking up a 5K iMac. I told him to hold off because it seemed like a product Apple might refresh, given that it was last updated a year prior.

That, of course, didn’t happen. Nor were any updates made to the MacBook Pro, with its notoriously poor keyboard. That one pains me: I happen to be in the market for a new Mac, and I will not purchase one of the current MacBook Pro models for that reason alone.

The MacBook still has limited configuration options. I was considering buying one to replace my current MacBook Air — I don’t need that much power, really — but it tops out at 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage, the latter of which simply isn’t enough for me.

And then there’s the Mac Mini, which has embarrassingly not changed in either price nor specs in nearly four years. It’s hard for me to justify the purchase of a brand new product that’s already over a year old, like any of the MacBook Pro models; I’m not even considering purchasing a Mac Mini because it’s not much newer than the computer I currently use.

What is the acceptable shelf life of a Mac? How old can a model be before it becomes uncouth to sell it as new? I remember when Macs used to get regular, approximately-annual spec bumps. It wasn’t that long ago — maybe five years or so. Has something changed since 2013 that seemingly makes difficult for the Mac to be updated more frequently?

When Apple launched the 2016 MacBook Pro models — the first models with the Touch Bar — members of their executive team spoke with Shara Tibken and Connie Guglielmo of CNet. Schiller mentioned that the new models took a while to be launched because they “didn’t want to just create a speed bump on the MacBook Pro”. I hope that’s not their attitude across the product line. People love spec bumps; it helps customers know that they’re getting the newest model they can, and reassures them that it will last longer.

When he was in charge of operations, Tim Cook likened his approach to inventory management to being in the dairy business. Inventory is, of course, not the same thing as product freshness — I bet that, if you were to order a Mac Mini today, it would probably be produced within the past couple of weeks — but product age has the same effect. Updating products, even in minor ways, isn’t just good to give the impression of freshness; it also sows trust with customers that there is an ongoing commitment to the product.

For the past several years, it has been awfully hard to feel like Apple has a strong commitment to Mac hardware.

Apple, Marzipan, Delight

I’ve been struggling to assemble several disparate threads of thought that emerged from WWDC last week. I think Becky Hansmeyer’s piece is a good assessment of what we know about “Marzipan” apps so far, and some interesting speculation:

Here’s two opinions. They aren’t necessarily my opinions, but I know many of you share them.

  1. The visual design of iOS has grown stale and is in need of an overhaul.

  2. Marzipan apps, while better than Electron apps, still don’t feel like they “belong” on the Mac. They don’t feel like “real” Mac apps.

Let’s talk about these things.

I’ve been watching the usual suspects’ tweets closely over the past week, and their findings have given me a lot to think about, and a fair amount of uncertainty. One thing I am clear on, however, is that those who are making snap judgements about the quality of “Marzipan” based on the apps in the first beta of MacOS Mojave are jumping the gun.

New App Store Guidelines May Impact Facebook’s Onavo App

Mark Gurman and Sarah Frier, Bloomberg:

The iPhone maker’s updated App Store Review Guidelines ban applications that “collect information about which other apps are installed on a user’s device for the purposes of analytics or advertising/marketing.” This could give Apple grounds to remove the Onavo app, although the software is still available despite the rules kicking in last week.

You may recall that Onavo is a VPN app owned by Facebook that collects usage data about other apps. If apps were not sandboxed on iOS, you can bet Facebook would use a more direct way of gathering this data; because apps are sandboxed, the company had to find a workaround. A more ethical company would instead realize why behaviour like that is prohibited on the platform and just stop right there.

USB Type-C Is Still a Mess

Robert Triggs, Android Authority:

USB Type-C was billed as the solution for all our future cable needs, unifying power and data delivery with display and audio connectivity, and ushering in an age of the one-size-fits-all cable. Unfortunately for those already invested in the USB Type-C ecosystem, which is anyone who has bought a flagship phone in the past couple of years, the standard has probably failed to live up to the promises.

Even the seemingly most basic function of USB Type-C — powering devices — has become a mess of compatibility issues, conflicting proprietary standards, and a general lack of consumer information to guide purchasing decisions. The problem is that the features supported by different devices aren’t clear, yet the defining principle of the USB Type-C standard makes consumers think everything should just work.

Benjamin Mayo at 9to5Mac summarized an article today from Digitimes that the 2019 iPhone lineup will replace the Lightning connector with USB Type-C. I only mention that sketchy rumour because Triggs’ report is a reminder that the single port dream of USB Type-C has yet to materialize, in part because of conflicts and complications in the standard itself.

Federal Judge Clears AT&T’s Bid for Time Warner With No Conditions

Just one day after the rollback of net neutrality rules in the United States, a federal judge has approved AT&T’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner. Sara Salinas, CNBC:

A federal judge said Tuesday that AT&T’s $85.4 billion purchase of Time Warner is legal, clearing the path for a deal that gives the pay-TV provider ownership of cable channels such as HBO and CNN as well as film studio Warner Bros.

AT&T isn’t just a “pay-TV provider” — it’s an ISP and cellular provider as well, and they run a subscription media streaming business too. This judge has now given them permission to purchase the world’s sixth-largest media company. And it gets worse:

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon did not impose conditions on the merger’s approval. He also urged the government not to seek a stay when issuing his decision in a closed-door room with reporters.

For comparison, when Comcast bought a majority share of NBC Universal, the FCC and the Department of Justice both placed restrictions on the acquisition. Comcast’s FCC restrictions expired in January; the DOJ conditions will be lifted at the beginning September. Meanwhile, according to Alex Sherman of CNBC, Comcast is set to announce their offer for 21st Century Fox’s entertainment assets tomorrow. And don’t forget that Disney is planning to launch its own streaming service next year.

I don’t see how reducing competition through vertical integration of production and distribution of entertainment assets with few legal restrictions is supposed to be beneficial to the American consumer.

Facebook Filibustered Congress With a 450-Page Response to Its Questions

Rhett Jones, Gizmodo:

The sheer length of the document and the opacity of Facebook’s responses makes it difficult to say which answers provide the most insight. In all honesty, it seems like you could find most of this information in Facebook’s various terms of service documents. But Facebook is like jazz—the notes it doesn’t play are often the most revealing. It’s high-priced attorneys clearly did a good job of filling in space with their answers, but which Senators decide they are unsatisfied will be the major question in the near future.

As I skimmed the answers Facebook provided, it struck me just how much the company obfuscates its grey area behaviours. Companies behaving in an ethically-sound manner don’t need to be so circuitous or vague in their answers to straightforward questions. Even Facebook, when asked about things it is objectively not doing — like monitoring conversations with a user’s microphone for advertising and data mining purposes — provides direct answers. That they cannot or are unwilling to do so for the vast majority of these questions ought to be deeply troubling.

Google Continues to Push AMP as an HTML Replacement

Jeremy Keith:

On an episode of the Dev Mode podcast a while back, AMP was a hotly-debated topic. But even those defending AMP were doing so on the understanding that it was more a proof-of-concept than a long-term solution (and also that AMP is just for news stories—something else that Google are keen to change).

But now it’s clear that the Google AMP Project is being marketed more like a framework for the future: a collection of web components that prioritise performance… which is kind of odd, because that’s also what Google’s Polymer project is. The difference being that pages made with Polymer don’t get preferential treatment in Google’s search results. I can’t help but wonder how the Polymer team feels about AMP’s gradual pivot onto their territory.

The long game is that Google is using its extraordinary influence to push the language of the open web in the direction of one that it ultimately controls.

Enthusiast

Anthony Bourdain:

I am not a journalist. I am not a foreign correspondent. I am, at best, an essayist and enthusiast. An amateur. I hope to show you what people are like at the table, at home, in their businesses, at play. And when and if, later, you read about or see the places I’ve been on the news, you’ll have a better idea of who, exactly, lives there.

Somehow, he simultaneously made the world feel small and comfortably communal, yet bigger than anyone could possibly imagine.

Anthony Bourdain Dead at 61

Bourdain has long been a personal hero; I don’t think any other public figure or author comes close. He had an unparalleled skill to tell unique stories, and made me want to drop everything week after week to go wherever he happened to be — preferably, with him. And, he was one hell of an author. Nobody else was more capable of making me want to write, travel, eat, or be hungry for more. I’m gutted.

The Messy Split of Facebook and WhatsApp’s Founders

Kirsten Grind and Deepa Seetharaman, Wall Street Journal (Twitter redirect):

How ugly was the breakup between Facebook Inc. and the two founders of WhatsApp, its biggest acquisition? The creators of the popular messaging service are walking away leaving about $1.3 billion on the table.

The expensive exit caps a long-simmering dispute about how to wring more revenue out of WhatsApp, according to people familiar with the matter. Facebook has remained committed to its ad-based business model amid criticism, even as Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has had to defend the company before American and European lawmakers.

Felix Salmon, Slate:

WhatsApp wasn’t an easy acquisition for Zuckerberg, because the two apps have very different founding principles. Koum, who grew up in Ukraine, believes deeply in privacy; Zuckerberg thinks that the more open and connected we are, the happier we all become. And so in order to acquire WhatsApp, Zuckerberg not only had to pay a lot of money and give up a board seat to Koum; he also had to make a lot of promises. Some of those promises were even enshrined in the acquisition agreement: If Facebook imposed “monetization initiatives” like advertising onto WhatsApp, its founders’ shares would vest immediately, and they could leave without suffering any kind of financial penalty.

Thus did WhatsApp retain exactly the independence that it had been promised — until it didn’t.

It’s hard to feel sorry for WhatsApp’s founders here. They sold their privacy-focused anti-advertising profitable business to a company that is known for its privacy-ignoring advertising practices. It’s like if a band acclaimed for its artistic integrity and dedication were to get the Chainsmokers to write and produce their next album — how else would you expect it to turn out?

Safari Extensions Deprecated in Safari 12; Developers Told to Switch to Safari App Extensions

It’s not all good news coming out of WWDC this year:

Support for .safariextz-style Safari Extensions installed from the Safari Extensions Gallery is deprecated with Safari 12 on macOS. Submissions to the Safari Extensions Gallery will no longer be accepted after December 2018. Developers are encouraged to transition to Safari App Extensions.

That’s not just for users, either — all old-style Safari extensions are deprecated:

Support for developer-signed .safariextz Safari Extensions in Safari 12 on macOS has been removed. They no longer appear in Safari preferences and cannot be enabled. On first launch users will receive a warning notification and these extension will not load.

Well, that’s a bummer — I still use a handful of older-style extensions that have no modern equivalents that are quite as simple. JS Blacklist is one of my favourite pieces of software because it allows me to block problematic scripts rather than ads more generally. There are content blockers available on the Mac App Store, but nothing quite as refined. But this isn’t a surprise; the writing has been on the wall for old-style extensions ever since Apple’s developer tiers were changed three years ago.

Edit for iOS

Kyle Dreger describes his new app:

Edit is a tasteful place to write. Think of it as a single page of paper, not a notebook. You get a single note, and whatever you leave in the app will be there when you get back. Once you’re done writing, you can send or save your text to anywhere in iOS via the Share Sheet.

Ever since I was sent an early beta of this app nearly a year ago, it has been on my first home screen. You know how you sometimes just need a quick place to jot something down — a single scrap of paper, the back of an envelope, or whatever you have laying around — and you know you won’t need to save it? Edit is like the digital version of that. It’s fast, it’s simple, and I use it all the time. And just $2.

Apple Announces MapKit JS

Apple’s developer documentation:

MapKit JS brings Apple Maps to the web. This new JavaScript library lets you add interactive maps to webpages — complete with annotations, overlays, and interfaces to Apple Maps services such as Search and Directions — to enable rich interactions.

Looks like MapKit.js has grown up: it’s now at version 5.0 and ready for use outside of Apple’s websites. This will be a good alternative to Google Maps on the web, provided Apple keeps investing in their mapping efforts — something they haven’t significantly addressed for a few years.

iOS 12 First Beta Speed Test

Two things about iOS 12 that I think speak volumes:

  1. It’s available on all of the same devices as iOS 11, going back to the iPhone 5S. Apple has long been good at issuing updates for several years, but the iPhone 5S is easily the longest-supported iOS device.

  2. Not only does Apple continue to update older devices, the headlining performance features of iOS 12 are specifically targeted towards improving devices they no longer sell.

The narrative that Apple deliberately makes older devices obsolete through software updates has always been fictional, but moves like these underscore how untrue a notion that is.1


  1. They also reiterate just how poor Apple’s initial response to iPhone battery and performance issues was. ↩︎

Updates to App Store Guidelines

Lots of updates this year, but I wanted to highlight two in particular, via Juli Clover at MacRumors:

[…] A modified 3.1.1 rule, for example, says that non-subscription apps may offer a free time-based trial period using a free in-app purchase option that temporarily unlocks app functionality. This will allow all apps in the App Store to offer free trials, rather than just subscription apps.

This formalizes a technique that was being used by apps like OmniFocus. It’s interesting to see that this somewhat hack-ish way of implementing a free trial is officially supported.

A new rule, 2.3.12, states that all apps are required to “clearly describe” new features and product changes in their “What’s New” text. Apps can continue to use generic descriptions for bug fixes, security updates, and performance improvements, but anything more significant must be listed in the notes.

On the one hand, hallelujah. On the other, “bug fixes and performance improvements” is, theoretically, still valid; I think bug fixes should be enumerated whenever possible.

WatchOS 5 Adds Automatic Workout Detection, Walkie-Talkie, and More

Jordan Golson, MacRumors:

A new Walkie-Talkie app lets users send push-to-talk messages (like an old-school Nextel phone) to each other from watch-to-watch, and a new Podcasts app has been added as well. […]

If the walkie talkie feature sounds familiar, that’s because it was included among the original Apple Watch marketing materials in 2014 before being pulled just before the product was released in spring 2015. Its initial omission was curious; it’s quite nice to see it back.

New Privacy Features in iOS 12 and MacOS Mojave

Apple PR:

As with all Apple software updates, enhanced privacy and security remain a top priority in macOS Mojave. In Safari, enhanced Intelligent Tracking Prevention helps block social media “Like” or “Share” buttons and comment widgets from tracking users without permission. Safari now also presents simplified system information when users browse the web, preventing them from being tracked based on their system configuration.

This feature is also in iOS 12, and I could not be happier. As I wrote two months ago, web developers and property owners have a responsibility to not sell out their visitors’ privacy — or, in the wake of GDPR, at least tell visitors how their privacy is being sold out. Due to either ignorance or incompetence, this responsibility is frequently abdicated. This change, like most of the Intelligent Tracking Prevention features in Safari, doesn’t prevent analytics or sharing buttons from working; it simply educates users and allows them to make an informed decision about whether to allow tracking.

One more security and privacy feature, via Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai:

New: Apple put USB Restricted Mode in both iOS 11.4.1 beta and iOS 12 beta. And now it’s triggered after 1 HOUR of phone not being unlocked, not 1 week.

This is the feature that essentially kills iPhone unlocking tools made by Cellebrite and GrayShift.

Again, this is good news — not specifically because it defeats techniques used by law enforcement, but because those same techniques could be used by bad actors, too.

Update: More on Safari’s new privacy features from Apple’s developer site:

Improved Intelligent Tracking Prevention to permanently partition cookie access in third-party contexts, add a user prompt to the Storage Access API, detect bounce trackers and purge their website data, identify tracker collusion, and send origin-only headers for third-party tracker requests.

Users shouldn’t have to think about this stuff. They also shouldn’t worry that browsing the web every day will spool up an ad tech machine that will track them without their permission.