Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for March, 2019

Apple Cancels AirPower

Well, that sucks.

This must be frustrating for all involved in the project, and I bet the details aren’t really that exciting. Matthew Panzarino, in the linked article, is one of many people who have said that it just ran too hot. But I am very curious about the circumstances that lead to it being announced in 2017. It didn’t make sense then and has been embarrassing ever since.

Following the Launch of Apple News Plus, Apple Announces Closure of Texture on May 28

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch:

A year ago, Apple acquired the digital newsstand app Texture to form the basis of its new subscription-based service, Apple News+, which launched on Monday. As some have expected, the standalone Texture app will soon shut down as a result. According to emails sent to current Texture subscribers pointing to a FAQ on the company’s website, Texture’s last day of service will be May 28, 2019. Existing customers will be offered a one-month free trial to Apple News+ to make the jump.

A closure like this was bound to come. It doesn’t make sense for Apple to continue to operate both Texture and Apple News.

But not everyone is thrilled about this change, of course.

Specifically, Android users and other subscribers without any Apple devices will now no longer have a way to access Texture, they’ve realized. That means they’ll lose access to the service entirely when it closes down in May (unless they buy a Mac or iOS device.)

It’s unsurprising that Apple did not announce an Android version of any of their new services. Apple has enough users of iPhones, iPads, and Macs that they can create a mostly-insular ecosystem — for now, at least. I also question if and when their cross-platform offerings will extend beyond Apple Music and perfunctory iCloud support; and, it really does seem more of a question of when. I understand the appeal of exclusive shows on Apple TV Plus, for example, but it’s kind of strange to me that they’re also hardware exclusive.

Update: It would, indeed, be very strange if Apple’s original TV shows were limited to their own hardware, which is why they already announced that they would also be coming to some smart TVs, Amazon’s Fire TV, and the Roku.

The FTC Is Investigating ISP Privacy Practices

Lisa Vaas, writing on Sophos’ Naked Security blog:

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Tuesday demanded that the country’s largest broadband providers hand over their privacy policies and explain what data they collect from consumers, why, who they share it with, and how consumers can change or delete it.

In launching this broad inquiry into consumer data-handling practices, the FTC sent orders demanding answers from AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Xfinity, and Google Fiber.

One of the purposes of the investigation is to figure out how consumers’ data gets used to fuel targeted advertising.

Make no mistake: this is an important investigation to undertake due to the immense quantity of information passing through these ISPs’ infrastructure that can be used to target users.

Only one thing: the FCC — not, to be clear, the FTC, which has launched this investigation — created legislation in 2016 which would have required ISPs to get affirmative user consent in order to use their information for targeted advertising purposes. It was set to go into effect at the end of 2017; however, in March of that year, Republicans blocked that legislation using a rule that prohibits substantially similar laws from being imposed by the FCC.

In short, if Republicans in the House and the Senate weren’t such jackasses two years ago, consumer privacy would be better protected and this investigation would not be necessary.

In a Statement to Joanna Stern, Apple Acknowledges Persistent Problems With MacBook Keyboards

Joanna Stern, Wall Street Journal (paywalled, as usual):

“We are aware that a small number of users are having issues with their third-generation butterfly keyboard and for that we are sorry,” an Apple spokesman said in a statement. “The vast majority of Mac notebook customers are having a positive experience with the new keyboard.” If you have a problem, contact Apple customer service, he added.

[…]

This is the experience you’re providing to customers who shell out $1,200 or more — sometimes a lot more. This is the experience after THREE attempts at this keyboard design. It’s time to stop prioritizing thinness over usability. It’s time to set the butterfly keyboard free. Let it fly… far, far away.

This whole MacBook keyboard situation is utterly embarrassing and ultimately damaging to Apple’s reputation. It’s an expensive, hard-to-fix, customer-unfriendly failure of the design is how it works mantra.

Also, while I understand that any company’s PR team seeks to minimize the apparent impact of a complaint, their statement’s claim that a “small number of users are having issues” is condescending and tone-deaf. There are plenty of MacBook buyers who find themselves unable to type — once more: unable to type — on their expensive computers because fundamental flaws in the hardware have not been rectified after four years. It’s unconscionable.

Their keyboard service program also does not acknowledge issues with or provide extended service for 2018 MacBook Pro or MacBook Air models. The one-year warranty included with those models will expire, at the earliest, in mid-July.

The Second-Generation AirPods Are a Little Glimpse of Magic

Federico Viticci, MacStories:

When you write about technology long enough – and I should know this, given that this very website turns 10 next month – it’s easy to let an undercurrent of cynicism color your every opinion about tech products you’re writing about. I get it – more than ever, corporations like Apple should be held accountable for their impact on our society and economy, and it’s our job as reporters, writers, and podcasters to critique the minutiae of their decisions. I say this as the person who writes an annual essay about a mobile operating system that dissects APIs and developer frameworks. It’s easy to be swept up in criticism at all costs.

I want to remind myself, and by extension MacStories readers, that it’s okay to appreciate a product for what it is and be enthusiastic about it when it’s delivered to consumers in a way that transcends spec sheets and console war-style debates. The new AirPods are such a product.

I was wrong. Everyone I asked told me that the AirPods fit the same as the EarPods, so I didn’t even bother to drop over $200 Canadian to give them a shot. But it turns out that all of those people are liars. These things fit far better than EarPods in my ears, and they’re as brilliant as everyone says. AirPods are easily one of the best products Apple has ever done, and I only regret not trying them sooner.

I am a fool.

Censorship of Apple News in China, Even on Roaming Devices

Paul Kehrer:

News content is a sensitive topic in China. The government exercises a significant degree of control over information sources so it is unsurprising that Apple would choose to not support News there. However, instead of simply being locked behind a hardware feature gate, Apple chose to disable it much more forcefully. If you enter China with a US iPhone (e.g. one purchased in the US from a US carrier or at a US Apple Store), using a US carrier, with your phone set to the US region, and with location services disabled for the News app, you will still receive this message upon opening News:

Feed Unavailable

Apple News isn’t supported in your current region.

To accomplish this censorship Apple is using a form of location fingerprinting that is not available to normal applications on iOS. It works like this: despite the fact that your phone uses a SIM from a US carrier it must connect to a Chinese cellular network. Apple is using private APIs to identify that you are in mainland China based on the name of the underlying cellular network and blocking access to the News app. This information is not available via public APIs in iOS specifically to improve privacy for users.

It seems to me that no other news apps will self-censor when roaming in China because no third-party news apps can censor themselves, for the reason Kehrer describes. Why would Apple capitulate to an autocracy by kneecapping their first-party news app when it seems completely unnecessary?

Update: Macs sold in China now disable the flag emoji for Taiwan, too.

E.U. Votes to Pass Copyright Directive Inclusive of Articles With Potentially Damaging Effects for the Web

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

Well, it was a nice run while it lasted, but the EU Parliament has just put an end to the open internet. By the incredibly thin margin of just five votes, the Parliament voted against any amendments to the proposal — which was a necessary step to fixing or deleting Articles 11 and 13. After that, they voted to approve the EU Copyright Directive, including the terrible versions of both Article 11 and 13. This is an inauspicious day and one that the EU will almost certainly come to regret. While we now need to see how each of the member states will implement the actual laws put forth in the Directive (meaning the damage in some states may be more mitigatable than in others), on the whole the EU Copyright Directive requires laws that effectively end the open internet as an open communications medium. Sites that previously allowed content creators to freely publish content will now be forced to make impossible choices: license all content (which is literally impossible), filter all content (expensive and failure-prone), or shut down. Sites that used to send traffic to news sources may now need to reconsider, as doing so will inexplicably require payment.

Masnick is not alone in painting a dark picture of the web of the future based on these two articles in the Directive, but it doesn’t appear to be completely dire. For example, merely linking to a news publication doesn’t appear to require any sort of payment — that’s the second subparagraph in the Article (PDF). It also seems to allow ample room for criticism, commentary, educational use, and so forth. And, as far as Article 13 is concerned, Matt Reynolds of Wired UK wrote a great guide clearing it up.

Even so, it seems like the admirable aims of the Directive run into obvious real-world problems. For example, as Reynolds reports:

Mary Honeyball, a British Labour MEP who supports Article 13, says. “Some [online platforms] fear that Article 13 requires the implementation of automated ‘upload filters’. However, Article 13 makes no such requirement and in fact states that automated blocking should be avoided,” Honeyball says in a statement. “The text only requires that [platforms] either license or remove copyrighted material.”

It isn’t clear how non-automated intervention is supposed to sort through the four hundred hours of video uploaded every minute to YouTube and figure out whether the use of any identified copyrighted material constitutes a violation. Perhaps this is a stealthy way of forcing giant platforms to scale back.

Also, contrary to the New York Timesinexplicable framing, this seems like it could be a windfall for Google. As Reynolds says in an accompanying video, it’s likely Google will license YouTube’s Content ID system to third parties.

I don’t know what the next two years’ worth of legislation in E.U. member countries will look like, and I don’t know what the web will look like afterwards. Contrary to those believing that this is a death knell for the open web, I’m not sure it will be massively different. But this Directive also seems like a highly restrictive and implausible attempt to rewind the clock on the web. I doubt it will accomplish its intentions, but I also doubt that Europeans will be browsing an entirely locked-down web in 2021.

Update: Turns out that nine representatives who intended to vote for amendments that would have removed Articles 11 and 13 from the Directive voted against those amendments by mistake. Parliament is refusing to honour their intended votes even though they messed with the voting order which caused this confusion and which would have been enough votes to change the result. Disgraceful.

Update: Brent Simmons:

Will it still be legal to distribute an RSS reader in Europe? I honestly don’t know, but would like to know.

I want to know this, too. My admittedly amateur read is that an RSS reader would be treated as similar to a web browser, so long as it does not rehost materials.

Some Brief Thoughts on Services, Generally, and Apple’s Announcements Today, More Specifically

It’s striking how much of our media — and I use that term very generously — is moving towards a system of monthly payments. In a sense, it’s more honest: most software, for example, is merely licensed to users; you don’t actually own your copy of Photoshop, for example. And the terms of a software license can be limiting. Educational terms typically forbid using the software to create commercial work. It’s also possible that the software-as-a-service model encourages more frequent updates from developers; and, even outside of software, can be reflective of ongoing service value. Netflix works as a subscription because you can pay a flat monthly fee and watch whatever you want. It’s easy to understand.

But moving to a monthly payment strategy has its own downsides. There are circumstances where paying all the time feels like a decision made less by the people who make the products, and more like decisions made by the people who count the money. It can also be a form of lock-in. Photoshop, for instance, creates files in a proprietary format that can require a specific version of Photoshop to open correctly. There used to be a time that, if I want to open any of the Photoshop files I have on my Mac, it was solely dependent on whether the version of Photoshop I use worked on the latest version of MacOS; and, for the past eight years, it has. But now, I can’t just drop another few hundred dollars on a new version that will secure me for another eight years; I must pay twenty American dollars every month from now until the end of time. That’s an absurd argument.

But news? That’s something that has been subscription-based for ages because it’s regularly updated. The reason for an ongoing payment is obvious. The new Apple News Plus service is, on its surface level, very easy to understand: pay ten dollars a month — or thirteen, in Canada; it isn’t available anywhere else yet — and you get access to a whole bunch of magazines and newspapers that, on their own, would each charge more than ten dollars a month for a subscription. The sources available are remarkable: the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Mother Jones, the Walrus, and Rolling Stone are all available as magazines; a subscription to News Plus apparently also includes the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times, but I haven’t been able to find either of those. Normally I’d chalk that up to it being a Canadian availability problem, except the Journal and the Times are mentioned in Apple’s Canadian press release and their marketing webpage.

That seems too good to be true and, indeed, there are caveats. For one, the Journal is only offered in a stripped-down version; no other publications were announced as having similar limitations, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s one of the incentives Apple would use to try to get other publishers on board. It’s also not quite living up to their marketing copy, which promotes Apple News Plus as allowing “full access to hundreds of magazines and leading newspapers”. Also, while many of the magazines use Apple’s own format, about half are simply presented as PDFs. I don’t know whether the blame for that should be shouldered more by Apple or publishers, but it makes for a crappy reading experience on the iPad and worse on the iPhone.

Overall, Apple News Plus is the service that fits most neatly into an existing paradigm of subscription services.

A close second is Apple’s redesigned Apple TV app, which will allow purchasing subscriptions to channels like HBO and Showtime, as well as a new Apple TV Plus service with original programming. It’s confusing that Apple’s television boxes are called Apple TVs, the app is the Apple TV App — which, by the way, is available on smart televisions and third-party platforms — and their original programming is called Apple TV Plus.

You can watch Apple TV using Apple TV on your Apple TV.

Cool.

Then there was Apple Arcade, their subscription for games that somehow managed to avoid the Apple Games Plus moniker. A very cool thing about this service is that Apple is promising that games will have no ads and no in-app purchases; the subscription rate is the price you pay.

That’s sort of the end of the specific features of services that Apple announced today. And you’ll notice that my descriptions of their non-News services are much shorter — they simply didn’t provide many concrete details, nor pricing, nor specific availability.

I want to zoom back out here and return to the biggest question of all: why? Apple is now a full steam ahead services company — at least, for Apple customers, primarily — and they introduced a credit card today. Why are they doing this?

The best explanation is that these are the services Apple’s employees and leadership team actually want to use. They want a Netflix-but-for-news; they want an all-you-can-play virtual arcade; they want to make TV shows; they want a credit card with less bullshit. Those are fine enough goals. The iPhone started in a similar way: people at Apple realized that cellphones sucked, so they made one that they would actually use. It’s the same with the iTunes Music Store, too, and the iPod. All of these great inventions were the product of dissatisfaction with the status quo, and an idea of what would be better.

I’m cautiously optimistic that this is the path Apple is chasing. But I am also fighting an inner voice that wonders if this is driven by bean counters in search of recurring revenue. Apple is obviously chasing services as their next big product category; Tim Cook has been completely transparent about that in earnings calls and public appearances. Assuming — generously — that Apple Arcade and Apple TV Plus are each ten dollars per month, it’s easy to think that there are customers who will be spending fifty dollars a month in optional extras: the aforementioned two services, Apple News Plus, Apple Music, and two terabytes of iCloud storage because five gigabytes is basically mockery in 2019. That’s six hundred dollars a year just to Apple and just for services; that doesn’t include the iPhone Upgrade Program, or the cost of channels purchased through Apple TV, or Netflix or Hulu or any other more full-featured streaming platform.

And it still feels gross that Apple is partnering with, of all companies, Goldman fucking Sachs.

Setting aside my ever-present worries about five companies based on the west coast of the United States becoming dominant over our digital lives — though not to the same capacity and not for the same worries — there’s little wrong with Apple wanting a slice of the services pie. But I truly hope that it’s driven by passion for news, games, and television; it would be shameful and worrying if this was a financial decision first and foremost. To paraphrase Walt Disney, they shouldn’t create services to make money; they should make money to create more great products and services.

The Real-World Effects of Google Maps’ Neighbourhood Labels

Caitlin Dewey, OneZero:

It was late spring in Buffalo, New York, in 2015 — a season that was unusually hot that year, and heated. The wood-paneled meeting room at Gethsemane Grape Street Baptist Church hummed with anxious homeowners from Buffalo’s Fruit Belt neighborhood, where a burgeoning, billion-dollar medical complex threatened to displace them.

Poor folks had called the Fruit Belt home for more than 150 years — first German immigrants, then African-Americans. Lott’s parents bought their pale turquoise two-story house in 1955, moving north from Bluefield, West Virginia, to help build up a community that would become the heart of Buffalo’s black working class.

Now that community was under threat — or so it seemed to Lott. The 66-year-old had Googled directions to her neighborhood and found that the app had changed the name of her community from the “Fruit Belt” to something called “Medical Park.”

Google has a history of applying perplexing names with uncertain sourcing to neighbourhoods. Due to the company’s status, it’s very easy for these names to replace existing names as they become more widely-used.

For what it’s worth, I checked Apple Maps. True to form, its biggest problem is that neighbourhood naming is inconsistently shown. No neighbourhood names are visible in Calgary, for example, but they are plentiful in San Francisco; I cannot, however, judge their accuracy. In Buffalo, “Fruit Belt” is not shown as a neighbourhood name; neither is “Medical Park”. If you search for “Fruit Belt” in Apple Maps, a pin is dropped approximately in the middle of the neighbourhood outline; a search for “Medical Park” drops a pin on the medical complex.

Opensignal Report Finds AT&T’s Made-Up ‘5G E’ Service Is Slower Than 4G Service From T-Mobile and Verizon

Ian Fogg of Opensignal:

Some AT&T users in the U.S. have recently seen “5G E” appear on the status bar of their existing smartphones, replacing 4G. This move has sparked controversy because AT&T is using updated 4G network technologies to connect these smartphone users, not the new 5G standard.

AT&T describes its 5G E service as follows, “5G Evolution is our first step on the road to 5G. We’re starting by enabling faster speeds on our existing LTE network—up to 2x faster than standard LTE.”

[…]

Analyzing Opensignal’s data shows that AT&T users with 5G E-capable smartphones receive a better experience than AT&T users with less capable smartphone models, for example those with an LTE Category below 16. But AT&T users with a 5G E-capable smartphone receive similar speeds to users on other carriers with the same smartphone models that AT&T calls 5G E. The 5G E speeds which AT&T users experience are very much typical 4G speeds and not the step-change improvement which 5G promises.

It’s almost impressive how shameless AT&T is in its false advertisement. This is unquestionably deceptive.

Also, I get that AT&T is probably still one of the biggest iPhone carriers in the United States — if not the world — but it’s frustrating to see them allow this bullshit. Perhaps it’s a contractual obligation, but they shouldn’t allow AT&T to mislead their users.

Twitter’s Algorithmic Timeline Sometimes Surfaces Radical Tweets, Boosting Their Reach

Oliver Darcy, CNN:

Over the last several months, Twitter has begun inserting what it believes to be relevant and popular tweets into the feeds of people who do not subscribe to the accounts that posted them. In other words, Twitter has started showing users tweets from accounts that are followed by those they follow. This practice is different from the promoted content paid for by advertisers, as Twitter is putting these posts into the feeds of users without being paid and without consent from users.

[…]

In effect, the practice means Twitter may at times end up amplifying inflammatory political rhetoric, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and flat out lies to its users. This comes at a time when other platforms, like YouTube, are facing intense criticism for using algorithms to suggest content to users. It’s been documented, for instance, that YouTube’s algorithm has exposed users to fringe content and helped radicalize them online. YouTube has pledged to address the problem.

[…]

There is some irony to the amplification of these right-wing voices. Trump and other prominent Republicans have long accused Twitter of “shadow banning” users with conservative viewpoints, an accusation Twitter has strongly denied. In reality, not only is Twitter not “shadow banning” these right-wing personalities for their political viewpoints, the platform’s algorithm is actually amplifying some of their tweets to audiences who do not even follow their accounts.

Algorithmic recommendations from all major platforms — Instagram and YouTube, especially — are failing users by encouraging them to take their interests to the farthest maximum: a you like coffee; have you tried cocaine? kind of effect. Are these features necessary? I imagine recommendations increase the amount of time spent on these platforms which, in turn, increases their ad revenue and improves the figures they report every quarter. Evidence is growing, though, that recommendations are also detrimental to the health of the platform and its users.

I hate to sound like a Luddite, but was there something wrong with a purely reverse-chronological feed?

Instagram Accounts Promoting Discrimination, Hate, and Conspiracy Theories Are Thriving

Taylor Lorenz, the Atlantic:

Instagram is teeming with these conspiracy theories, viral misinformation, and extremist memes, all daisy-chained together via a network of accounts with incredible algorithmic reach and millions of collective followers — many of whom, like Alex, are very young. These accounts intersperse TikTok videos and nostalgia memes with anti-vaccination rhetoric, conspiracy theories about George Soros and the Clinton family, and jokes about killing women, Jews, Muslims, and liberals.

[…]

Following just a handful of these accounts can quickly send users spiraling down a path toward even more extremist views and conspiracies, guided by Instagram’s own recommendation algorithm. On March 17, I clicked Follow on @the_typical_liberal. My account lit up with follow requests from pages with handles alluding to QAnon, and the app immediately prompted me to follow far-right figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Laura Loomer, Alex Jones, and Candace Owens, as well as a slew of far-right meme pages such as @unclesamsmisguidedchildren and @the.new.federation. Following these pages resulted in suggestions for pages dedicated to promoting QAnon, chemtrails, Pizzagate, and anti-vaccination rhetoric.

[…]

By Monday, there were five videos of the Christchurch attack posted by meme pages in my feed. Four of them are still up, and on Tuesday, another was surfaced at the top of my feed. The captions on all the videos question the validity of the attack and claim that it was a false flag carried out by the U.S. government.

Many of the individuals that Lorenz interviews for this article are 16; by Election Day 2020, some will turn 18 having only trusted this cynical, bizarre, surreal, and entirely fictional feed of current events. This isn’t just a problem for kids; you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think these accounts also have plenty of voting-age followers who isolate themselves within this bubble every time their feed refreshes.

I find myself increasingly convinced that there are fundamental design failures in these platforms, and they’re exacerbated by scale and machine learning.

Facebook Stored Hundreds of Millions of User Passwords in Plain Text for Years

Brian Krebs has the scoop:

Facebook is probing a series of security failures in which employees built applications that logged unencrypted password data for Facebook users and stored it in plain text on internal company servers. That’s according to a senior Facebook employee who is familiar with the investigation and who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

The Facebook source said the investigation so far indicates between 200 million and 600 million Facebook users may have had their account passwords stored in plain text and searchable by more than 20,000 Facebook employees. The source said Facebook is still trying to determine how many passwords were exposed and for how long, but so far the inquiry has uncovered archives with plain text user passwords in them dating back to 2012.

My Facebook insider said access logs showed some 2,000 engineers or developers made approximately nine million internal queries for data elements that contained plain text user passwords.

Shortly after Krebs went live with this report, Facebook acknowledged that they failed at fundamental security practices in a press release titled “Keeping Passwords Secure”, because of course they did. Twitter used basically the same title when they, too, admitted to logging users’ passwords in plain text.

As with Equifax, investors continue to not give one shit about any of these scandals, even as the company is slowly eroding any remaining semblance of care about privacy, security, or basic ethics. As of writing, the company’s stock is up about a dollar for the day, and about $30 since the beginning of the year.

Facebook Says That It Will Stop Allowing Discrimination by Age, Race, Gender, and Location in Some Ads

Jack Gillum and Ariana Tobin, ProPublica:

Facebook advertisers can no longer target users by age, gender and ZIP code for housing, employment and credit offers, the company announced Tuesday as part of a major settlement with civil rights organizations.

The wide-ranging agreement follows reporting by ProPublica since 2016 that found Facebook let advertisers exclude users by race and other categories that are protected by federal law. It is illegal for housing, job and credit advertisers to discriminate against protected groups.

ProPublica had been able to buy housing-related ads on Facebook that excluded groups such as African Americans and Jews, and it previously found job ads excluding users by age and gender placed by companies that are household names, like Uber and Verizon Wireless.

[…]

The changes apply to advertisers who offer housing, employment and credit offers to U.S.-based users of Facebook, Instagram and Messenger. Facebook said it hopes to implement the requirements by the end of the year.

I might be overlooking something painfully obvious, but it’s pretty wild that Facebook’s settlement allows them to keep going with this illegal and immoral practice until the end of the year. Why not require them to start immediately by eliminating obviously-discriminatory terms from ad targeting options and give them until the end of this month to sort it out? It seems very generous to give them over eight months to “hopefully” be compliant with the law for something they’ve known about for nearly three years.

On the Third Day of Launches, Apple Showed to Me: Updated AirPods

The headline features:

  • A new H1 chip specifically for headphones replaces the W1 in the previous-generation product, which Apple says allows for faster connections and switching between devices.

  • “Hey, Siri” support, also powered by the H1.

  • An optional charging case that supports the Qi standard, which is available at the time of purchase as a $40 upgrade in U.S. pricing, and which is sold separately for around $80. It supports first-generation AirPods as well.

A nice thing about the new AirPods is that Apple isn’t versioning them in the product name. They’re “AirPods”, just like the last generation. And, if you order these online, you can now engrave the case.

It’s too bad they still don’t work with my ears.

Today is iMac Day

Jason Snell:

After nearly two years of waiting, iMac fans can rejoice at the arrival of an update. Today is iMac day. Apple on Tuesday announced a new generation of 4K and 5K iMacs with big internal upgrades. The old iMacs had seventh-generation Intel processors, but these models have eight-generation processors — and in a couple of cases, the very latest ninth-generation processors. Apple has upgraded processor cores across the board, so that most models have six cores and there’s even an option for eight. And both sizes of iMac now have optional access to the more powerful Radeon Pro Vega graphics processor.

The $1099 base model non-Retina iMac remains unchanged, the desktop equivalent of the $999 MacBook Air—an old model anchored to a low price. But beyond that, things get more interesting.

I really like the way this week is shaping up.

The updated iMacs look like fantastic updates. For a start, the iMac previously topped-out with a quad-core processor; the new ones start at a quad-core in the 21.5-inch size, while the ground floor 27-inch model has a six-core processor. The differences between the top-of-the-line 27-inch iMac and the entry-level iMac Pro are shrinking — on paper, at least. These are seriously good Macs. They may be spec bumps rather than entirely new products with a T2 enclave and Face ID, but they feel current, and that’s important.

Jason Snell interviewed Colleen Novielli, Apple’s iMac product manager, on the latest Upgrade podcast. Snell and Novielli’s conversation is engaging and wide-ranging; as Snell and co-host Myke Hurley pointed out, it’s refreshing to hear more voices — and, in particular, more women at Apple — because the company can seem monolithic and entirely male. Novielli touches on this in her interview.

Snell asked Novielli about the base-model iMacs that retain a spinning hard drive. She acknowledged that it’s a cost-based decision; I still think it’s indefensible. The drives Apple uses in the base-model iMacs, and even the Fusion Drives in the step-up models, don’t perform acceptably running Mojave. The base model iMac is simply not a good product and should be purchased by nobody, so it’s hard to see why it’s still available.

Apple also made adjustments to the pricing of the higher-end SSD configurations in the MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, and Mac Mini, and gave the iMac Pro some even higher end options.

Ahead of Next Week’s Event, Apple Introduces New iPad Air and iPad Mini Models

Apple:

Apple today introduced the all-new iPad Air in an ultra-thin 10.5-inch design, offering the latest innovations including Apple Pencil support and high-end performance at a breakthrough price. With the A12 Bionic chip with Apple’s Neural Engine, the new iPad Air delivers a 70 percent boost in performance and twice the graphics capability, and the advanced Retina display with True Tone technology is nearly 20 percent larger with over half a million more pixels.

Apple today also introduced the new 7.9-inch iPad mini, a major upgrade for iPad mini fans who love a compact, ultra-portable design packed with the latest technology. With the A12 Bionic chip, the new iPad mini is a powerful multi-tasking machine, delivering three times the performance and nine times faster graphics. The advanced Retina display with True Tone technology and wide color support is 25 percent brighter and has the highest pixel density of any iPad, delivering an immersive visual experience in any setting. And with Apple Pencil support, the new iPad mini is the perfect take-anywhere notepad for sketching and jotting down thoughts on the go. The new iPads are available to order starting today and in stores next week.

These look like great new products. Both appear to be, more or less, two sizes of the same device. The iPad Air takes the place of the 10.5-inch iPad Pro that was retained in the lineup with the release of the modern iPad Pro models launched last year, but with some differences in the display and camera.

These changes clean up the iPad lineup considerably. The devices with the home button all support the first-generation Apple Pencil, all have Lightning ports, and none are called “pro”; all iPad Pro models have Face ID, a USB-C connector, and support the second-generation Apple Pencil. I still think that the iPad lineup is just a hair more complicated than it needs to be; I question how much difference an average user will see between the 9.7-inch iPad model and the 10.5-inch iPad Air in both size and capability.

But, of course, that’s just the situation today; let’s see if there’s more of a difference in these models once WWDC rolls around.

A Sensation Not Unlike Slapping Yourself in the Face

There’s a lot going on in Spotify’s complaint to the European Commission alleging anticompetitive behaviour by Apple. Their supporting evidence is plentiful — there’s a blog post by Spotify’s CEO Daniel Ek and a new Time to Play Fair website, though the complaint itself has no accessible documentation — but it is not always precise or particular.

Their complaint seemed, to me at least, to be completely valid on its face: Spotify is required to process new subscriptions in its app through Apple’s in-app purchase mechanism, from which Apple takes a 30% cut, which is reduced to 15% after the first year of a recurring subscription. Spotify also cannot mention other avenues by which a user may purchase a subscription, until recently could not create an app for the Apple Watch because the right public APIs weren’t available, and still is not available on HomePods. An Apple Music subscription, meanwhile, incurs no 30% “tax”, is available on all of Apple’s platforms, and gets priority treatment at every turn.

On further reflection, though, I’ve changed my mind. Mostly. To be clear, I completely understand Spotify’s frustration and I think there are changes that Apple can make to their App Store policies. But I also think that Spotify’s complaints prioritize sensationalism over facts.

Furthermore, I have no intention of defending either company, per se. I am not a lawyer; I cannot assess Spotify’s accusations from a legal level. Even if I were a lawyer, I wouldn’t do this work pro bono. Both companies are valued at billions of dollars and employ legal teams to serve their needs. This post serves as a way for me to sort out my own head on this and to try to understand, mostly for myself, why neither company’s stance seems comfortable, logical, or sane; but, also, why I have a hard time supporting Spotify’s arguments. Mostly.

To illustrate why I’ve largely changed my mind on this, I’d like to break down Ek’s argument as laid out in his blog post. First, in full:

Apple operates a platform that, for over a billion people around the world, is the gateway to the internet. Apple is both the owner of the iOS platform and the App Store — and a competitor to services like Spotify. In theory, this is fine. But in Apple’s case, they continue to give themselves an unfair advantage at every turn.

To illustrate what I mean, let me share a few examples. Apple requires that Spotify and other digital services pay a 30% tax on purchases made through Apple’s payment system, including upgrading from our Free to our Premium service. If we pay this tax, it would force us to artificially inflate the price of our Premium membership well above the price of Apple Music. And to keep our price competitive for our customers, that isn’t something we can do.

As an alternative, if we choose not to use Apple’s payment system, forgoing the charge, Apple then applies a series of technical and experience-limiting restrictions on Spotify. For example, they limit our communication with our customers — including our outreach beyond the app. In some cases, we aren’t even allowed to send emails to our customers who use Apple. Apple also routinely blocks our experience-enhancing upgrades. Over time, this has included locking Spotify and other competitors out of Apple services such as Siri, HomePod, and Apple Watch.

And, now, in pieces:

Apple requires that Spotify and other digital services pay a 30% tax on purchases made through Apple’s payment system, including upgrading from our Free to our Premium service. If we pay this tax, it would force us to artificially inflate the price of our Premium membership well above the price of Apple Music. And to keep our price competitive for our customers, that isn’t something we can do.

A critical thing to remember is that Spotify isn’t required to sell subscriptions through in-app purchases. Any Spotify Premium subscription sold on any device — including on the web — will work in the Spotify iOS app. It is unquestionably more convenient and more obvious to offer a premium subscription from within the app, but it is not necessary.

With that in mind, Spotify has three options:

  1. Make the price of subscriptions uniform no matter where the user purchases it and absorb Apple’s commission.

  2. Charge about 43% more for subscriptions paid through in-app purchases, which gets users to cover the 30% fee charged by Apple — and Google; more on that later.

  3. Don’t allow subscriptions to be purchased within the app; assume users will figure out how to subscribe.

Spotify has experimented with all three of these options and found them lacking. It’s understandable why they would — a 30% commission could easily be their entire profit margin, or nearly so;1 charging iOS users more to cover Apple’s commission doesn’t look good from a PR perspective. Right now, they’re on the third option, and it seems they’re not big fans of that, either, because it’s clunky and non-obvious.

So why is Apple taking a 30% haircut off developers’ earnings? Their justification for taking a cut before subscriptions were available was, as first said by Steve Jobs, to keep the store running. But there were some other reasons, too:

When we sell the app through the App Store, the developer gets 70% of the revenues right off the top. We keep 30% to pay for running the App Store. There are no credit card fees for the developer — we take care of all of that. There are no hosting fees for us hosting the app — we take care of all that. There’s no marketing fees. The developer gets 70% of the revenues, and it’s paid monthly.

Even in an era of subscription-supported apps, it would be silly to entirely disregard how many costs Apple absorbs. Spotify’s app is over 90 MB and is one of the most popular apps on the store; as I write this, it’s sixth on the list of top free apps, just above Facebook. It’s updated every week, too. If they had to pay for the hosting and bandwidth just for the app, it would be like if every user streamed one or two more albums every week. Credit card fees can also add up, especially for smaller developers, and Apple does a lot of promotional work for developers big and indie.

But is 30% the right cut to be taking, or is it too much? I’m not sure. My gut instinct is that it’s higher than it should be — especially for subscriptions, where it seems more like rent seeking. And what would be the right amount, anyhow? Would lowering it to 25% be enough; should it be a flat 15%? What if it were more like a credit card interchange fee of 1-3%? What about zero?

An analogy I’ve seen used before is that this situation is like a supermarket that sells a mix of national and store brands. The store brands are almost always less expensive than an equivalent product from a national brand, and the store will take a cut of all national brand sales for marketing, keeping the store running, and for store profit. Therefore, national brands must justify their cost. For example, many national brands are positioned as being of a higher quality, or having a better reputation.

Apple Music is the store brand; other streaming services like Tidal, YouTube Music, and Spotify are national brands. Tidal and YouTube Music both sell premium subscriptions through in-app purchases, while Spotify has elected not to do so. Tidal’s differentiator is that it has the option to stream lossless audio, and it carries some exclusive releases. YouTube has live performances, covers, and an enormous library of music videos, in addition to the usual collection of studio recordings.

Spotify should be able to position itself as a place where users curate tens of thousands of unique playlists that you simply can’t find anywhere else. Or it could brag about the app’s remarkably precise recommendations. Recalling both of those features as I write this has made me want to resubscribe.

As with any analogy, there are some holes in thinking of the App Store as a supermarket. For one, while there are probably several supermarkets near where you live, there’s only one App Store on iOS. But that doesn’t mean there’s only one place to buy stuff; you can buy subscriptions to any of the services I’ve mentioned in Safari, too. This isn’t a perfect solution, of course, as it’s a bit like trying to order a national brand’s products directly from them as opposed to going through common channels: you have to know where to look, but you’ll probably get a better price.

Indeed, to that last point: users must know where to look. Apple doesn’t let developers indicate where users may purchase subscriptions outside of their app, and they are absurdly strict about this. Not only must developers not use any kind of button or link to an out-of-app subscription option, they’re not allowed to so much as mention it anywhere in the app — including in any documentation embedded or linked to from the app — or in its App Store description. In Spotify’s case, the best they’re allowed to do is allude to Spotify Premium in certain circumstances, and say that “Spotify Premium can’t be purchased in this app”. Those explanations are cryptic and unhelpful, but that’s all any developer is allowed to say.

However, I can think of one possible justification for Apple requiring the use of in-app purchases for subscriptions, other than services revenue: it’s consistent. Users may build familiarity and trust with in-app subscription confirmations, and subscription options are centrally available in iOS. Apple undermines that argument, however, due to unnecessarily complicated subscription management and a lack of policing subscription abuse. Klaxons and giant red lights should go off inside Cupertino when a colouring book app is charging users over $700 per year through a weekly subscription.

Part of the problem is simply the scale at which the App Store operates. I wish App Review acted more like a quality barrier and less like it was actively seeking incredibly stupid reasons to reject apps.

So, to summarize:

  1. Apple’s cut is neither unprecedented nor extraordinary.

  2. Other developers are happy to sell subscriptions using in-app purchases.

  3. Apple’s cut may be excessive, especially for subscriptions, but it is not unique.

  4. Apple has severely restricted the ability for developers to tell users how to buy subscriptions if they don’t use in-app purchases, producing cryptic and byzantine explanations.

Fortunately for you — and me — the next paragraphs in Ek’s argument require far less explanation. To continue:

As an alternative, if we choose not to use Apple’s payment system, forgoing the charge, Apple then applies a series of technical and experience-limiting restrictions on Spotify. For example, they limit our communication with our customers — including our outreach beyond the app. In some cases, we aren’t even allowed to send emails to our customers who use Apple.

For what it’s worth, I cannot find anything in the App Review Guidelines that would support a reading of the rules that would prohibit Spotify from emailing Spotify users using the email attached to their Spotify account regardless of the device they’re on, so long as they have opted into receiving emails from the company. Strava emails me all the time; so does Delectable. I’m not sure what circumstances Ek could possibly be referring to here that would prohibit customer communications; he does not elaborate.

Apple also routinely blocks our experience-enhancing upgrades. Over time, this has included locking Spotify and other competitors out of Apple services such as Siri, HomePod, and Apple Watch.

Apple issued a response to Spotify’s case. They state that Spotify is available through CarPlay and on the Apple Watch, and that they issued app updates just as quickly as they normally would have. They also say that they’ve asked Spotify about Siri support — which, as far as I can tell, would be limited to Siri Shortcuts, which is kind of a cop-out — and Spotify has not made a solid commitment.

Spotify makes a big deal in Ek’s post and on their timeline about how Apple Music has been available on the Apple Watch and HomePod since those products were released — and how Siri is able to control Apple Music directly — but no third-party music streaming services have been able to take advantage of those products directly. It may be frustrating for users and developers of those services, but I’m not convinced this is for sinister reasons. I think it’s totally plausible that trying to get third-party services to work well with Siri and the HomePod just isn’t working in a way that’s satisfactory so far. Siri is generally inadequate from even a first-party perspective, let alone in its developer capabilities; there’s no reason to suspect malice when any user of Siri can tell you that it’s just not a terrific voice assistant for being the oldest one around.

By the way, Apple’s response to Spotify’s accusations has the conviction of damp newspaper. Their press release drags in some nonsense about Spotify’s disagreement with new royalty rates determined by the Copyright Royalty Board, and claims that there’s a level playing field for developers when everyone knows that the biggest developers often get special treatment. They didn’t even bother to sign the damn thing.

One of the reasons this dispute has been rattling around in my head and why I’ve been having a hard time figuring it out is because both companies are acting like jackasses. Apple should have no problem allowing developers to direct users to purchase subscriptions outside of their app. Perhaps there should be restrictions on the subscription page — for example, mandating a minimum level of security, or maybe requiring that the checkout form supports Apple Pay. The rest of Spotify’s complaints are distracting, with some bordering on asinine.

Perhaps most of all, Spotify ought to encourage users to pick up a premium subscription. If it’s worth it, I’m sure users will jump at the chance to pay. If the rapid rise of Apple Music has taught us anything, it’s that people don’t have a problem with paying for a music streaming service, even if it lacks standout features. Spotify has a compelling product, and they should do a better job of selling it.

Update: A previous version of this piece stated incorrectly that Google has a similar payment structure to Apple’s for in-app purchases. While it is true that Google generally mandates that developers use their payment gateway for subscriptions — and that those payments are subject to a similar commission scheme as Apple’s — Google has afforded an exception to services that offer subscriptions that may be used across multiple platforms.


  1. It has been reported that Netflix and other major media companies quietly enjoy a 15% commission from in-app purchases rather than the 30% rate Apple normally charges. I don’t know whether Spotify is or has ever been on the sweetheart discount rate, but I wanted to mention it for completeness’ sake. ↩︎

Rich Lowry Pennybags

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to dismantle dominant tech companies has, naturally, generated quite the critical response. I’ve seen plenty of well-considered articles praising her stance and generally agreeing with it. I’ve also read some great pieces disagreeing with her: Mike Masnick doesn’t think it makes sense; Karl Bode thinks that, if we ought to have a discussion about antitrust, we must also consider ISPs and mobile carriers; and Kevin Roose thinks that treating all tech companies the same is short-sighted.

But nothing I’ve read comes close to the raging tire fire that is Rich Lowry’s op-ed in Politico:

Tech is caught in a right-left pincer, made all the more powerful by the populist spirit afoot in both parties. Conservatives don’t like these companies because they are owned and operated by sanctimonious Silicon Valley liberals subject to the worst sort of groupthink. Progressives don’t like them because they are colossal profit-making enterprises.

That’s why there is some chance Washington might get together, and along the lines Warren proposes, effectively outlaw the business models of some of the most successful and iconic American companies. It’s the most compelling evidence yet that, yes, we are losing our minds.

Lowry’s framing here, using caricatures of the players involved, obfuscates legitimate criticism of large tech companies. Nobody ought to believe or consider these ridiculous straw man arguments when the actual reason is perfectly understandable: a handful of technology companies have more control over how people around the world communicate, learn, and do business than almost any other business has had for decades. It is welcoming that antitrust concerns may still be bipartisan after the interpretation of such laws has become extraordinarily narrow-minded for the last thirty to forty years — as Lowry conveniently illustrates just a couple of paragraphs later:

[Sen. Warren] charges that the tech companies use mergers to limit competition and cites as an example Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp. It’s hard to discern the harm here. When the social network bought it, WhatsApp was available for a fee. Now it’s free and more people use it than ever before. What’s the problem?

Forget, for example, that the fee to use WhatsApp prior to Facebook’s acquisition of it was all of $1. Set aside, too, that the elimination of that fee came with targeted advertising in the app, and that Facebook’s acquisition of the company served to feed its data mining machine.

Lowry, here, basically argues that reduced competition is just fine so long as the cost of goods does not increase. But it also means that there’s vastly reduced choice in the marketplace. Of the current top five free apps in the App Store, four are from Facebook; three of those are either wholly or partly direct messaging apps. Two of those — WhatsApp and Instagram — are apps Facebook acquired.

Reduced competition isn’t solely a problem of price, either. From a capitalist viewpoint, choice in the marketplace also allows consumers to switch to alternatives when a product, service, or company doesn’t meet their expectations; it also encourages innovation. The publication that Lowry edits, the National Review, has a history of publishing articles that affirm this belief.

She calls out Google for allegedly killing off its competitors by burying them in its searches. It’s not obvious that Google actually does this, although its search business inherently involves constantly making choices to try to best serve what people want to see. No government regulator is going to make Google’s searches better, or is qualified to even try.

European and American regulators already found that Google has artificially prioritized its own products in search results and deliberately demoted competitors. European antitrust investigators, in particular, indicated that Google’s shopping service was promoted even when it wasn’t necessarily relevant or as helpful as competitors’ results.

Why does Google provide a tool without which it’s impossible to imagine contemporary life — and has opened up vast vistas of readily available information — for free? Because it can monetize it with advertising. Without the advertising revenue, which Warren insists should be a separate business, Google has no incentive to devote engineers to constantly improving its search engine.

Warren’s proposal doesn’t say that Google cannot fund its search engine or its myriad other products with advertising. Instead, she’s advocating for a separation of the explicitly advertising technology parts of the company from the end-user side of things.

Maybe Lowry doesn’t mean advertising more generally. A more generous read of this could be that Google’s user products would suffer from forcing their targeted advertising technologies to be a separate company from their user products. But I don’t buy that either. Google rose to be the best web search engine before they began building user profiles and targeting ads in a precise way.

None of this is to deny that there are genuine concerns about tech companies. They need rules for content that honor viewpoint-neutrality and the spirit of the First Amendment, and perhaps there should be tighter regulations around privacy.

This might be Lowry’s laziest point so far. The spirit of the First Amendment protects the right of these private companies in privately-negotiated contracts between them and users to make choices about what they wish to allow on their platforms. If Lowry believes that Facebook has too much control over speech, that’s because Facebook is a gigantic company that swallows competitors or copies them with impunity. The solution is decidedly not to promote Facebook to even greater control over users’ communications and somehow also treat them as a passthrough entity for American government interests. This is a ridiculous argument that’s a hair’s breadth away from effectively nationalizing the company. I am not inherently opposed to that, but I imagine Lowry would be.

And how does Lowry suppose “viewpoint neutrality” would be enforced by a private entity? What is “neutral”? Does it mean a platform ought to treat every viewpoint identically, no matter how heinous and hateful? How does that work in countries that are not the United States and, therefore, have laws designed to protect the rights of typically-persecuted individuals? How does that work with platforms’ increasingly-algorithmic arrangement and promotion of shared material? It’s ludicrous.

I think there are perfectly reasonable criticisms for what Warren has said so far regarding her plan to break up tech companies. It is clearly a starting point for such a discussion — not a final regulatory document. But there are few articles I’ve seen which are as lazy and dismissive of it as Lowry’s. There is simply no reason to frame this in stereotypical partisan terms when Warren’s argument is so easily understood and, therefore, worth discussing for its potential implications. Plenty of other writers did a far better job.