Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for March, 2019

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.

Charlie Whiting Dies Aged 66

Andrew Benson, BBC:

Charlie Whiting, the head of Formula 1 for motorsport’s governing body the FIA and one of the most influential people in the sport, has died aged 66.

[…]

Whiting’s death leaves a hole at the FIA – he was the go-to person for teams on all matters pertaining to an F1 weekend.

Australian Michael Masi will take Whiting’s place as race director, safety delegate and permanent starter this weekend in Melbourne.

A huge loss. Tributes have been pouring in all day from current and former drivers, team staff, journalists, and others. Simon Arron of Motor Sport wrote a particularly touching tribute.

App Store Covers RSS Readers

Excellent coverage by Apple — as captured by Michael Tsai — of a software category that has, until recently, been seen as on the verge of death largely because of increasingly-siloed methods of news consumption.

Murdoch’s Myopic Antitrust Concerns

Sherisse Pham, CNN:

Rupert Murdoch’s Australian media company is calling for the breakup of Google, saying the US tech company wields too much power over news outlets and online advertisers.

News Corp Australia said breaking up the tech giant is a “very serious step,” but insisted that “divestment is necessary in the case of Google, due to the unparalleled power that it currently exerts over news publishers and advertisers alike,” according to a submission to Australian regulators published on Tuesday.

Anthony Ha, TechCrunch:

More than a year after the deal was first announced, it looks like Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox is about to close.

Disney announced today that the deal is “expected to become effective at 12:02 a.m. Eastern Time on March 20, 2019,” suggesting that it has obtained the final approval needed, specifically from regulators in Mexico.

21st Century Fox was spun off in 2013 from News Corp, but both are chaired by Rupert Murdoch. After this acquisition, Disney’s bevy of franchises and assets will dominate the box office — including virtually all control over the rights to Marvel characters — and will have significantly greater control over Hulu, television stations, and production studios worldwide.

I am still digesting the discussion around Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to break up tech companies, but it’s pretty rich to hear that argument echoed by one company chaired by a guy who made nearly $8 billion selling off another of his companies, thereby reducing competition in the entertainment space.

‘River of News’-Style RSS Reader and Reeder 4 Beta

“Exciting developments on the RSS front” is not a phrase you can use every day; but, today is an apt day to use it. Rob Fahrni announced that he’s working on a new app that aims to deliver RSS updates as a constant stream, like a Twitter app. I like the simplicity of this and, with the right discovery options, it could be a great introduction for those who use social media for news and would prefer a reverse-chronological feed.

Also released today was the first public beta of Reeder 4 for MacOS. Reeder has always been one of the best RSS clients around and, in the first day I’ve spent with the fourth major version, I’ve found it to be just as well-designed and thoughtfully considered as its predecessors but with some excellent new features.

Without creepy user targeting or algorithmic manipulation, website feed readers may be relatively quaint, technologically, but they put users in control of their reading experience. I think the hardest question for RSS readers is how it could gain broader interest outside of the more technically sophisticated user group. As I wrote earlier this year, website feeds need to be surfaced in an obvious and easily understood way. I’m not sure what that looks like. Maybe feeds just need a new brand.

Adam Clark Estes Has Scratched His iPhone XS’ Display

Adam Clark Estes, Gizmodo:

I’ve had my iPhone XS for a little over three months, and it’s driving me crazy. Not the whole thing. The phone is beautiful, fast, a joy to use. What’s driving me crazy is an increasingly complex network of scratches on the display glass. The first ones were small, almost unnoticeable at a glance. Then, about six weeks after I spent well over $1,000 upgrading to the iPhone XS, a ribbon-shaped abrasion appeared on the screen and then another. The worst part is that Apple is pitching a fit about fixing it.

This is more-or-less the same article Estes wrote last year; except, then, there were loads of reports of scratched iPhone 8 and iPhone X displays. This batch of iPhones doesn’t seem to have the same issue. In his iPhone XS review, John Gruber confirmed that these displays should, according to Apple, be the least prone to scratching and shattering, while Michael Tsai wrote that his iPhone XR doesn’t have any noticeable scratches yet. So, while Estes’ display may well be scratched up, it doesn’t appear to be indicative of a trend. The reports are, so far, mixed.

Here’s why I’m linking to this, though. Estes:

Unfortunately for me, AppleCare can’t solve my scratch problem. In multiple conversations with both Genius Bar employees and Apple Support, I was told that surface scratches were treated as cosmetic damage and were not covered. One Apple employee slyly suggested that if my screen somehow developed a crack in it, I could get the entire display replaced for just $30. If I just wanted to replace the display as it was, scratches and all, Apple would charge me $280. And replacing the display would be the only way to rid myself of the scratches. There was no magical buffing machine in the back of the Apple Store and no way to replace the glass itself.

This is the complete opposite of my experience with AppleCare and a scratched display. I began noticing the degrading quality of my iPhone X’s display just a couple of months into owning it. They were just hairlines, but they built up throughout the year to the point where, eventually, I asked my local Apple Store if I could use one of my accidental damage claims to get the display swapped. They only asked if I was sure, but they were happy to do the repair.

Apple Officially Announces March 25 Event, ‘It’s Show Time’

As reported last month by John Paczkowski of Buzzfeed News, Apple has officially announced an event for March 25. They’re calling it “It’s Show Time” — if that sounds familiar to you, it’s because they launched the first video-capable iPod, the second generations of the iPod Nano and the iPod Shuffle, and movies on the iTunes Store at a 2006 event with nearly the same name.

Accordingly, you can expect to see some form of video subscription product and probably something similar for newspapers and magazines. New iPads, second-generation AirPods, and the long-delayed AirPower charging mat might also see the light of day, and there are signs that Apple Pay Cash might be expanding beyond the United States in the near future, too.

You May Have Forgotten Foursquare, But It Didn’t Forget You

Paris Martineau, Wired:

Ask someone about Foursquare and they’ll probably think of the once-hyped social media company, known for gamifying mobile check-ins and giving recommendations. But the Foursquare of today is a location-data giant. During an interview with NBC in November, the company’s CEO, Jeff Glueck, said that only Facebook and Google rival Foursquare in terms of location-data precision.

You might think you don’t use Foursquare, but chances are you do. Foursquare’s technology powers the geofilters in Snapchat, tagged tweets on Twitter; it’s in Uber, Apple Maps, Airbnb, WeChat, and Samsung phones, to name a few. (Condé Nast Traveler, owned by the same parent company as WIRED, relies on Foursquare data.)

In 2014, Foursquare launched Pilgrim, a piece of code that passively tracks where your phone goes using Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, and GSM to identify the coffee shop or park or Thai restaurant you’re visiting, then feeds that data to its partner apps to send you, say, an offer for a 10 percent off coupon if you leave a review for the restaurant. Today, Pilgrim and the company’s Places API are an integral part of tens of thousands of apps, sites, and interfaces. As Foursquare’s website says, “If it tells you where, it’s probably built on Foursquare.”

I’m sure many apps and services from the earliest days of the App Store are dead now, but I wonder what happened to the ones that aren’t. In either case, I wonder what happened to stored user data — particularly private and personally-identifiable details. Was all of it securely wiped from servers, in the case of a company shuttering? What kind of highly-private data is still lingering on servers and development machines worldwide that has simply been forgotten about by users who have moved on to other apps and services?