Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for May, 2019

A Year After GDPR, Google and Facebook Are Less Impacted Than Smaller Companies

Mark Scott, Laurens Cerulus, and Steven Overly, Politico:

Big fines and sweeping enforcement actions have been largely absent, as under-resourced European regulators struggle to define their mission — and take time to build investigations that will likely end up in court.

New forms of data collection, including Facebook’s reintroduction of its facial recognition technology in Europe and Google’s efforts to harvest information on third-party websites, have been given new leases on life under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR.

Smaller firms — whose fortunes were of special concern to the framers of the region’s privacy revamp — also have suffered from the relatively high compliance costs and the perception, at least among some investors, that they can’t compete with Silicon Valley’s biggest names.

I’m not surprised by this, and I don’t view this as an indication that GDPR is unsuccessful. For one thing, establishing cases against larger and more complex tech firms is necessarily going to take more time. For another, it isn’t a bad thing that smaller companies are collecting less data as a result of compliance costs. Just because they’re not Google or Facebook, that doesn’t mean that a smaller company should be collecting huge data profiles on individuals. It is, of course, worrying that the side effect of this is to concentrate data collection with the biggest and most influential players; but, then, we circle back to the first point that it takes more time to build cases against bigger players.

The most alarming aspect of GDPR is, weirdly enough, the effect it’s having in the United States. Mark Scott on Twitter:

But what I find the most fascinating is what happened in Washington State. There, rules that specifically name-checked Europe’s [privacy] stance narrowly failed to pass in late April, despite heavy lobbying by industry (@microsoft, ahem) in favor of them.

US tech companies in favor of European-style privacy rules? I hear you ask. Well, yes. But it’s more complicated — and shows both how Europe’s standards are both now global and the straw man used to hobble other privacy efforts.

Whereas in Europe, [people] are automatically opted out of their data being collected unless they give consent, the Washington State rules, by default, gave companies the right to collect such digital information — remember, these rules supposedly were copied from those of the EU.

This isn’t the fault of GDPR rules, but the way that they have been manipulated by tech companies wary of other governments mandating opt-in consent. By that metric, then, GDPR has been quite effective: the idea that it could be a worldwide model scares the shit out of big industry players, and they’re doing everything they can to combat opt-in requirements.

iFixit Dissects a New MacBook Pro

The new nylon switch covers are curious, but I’m particularly interested in the apparent difference in the metal dome switches in this model. It would make sense that they could be a primary culprit for the failures in previous models: they physically activate the key press, which would correlate with a higher failure rate for keys pressed more often.

Of course, that doesn’t resolve dust ingress issues that are directly related to the low travel distance for these keys. But at least a materials failure may no longer be an issue. If I were in the market for a new computer, I’m still not sure I’d trust these. Including them in the keyboard repair program — which is basically four years of AppleCare solely for the keyboard — is a comforting measure that, yes, you can buy these Macs without worrying that you’ll have to pay $800 in a year for a full top case replacement because your space bar is stuck. Still, a no-cost repair is no replacement for a reliable keyboard.

AT&T Explains Its Surveillance Advertising Hellscape

Geoff Colvin, in a longform profile of AT&T and its CEO Randall Stephenson for Fortune:

The grand vision begins with combining all the major elements of the media and telecom businesses, which no company has ever done before. Time Warner’s film and TV studios make some of the most successful and honored entertainment anywhere. Its cable networks — including TBS, TNT, CNN, Cartoon Network, and Turner Classic Movies — are distribution powerhouses. DirecTV carries those networks and others into homes through its satellite system. Add in AT&T’s wireless and landline customers, and Stephenson boasts that AT&T has “170 million distribution points we can push this through.”

With such a combination of media ­assets, the theory goes, AT&T can achieve unprecedented advantages. It can differentiate its fast-commoditizing wireless network by offering customers deals on its proprietary content. It can expose its content to vast audiences through all its networks. Because it collects staggering volumes of customer data through its wired, wireless, and satellite networks, it can enable advertisers to target their messages with new precision and, in some cases, even track customers who have seen specific ads and thus gauge how the ads performed — services for which advertisers will gladly pay a big premium.

The immediate next step in the transformation, likely the biggest and most visible step, will be to introduce a video-on-demand Internet streaming service — a Netflix competitor — in this year’s fourth quarter. AT&T says the new service eventually will include original content, HBO, movies from multiple studios, and library content from HBO and Warner Bros.

Who, apart from AT&T shareholders and executives, finds this advantageous? The company’s deep vertical integration and sheer scale are a monument to ineffectual and consumer-unfriendly American antitrust laws. And that’s without getting to the wildly invasive advertising plan:

Adding strength to the whole proposition is AT&T’s unique aggregate customer data trove and its value in addressable advertising over DirecTV and AT&T’s direct-to-consumer streaming services; ads can also be directed less precisely through the former Turner networks. “Say you and your neighbor are both DirecTV customers and you’re watching the same live program at the same time,” says Brian Lesser, who oversees the vast data-crunching operation that supports this kind of advertising at AT&T. “We can now dynamically change the advertising. Maybe your neighbor’s in the market for a vacation, so they get a vacation ad. You’re in the market for a car, you get a car ad. If you’re watching on your phone, and you’re not at home, we can customize that and maybe you get an ad specific to a car retailer in that location.”

This is very creepy. It’s at least as invasive as what big tech companies like Google and Facebook do, but telecom conglomerates like AT&T aren’t getting the same negative press. They’re only allowed to do this because the Republican-led FCC, in 2017, struck down reasonable privacy restrictions that were to be enforced on telecom firms — companies like AT&T and Verizon are uniquely positioned to have what is likely the most comprehensive picture of users’ digital lives.

Nilay Patel, the Verge:

If this was a story about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, this scheme would cause a week-long outrage cycle. It is outrageous, especially when you consider that AT&T also routinely hands over customer information to the government, is under investigation for illegally selling customer location data to shady third parties, and is generally about as protective of your data as a hotel front desk guarding a bowl of mints.

AT&T can claim up and down that it’s asked for permission to use customer information to do this, but there is simply no possible way the average customer has ever even read their AT&T contracts, let alone puzzled out that they’re signing up to be permanently tracked and influenced by targeted media in this way. People are already convinced that Facebook is secretly listening to them through their phones; if you explicitly offered them the choice of AT&T tracking everything they watch and everywhere they go, it’s a safe bet that they would say no.

I would bet that as well; but, I also have a nagging worry that many consumers are becoming nihilistic about their privacy. People care, but I don’t think they feel like they have any control. Weak regulators are enabling this disconcerting direction.

Techdirt Settles with Shiva Ayyadurai and Documents History of Email in Subsequent Post

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

As you may have seen, last week we settled the lawsuit that Shiva Ayyadurai filed against us in early 2017. No money exchanged hands, but we did agree to post a link at the top of the 14 articles that he sued over. The text of that link says, “Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai’s Response to this Article and Statement on the Invention of Email.” You can read his link, and you can read our articles. As I’ve said in the past, I urge you to read both and make up your own mind.

Nothing in our settlement stops us from continuing to report on Shiva Ayyadurai’s claims to have invented email, and given that Ayyadurai has now fashioned himself a First Amendment freedom fighter, I am hopeful that he will be supportive of our use of our free expression rights to respond to his “response.”

What follows is a several-thousand word document on the history of email and its inventors. Masnick’s research indicates that Ayyadurai’s own recounting is internally flawed, and that no part of his claim to be the “inventor of email” withstands scrutiny.

By the way, Google still pretends that Ayyadurai invented email.

Panic Announces Playdate

From the press release:

Today, after more than four years of work by a small and talented team, Panic is extremely excited to introduce Playdate, a brand new handheld gaming system.

Playdate is both very familiar, and totally new. It’s yellow, and fits perfectly in a pocket. It has a black-and-white screen with high reflectivity, a crystal-clear image, and no backlight. And of course, it has Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, USB-C, and a headphone jack. But it also has a crank. Yes, a crank: a cute, rotating analog controller that flips out from the side. It’s literally revolutionary.

There’s more: Playdate includes games — a full season of them. The games will be delivered over-the-air, once a week for 12 weeks, and they’ll be a surprise: when the new game light flashes, you’ll never know what you’re about to play. Panic recruited some of the world’s best game designers — some well known; others under the radar — to make games exclusively for our system. Playdate isn’t just hardware: it’s a complete experience.

This looks completely wonderful and very, very Panic. They’re releasing it early next year for $149 USD. I’ve never had a handheld gaming system before — other than, like, an iOS device — but I think I might now.

Facebook Provides Sensitive User Data to Corporate Partners

Sam Biddle, the Intercept:

The source, who discussed Actionable Insights on the condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to speak to the press, explained that Facebook has offered the service to carriers and phone makers ostensibly of free charge, with access to Actionable Insights granted as a sweetener for advertising relationships. According to the source, the underlying value of granting such gratis access to Actionable Insights in these cases isn’t simply to help better service cell customers with weak signals, but also to ensure that telecoms and phone makers keep buying more and more carefully targeted Facebook ads. It’s exactly this sort of quasi-transactional data access that’s become a hallmark of Facebook’s business, allowing the company to plausibly deny that it ever sells your data while still leveraging it for revenue. Facebook may not be “selling” data through Actionable Insights in the most baldly literal sense of the word — there’s no briefcase filled with hard drives being swapped for one containing cash — but the relationship based on spending and monetization certainly fits the spirit of a sale. A Facebook spokesperson declined to answer whether the company charges for Actionable Insights access.

The confidential Facebook document provides an overview of Actionable Insights and espouses its benefits to potential corporate users. It shows how the program, ostensibly created to help improve underserved cellular customers, is pulling in far more data than how many bars you’re getting. According to one portion of the presentation, the Facebook mobile app harvests and packages eight different categories of information for use by over 100 different telecom companies in over 50 different countries around the world, including usage data from the phones of children as young as 13. These categories include use of video, demographics, location, use of Wi-Fi and cellular networks, personal interests, device information, and friend homophily, an academic term of art. A 2017 article on social media friendship from the Journal of the Society of Multivariate Experimental Psychology defined “homophily” in this context as “the tendency of nodes to form relations with those who are similar to themselves.” In other words, Facebook is using your phone to not only provide behavioral data about you to cellphone carriers, but about your friends as well.

Among the most vastly underreported stories in tech is Facebook’s unique ability to create deep associative data between users and those who did not consent to their privacy-invasive practices. It doesn’t matter if you do not use Facebook’s products; if any of your friends do, Facebook still knows a lot about you.

The Start-Ups Building ‘Dark Kitchens’ for Delivery-Only Restaurants

Tim Bradshaw, Financial Times:

“The success of Uber Eats, DoorDash and others suggests there is a demographic shift towards consumption of prepared meals at home,” said Michael Ronen, managing partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers. “The time is now to try and stand up supply that is more efficient against that demand.”

Venture capitalists have all aligned on the best solution: kitchens that only serve delivery customers, known as “cloud”, “ghost” or “dark” kitchens, that use a combination of advanced food preparation, underused real estate and algorithm-driven optimisation to lower overheads and increase output.

There are companies that build these ghost kitchens, but they can spring up anywhere. A single storefront in strip mall here in Calgary is the address of thirteen restaurants, none of which you can actually eat at.

It is worth questioning, then, just what a restaurant is. Is it merely a kitchen with some chairs and tables attached to it, or is it more than that? Delivery-only restaurants are not a new thing, but they’re easier to promote as the use of food delivery apps increases.

I don’t think these restaurants replace sit-in dining. There will always be a market for a more formal dining room. And I don’t think they replace fast food restaurants, either, which serve impulse buys in person — something which these faceless kitchens can’t support. The optimistic result is that these restaurants will continue to rise and be an alternative as we increasingly treat cooking as a service. I worry, though, that the more likely scenario is that companies like Uber and Doordash will compete with restaurants directly.

See Also: Alexis C. Madrigal writing earlier this year in the Atlantic about the servant economy.

Reading the Room

MG Siegler:

When I look at Apple’s recent stumbles — things like the aforementioned HomePod, the Mac Pro, the education market, the Airport, the Apple Stores, the strange recent events, the Apple TV, the Touch Bar, the entire line of new MacBook keyboards, and so on, I see a company that is failing to read the room. Again, a company that is directionally misguided in some areas, and the products (or lack thereof) simply showcase this.

My favourite products and services that Apple has done all sort of boil down to a single idea: they resolve the most complex near-universal frustrations through simplicity, elegance, and refinement. That sounds more hoity-toity than I intended, but it’s pretty accurate. You can associate this with the iPhone or the Mac or any of the other painfully trite examples, but I have my own pet favourite thing they’ve done in the last few years. They’ve practically gotten rid of passwords in two ways:

  1. Your face, fingerprint, or device proximity is used to determine your identity. Rather than something you know, it’s something you are. If you use a recent Mac, iOS device, or Apple Watch, you can go password-free to unlock.

  2. Apple can’t unilaterally replace passwords for the web and in apps, so they’ve done the next best thing by generating secure passwords, storing them, syncing them between devices, and making it all work with the face and fingerprint stuff above.1

This is reading the room perfectly. Not only does it resolve something irritating and complex, it does it in a near-seamless way and it encourages people to buy more Apple hardware, which ought to make the company’s stockholders very happy.

Many of the products that Siegler lists off don’t really do any of this. Not everything they release needs to be iPhone-calibre because I don’t think there’s likely to be another product of the iPhone’s calibre. It is likely the most successful manufactured good of all time.

The room is excited about Macs that are powerful and have bulletproof reliability. The room has been asking for a better Apple Store servicing experience. The room is looking for a sense that these products add up to something. There are indications that sometimes make me question what room Apple believes they are in.


  1. Apple was not the first company to have a fingerprint scanner, nor a facial recognition system, nor a password manager. But they were likely the first and have done the best at integrating all of these things at the system level across multiple platforms. ↩︎

The News Is That They Mentioned the Keyboard’s Reliability at All

John Gruber:

But of course the biggest issue with these keyboards is reliability. Will this updated mechanism fix or at least greatly reduce the number of reliability problems? Only time will tell, but I’m cautiously optimistic. Apple didn’t have to say anything at all about this mechanical tweak. I mean, if they hadn’t said anything at all about the keyboards, we’d all be asking about it, but Apple often ignores questions it doesn’t want to answer. The folks I spoke to today seem confident these updated keyboards will prove significantly more reliable.

I’ve given this thing a little more thought because, as I wrote earlier, the only thing that gives us any indication that Apple has fixed the keyboard this time is their word. But that, I think, is itself newsworthy.

When Apple made keyboard tweaks last year, they insisted that the new silicone layer underneath all the keys was merely to make for quieter typing and had nothing to do with reliability. It doesn’t matter that their own servicing manual gave up its intended purpose; publicly, their stance was only that it was a quieter keyboard. This year, however, Apple directly addressed keyboard reliability in their conversations with media. Even though they didn’t mention keyboards at all in their press release, I still see it as a noteworthy acknowledgement.

Thoughts on NIST’s New Privacy Framework

Bruce Potter, writing on the Expel blog:

Many companies are only starting to come to grips with privacy thanks to new privacy regimes like the EU’s GDPR and California’s CCPA. And when you come to grips with a regulation, it typically looks a lot like compliance. “What boxes do I need to check in order to be compliant?” you might ask yourself. And once you’re compliant, you’re Good Enough™ and you move onto the next problem.

While taking a compliance-driven approach might feel like the equivalent of hitting an “easy” button, there’s one big problem: It leaves gaps in your org’s privacy posture that you’re probably not even aware of. The “compliance = security” mindset has been a problem for years, and industry analysts and journalists love reminding us after every breach that simply being compliant isn’t enough.

Turns out that privacy is no different.

NIST has made the current draft available (PDF) for feedback. It isn’t the easiest document to read, but it transforms the thinking around privacy from compliance to risk management. That’s a fundamental and critical shift that ought to encourage a greater appreciation by small- and medium-sized companies when it comes to privacy.

Apple Announces New MacBook Pro Models With, Yes, Updated Keyboards

Jason Snell was briefed on the new MacBook Pro models, which feature some nice spec bumps and, more importantly, enhancements to the keyboards:

Apple says these new models also feature a fourth version of the butterfly keyboard design, in response to customer complaints that the keyboard would end up in a sad state where key presses were ignored or doubled. While Apple is quick to say that the vast majority of MacBook Pro customers haven’t experienced any keyboard issues, the company still keeps tweaking this design. It claims that the change made in these new MacBook Pro models will substantially reduce the incidence of ignored or doubled characters.

A post earlier this month from a Reddit user claiming to be an Apple authorized technician said that only some of the failures they were seeing were dust-related. They said that failures were more frequently found on computers belonging to heavy keyboard users — programmers, journalists, and students — and that failures were more frequently found with the space bar and vowel keys.

That all suggests that dust ingress was something Apple tried to rule out last year with the silicone membrane, and that it was ineffective because it was likely a fragility issue with the keyboards’ construction or materials. Dieter Bohn of the Verge says that Apple told them that they had, indeed, changed the keyboard’s build.

Snell:

Beyond that, Apple is also seeking to reassure its customers that they shouldn’t avoid buying a Mac laptop out of fear of having keyboard problems. As was reported last month, Apple is working to shorten the time it takes to repair keyboards in Apple Store. And today it’s extending its Keyboard Service Program to cover all laptops with butterfly keyboards, including not just these new MacBook Pros, but also all of its laptops released in 2018, including the new MacBook Air. That program is separate from the standard Apple warranty and covers keyboard repairs for four years after the first retail sale of the laptop.

Bohn:

Some current MacBook Pro 13-inch with Touch Bar and 15-inch customers that bring in their keyboards for repair will actually have their keyboards replaced with ones that have these new materials, Apple says. That will only happen for MacBooks that have the third-generation butterfly keyboard today: the 2018 models of the MacBook Pro and the new MacBook Air.

These are promising steps towards rebuilding trust that Apple actually cares about the time, cost, and effort incurred by customers to fix their laptops. Of course, I have little reason beyond Apple’s word to believe that this time these keyboards do not suck. We will see, of course, and I’m sure that anyone with a 2018 MacBook Pro or Air is probably breathing a sigh of relief that their keyboards will be replaced the revised design if and when they break.

Yet, these actions are no substitute for having a reliable keyboard. As far as I can tell, it is less a question of if and more a question of when any of Apple’s computers equipped with the “butterfly” keyboards will break.

Also, even though this keyboard can be substituted into Apple’s 2018 models, there’s no indication today that they’re shipping newly-built units from the factory with the new keyboard. Nor, it should be said, have the 13-inch non-Touch Bar model of the MacBook Pro or the 12-inch MacBook been updated with even the membrane-equipped keyboard.

In a nut, it is comforting to see that they appear to be taking seriously the repairs needed for butterfly keyboard-equipped MacBooks, and have updated the design to try to make the new ones more reliable. But that’s not enough. It isn’t too much to expect that the keyboard in a computer should not have design flaws that cause it to be likely unreliable over a multiyear lifespan of heavy use, and the MacBook line will not have a good keyboard until that baseline is reached.

Update: Apple has also started a service program for MacBook Pro models exhibiting the so-called “stage light” or “flexgate” — ugh — issue. Oddly, even though reports said that this issue could impact any 2016 or 2017 MacBook Pro model, Apple’s service program is only for 2016 13-inch units. If you’ve already paid for a repair, you can enquire about a refund.

WWDC 2019 Prelude

I’m not a developer for any of Apple’s software platforms; and, so, WWDC usually comes every year as a welcome annual indication of where their platforms are headed, but I’m not compelled to fly down to San Jose, book a hotel room, and file for bankruptcy. This year, though, I’m getting the feeling that I should be there. I don’t know why, but there’s something in the air this year that seems just a little different — and I like it.

For old times’ sake, I wanted to put together one of those part-retrospective part-speculative pieces where I point out some of the new things I’d like to see this year. Maybe some of these things will be introduced, and that would be cool; I wouldn’t bet on too much of this list, though. These are just a few things that have been swirling in my head.

iOS, Visually

Here’s something remarkable: the design language that emerged from the iOS 7 upheaval has now been with us for the same amount of time as its glossier and more colourful predecessor on iOS. Of course, that alone should not dictate whether it is time for a new coat of paint — to my eyes, this aesthetic is holding up far better than the last one at about the same time in its life.1 In part, that’s because Apple has done a good job updating it in the intervening years: switching to their custom San Francisco typeface, for example, and introducing some big, bold typography in iOS 11. Since iOS 7’s ship date, there’s nothing in the system that has felt so instantly tacky as, say, the metallic action buttons in the iOS 6 sharing sheet.

Yet, for everything that iOS 7 did right in setting Apple up for creating software that looks and works like it matches their hardware, there are some things that have never sat right with me. I don’t think shapeless buttons have ever been a good idea. They look unfinished, unanchored, and uncharacteristically sloppy; I am dismayed that they have stayed virtually the same for six years. I’ve also never been fond of any of the glyph-on-a-white-background icons that shipped in iOS 7, save for Photos. That is a beautiful illustration. The rest — Music, Reminders, Home, Calendar, Files, Health, Find My iPhone, and (if we’re being generous with the definition of “white background”) Calculator — are drab things that I have mostly buried in assorted folders on the second through fourth pages of my iPhone’s home screen.

I also think this would be a great time to revisit some of the more delightful spit-and-polish qualities of visual interface design. I was thinking recently about Time Machine — more on that below. Backing up a computer is a mundane task; finding and restoring a deleted file can be very stressful, particularly if it’s an important document. Time Machine somehow made this dreadful part of computing enjoyable. But, not everything about Time Machine was good. I remember my irritation any time I accidentally clicked on its Dock icon and watching helplessly as my entire computer — a mid-2007 MacBook Pro; so, brand new when Leopard shipped — ground to a halt to render some stars over a swirling nebula backdrop.

So, while I am not necessarily eager to return to an era of photorealistically-rendered window textures and glossy everything, I would love to see a middle ground. The “card” that pops up when you connect your AirPods or share a WiFi network’s password is, I think, very elegant, particularly on my iPhone X where the corner radius is matched to the screen’s, making it feel like an extension of the phone itself. I do wish the button were a gorgeous saturated blue, though. The revised design of Wallet in iOS 12.2 is also very nice; I welcome the return of enclosed cells in table views. Refinement throughout the system to add a little more colour and visual cues would also be delightful. The “Backup and Restore” section of Apple’s iCloud marketing webpage includes screenshots of some of the most dreary visual patterns in iOS. More spit-and-polish, better use of colour, and more elegance will always be welcomed in visual design.

I’d also like to see more attention to detail in not allowing obvious sloppiness to be shipped.

We’ve had an era of sorely needed recalibration from excessive and overwrought visual design patterns. Let’s inject a feeling of craft and beauty back into the software we use, though. Apps like Things illustrate a fantastic interpretation of how a less decorative design language can still be lively and tactile.

iOS, Functionally

Beyond the more surface-level stuff, there are some functional changes I’d like to see in iOS. More specifically, I have different hopes for each the iPhone and the iPad.

First, a quick observation: it’s remarkable just how much Apple got completely right with the first iPhone’s user interface. The tab bar that runs across the bottom of many apps is, I think, a brilliant piece of foresight. From the 3.5-inch displays of the first four generations of iPhone to the windowpane of glass that is the iPhone XS Max, it has scaled beautifully.

But the stuff at the top of the display — app toolbars, notifications, Notification Centre, and Control Centre — is something I think sorely needs reconsidering. There have been moves made to this effect for several years. Keen observers of third-party app design trends on iOS will remember that the downfall of the then-ubiquitous “hamburger” menu began around the time that Plus-model iPhones became popular. iOS 7 also launched a universal gesture for paging back by swiping from the left edge of the screen, which became immensely useful on larger-screened iPhones.

But that still leaves a few remaining gestures that require a telescopic thumb. And, I should point out, I still think it’s ridiculous that notifications are positioned to overlap the upper toolbar of pretty much every app. On a semi-frequent basis, my thumb will go to hit some control at the top of the display only to have a notification pop in, so when my thumb contacts the display, I get whisked off to some other app. It’s not a very good game.

On the bigger side of the iOS device spectrum, I am anticipating improvements to the iPad’s home screen and its multitasking capabilities. As was reported early last year by Mark Gurman — and which I have heard separately as well — the iPad improvements that were supposed to debut with iOS 12 were bumped as a result of that update’s increased focus on stability and speed. With another year of polish, I’m looking forward to seeing what may be in store.

Perhaps better indication of which app in a split view is foregrounded, particularly when an external keyboard is used.

Maybe the home screen will have more flexibility in what can be placed on it and how those items can be arranged.

Or maybe it will soon be possible to run more than one instance of an app, so you can pull up a couple of Pages documents side-by-side to more easily work with both of them. Even having more complex layouts like that which recently debuted in Fiery Feeds would be a boon.

This would be really a great year for Siri, Notification Centre, and Control Centre to stop taking over the entire display when invoked, and the same for the whole-screen dominance of an incoming phone call. Hey, a guy can dream.

Overall, I’d like to see great understanding that a single task often requires referencing multiple things across several apps. Part of that can be resolved through UI changes. However, I’d also like the system to do a better job of holding multiple apps in memory. iOS, as I understand it, has a far more limited virtual memory system than MacOS. That, combined with less RAM, means that apps in the background are frequently kicked out of memory and must be reloaded. This can be deeply interruptive when working in multiple apps at once, and it’s something I’ve never seen on MacOS. It’s so interruptive to me that I will often be working on something on my iPad only to find it has, once again, kicked all my Safari tabs out of memory after I checked my email or responded to a text; at that point, I find it easier to simply switch to my Mac.

The Mac

The biggest Mac news of WWDC this year will almost certainly be a new Mac Pro. It makes total sense to introduce it to a developer audience, even if it isn’t available soon after — though I hope it is. While I doubt they will acknowledge the failure of the last Mac Pro, I hope to hear Apple make the case for the feasibility of updating the new one more frequently than once every seven years.

I am also looking forward to the display that it will reportedly be paired with. Fifteen years ago, Apple defined what a professional-grade desktop display ought to be with the 30-inch Cinema Display. I would not be disappointed if the new display is a 5K 27-inch model — there is certainly a dearth of those — but I would love to be surprised by a product that’s the spiritual successor of the 30-inch Cinema Display: some gigantic, high-resolution thing with that isn’t available anywhere else. Technology permitting, of course.

It’s unlikely, but I would also like to see an acknowledgement of the failure of their “butterfly” keyboard design that is currently shipping in every portable Mac they make. These keyboards are terrible. I’ve seen frustration with these keyboards referenced increasingly in non-tech circles, so news is spreading that Apple’s laptops aren’t fully reliable.

On the software front, I am mostly concerned about the next stage of the so-called “Marzipan” apps. The four apps that have been released so far are not good, and are poor examples for the developer community. I am cautiously optimistic about what we could see this year, though. These apps were clearly stopgap proofs-of-concept that, arguably, shouldn’t have shipped, and my hope is that we’ll see truly Mac-like iterations of these and other apps this year. I don’t want iOS apps running with a MacOS title bar to be the new standard.

That’s not to say that all things from iOS do not or could not work on the Mac. In particular, the effects introduced in Messages and FaceTime on iOS should absolutely be brought to the Mac as well. I get why Animoji and Memoji can’t be on the Mac — yet — but surely I should be able to send and receive messages with the laser effect, or use some goofy FaceTime filters.

From a services perspective, I hope this is the year that we see an iCloud-powered Time Machine backup option. It has always struck me as very odd how Apple banged the drum for years about how easy backups are on the Mac with Time Machine, but never evolved it. Even if you count document versioning as an update to Time Machine, there have been virtually no updates to it since the version that shipped with Lion eight years ago. In that time, the biggest Time Machine-related news was the discontinuation of the Time Capsule a couple of years back. That means that users of Apple’s notebooks either need to remember to plug in a hard drive, or they need to know about Backblaze or another third-party remote backup service. Yet, Apple sells iCloud plans offering up to two terabytes of storage, and recommends switching on iCloud backups for iOS devices when they are set up. I want the same thing for my Mac.

Finally, there are still features that haven’t made their way into iCloud despite being available in Apple’s previous online subscription services. Because I now have two Macs, it would be great to be able to sync everything from app preferences to my Dock layout between both machines. These are things that don’t often change but, when they do, it’s likely that I want that setting applied on both. iCloud is most of the way there already, with features like Documents and Desktop syncing, iCloud Keychain, and automatic downloads from Apple’s stores — I’d just like to see a last push.

Apple TV, HomePod, and More

Something I’m aching for with my Apple TV is better support for multiple users. I know this has been a perennial request by owners of family-used iPads, but I think it makes even more sense on the Apple TV and, presumably, HomePod, as they are inherently communal devices. The Apple TV in our house is signed into my Apple ID because it was the one with the Apple Music subscription before we sorted all that out. Both my partner and I play music with the Apple Music app and, while we have similar tastes in a lot of areas, her picks have definitely skewed my recommendations a little.

Netflix solves this by allowing one account to have several profiles. I wish Apple’s apps would allow switching between accounts in the same iCloud Family.

I also think Apple could do a better job of defining what makes a great app for tvOS. I’ve previously complained about the YouTube app and I still feel very strongly that it is a bad app. But so, too, is Music in its own way: when it resumes, it bumps whatever album was last playing to the front of your Recently Played list, even if that album is paused or stopped; the For You page reloads as you move around; the entire app is slow and navigating it is poor.

Finally, one thing I’d like to see more generally is a greater focus on unification of product and service availability no matter where users live. I recognize that there are regulatory hurdles and licensing restrictions that make this difficult — if not impossible — but, as a non-American, this is important to me.


  1. A caveat: the original iPhone UI was clearly a descendent of the Aqua design language that was Apple’s standard since Mac OS X debuted in 2001. So perhaps it’s a bit premature to declare the iOS 7 visual language the same age; but, on the iPhone, it is. Also, the iOS 7 language was never named. ↩︎

On the Apparently Unmoving FCC Investigation Into Phone Carriers Selling Subscriber Location Data

Dell Cameron, Gizmodo:

How the intimate data exchanging hands in these back-alley deals compares in size and scale to, say, what Cambridge Analytica acquired on Facebook users in 2016 is ultimately made irrelevant by the fact that it’s a thousand times more sensitive. This is data meant for hunting people down. In the most outrageous case documented by the press so far, a Motherboard reporter managed to pay a bounty hunter $300 to put a trace on a cellphone in New York. The coordinates he received provided accurate up to around a quarter mile. As one Democrat on the FCC put it, the trade in Americans’ location data is “a personal and national security issue that affects every American with a cell phone.”

There’s little evidence that it’s being treated as such. Lawmakers on Wednesday openly scolded [FCC Chairman Ajit] Pai over his handling of the investigation, which is thought to be nearing the end of its first year. (It remains unclear when the investigation was actually started.) During questioning, he refused outright to say whether he’d share basic information about the investigation with the FCC’s two Democratic commissioners, Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks.

Who knows? This could all be nothing; Pai’s office could just be bad at email. In that case, I sympathize.

But if this is a case of what appears to be partisan nonsense, it’s deeply troubling. These carriers were providing third parties access to customers’ real-time location data. That’s an unconscionable violation of privacy; I don’t think anyone would disagree. It would be an egregious breach of duty for the FCC investigate this without urgency or priority.

Of course, this is the Republican Party serving the doctrine of Donald Trump, so there are always gratuitous conflicts of interest or the potential for grift:

Statutorily, the FCC has one year in most cases from the date of a violation to issue a notice of apparent liability. Neither commissioner can say whether the statute of limitation has expired on any particular infraction. But notably, more than a year has passed since Senator Ron Wyden first wrote to the FCC demanding this investigation take place. A New York Times expose about a business that sold phone-tracking services to state law enforcement officials without a warrant turned a year old last week. (Pai, incidentally, represented that business — Securus Technologies — seven years ago, while working in private practice.)

Shocking.

A Report From the AMP Advisory Committee Meeting

Terence Eden:

I don’t like AMP. I think that Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages are a bad idea, poorly executed, and almost-certainly anti-competitive.

So, I decided to join the AC (Advisory Committee) for AMP. I don’t want them surrounded with sycophants and yes-men. A few weeks ago, a bunch of the AC met in London for our first physical meeting after several exploratory video calls.

I maintain that AMP is antithetical to the open web, and a stealthy anticompetitive threat. If Google did not restrict the top “carousel” of news results on mobile to AMP pages, I doubt it would have ever caught on. It has few merits of its own and is popular solely because it has been given undue weight due to Google’s influence.

Scrap it. Take what good albeit obvious lessons have been learned from AMP — limits on asset size, no arbitrary scripts, simpler page structures — and sink its corpse to the seabed of our collective conscience.

The Night the Lights Went Out

Drew Magary, Deadspin:

I remember hosting the Deadspin Awards in New York the night of December 5th and then heading over to a karaoke bar for a staff after-party, where I ate some pizza, drank a beer, sang one song (Tom Petty’s “You Got Lucky,” which would soon prove either fitting or ironic, depending upon your perspective), and that’s it. After that comes a great void. I don’t remember inexplicably collapsing in a hallway, fracturing my skull because I had no way to brace myself for the impact. I don’t remember sitting up after that, my co-workers alarmed at the sight of blood trickling out of the back of my head. I don’t remember puking all over Barry Petchesky’s pants, vomit being one of many fun side effects of your brain exploding, as he held my head upright to keep me from choking on my own barf. I don’t remember Kiran Chitanvis quickly calling 911 to get me help. I don’t remember getting into an ambulance with Victor Jeffreys and riding to an uptown hospital, with Victor begging me for the passcode to my phone so that he could call my wife. He says I made an honest effort to help, but my circuits had already shorted out and I ended up giving him sequences of four digits that had NOTHING to do with the code. Flustered, he asked me for my wife’s phone number outright. Instead, I unwittingly gave him a series of 10 digits unrelated to the number he sought.

I don’t remember that. I don’t remember bosswoman Megan Greenwell trailing behind the ambulance in a cab with her husband and staying at the hospital ALL NIGHT to plead with them to give me a closer look (at first, the staff thought I was simply inebriated; my injury had left me incoherent enough to pass as loaded) because she suspected, rightly, that something was very wrong with me. I don’t remember doctors finally determining that I had suffered a subdural hematoma, or a severe brain bleed: A pool of blood had collected in my brain and was pressing against my brain stem. I was then rushed to another hospital for surgery, where doctors removed a piece of my skull, drained the rogue blood, implanted a small galaxy in my brain to make sure my opinions remain suitably vast, put the hunk of skull back in, and also drilled a hole in the TOP of my head to relieve the pressure. They also pried my eyes open and peeled the contact lenses off my eyeballs. They then put me into a medically-induced coma (SO METAL) so that my brain could rest and heal without Awake Drew barging in and fucking everything up.

I don’t remember any of that. I told you I wouldn’t be a very reliable narrator.

This is many things. It is gutting, inspiring, saddening, frustrating, at times very funny because Drew Magary wrote it so of course it is, illuminating, and moving. But, as a piece of writing, it’s perfect. Put this on your reading list for the weekend, or read it now. I don’t care which; it’s worth your time.

A History of Data Collection in Mobile Games

Kaitlyn Tiffany, Vox:

So what do these third-party advertisers do that’s so bad? A study conducted last year by security researchers at UC Berkeley gives us some insight.

The study focused on children’s privacy and resettable advertising IDs —the string of numbers and letters that identify you and keep a log of your clicks, searches, purchases, and sometimes geographic location as you move through various apps — in contrast with non-resettable, persistent identifiers. Phone security experts recommend regularly resetting it to limit advertisers’ ability to track you. (You can do that in the Advertising section at the bottom of the Privacy settings on an iPhone, or in the Ads menu in the Services section of an Android device’s settings.)

The study found something alarming: Of 3,454 children’s apps that share resettable advertising IDs, 66 percent were sharing persistent identifiers as well. You could reset the advertising ID every 20 minutes on the device your child is using, if you wanted to, but it wouldn’t do anything to clear their history. The only way to reset that device ID is by factory-resetting the phone or tablet and starting from scratch. More importantly, the study found that 19 percent of children’s apps contained ad-targeting software with terms of service so predatory that they’re not even legal to include in apps designed for children. Kids under 13 aren’t supposed to be tracked between apps at all, especially for advertising purposes, and especially as part of a permanent history of their digital lives.

This is the kind of thing that I would like to see sifted out of apps before they make it into the App Store. There are honest justifications for developers to use an analytics framework to sort out bugs within their apps or figure out how often a feature is being used. Still, I would like to see more limitations placed on the monetization of data collected from app usage, and on persistent identifiers — particularly when they’re operated by a third party and can therefore be used to track users across multiple apps and even across devices.

By the way, do yourself a favour and opt out of ad targeting on your iOS devices.

Consistently Stupid U.S. Administration Solicits Complaints of ‘Bias’ by Websites

Tony Romm, Washington Post:

The White House on Wednesday escalated its war against Silicon Valley when it announced an unprecedented campaign asking Internet users to share if they had been censored on Facebook, Google and Twitter, tapping into President Trump’s long-running claim that tech giants are biased against conservatives.

The effort, which the White House said on Twitter was directed at users “no matter your views,” seeks to collect names, contact information and other details from Americans. The survey asks whether they have encountered problems on Facebook, Instagram, Google-owned YouTube, Twitter or other social media sites — companies the president frequently takes aim at for alleged political censorship.

This, on the very same day that the Trump administration announced it would not sign a statement pledging to take action to combat and avoid amplifying violent extremist rhetoric on what is ostensibly First Amendment grounds. I’m not saying that they should necessarily sign such a statement as I understand the free speech concerns — though the pledge does not require that government signatories do anything that would curtail freedom of expression — but the contrast is notable.

It’s horseshit anyway because this is pretty obviously a means to build the Trump 2020 campaign’s email list. Also, the U.S. government can’t require private companies to change how they moderate user behaviour because that would be a violation of the First Amendment — but you knew that.

Update: Casey Newton:

In the meantime, “bias” is defined ever downward. In conservative parlance, it now refers to any instance in which the user of a social platform did not have a desired outcome. You didn’t appear high enough in search results? Your video wasn’t promoted by an algorithm? You were suspended for threatening to kill someone? It’s all just “bias” now.

Far enough down the conspiracy hole, everything has meaning, which means nothing really does.

Recent Actions by Adobe Are a Case Study in Why Customers Don’t Like Subscriptions

A neat thing about the software-as-a-service model — which, by the way, is a loathsome phrase — is that you get updates to your apps all the time.

On the other hand, you must install those updates; many of these apps don’t even give you a choice. So if a feature no longer behaves as it used to, or it’s buggy, or a crucial option is dropped, you’re out of luck.

Throw Your Laptop Into the Sea, but the Surveillance Economy Will Still Win

Maciej Cegłowski:

In the regulatory context, discussion of privacy invariably means data privacy—the idea of protecting designated sensitive material from unauthorized access.

[…]

But there is a second, more fundamental sense of the word privacy, one which until recently was so common and unremarkable that it would have made no sense to try to describe it.

That is the idea that there exists a sphere of life that should remain outside public scrutiny, in which we can be sure that our words, actions, thoughts and feelings are not being indelibly recorded. This includes not only intimate spaces like the home, but also the many semi-private places where people gather and engage with one another in the common activities of daily life—the workplace, church, club or union hall. As these interactions move online, our privacy in this deeper sense withers away.

Young people already understand this second definition very well. They have separate private accounts on social networks, and they’re more careful about what they share online than many older people give them credit for.

Charlie Warzel, New York Times:

I called up Ceglowski after his trip to Washington to inquire about the experience and what he thinks we can do to make opting out less of a pipe dream. Like anyone with a decent understanding of how the web works, he has a healthy skepticism that we’ll rein in privacy violations, but his one potential area of optimism really stuck with me. It’s the concept of positive regulation.

[…]

Over the phone, he explained that, while it might seem small, if real people on the internet vote with their wallets to use privacy-focused services over big data-sucking platforms like Facebook and Google, the effect could be profound. He cited the telemarketing wars of the early 2000s as an example.

“When telemarketers were fighting the ‘do not call’ list they argued that people loved having the opportunity to hear about great deals and products via phone during dinner time,” he said. “But once the regulation passed, everyone signed up for that list and it became obvious that the industry’s argument was laughable.”

After years of relentless scandals driven by the surveillance economy,1 I think there are plenty of users out there who would be interested enough in greater privacy to pay for it. But that’s only likely to be successful if the purveyors of privacy-robbing services are held accountable for their behaviour. So far, that just isn’t happening.


  1. Many of which, by the way, were reported in stories published on websites like the New York Times’, which share visitor data with Facebook and Google, as well as lots of other third-party tracking and advertising vendors.

    For example, if I visit Warzel’s article with my content blockers turned off, over fifty more HTTP requests are made and it takes three times as long to load the page. The additional requests include trackers from Optimizely, Scorecard Research, Oracle, and ChartBeat; there are also several advertising scripts which are loaded from several vendors, and they also function as trackers.

    I’m not innocent of this either. If you’re reading this on the web — as opposed to, say, in a feed reader — there’s an analytics script running on this page and an ad in the righthand column. In my pathetic defence, my analytics script does not share anything with third parties, it minimizes information collection and fuzzes IP addresses, and you can entirely opt out of it. As far as the ad goes, it is not behavioural, my Content Security Policy prevents any extra scripts or images of unknown origin from loading — like a Google tracking pixel, for instance — and it’s my understanding that the ad network does not collect any information from my readers unless the ad is clicked. ↩︎

Reuters Source: Facebook Facing 20-Year FTC Privacy Consent Agreement

Just a reminder that every Facebook privacy scandal you’ve heard about for the past seven years — Cambridge Analytica, passwords stored in plain text, that thing where they were demanding email account passwords, using two-factor phone numbers for user account lookup, the private data sent to Facebook by developers using the company’s SDK, and so on; I could do this all day — was committed while the company was already promising the FTC to not violate users’ privacy.