Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for September, 2019

Tesla Releases Smart Summon Feature in Software Update

After delays, Tesla released a software update last week that includes the Smart Summon feature which, supposedly, allows the driver to summon their once-parked car to their present location. In the real world, it is having some issues.

Jason Torchinsky, Jalopnik:

The Version 10 release notes for Smart Summon do state that

“You are still responsible for your car and must monitor it and its surroundings at all times.”

which is, of course, true, but this is still a completely unprecedented use of a car, for better or worse. On the plus side, sure, it’s great for impressing people and not getting wet in the rain or having to walk to your car, possibly with a bunch of heavy crap, but at the same time, when has it ever been okay to attempt to be “in control” of your car from potentially across a parking lot?

There’s plenty of cases where Smart Summon has worked just fine. And yes, people do stupid shit in parking lots every day. Tesla does specify that it’s a Beta release, which is fine for most software, but does it make sense when that software is driving a full-sized car in a public space?

The collisions that have been reported so far have all been property damage, either to the Tesla or to whatever it hit. I haven’t seen any reports of pedestrians either getting hit or nearly so. I suppose that’s the silver lining to this story: in the four days since the software started rolling out, nobody has been injured or killed.

It does raise questions about whether it’s fair for Tesla to use developer-centric terms like “beta” as cover for software that it is not fully confident is complete and safe — I do not think that’s okay. Tesla, in particular, has historically exaggerated the capabilities of its autonomous software while simultaneously tacking “beta” onto the end of several of its features. Plenty of people were upset with iCloud’s myriad problems in the beta releases of iOS 13. Those problems are solely relegated to the user’s own files, however; they are not a matter of public safety.

Study Indicates the FCC’s Core Justification for Killing Net Neutrality Was False

Karl Bode, Vice:

“Under the heavy-handed regulations adopted by the prior Commission in 2015, network investment declined for two straight years, the first time that had happened outside of a recession in the broadband era,” [Ajit] Pai told Congress last year at an oversight hearing.

“We now have a regulatory framework in place that is encouraging the private sector to make the investments necessary to bring better, faster, and cheaper broadband to more Americans,” Pai proclaimed.

But a new study from George Washington University indicates that Pai’s claims were patently false. The study took a closer look at the earnings reports and SEC filings of 8,577 unique companies from Q1 2009 through Q3 2018 to conclude that the passage and repeal of the rules had no meaningful impact on broadband investment. Several hundred of these were telecom companies.

“The results of the paper are clear and should be both unsurprising and uncontroversial,” The researchers said. “The key finding is there were no impacts on telecommunication industry investment from the net neutrality policy changes. Neither the 2010 or 2015 US net neutrality rule changes had any causal impact on telecommunications investment.”

We knew this. We knew it before Pai rolled back net neutrality regulations. But it bears repeating that he made law by amplifying the cable industry’s lies, leading to abuses of power from an increasingly-concentrated media and telecom industry.

Art in the Age of Digital Subscription

Maddy Myers, Kotaku:

I feel like I actually have started to devalue a lot of pieces of media in ways that I didn’t do when I was growing up in the ’90s. I used to go to Blockbuster and spend a couple of bucks on renting a movie. But nowadays, I don’t want to spend 5 dollars on “renting” a movie from iTunes. I just don’t. I’d rather watch a different movie on a subscription service that I pay for than pay not that much more money to rent a movie. Why is that? That’s interesting. That’s clearly a mental change in me that I’ve observed.

Matt Birchler:

This resonates with me a ton. There is more amazing content out there today that ever before, whether it be video games or movies or TV shows, but I think I cherish less of it than I used to. As a consumer, streaming music is an incredible deal. I get to listen to basically every song ever made, everything new this week, and everything coming out in the future for $9.99 per month. That’s less than buying a single album every month, which is just insane.

But while this is wonderful, I do get the feeling that I appreciate individual things less. Spending $15 on an album meant I was invested in giving it a serious listen. Now it costs me what feels like nothing to hear everything and it’s super easy to bounce off albums and try something else. Again, this could be considered a benefit as I keep seeking out the best things, but I find I know fewer albums from start to finish than before streaming.

I empathize with both Myers’ and Birchler’s perspectives, but I feel a little differently about this when it comes to music.

To generalize, most people like music, a few monsters actively dislike the entire idea of it, and some people love everything about music to the point where it’s obsessive. I’m in the latter category. There are few genres I don’t listen to, and nothing I won’t take a chance on. I hoard records — physical and digital, alike.

If you also love music and have somewhat flexible morals, you’re probably familiar with early 2000s music blogs. You could visit these sites, often hosted on Blogspot, multiple times every day and discover something unfamiliar. It could be a brand new record, a classic album you recognize but never listened to, a deep cut from an artist you’ve heard of, or something in a language you don’t understand. On every post, there would be a Rapidshare link for you to download the full record — just below a reminder to pay for the album.

Of course, this is morally- and legally-dubious. I’m not going to defend that. However, they were also remarkably well-curated places to discover bands and artists you’d likely never find on your own. And, of course, free downloads meant that there was no risk to trying something unexpected. Again, I offer no counterargument to depriving artists of earnings, except to note that multiple studies suggest that people who download music illegally also tend to buy the most music. That’s probably because these people are simply the biggest fans of music and want to listen to as much of it as they possibly can.

Streaming services allow the same kind of risk-free exploration without the guilt and legal jeopardy of music blogs. You can still use music blogs and other discovery mechanisms to find new music, but you can listen to it with Apple Music or Spotify instead.

One more thing: I’ve never found CDs or cassette tapes to be particularly valued ways of listening to music. CDs, in particular, are a brittle delivery mechanism for music that sounds basically the same as what you’d get from iTunes. This is only a smidge less corny than talking about the warmth of vinyl and the way it friggin breathes; but, for me, a vinyl record is a fantastic way of expressing the personal value of an album.

There’s a great piece of writing at the top of the Nine Inch Nails online store that mirrors my thoughts in hard-to-read small uppercase text:

Vinyl has returned to being a priority for us – not just for the warmth of the sound, but the interaction it demands from the listener. The canvas of artwork, the weight of the record, the smell of the vinyl, the dropping of the needle, the difficulty of skipping tracks, the changing of sides, the secrets hidden within, and having a physical object that exists in the real world with you… all part of the experience and magic.

I get why this makes people roll their eyes, but it’s exactly how I feel. Putting on a record is a completely different experience. It’s more whole, somehow; more fulfilling.

An Apple Music subscription and a turntable — that’s how I listen to music. And I feel like I value music no less than when I was buying CDs every week.1


  1. I was trying to find a link for this piece and I stumbled across a 1995 issue of Billboard in which Ed Christman argues that CD subscription clubs were devaluing music. ↩︎

Researcher Discovers Method for Exploiting Boot ROM in Several iPhone Models

Sean Gallagher, Ars Technica:

Today, an iOS security researcher who earlier developed software to “jailbreak” older Apple iOS devices posted a new software tool that he claims uses a “permanent unpatchable bootrom exploit” that could bypass boot security for millions of Apple devices, from the iPhone 4S to the iPhone X. The developer, who goes by axi0mX on Twitter and GitHub, posted via Twitter, “This is possibly the biggest news in iOS jailbreak community in years. I am releasing my exploit for free for the benefit of iOS jailbreak and security research community.”

[…]

It’s possible that this exploit has been found by other researchers and is already in use, especially via tools used by intelligence and law enforcement agencies, such as GreyShift’s GreyKey. Many of these tools use proprietary hardware to collect data off iOS devices.

Ryan Stortz, writing on the Trail of Bits blog:

We strongly urge all journalists, activists, and politicians to upgrade to an iPhone that was released in the past two years with an A12 or higher CPU. All other devices, including models that are still sold — like the iPhone 8, are vulnerable to this exploit. Regardless of your device, we also recommend an alphanumeric passcode, rather than a 6-digit numeric passcode. A strong alphanumeric passcode will protect the data on your phone from this and similar attacks.

The bad news is that A11-and-older iPhone models — and their iPad and iPod Touch equivalents — are vulnerable to this exploit. Because this vulnerability exists in boot ROM, it reportedly cannot be patched in a software update and it’s extremely powerful.

But it requires hardware access to a device; your iPhone cannot be breached through a remote attack, and someone would need to connect it to another device. It also resets itself every time the phone is rebooted, and the Secure Enclave is not at risk through this vulnerability. Finally, it is overwhelmingly unlikely an average person’s phone would be at risk of someone actually using this exploit against it. The categories of possible victims are more-or-less how Stortz describes them: public figures, politicians, judges, journalists, activists, and spies.

Regardless, this exploit is both worrisome because of the impossibility of patching it, and deeply impressive.

A unique complicating risk factor of late is that someone wishing to exfiltrate lots of data about you need not breach your phone, specifically. If you’re using cloud services to keep your devices in sync, they could breach — for example — your iPad while your iPhone remains untouched.

All I Want to Do Is Create Havoc as a Terrible Goose

Kelsey McKinney, Deadspin:

I have tried for years to love a video game. I understand the appeal. I too want to forget all of my anxieties and struggles by immersing myself in another world. I too want entertainment that forbids me (by nature of its controller) from looking at my phone while I do it and scrolling a real-time chronicle of democracy’s crumbling. But I had two problems: 1) I do not know how the buttons work so every game has a massive learning curve for me. and 2) I don’t like to hit things or die. This makes me feel stressed and I don’t like to feel stressed in my down time.

What I like is to be told a story. I like a narrative arc and a riveting main character. I like to be entertained. And that is how I became a terrible, horrible, no-good, extremely bad goose.

I struggle with video games generally, but Untitled Goose Game is pretty much perfect for my tastes. It’s charming, it’s silly, and you play as a goose; it’s kind of calming because of the music, but it also requires just a little bit of thought for the different puzzles. It is wonderful.

The Peril of Old Slack Posts

Brian Feldman, New York magazine:

On Tuesday evening, Vox Media announced that it had acquired New York Magazine and its associated brands. This includes Intelligencer, the website you are reading right now. In an all-hands meeting at New York’s Canal Street office at noon yesterday, Vox head honcho Jim Bankoff and New York Media CEO Pam Wasserstein addressed the tension floating throughout the company. There will not be any layoffs, they stressed. It’s, supposedly, business as usual. Still, uncertainty lingered in the air.

Of the many known unknowns, a few centered around Slack, the workplace communication software popular in media circles. Anxiety regarding Slack yesterday was exacerbated by rumors and murmurs. In the afternoon, a similar all-hands meeting occurred at Vox’s headquarters in the Financial District, and a harrowing detail of the acquisition emerged. The gossip, as conveyed in a group chat of NYMag employees, was: “They told Vox we’re all gonna be on one Slack.” Absolutely devastating.

I can think of few more catastrophic circumstances than if Slack’s archives were leaked. For what it’s worth, I’m not much sassier in Slack than I am anywhere else online or in real life — and I’m sure many people are the same way — but the looser context of a chat room means that the nuance gets lost within jokes, private conversations, and snide comments.

iFixit Really Doesn’t Think Apple Deserves Any Credit for Using Recycled Aluminum in New Products

iFixit took apart a couple of the new Apple Watch models and found a wildly different battery in the 40mm model than in the 44mm. They also took the time to snark about the recycled aluminum case.

Craig Lloyd:

Now, about Apple’s claim that the Series 5 Sport cases are made from “100% recycled aluminum.” While using recycled materials is great, the truth is most of the world’s aluminum is already recycled, and recycled aluminum is dramatically cheaper than the freshly-mined variety. The real question is whether Apple uses any recycled aluminum that wouldn’t have been recycled anyway. And after analyzing Apple’s statements on the matter, the answer seems to be no. Apple is in line with industry standards, and isn’t remaking the field. Recycling all the lithium or cobalt in their batteries would be a true leap forward, and Apple may well be working on something like that, but using recycled aluminum isn’t much to get excited about.

Let’s start with the overall argument: Apple’s use of recycled aluminum is a form of greenwashing because aluminum is already recycled, so they shouldn’t get credit for using the existing supply chain. That seems, to me, like a harsh oversimplification of a reasonable and more nuanced critique.

If it’s truly the case that the aluminum Apple uses has likely always been recycled — as Lloyd implies in the second and third sentences of this paragraph — one would think that they would have mentioned this before. After all, they’ve long explained that one of the reasons they use aluminum in the first place is because it’s highly recyclable. If Lloyd’s implications are correct, it should be trivial for Apple to make products that are ostensibly nearly fully recycled already and turn them into 100% recycled aluminum, right? But they didn’t say that they were doing so until the introduction of the new Mac Mini and Retina MacBook Air last year, which suggests that Lloyd’s cynical reading is simply incomplete. Furthermore, it’s worth asking why none of the company’s major competitors ever attempts to argue environmental bonafides.

For what it’s worth, I think Maddie Stone wrote a much more thoughtful critique of the company’s environmental efforts last year for Gizmodo. It acknowledges that electronic supply chains are complex and that Apple’s extensive use of the material presents further complications, that using fully-recycled aluminum in cases is a step forward, and says that many of the trace components in the company’s products are still mined in unsustainable ways. All terrific arguments. Lloyd’s critique is shallow and misleading.

Then there’s the way Lloyd pointed out that using recycled aluminum is cheaper than mining more — why bring this up? It isn’t actually relevant; it doesn’t change Lloyd’s argument one bit if you drop it. But it does leave the impression that Apple’s use of recycled aluminum is at least partly for economic reasons — which, I guess, is supposed to be inherently bad and evil. That’s a ludicrous argument. Environmental efforts can go hand-in-hand with economic incentives, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

And if I’m being nitpicky — and I most certainly am but, well, they started it — Apple dropped the “Sport” designation with the introduction of the Series 1 and 2 models.

Google Chrome Keystone Update Is Causing Boot Issues on Macs With System Integrity Protection Switched Off

I know yesterday was particularly newsy, but there’s one story I was watching for updates on because it was so bizarre.

Janko Roettgers, Variety:

Film and TV editors across Los Angeles were sweating Monday evening as their workstations were refusing to reboot, resulting in speculations about a possible computer virus attack. Social media reports suggested that the issue was widespread among users of Mac Pro computers running older versions of Apple’s operating system as well as Avid’s Media Composer software.

Weird, right? Today, though, a possible answer. It appears as though this issue was not isolated to just Mac Pros, or just computers belonging to video editors — any Mac that had Google Chrome installed, Chrome’s auto-updates enabled, and System Integrity Protection switched off could see the same problems.

Craig Tumblison of Google:

We recently discovered that a Chrome update may have shipped with a bug that damages the file system on macOS machines with System Integrity Protection (SIP) disabled, including machines that do not support SIP. We’ve paused the release while we finalize a new update that addresses the problem.

If you have not taken steps to disable System Integrity Protection and your computer is on OS X 10.9 or later, this issue cannot affect you.

This post also contains recovery instructions. It’s odd that this problem seemed to most greatly affect media professionals, but a search of the web turns up instructions to disable SIP as a workaround for misbehaving media apps. “Mr. Macintosh” wrote a deeper, more technical explanation of what’s going on.

Update: A reader email prompted me to think about this a little more.

Most software needs admin privileges to be updated if it’s writing to /Applications/. Google developed a workaround for this by placing Chrome’s updater in /Library/ instead of ~/Library/, which allows Chrome to update itself regardless of which user is currently logged in. I don’t find anything particularly nefarious about that — if it’s a family computer or a shared computer in a college library, for example, it may be preferable for Chrome to be able to update at any time.

However, it does create an elevated level of risk. Disabling SIP or modifying permissions can compound that risk. I don’t understand why the updater would ever need to touch /var/, but I do think that shipping software updates that will be installed automatically carries with it an extraordinary level of trust that can be shattered in an instant with careless bugs like this one.

On That Rumour of Dedicated Camera RAM in the iPhone 11 Pro

Speaking of the iPhone 11’s cameras, there was a funny rumour going around that the iPhone 11 Pro could have 2 GB of extra RAM solely dedicated to camera functions. When iFixit tore one apart, though, they were unable to find any sign that this rumour could be correct.

It’s an interesting idea, though, and one that I would welcome. I’ve long expressed my frustration with the way iOS handles memory limitations — particularly on the iPad — but it seems like opening the camera shouldn’t kick nearly every other app out of memory. It’s odd to me that using one specific hardware feature monopolizes system memory. Adding more globally-accessible memory isn’t the answer, I don’t think, as it would still be shared with other apps.

Limitations of the iPhone 11’s Ultra-Wide Camera

Gannon Burgett, DPreview:

Last week, Apple debuted its new iPhone 11 devices, all three of which feature an ultra-wide camera module. This marks the first time Apple has put an ultra-wide camera in an iOS device and with the new camera comes all-new capabilities and shooting modes.

Not all of the cameras are made equal though. In addition to not having optical image stabilization, it’s been revealed the ultra-wide camera unit on all three models isn’t yet capable of capturing Raw image data or manual focus, unlike the wide-angle camera (and telephoto camera on the iPhone 11 Pro models).

These are curious limitations that put the ultra-wide camera on a similar level to the fixed-focus front-facing camera that only captures compressed image formats. It’s expected on the front, but a little disappointing for a back-mounted camera, especially as the other cameras don’t have these restrictions, so it’s a little inconsistent.

For what it’s worth, I don’t buy speculation that the ultra-wide camera does not support RAW capture because of excessive distortion. The user of a third-party app that supports RAW capture would probably be comfortable with distortion, and apps like Lightroom have lens correction profiles.

Intelligent Tracking Prevention 2.3

John Wilander of Apple’s WebKit team:

The reason why we cap the lifetime of script-writable storage is simple. Site owners have been convinced to deploy third-party scripts on their websites for years. Now those scripts are being repurposed to circumvent browsers’ protections against third-party tracking. By limiting the ability to use any script-writeable storage for cross-site tracking purposes, ITP 2.3 makes sure that third-party scripts cannot leverage the storage powers they have gained over all these websites.

I remember when hotlinked third-party media on your website would get the picture replaced with something funny or disturbing — though there is nothing of the sort on the linked page. This paragraph is a reminder that it can be so much worse when you factor in the breadth of capabilities typically afforded to scripts.

It’s great to see the WebKit team continuing to treat privacy violations with the same gravity as security vulnerabilities; the two go hand-in-hand.

MacStories Reviews WatchOS 6

Alex Guyot, MacStories:

watchOS 6 is one of the more subtle updates we’ve encountered over the last five years of Apple Watch, but that subtlety should not be mistaken for insignificance. The user-facing updates in watchOS 6 may not be the most exciting we’ve seen, but their skillful execution makes it clear that Apple understands the device it has created. Nearly every first-party watchOS app is well crafted and properly honed down to its simplest ideas. New health updates expand use cases for the Apple Watch’s most important category of features. Only a few new watch faces manage to pass my very high bar, but continuing to throw options at the wall every year is exactly what Apple should be doing; by now we’re starting to see quite a few diamonds among the rough.

For the first time ever, a subset of third-party apps can exist independent of their iOS counterparts. The vision is far from fully realized, but this year is a start that will be continued in the years to come. It won’t be long before every relevant watchOS API which requires an attached iPhone has been freed from its restrictions. Break the chains!

Previous WatchOS updates closely mirrored the first several releases of iOS in knocking critical items off to-do lists — though, in the case of the Apple Watch, these updates also helped better-define the product. The future of the Watch looks to me like a product that can be used independently of an iPhone for most of the day, with the exception of snapping a photo or two. It seems like WatchOS 6 is a bridge to get there.

QuickTake

Those of you picking up a new iPhone 11 model today will get to experiment with the new QuickTake feature in the camera app. But this isn’t the first time Apple branded something “QuickTake” — from 1994 until 1997, the company sold a line of digital cameras with the same name.

Thomas Brand:

The QuickTake 100 was capable of storing up to eight photos at 640×480 resolution, 32 photos at 320×240 resolution, or a mixture of both sizes on its 1MB Flash EPROM. The QuickTake 100 had no upgradable memory. All photos were stored with 24 bits of color in a proprietary QuickTake PICT format that can not be easily read in Mac OS X. Every photo taken with the QuickTake 100 had to later be converted into a JPEG, TIFF, or BMP before they could be shared. The QuickTake 100 produced photos with quality similar to today’s most primitive camera phones.

I know this is twenty-five years ago and one of the first ever consumer digital cameras, but the idea of storing a maximum of only eight photographs is staggering to me, and at miserably low resolution, too. A grid of six “3×” iPhone icons would just fit into the area of a single QuickTake 100 photograph. I know times change and all, but that’s positively quaint.

Austin Mann’s iPhone 11 Pro Review

I look forward to Austin Mann’s iPhone review every year. This is particularly true when Apple dedicates much of its product launch materials to explaining camera improvements, because nobody can test those changes quite like Mann does.

Indeed, the photos in this year’s review are stunning. There are shots in here that seem impossible to have been created with a smartphone — particularly the photo of a lantern-lit boat and a self-portrait.

There are also some fascinating technical details in this piece. On comparing Night mode to traditional long exposure photography:

But with iPhone 11 Pro the rules are different… it’s not capturing one single continuous frame but blending a whole bunch of shots with variable lengths (some shorter exposures to freeze motion and longer shots to expose the shadows.) This means the subject can actually move during your exposure but still remain sharp.

I’m sure some of you are wondering, “well this is cool for handholding but what if you want to do light trails?” The iPhone actually detects when it is on a tripod and changes exposure method so that light trails and movement can still be captured.

In a separate review in Outdoor Photographer, Mann says that the ultra wide lens can be used for panoramas, which allows for an even wider landscape shot in every direction.

One other thing I noticed thanks to the original image files included in John Gruber’s review is that noise reduction seems to preserve more detail and create less of a painterly effect when zoomed in. I hope this is true for high-detail scenes such as landscapes and architectural photos.

Our Economic Model of Privacy Is Deeply Flawed

Will Oremus, OneZero:

The apparent disconnect between most people’s stated desire for online privacy and their incautious online behavior has become known as the privacy paradox. There are competing explanations, but most experts agree it’s hard to draw conclusions about people’s values from their real-world actions. That’s because their choices are shaped by all kinds of factors: the limited available options (how many social networks have the majority of your friends and family on them?), the circumstances under which they make decisions (who has time to read a 4,000-word privacy policy before downloading each app?), the difficulty of predicting outcomes (who knew that Yahoo Mail would get hacked when they signed up for it?), and feelings of general helplessness (why spend a ton of energy protecting your data now when so much is already out there?).

It really is bizarre that we willfully sign away our right to the privacy and security of huge amounts of deeply personal information with little thought or care — and that the discussion about how to best regulate this industry and its breaches of trust, if at all, is dominated by economic rationales instead of moral and ethical ones.

Facebook Launches New Portal Devices for Video Calling

Nicole Nguyen, Buzzfeed News:

Facebook announced three new products today: the 8-inch Portal Mini ($129) and 10-inch Portal ($179) — two picture frame–sized devices designed to sit on a countertop — and the Portal TV ($149), an accessory designed to sit on top of at-home televisions and let far-flung friends view Facebook Watch shows together. The devices include cameras and microphones designed specifically for video calling and have voice control via built-in Amazon Alexa software. As of today, Amazon Prime Video can also be streamed through Portal, alongside Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and other apps announced last year. Currently, Netflix and Hulu are not available through Portal or Portal TV.

Notably, the new devices have significantly lower prices than last year’s models, which ranged between $200 and $349. Facebook executives said the cuts are aimed at allowing more people to use Portal. “The most important thing for us is getting our experiences out there, and seeing how people react to them,” said Andrew Bosworth, vice president of augmented and virtual reality at Facebook, at a press event on Tuesday. “We’re not focused on the [Portal] business model right now.”

Aside from price, the other thing Facebook is emphasizing with these new products is a commitment to privacy. They ship them with camera covers and physical switches to turn off the camera and microphone. And to show you that the mic and camera are, indeed, off, a little light turns on — otherwise known as the universal sign that a device’s camera and microphone are also on.

This is something Facebook communicates on a marketing webpage with the headline “Privacy by Design”.

Nilay Patel:

Facebook selling the new Portal for $129 — almost certainly less than what it costs — with @boztank casually admitting it has no business model yet is really something else.

As @ashleyrcarman has noted many times, the tech giants are so willing to lose money on hardware to lock into their services that the entire indie hardware market is being crushed. It’s why companies like Eero couldn’t stay independent.

A pattern for ad-supported tech giants is to encourage more user investment through time and data by offering services free-of-charge and selling cheap hardware, then cataloguing users’ behaviour to sell ads against. This is not a pattern that fits profitable companies that do not fund their operations through advertising and, so, have no need to exploit users, instead choosing to accept money in exchange for goods and services.

Reassessing Smartphone Upgrade Recommendations

Brian X. Chen, New York Times:

Year after year, the formula was this: I tested the most important new features of Apple’s latest smartphone and assessed whether they were useful. Assuming the newest iPhone worked well, my advice was generally the same — I recommended upgrading if you had owned your existing smartphone for two years.

But with this review of the iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max — the newest models that Apple unveiled last week and which will become available this Friday — I’m encouraging a different approach. The bottom line? It’s time to reset our upgrade criteria.

I think this is a wise approach with purchasing anything: you should figure out if a newer version of the product will meaningfully advance how you use it, and whether those improvements are worth the cost to you based on their importance. Here’s where Chen lost me:

So here’s what I ultimately suggest: You should definitely upgrade if your current device is at least five years old. The iPhone 11 models are all a significant step up from those introduced in 2014. But for everyone else with smartphones from 2015 or later, there is no rush to buy. Instead, there is more mileage and value to be had out of the excellent smartphone you already own.

Chen has clarified that the improvements in the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro models are “nice to have, but [not] must have[s]” for owners of, say, an iPhone 6S. I think there are plenty of instances where one could have made a judgement like that, but this year seems like the worst possible one. To be fair, I have not used these phones. But every review I’ve read has extolled extraordinary advancements to camera quality — particularly in low-light situations &mdash and battery life in the 11 and 11 Pro. Those are two of the biggest things that people care about in a smartphone, along with having more storage.1

To be clear, I think Chen’s advice is generally sound. If you’re an iPhone user, Apple is making it completely viable to make your device last four or five years with its latest versions of iOS. But I think Chen undersells the advantages of having a battery that lasts far longer than even a brand new iPhone 6S, and far better photos in non-daylight conditions. I’m not convincing you to upgrade, especially since I haven’t used these devices, but I’m suggesting that these are massive improvements for any 6S owner that wants to take pictures in restaurants or in the evening, and doesn’t like having their phone die.


  1. The iPhone 6S came in 16, 32, 64, and 128 GB configurations, while the iPhone 11 starts at 64 GB — so 6S owners are also likely getting a storage upgrade too. ↩︎

Wariness of Tech Companies Isn’t Necessarily Resulting in Reduced Use

Rob Walker, New York Times:

It’s fun, and increasingly fashionable, to complain about technology.

Counterargument: it has always been “fashionable” to complain about technological change.

Our own devices distract us, others’ devices spy on us, social media companies poison public discourse, new wired objects violate our privacy, and all of this contributes to a general sense of runaway change careening beyond our control. No wonder there’s a tech backlash.

But, really, is there? There certainly has been talk of a backlash, for a couple of years now. Politicians have discussed regulating big tech companies more tightly. Fines have been issued, breakups called for. A tech press once dedicated almost exclusively to gadget lust and organizing conferences that trot out tech lords for the rest of us to worship has taken on a more critical tone; a drumbeat of exposés reveal ethically and legally dubious corporate behavior. Novels and movies paint a skeptical or even dystopian picture of where tech is taking us. We all know people who have theatrically quit this or that social media service, or announced digital sabbaticals. And, of course, everybody kvetches, all the time.

However, there is the matter of our actual behavior in the real-world marketplace. The evidence there suggests that, in fact, we love our devices as much as ever. There is no tech backlash.

Walker’s entire argument is predicated on the fact that despite numerous lawsuits, data breaches, widespread recognition of privacy violations, and antitrust investigations — all of which represent a radical shift in the way we think about technology companies from just a few years ago — consumer use has risen and, therefore, we are not reacting with our behaviour. It is a silly argument that masks misgivings held by the public at large.

An Edelman survey from earlier this year found that respondents in developed nations were weakly trusting of tech companies; it also found that respondents were generally capable of separating hardware manufacturers — which they generally trusted — from social media companies, which they did not. But we still use Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to increasing degrees. We know they’re toxic to us and we know that they don’t give a shit about our privacy, so why do we do it?

Well, probably for similar reasons as we do lots of things that we know are terrible for us. We’ve known tobacco usage increases the likelihood of myriad diseases for decades, but the prevalence of smoking has not consistently declined. Likewise, we’ve known for years that our emissions are smothering the planet, but we keep on emitting at ever-greater rates. Our understanding that something is damaging does not necessarily mean that we will not continue our poor behaviour. After all, we still find that these risky choices are often at odds with how much value we get from these things. We emit more because we heat bigger homes, drive more fuel-thirsty cars, and want more clothes.1

Likewise, we want to send out potluck invitations without starting a gigantic “reply all” email thread, complain about the news in public, and watch goofy videos. We want to passively keep in touch with family, friends, and colleagues. We may even want to experiment with photography.

We’ve weighed all of these clearly- and immediately-tangible benefits against the more difficult question of what effects it will have for us to compromise our privacy to monopolistic tech companies, and many people hesitantly accepted those benefits often years ago. Disentangling your real social life from your electronic social life can be very difficult, especially if you’ve built up years of cruft. It’s a job unto itself.

Predictably, venture capital types have reacted to this article supportively, confident in the safety of their practice of growing the user base of bleeding-edge tech products2 and then slapping some surveillance-based ads on them. It’s easier to loudly dismiss public concerns about technology than it is to reform the business model of many of the biggest Silicon Valley firms raring for their IPO.

Meanwhile, public concern over technology is, indeed, far greater than it was not too long ago. Trust in Facebook dropped precipitously after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke — and didn’t recover after a solid year of serious problems were reported — to the extent that Facebook is pretending to change its business model. Google also decided to become a company that ostensibly protects privacy. If these companies were confident that users didn’t see any problems with their services and business model, why would they feel the need to so aggressively tout their privacy credentials, no matter how weak?

Big tech companies with exploitative business practices are worried that their tainted reputation will overshadow our enthusiasm for the implicit progress of high technology. But you can’t quickly turn this billion-passenger ship around, especially when non-technical publications ignored the privacy and security risks of services like these for years.


  1. We also fail to adequately regulate the biggest polluters, which are not consumers directly. ↩︎

  2. If the product is software-based, it’s probably wedging itself into an everyday industry and stripping it of all regulation because “it’s just a platform”. If it’s hardware-based, it’s something that you own that does not presently have either WiFi or Bluetooth, and now has WiFi and Bluetooth. Fund me. ↩︎

Lock-In and Ecosystems

On an earnings call in 2009, Tim Cook was asked how the company would fare when it inevitably lost Steve Jobs in the CEO post, and he responded by delivering a now-famous explanation of how he views Apple’s core values. It was, typically for Cook, an efficient and profound monologue that, among other statements, captured core truths for what sets the company apart:

[…] We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products that we make […] We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of our groups, which allow us to innovate in a way that others cannot.

I trimmed a fair bit of this, but these two statements complement each other beautifully. The tight integration of the company’s hardware and software — and the individual teams within those disciplines — have come to define the company’s key products: the Mac, iPod, iPhone, iPad, Watch, and AirPods. An arbitrary set of Bluetooth headphones cannot replicate the ease of pairing, connectivity, and device switching that Apple can achieve by building both the hardware and software sides of the AirPods.

Internet services have not been an exception to this, as they are universally better on Apple’s own platforms, but they have offered an opportunity to see what the company will offer on a cross-platform basis. iCloud — as with its MobileMe predecessor — has a Windows client; Apple Music is available for Android phones. The company is bringing the Apple TV Plus service to virtually every platform — including some television hardware. All of these services can be accessed through a web browser, too. But iMessage, Apple Arcade, and Apple News are all stubbornly constrained to products with an Apple logo on them.

And so is the Apple Card. Damon Beres of Medium’s OneZero publication sees all of these things — but particularly the card — as egregious examples of lock-in:

In fact, Apple’s most fascinating hardware release in ages arrived last month, a thin slab of titanium with accompanying software that — yes — you can use to order clothes while in the tub. The Apple Card connects to your iPhone’s Wallet app and can pop up as a default option whenever you use Apple Pay. It makes monitoring your finances kind of pleasant: A digital representation of the card is rendered on-screen and stained with colors (blue for transportation, orange for food, etc.) related to how you’re spending money. And the card, like so many other Apple products in recent years, has been developed not just to provide a good service to consumers but to increase the gravitational pull of the technology brand itself.

Others have certainly noted its major value to Apple: In being such an appealing payment option, and by only working with an iOS device, the Apple Card could be understood less as a typical credit card and more as a trojan horse. It will keep you in orbit around a Cupertino blackhole that sucks in cash for annual iPhone upgrades, new Apple TV+ shows, Apple Music, video games, MacBooks, and AirPods.

Throughout this piece, Beres seems to insist that Apple’s credit card is somehow stickier than that from any traditional financial institution, but I don’t think it is. It’s well-integrated throughout iOS, but so is any card that works with Apple Pay. You can use it with a new iPhone, of course, but it still works with any iPhone that has Apple Pay, all the way back to the iPhone 6. I guess it looks nicer than most credit cards, and the physical version is classy as hell. Is that really “lock in” in a way different from any credit card?

But Beres doesn’t stop at the Apple Card. This article points to all of Apple’s services — including TV Plus, which is, to reiterate, available on virtually all platforms independent of use or ownership of other Apple products or services — as evidence of a giant spinning lock-in machine.

Beres compares this to the approaches of other companies:

Any tech giant worth its salt is doing the same thing. Amazon may not have enough pull in the hardware game to make Prime streaming exclusive to something like the Fire TV Stick, but its Prime credit card, at least, will keep you shopping on Amazon, giving you 5% back on Amazon and Whole Foods purchases. And it has expanded its Alexa service to proprietary tablets, security cameras, and alarm clocks. If you’re into the Amazon Echo, there’s no way you’re going to switch to Facebook’s Portal, which itself hooks into a shared universe of messaging apps like WhatsApp and Messenger. Samsung is trying — and struggling — to establish a line of Galaxy products that tap into its Bixby A.I. Buying a gadget today is rarely a one-off choice; it’s an opportunity for a company to keep you on a platform.

Here’s where I have the most disagreement with Beres, and these arguments of Apple’s ostensibly severe lock-in more generally. I don’t think Apple’s products are necessarily sticky because of an ecosystem effect, but I do think the ecosystem becomes stronger as more users are retained. Apple routinely has one of the highest customer retention rates in the industry, and they regularly report some of the highest customer satisfaction rates. I wonder if there’s a correlation.

To compare this to the lock-in activities of other companies is at its most effective only at a shallow level. Apple’s stuff works better when it’s used in conjunction with other Apple things, of course, but if you want to stop using the company’s products and services, you can do that almost piecemeal or wholesale, if you wish. You cannot say the same about any other major technology company, as Kashmir Hill discovered earlier this year:

Critics of the big tech companies are often told, “If you don’t like the company, don’t use its products.” I did this experiment to find out if that is possible, and I found out that it’s not — with the exception of Apple.

These companies are unavoidable because they control internet infrastructure, online commerce, and information flows. Many of them specialize in tracking you around the web, whether you use their products or not. These companies started out selling books, offering search results, or showcasing college hotties, but they have expanded enormously and now touch almost every online interaction. These companies look a lot like modern monopolies.

No matter how powerful Apple seems to be, it is entirely possible to never use a product or service from them again. It is, I grant you, expensive and time-consuming to change your computer, phone, streaming music service, encrypted messaging platform, and anything else you use from them — your Apple News Plus subscription, I suppose — but it’s not out of the question. It is virtually impossible to stop interacting with non-Apple tech giants. You can’t escape Facebook, either, as their beacons and scripts keep track of you as you browse most popular websites. Google is trying to replace HTML with AMP, and is globally dominant in various horizontally- and vertically-integrated product categories. You can stop shopping at Amazon, but you’re not going to be able to rid yourself of the infrastructure of the modern internet. Apple’s power comes at a platform integration level; their competitors have absorbed themselves into the web and internet. If you wish to participate in the web today, you have little choice but to accept the use of — and tracking by — the services of Apple’s competitors.

That is, I think, true lock-in that makes Apple’s interconnected services, hardware, and accessories look comparatively banal.


One other thing in Beres’ piece I’d like to mention is this paragraph at the top:

Apple’s certainly something different now than it was even just a couple of years ago, when the iPhone X debuted with a notch and a dutifully frenzied press. Its keynote event on September 10, described by my colleague Will Oremus as its least interesting, cemented a new identity for a technology brand that no longer leans quite so much on surprising gadgets to make its name: improvements to the Apple Watch, iPad, and of course the iPhone were short of jaw-dropping. (The Apple Watch’s face is now always on — like, you know, a real watch — and the iPhone gained a third camera lens.)

This is a criticism that has been leveled at every Apple product launch that lacked a radically new hardware design language for the iPhone since the 3GS. In fact, even when there was new hardware, Apple was accused of playing it safe and boring. The iPad was known as “just a big iPod Touch” when it came out in 2010. For the past decade, analysts have called Apple’s products dull and uninspired, and the products have gone on to sell in unfathomably large numbers. Little has changed in that time except the ever-widening gulf in analyst expectation and customer reaction.

Uber’s Chief Counsel Argues That Drivers Are Not Integral to Its Business

Annie Palmer, CNBC:

Uber and Lyft maintain that AB5 won’t immediately change independent contractors into employees. Tony West, Uber’s chief legal officer, said on a call with reporters that the bill builds on legal tests already established in California around how drivers should be classified. West said drivers may not necessarily fall under the new rules laid out in AB5.

“Under that three-part test, arguably the highest bar is that a company must prove that contractors are doing work ‘outside the usual course’ of its business,” West said. “Several previous rulings have found that drivers’ work is outside the usual course of Uber’s business, which is serving as a technology platform for several different types of digital marketplaces.”

That’s not the impression Uber gave in its S-1 filing (emphasis mine):

Our success in a given geographic market significantly depends on our ability to maintain or increase our network scale and liquidity in that geographic market by attracting Drivers, consumers, restaurants, shippers, and carriers to our platform. If Drivers choose not to offer their services through our platform, or elect to offer them through a competitor’s platform, we may lack a sufficient supply of Drivers to attract consumers and restaurants to our platform.

Too vague? How about the voiceover at the very beginning of their partner app tutorial?

Welcome to Uber. Drivers are our most important partners.

I could do this all day.