Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for January, 2020

California Attorney General Delays .Org Sale to Private Equity Firm

You may remember that, in November, the Internet Society decided to sell the entire .org domain registry to a sketchy private equity firm without any oversight or approval whatsoever.

Well, California’s Attorney General would like some answers about that. Andrew Allemann, Domain Name Wire:

In a letter to ICANN (pdf), the attorney general has demanded responses to 35 questions and information requests. About half of the questions relate to ICANN’s decision to remove price caps on .org domain names. If it gets the answers it demands, it will get much more information than ICANN has previously disclosed about the process and thinking behind removing price caps on .org domain names last year.

The Attorney General’s letter is thorough, and ICANN indicates that it intends to respond at the end of next week. ICANN has also said that it wants approval for the sale to be delayed from February 17 to April 20.

One hopes that it will be declined and this exploitation of not-for-profits and charitable organizations will cease.

FCC to Propose Fines Over Wireless Location Data Disclosure

Margaret Harding McGill, Axios:

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai told lawmakers Friday he intends to propose fines against at least one U.S. wireless carrier for sharing customers’ real-time location data with outside parties without the subscribers’ knowledge or consent.

This is a direct result of excellent reporting last year by Joseph Cox at Vice and two years ago by Jennifer Valentino-DeVries in the New York Times.

The 2019 Apple Report Card

Last January, I sort of weaselled myself onto the list of people Jason Snell asked to grade Apple’s 2019. I’m glad he did end up including me in that list because it was a hell of a year for the company. A few notable excerpts; first, on the Mac in hardware terms:

The Mac’s score rose over last year, and you’d think that our panel would have given Apple credit for introducing the 16-inch MacBook Pro with a scissor-switch keyboard. But its praise for that move was coupled with a whole lot of reservation and a sense that the job’s far from done.

I thought this change was a mixed bag in my submitted remarks:

However, the butterfly keyboard, the most glaring Mac hardware problem in modern Apple’s history, is still built into what are likely the company’s two most popular Macs: the MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Pro. And they are still sold, new, with all the confidence communicated by an extended and unprecedented — for Apple — service program.

On the iPad:

In 2019 Apple decided to call the variant of iOS running on the iPad “iPadOS,” which received praise from some panelists.

Casey Liss said, “iPadOS is definitely a step in the right direction.” David Sparks said, “We just need Apple to keep the gas down on iPadOS improvements.” Federico Viticci said, “Time will tell whether having a separate iPadOS will pay off for iPad aficionados craving annual updates to the tablet’s OS.” Lory Gil said, “iPadOS made 2019 the year of the iPad.”

Viticci’s thoughts are similar to my own: iPadOS is its own operating system mostly in name only. Let’s see what that means for the future.

On software quality, a category that had the biggest year-over-year shift in its average score:

This category took an ugly swing — just as it did between 2016 and 2017. Is this what is meant by a tick-tock development cycle? One year you anger anyone, the next year you make amends. In any event, the iOS 13 and macOS Catalina release cycles… were not appreciated by the panel. If this survey measures general sentiment, the general sentiment is that Apple needs to turn around its flailing software process in 2020.

I gave Apple a two out of five for software quality; here’s what I wrote:

Apple kicked off this year with a FaceTime bug, and that kind of set a tone for the rest of 2019. We can speculate all we want about the causes of bugs — is it the annual schedule of major version updates? Is the company trying to do too much? Is there a secret project that the best software engineers are working on? — but we have evidence of the results. That’s not to say that there were no improvements. But for every step forward, there were serious software bugs, regressions, and unreliability across all of Apple’s platforms in a way that previous years haven’t seen. And Catalyst still bites.

I can only hope that 2020 is a better year. The alternative is that it is just as bad as 2019 was, and that — combined with questionable hardware decisions in years past from which the company is still recovering — will certainly compromise trust in Apple’s lineup to a long-term detriment for the company and its customers.

The Six Colors report card is one of my favourite annual traditions and I’m thankful that I was asked to participate. I look forward to reading it every year.

E.U. Commission Votes to Emphasize the ‘U’ in ‘USB’

Philip Blenkinsop, Reuters:

Members of the European Parliament voted by 582-40 for a resolution urging the European Commission, which drafts EU laws, to ensure that EU consumers are no longer obliged to buy new chargers with each new device.

The Commission should adopt new rules by July, the lawmakers’ resolution said.

The resolution said voluntary agreements in the industry had significantly reduced the number of charger types, but had not resulted in one common standard.

Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo:

Another potential concern is that the new rules could force Apple to ditch its proprietary Lightning Connector which the company uses on the iPhone and some of its iPads. However, that may not necessarily be the case as it appears the EU is mostly focused on creating a standard charging adapter rather than forcing individual devices to use a specific port for charging.

It doesn’t sound like the Commission has any specific rules in mind, only that there ought to be a standard. It’s entirely possible that this is just a call for a standard wall adapter, but the actual port on the phone might not be standardized. But it also doesn’t seem like it has figured out how those rules can change over time.

Rob Enderle: ‘Millennials Like to Print’

Rob Enderle is a doofus, this we know for sure. He’s a pundit who cannot simply be measured on a scale of often right to often wrong. He says things that can only be a byproduct of a dependency on ignorance resin. But he’s fun to check in on every now and again to see what people who aren’t thinking are thinking.

Take, for example, a recent piece he wrote for TG Daily about “HP’s little understood printing success” — a riveting premise, I am aware:

I’m at HP Inc.’s Power of Print 2020 event this week, and there are several interesting takeaways from the event.

This cannot possibly be true.

One is that print isn’t in decline, not really. The numbers folks indicate that while older generations did cut back on printing, Millennials are printing more than their predecessors, which should result in market growth over the long term as these Millennials continue to become the dominant age group.

Enderle appears to contradict this observation just two paragraphs later:

I thought this was interesting that Millennials print around half again as much as older generations do.

(Update: I have heard from several readers who have pointed out that this convoluted sentence actually means fifty percent more compared to older generations. My bad.)

He goes on to give a peculiar explanation for the printing habits of the forever-perplexing millennial generation:

What was also interesting was where they printed, a significant number of them print at work but not at home. This behavior suggests there is a lot of office printing that has little to do with work.

This is pants-on-cone-on-head stupid. You know it, I know it, and he knows it.

Anyway, I’m not linking to this solely to poke fun at the babbling nonsense Enderle passes off as serious business analysis. There’s this, too:

Talking about services, one of the most successful HP Printing efforts is their printing subscription effort, where supplies are automatically ordered and arrive before they are needed. People particularly don’t want to deal with cartridges, and Millennials significantly prefer product approaches that reduce waste and are more environmentally friendly.

HP Inc.’s aggressive efforts to reduce waste, focus on responsible sourcing for paper, and aggressive support for the World Wildlife Fund, have allowed the company to be recognized as one of the leading US firms focusing on protecting the environment. I think there are two big reasons these subscriptions are successful. First, you never have to worry about being out of ink when you need to print, and second, it makes being green simple and easy, and a lot of us of all ages want to do what we can for the environment.

The real reason HP has found financial success with their ink delivery option is because a phony security update crippled third-party cartridges and the company began locking users into DRM-backed subscriptions. Of course, Enderle can’t say this truth because HP is one of his current clients, a detail that this article just happens to omit.

Neil Young Is Back on His Audiophile Bullshit

Neil Young went on the Verge’s podcast this week to complain about digital music again, as he is wont to do, and promote his new book, which features his complaints about digital music. It’s all a load of nonsense gatekeeping. He started off with a rant about streaming music services, and an analogy to streaming video:

You have to associate visuals with audio so you can make the comparison. For instance, if you’re watching a show on […] Hulu or Netflix or, you know, whatever. And you’re watching it and […] you notice that, every once in a while, it gets really fuzzy looking; it’s like, it’s not clear. And then it comes back. […] You know how it gets soft and really fuzzy looking and not really there? And then eventually the signal improves and it comes back? Well, when the signal comes back to perfect, that’s where we were up until the digital age began. Okay? Basically, that’s where everything was at. Analog was all there; everything was clear like that. Now, if you take the softest-looking thing, that’s where we’re at now. That’s where Spotify is, that’s where Apple Music is. That’s where the streaming companies are streaming the lowest common denominator of quality to avoid having dropouts.

I recognize that Young is making a non-literal comparison here, but it’s actually pretty apt for proving his argument wrong. Lossless music would use far less bandwidth than streaming video services do today. It’s totally doable to offer streaming lossless audio — something which, incidentally, Spotify offered for a while. Tidal continues to provide a lossless streaming tier. Young even states later in the interview that he could see a way to do lossless streaming on his discontinued Pono player.

Young claims that there’s no way to hear the difference between lossy audio, lossless audio, and an entirely analogue audio chain; it’s something that, he says, you have to feel. As Fake Steve Jobs once wrote:

So over the holidays I purchased a copy of “Abbey Road” on vinyl. Not a special reissue on fancy 180-gram vinyl. Just an ordinary original copy from Capitol, but in mint condition, never opened. Fired it up on the Linn-Naim rig at home and oh my God. It’s like discovering the Beatles all over again. No wonder we all loved music back in the Sixties and Seventies. First of all, the music was just so friggin good. And what is it about vinyl? It friggin breathes, and I don’t know how or why.

Young says that he’s old enough to know when music sounded great, and that younger people have no idea how good it can be because they have no basis of comparison if they have only ever listened to digital music. Well, Mr. Young, I happen to have a large collection of digital music in lossy and lossless formats, and a moderate collection of vinyl records, new and old. I have many of the same records in a mix of these formats, and I have some background in music.

This argument is utter garbage. I’ve written before about how human ears physically cannot tell the difference between the highest-resolution studio masters and “standard” lossless files. The difference between high-bitrate lossy formats and lossless formats is possibly audible, but it’s not as vast a chasm as people like Young claim. But whether there is any difference to be heard largely depends on how records are mastered.

The thing that makes most music sound bad is that it’s mixed poorly and sonically compressed to hell — and that can happen in the analogue world, too. In an Audio Technology interview (PDF), engineer Jim Scott confirms that virtually everything on the Red Hot Child Peppers’ “Californication” was recorded on vintage Neve analogue equipment to tape — and that album is notorious for sounding like crap. There’s none of the “warmth” and “depth” Young claims to hear in analogue recordings.

For what it’s worth, I love my record player. I have some great-sounding albums in my collection, some of which are quite old original pressings sourced from the best quality a ribbon of audio tape can offer. There’s something of an experience to listening to a physical record that builds on top of the music it contains, as expressed particularly well by Trent Reznor. But I am not at all convinced that the audio quality is more “pure” or reflective of the true musical performance than a decent quality digital file.

Young also spent time denigrating those who make music on their laptop. Apparently, that’s not okay; people should not be doing that if they want their music to be real.

This sort of thing really chaps my ass. Everything about Young’s argument screams that he values the erecting of unnecessary barriers to creating and enjoying art. It isn’t evidence-based; there’s little legitimacy to the idea that analogue audio chains are inherently of higher quality than digital equivalents. His claims echo those who say that you can’t make real music with samplers, synthesizers, or on a computer.

Of course, Young dismisses that his argument is in any way elitist. He says that everything used to be analogue, which means that everything used to be of a higher quality; now, because everything is digital, analogue is a niche and, therefore, quality is a niche and has become unfairly expensive. But if you remove from his argument the fiction that delivery methods are currently the biggest barrier in music audio quality, then his argument remains solely that people should not use computers to make or listen to music. And that’s exclusionary to the people who just want to create their art — even if Young thinks otherwise.

One final point: Young frequently references Steve Jobs whenever he argues about audio quality, even going so far as to claim that the two of them were collaborating on a new iPod. He has also said, numerous times, that Jobs only listened to vinyl at home. While Jobs did, indeed, have a pretty serious record player, I have found zero evidence — aside from things Neil Young has said — to suggest that Jobs did not listen to digital music at home. On the contrary, a 2016 auction featured a portable Sony CD player that was apparently used frequently by Jobs in his kitchen. It seems pretty crass to lie on behalf of a dead person.

A Look Inside the Fraught Development of Aperture 1.0

Chris Hynes shares his experience working on the first version of Aperture. In short, it quickly became a dumpster fire:

Given all that happened, we started looking around for jobs elsewhere right after the product shipped. Since Aperture was well known at Apple to be a disaster, we wondered how our job search would go. When you said you worked on Aperture, you’d get a sympathetic response. Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.

Graciously, Bertrand Serlet, the head of Software Engineering told all his directs that a bunch of great engineers from Aperture were going to be sending out resumes. He told them to ignore the gossip and hire all these people. We are forever grateful for that.

This piece is full of heartwarming stories, but it’s painful read — I cannot imagine working on a project that had such a fraught development period.

I miss Aperture greatly. It is perhaps the piece of software I would choose to resurrect if I could make such a decision. The earliest versions may have been slow and buggy, but I remember running Aperture 1.5 (or thereabouts) on a Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro with a spinning hard disk and it was fast. And it wasn’t just the speed with which Aperture rendered photos or adjustments; it was everything about the app — every interaction, every UI component, every menu, and every panel. Every action felt deliberate and precise. The whole app also looked and felt damn near perfect.

The modern-day replacements don’t have anything like that character. The Photos app may render RAW files pretty quickly, but much of the UI feels slow, fragile, and — in some cases — almost unfinished. I dislike its pure white background, too; if there’s one change I could make to contemporary UI design paradigms, it would be to encourage more sensitivity to colour. Shades of slightly-tinted grey are much nicer than pure white or pure black. And I don’t like that photos expand to fill the entire width or height of the available area, leaving no border or white space.

Lightroom Classic isn’t much better. It feels like an Adobe app, so it doesn’t quite feel at home on either MacOS or Windows. It’s also slow, even on my top-of-the-line iMac.

Maybe this is just the nostalgia talking, but Aperture is, for me, the very model of how a modern MacOS app ought to behave. This year, it would have turned fifteen if it wasn’t unceremoniously dropped.

Apple Sells Over Ninety Billion Dollars Worth of Stuff in Three Months

If you’re a shareholder, you’re probably thrilled right now. A huge quarter for the iPhone, services, and AirPods, plus notable growth in Brazil, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

It’s not all rosy, however. I think there are a couple of low points — or, well, less high points — that are worth pointing out. Earlier this year, Apple hinted at a strong quarter for services; indeed, it was. On the conference call today, Luca Maestri said that the company has around 480 million total paying subscribers to services. But, aside from Apple Music, Apple has so far provided no breakdown of how many paying subscribers it has for any specific service. Apple Arcade and Apple News Plus were each mentioned only once. Apple TV Plus got a fair bit more airtime, but Maestri acknowledged that there aren’t loads of paying subscribers yet:

And so when you take the combination of paid subscribers and bundle subscribers, you get the Apple TV+ revenue. Of course, because we’ve launched the service very recently, the amount of revenue that we recognized during the quarter was immaterial to our results.

The other thing that stood out to me was a year-over-year decline in iPad sales. It may have been the tenth anniversary of the iPad yesterday, but this was its fourth-lowest holiday quarter. I imagine that many users are hanging onto their older iPads, as iPadOS 13 supports models all the way back to the five-year-old iPad Air 2. But I imagine that not updating the iPad Pro at all in 2019 muted sales somewhat.

Anyway, I imagine Apple’s biggest shareholders have each gone home tonight to jump into a pile of cash, Scrooge McDuck style, because they are well-adjusted people just like you and I.

The iPad’s Difficult Business Proposition

When I linked last night to John Gruber’s look at the iPad’s tenth anniversary, I opted to focus on its fractured multitasking environment. But there’s another segment that deserves highlighting:

Ten years later, though, I don’t think the iPad has come close to living up to its potential. By the time the Mac turned 10, it had redefined multiple industries. In 1984 almost no graphic designers or illustrators were using computers for work. By 1994 almost all graphic designers and illustrators were using computers for work. The Mac was a revolution. The iPhone was a revolution. The iPad has been a spectacular success, and to tens of millions it is a beloved part of their daily lives, but it has, to date, fallen short of revolutionary.

Ben Thompson:

It’s tempting to dwell on the Jobs point — I really do think the iPad is the product that misses him the most — but the truth is that the long-term sustainable source of innovation on the iPad should have come from 3rd-party developers. Look at Gruber’s example for the Mac of graphic designers and illustrators: while MacPaint showed what was possible, the revolution was led by software from Aldus (PageMaker), Quark (QuarkXPress), and Adobe (Illustrator, Photoshop, Acrobat). By the time the Mac turned 10, Apple was a $2 billion company, while Adobe was worth $1 billion.

There are, needless to say, no companies built on the iPad that are worth anything approaching $1 billion in 2020 dollars, much less in 1994 dollars, even as the total addressable market has exploded, and one big reason is that $4.99 price point. Apple set the standard that highly complex, innovative software that was only possible on the iPad could only ever earn 5 bucks from a customer forever (updates, of course, were free).

Craig Hockenberry:

Universal apps are the worst thing that ever happened to the iPad.

The economics for developers are to make a big iPhone app or ignore the device altogether. No business model = no innovation.

A selection of iPad-optimized apps may continue to differentiate it from its competitors, but it has taken forever to get the biggest developers on board with creating real versions of their software for the iPad. You would have thought Adobe, in particular, would be clamoring to release a true version of Photoshop for the iPad, but it took them until late last year — and it’s still very much a work in progress. Microsoft was much faster, but it still took them over four years after the iPad’s debut to launch a compatible version of Office.

One thing these apps have in common is that they are now subscription-based. On that front, the App Store on the iPhone and iPad has been revolutionary. Apple first encouraged developers to price their iPad software far below Mac equivalents — GarageBand was $5 on the iPad, but Apple charged $79 for iLife on the Mac, of which GarageBand was one part — and has never had an official mechanism for offering paid updates through the App Store. Developers realized that they could instead offer their apps for free and require a paid account; Apple made this arrangement official in 2016. Neither the iPad nor the App Store are singlehandedly responsible for the software-as-a-service business model, but they have each been a beneficiary of it.

Unfortunately, the simplicity of buying a license to use a piece of software has all but vanished.

The iPad Awkwardly Turns Ten

Today is the tenth anniversary of the day that Steve Jobs took the stage at Yerba Buena and introduced the world to the iPad. It went on sale in April 2010 and ended up being Apple’s fastest selling new product ever.

Plenty of writers have been acknowledging this anniversary today — Tom Warren at the Verge and John Voorhees at MacStories both wrote articles worth your time; Ryan Houlihan of Input interviewed Imran Chaudhri and Bethany Bongiorno, both of whom worked on the original iPad.

But no article has hit the mark for me quite like John Gruber’s:

The iPad at 10 is, to me, a grave disappointment. Not because it’s “bad”, because it’s not bad — it’s great even — but because great though it is in so many ways, overall it has fallen so far short of the grand potential it showed on day one. To reach that potential, Apple needs to recognize they have made profound conceptual mistakes in the iPad user interface, mistakes that need to be scrapped and replaced, not polished and refined. I worry that iPadOS 13 suggests the opposite — that Apple is steering the iPad full speed ahead down a blind alley.

I agree with Gruber’s criticism of the iPad’s multitasking model in design terms, but I find myself increasingly frustrated by the myriad ways using an iPad makes simple tasks needlessly difficult — difficulties that should not remain ten years on.

There are small elements of friction, like how the iPad does not have paged memory, so the system tends to boot applications from memory when it runs out. There are developer limitations that make it difficult for apps to interact with each other. There are still system features that occupy the entire display. Put all of these issues together and it makes a chore of something as ostensibly simple as writing.

Writing this post, for example, involved tapping a bookmarklet and saving the title and link URL as a draft. I rewrote the title, selected it — with some difficulty, as text selection on the iPad remains a mysterious combination of swipes and taps — then tapped the “Share” option and passed the selection to the Text Case app. The title case-converted text was placed on my clipboard with a tap, as there’s no way for the app to simply replace the selected text inline, and then another incantation was performed to select the title again and replace it with the text on the clipboard. As I typed out the body text, words were inexplicably selected and the cursor was moved around. Sometimes, after holding the delete key to remove a few words, the keyboard would be in uppercase mode. To get all of the links for the second paragraph, I had to open a few Safari tabs. I received a message notification midway through this and needed to open Notification Centre to read it, which took over the whole display for a handful of balloons half its width. I tapped to reply, then switched back to Safari. It had apparently been dumped from memory in the background, perhaps because I opened the photo picker in Messages, so the tabs I opened before had to reload.

Each of these problems is tiny but irksome. Combined, it makes the iPad a simplistic multitasking environment presented with inexplicable complexity.

No device or product I own has inspired such a maddening blend of adoration and frustration for me as the iPad, and certainly not for as long in so many of the same ways.

Avast Antivirus Software Collects User Browsing History for Sale by Jumpshot Subsidiary

Last month, you may remember, Avast’s web browser extensions were caught collecting every website users were visiting for sale by its Jumpshot subsidiary. Those extensions were pulled and the company insisted that the information had no personal information attached:

As a final assurance, [Avast CEO Ondrej Vlcek] told Forbes he recognizes customers use Avast to protect their information and so it can’t do anything that might “circumvent the security of privacy of the data including targeting by advertisers.”

“So we absolutely do not allow any advertisers or any third party … to get any access through Avast or any data that would allow the third party to target that specific individual,” he adds. […]

Instead of behaving more ethically, Avast decided to turn their free antivirus software into a piece of spyware.

Joseph Cox, Vice:

The documents, from a subsidiary of the antivirus giant Avast called Jumpshot, shine new light on the secretive sale and supply chain of peoples’ internet browsing histories. They show that the Avast antivirus program installed on a person’s computer collects data, and that Jumpshot repackages it into various different products that are then sold to many of the largest companies in the world. Some past, present, and potential clients include Google, Yelp, Microsoft, McKinsey, Pepsi, Sephora, Home Depot, Condé Nast, Intuit, and many others. Some clients paid millions of dollars for products that include a so-called “All Clicks Feed,” which can track user behavior, clicks, and movement across websites in highly precise detail.

Avast claims to have more than 435 million active users per month, and Jumpshot says it has data from 100 million devices. Avast collects data from users that opt-in and then provides that to Jumpshot, but multiple Avast users told Motherboard they were not aware Avast sold browsing data, raising questions about how informed that consent is.

Michael Kan, PC Magazine:

The data collected is so granular that clients can view the individual clicks users are making on their browsing sessions, including the time down to the millisecond. And while the collected data is never linked to a person’s name, email or IP address, each user history is nevertheless assigned to an identifier called the device ID, which will persist unless the user uninstalls the Avast antivirus product.

[…]

“Most of the threats posed by de-anonymization — where you are identifying people — comes from the ability to merge the information with other data,” said Gunes Acar, a privacy researcher who studies online tracking.

He points out that major companies such as Amazon, Google, and branded retailers and marketing firms can amass entire activity logs on their users. With Jumpshot’s data, the companies have another way to trace users’ digital footprints across the internet.

According to the Jumpshot privacy policy, granular data like this is shared with LiveRamp, among other companies. On its website, LiveRamp brags about its ability to connect customer-specific data from multiple providers under a single identification number. So, it’s not your name, but it is a name, and it’s specific to you. LiveRamp insists that it implements “privacy by design”, but it’s hard to square that with the company’s stated abilities.

Of course, Avast knows de-anonymization is trivial. That’s why it sells an anti-tracking product that explicitly promises to “disguise your online behavior so that no one can tell it’s you” for just $65 per year. That’s nice of Avast: it will sell your identity, and also sell you a product that promises to prevent companies from selling your identity.

Update: Avast has announced that they are shutting down Jumpshot.

Banning Facial Recognition Misses the Point

Bruce Schneier, in an op-ed for the New York Times:

Regulating this system means addressing all three steps of the process. A ban on facial recognition won’t make any difference if, in response, surveillance systems switch to identifying people by smartphone MAC addresses. The problem is that we are being identified without our knowledge or consent, and society needs rules about when that is permissible.

Similarly, we need rules about how our data can be combined with other data, and then bought and sold without our knowledge or consent. The data broker industry is almost entirely unregulated; there’s only one law — passed in Vermont in 2018 — that requires data brokers to register and explain in broad terms what kind of data they collect. The large internet surveillance companies like Facebook and Google collect dossiers on us more detailed than those of any police state of the previous century. Reasonable laws would prevent the worst of their abuses.

Finally, we need better rules about when and how it is permissible for companies to discriminate. Discrimination based on protected characteristics like race and gender is already illegal, but those rules are ineffectual against the current technologies of surveillance and control. When people can be identified and their data correlated at a speed and scale previously unseen, we need new rules.

This is a timely article — not only because of the publicity Clearview AI has received, but also because the European Commission is considering a ban on the use of facial recognition in public, as London’s Metropolitan Police have announced they will be using widely.

Motorola Tells New Razr Users That ‘Bumps and Lumps Are Normal’

Alyse Stanley, Gizmodo:

Motorola released a whole slew of YouTube videos Sunday about its new Razr, a revamped throwback to its mid-2000s flip phone of the same name, in celebration of the phone’s pre-order launch. But with them came a disclaimer about the foldable phone: “Screen is made to bend; bumps and lumps are normal.”

Pre-sales became available today exclusively through Verizon at $1,499, though the phones won’t ship out until Feb. 14, according to Verizon’s website, and not on Feb. 6 as Motorola previously announced.

Nothing builds confidence for a thousand-dollar device than the manufacturer reassuring me that it’s normal for it to deform over time.

It seems like ever such a long time ago that tech writers were complaining about the prices of smartphones these days — and those were finished, reliable products.

Ars Technica Reviews the Samsung Galaxy Fold

Ron Amadeo reviewed the Samsung Galaxy Fold for Ars Technica and does not seem impressed:

The inside screen would benefit a lot from being bigger. While the inner aspect ratio is the same as an iPad Mini, in practice the two devices are nothing alike. The 7.3-inch Galaxy Fold display is noticeably smaller than a 7.9-inch iPad Mini, and, critically, the iPad doesn’t have to waste space on an on-screen navigation bar and a giant camera notch. An iPad aspect ratio doesn’t work when you have to chop off sections of the screen like this—iOS dedicates nearly the entire display to the app area, and the Galaxy Fold does not. Overall, there’s just not enough room on the Fold display for apps to make it a significant improvement, or any improvement at all, over a regular smartphone.

A wider body would also allow for a smartphone-sized front screen instead of the tiny, useless screen that is on the front now. It could display apps at a normal size, with a normal width, and the keyboard would be usable. A wider body would also allow for a wider interior screen, which would be better for split screen, better for media, better for multi-pane tablet apps, and more normal for most Android games.

However Samsung arrived at this form factor for the Galaxy Fold, it’s a disaster. Nothing justifies this shape. Neither screen is good for its intended purpose, and this is something anyone could figure out if they just tried the phone for a few minutes next to a normal smartphone. You don’t see more Android content on the bigger screen, the app area is not the right aspect ratio for split screen, and most forms of media would benefit from a wider, less square screen. With such a considerable increase in price and heft over a normal smartphone, the Galaxy Fold just isn’t worth it.

This is a review of the Samsung Galaxy Fold as a product, and it is a brutal invective. But let’s be realistic: the Fold should not be a product. It is a prototype that you can, for some reason, buy today. Its hardware is ill-considered; its software feels like a stretched smartphone rather than a shrunken tablet. This is a two thousand dollar way to say “first”.

Volkswagen Executive Speculates That Fully Self-Driving Cars May Not Be Realistic

Chris Chin, the Drive:

A quick primer on the now-industry-standard SAE International rules on how to discuss self-driving abilities: Level 0 is no automation whatsoever. Level 1 is partial assistance with certain aspects of driving, like lane keep assist or adaptive cruise control. Level 2 is a step up to systems that can take control of the vehicle in certain situations, like Tesla’s Autopilot or Cadillac’s Super Cruise, while still requiring the driver to pay attention.

Get past that and we enter the realm of speculation: Level 3 promises full computer control without supervision under defined conditions during a journey, Level 4 is start-to-finish autonomous tech limited only by virtual safeguards like a geofence, and Level 5 is the total hands-off, go literally anywhere at the push of a button experience where the vehicle might not even have physical controls.

Sitting down with WardsAuto at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, VW Autonomy’s Alex Hitzinger said Level 4 might be the realistic limit for what automakers can build. He wasn’t shy in pointing out the relative difficulty of trying for full Level 5 autonomy.

I am skeptical that generally available cars will make the jump from third-level autonomy to fourth-level within this decade, and I have no expectation that any car will get to fifth-level autonomy in my lifetime. I simply don’t think it’s reasonable that a vehicle will be able to drive itself anywhere on Earth that can be traversed by cars today under any weather conditions — without the intervention of a human driver.

One of the reasons auto manufacturers have given for their interest in autonomous vehicles is their ability to reduce collisions. If that’s the case, why not set a goal of making entirely reliable collision avoidance systems? I know that’s less cool than a car that can drive itself, but it’s much more practical.1

I am also prepared to eat humble pie.


  1. Better still would be greater investment in public transit which, in some circumstances, is fully automated. I know this is even duller than collision avoidance systems, but it’s also better for cities. ↩︎

The Curious Case of Fourteen Bytes

One of the bigger mysteries associated with the hack of Jeff Bezos’ iPhone X is how, exactly, it was breached. A report yesterday by Sheera Frenkel in the New York Times appeared to shed some light on that:

On the afternoon of May 1, 2018, Jeff Bezos received a message on WhatsApp from an account belonging to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

The two men had previously communicated using WhatsApp, but Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, had not expected a message that day — let alone one with a video of Saudi and Swedish flags with Arabic text.

The video, a file of more than 4.4 megabytes, was more than it appeared. Hidden in 14 bytes of that file was a separate bit of code that most likely implanted malware, malicious software, that gave attackers access to Bezos’ entire phone, including his photos and private communications.

The detail attributing the breach to fourteen bytes of malware was entirely new information, and not reported elsewhere. But I’m linking here to the Chicago Tribune’s syndicated copy because the version currently on the Times’ website no longer makes the same specific claim:

The video, a file of more than 4.4 megabytes, was more than it appeared, according to a forensic analysis that Mr. Bezos commissioned and paid for to discover who had hacked his iPhone X. Hidden in that file was a separate bit of code that most likely implanted malware that gave attackers access to Mr. Bezos’ entire phone, including his photos and private communications.

Despite this material change, there is no correction notice at the bottom of the article. The forensic report (PDF) acknowledges that “the file containing the video is slightly larger than the video itself”, but does not cite a specific figure. It does, however, state that the video file is 4.22 MB, not “more than 4.4” as stated in the Times report.

I know this seems ridiculously pedantic, but I want to know how this discrepancy can be explained. The UN press release also does not contain any more specific details. Is this just a weird instance of miscommunications that haven’t been fact-checked? Or is this perhaps news that hasn’t been fully confirmed? For example, is there another forensic report that hasn’t yet been made public?

This matters, I think, because it could suggest a difference between whether the H.264 MP4 video decoder on iOS has a vulnerability, or if it’s something specific to the WhatsApp container. If the former is true, that means that this isn’t just something that WhatsApp users need to watch out for.

It used to be the case that vulnerabilities like these were kept extremely close to the vest and only used on specific high-value targets. But, ever since we found out that China was attacking Uyghur iPhone users broadly, I’m no longer as convinced that not being a prominent individual is enough to avoid being a target.

Update: Ben Somers points out that 4.22 MiB roughly converts to 4.4 MB, which may be the source of that part of the discrepancy. The fourteen bytes are still unaccounted for.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that one reason that I wanted to draw attention to this story is because the Times often fails to post correction notices for online stories that have been updated after publication. I think this practice is ridiculous.

Update: A paragraph later in the story references the fourteen byte mystery, now with more context:

The May 2018 message that contained the innocuous-seeming video file, with a tiny 14-byte chunk of malicious code, came out of the blue, according to the report and additional notes obtained by The New York Times. In the 24 hours after it was sent, Mr. Bezos’ iPhone began sending large amounts of data, which increased approximately 29,000 percent over his normal data usage.

This wasn’t in the story last time I checked. There still isn’t a corrections or updates notice appended to the Times article. Thanks to Lawrence Velázquez for bringing it to my attention.

Clearview AI Founder Has a History of Far-Right Connections

Ryan Mac, Caroline Haskins, and Logan McDonald, Buzzfeed News:

Originally known as Smartcheckr, Clearview was the result of an unlikely partnership between Ton-That, a small-time hacker turned serial app developer, and Richard Schwartz, a former adviser to then–New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. Ton-That told the Times that they met at a 2016 event at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, after which they decided to build a facial recognition company.

While Ton-That has erased much of his online persona from that time period, old web accounts and posts uncovered by BuzzFeed News show that the 31-year-old developer was interested in far-right politics. In a partial archive of his Twitter account from early 2017, Ton-That wondered why all big US cities were liberal, while retweeting a mix of Breitbart writers, venture capitalists, and right-wing personalities.

It is revealing that the people behind tools that are borderline unethical and threaten our privacy expectations often also happen to be aggressively protective of their own privacy.

Apps Made the iPad a Ten-Year Success Story

Jason Snell, Macworld:

In the second part of the presentation, Scott Forstall (then Apple’s software chief) invoked the App Store, which had already become wildly successful after less than two years in operation. It was the App Store’s Gold Rush era, and Forstall’s message was clear: There’s a new Gold Rush coming, and it’s in iPad apps. And if developers wanted their apps to be prominently featured on the App Store for iPad, Forstall pointed out, those apps would need to be updated to support it. iPhone-only apps would run, but they’d do so in a diminished compatibility mode and be relegated to the back pages of the App Store.

The iPad was introduced in January, but it didn’t ship until April — and Apple released tools for developers to build iPad apps the very day the product was announced. The message was clear: Build iPad apps and a flood of users will come your way. You’ve got three months.

Forstall was also quick to point out that good iPad apps were more than just blown-up iPad versions. Several compliant developers were brought out to demo how they’d already begun work on reconceptualizing their iPhone apps for a larger screen, including MLB At Bat and the New York Times.

Really great apps designed for the iPad indeed make it a uniquely worthwhile and good experience. It’s a shame, then, that some developers in the past few years — Apple included — have been putting less effort into designing apps specifically for the iPad. It remains somewhat dispiriting to see that the biggest difference between the iPhone and iPad versions of an app is that there is an always-visible sidebar in the left third of the screen area. Even system features like Siri are half-assed ports on the iPad.

But that could all change soon. One of the most interesting things to happen in 2019 was the bifurcation of iOS into “iOS” for the iPhone and iPod Touch, and “iPadOS” for the iPad. So far, this change has largely been in name only, but I am hopeful that this signals a future in which iPad apps and features are more specific to the platform. Apple has also been steadily updating the iPad at both the high and low ends of its lineup, which is equally good news for the platform.

Forensic Investigators Find That Jeff Bezos’ iPhone Was Likely Compromised Directly by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia

Mehul Srivastava, Financial Times:

Forensic experts hired by Jeff Bezos have concluded with “medium to high confidence” that a WhatsApp account used by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was directly involved in a 2018 hack of the Amazon founder’s phone.

A report on the hack, which has been seen by the Financial Times, says Mr Bezos’ phone started surreptitiously sharing vast amounts of data immediately after receiving an apparently innocuous, but encrypted video file from the prince’s WhatsApp account in May 2018.

Kim Zetter and Joseph Cox of Vice obtained that report:

That file shows an image of the Saudi Arabian flag and Swedish flags and arrived with an encrypted downloader. Because the downloader was encrypted this delayed or further prevented “study of the code delivered along with the video.”

Investigators determined the video or downloader were suspicious only because Bezos’ phone subsequently began transmitting large amounts of data. “[W]ithin hours of the encrypted downloader being received, a massive and unauthorized exfiltration of data from Bezos’ phone began, continuing and escalating for months thereafter,” the report states.

Investigators say in the report that their efforts were hampered somewhat by WhatsApp’s encryption, but they have suggested that a followup step would be to jailbreak Bezos’ iPhone to examine its file system.

Also of note: Bezos creates an encrypted backup of his iPhone using iTunes; he has iCloud Backups disabled. But investigators were not able to extract the encrypted backup. It’s unclear whether Bezos forgot his password or was unable to supply it for another reason.