Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for July, 2020

Mac Catalyst 2.0: Doubling Down on the Alignment of the Mac and iPad

John Voorhees, MacStories:

2020’s Mac Catalyst story is a more complicated narrative than ‘check a box, and your iPad app becomes a Mac app,’ but it’s also one that tells a more compelling story that fits with the alignment of the Mac and iPad as mutually reinforcing systems. The same thing can be seen in the redesign of macOS. The facile view is that the Mac is being remade in the iPad’s image. However, this perspective ignores the migration of features like sidebars, Finder-like file navigation, and cursor support from the Mac to the iPad. Each is evolving based on an overarching vision of creating a familiar but platform-specific UI that helps make users comfortable on any of Apple’s devices without learning different interactions and design metaphors where they don’t serve the unique qualities of each device.

In the limited time I’ve spent with the Messages and Maps apps in Big Sur, both demonstrate that Catalyst is no longer an interesting tech demo, but something that can be used to create viable cross-platform applications. I am impressed by what I have seen, and I hope most developers take the time to create a true Mac experience if they choose to port their app using Catalyst.

I still wonder why any of these apps shipped in such a poor state in Mojave, though. What was the rush?

One Month After Being Acquired by Google, North’s Smart Glasses Will Stop Working

Brooklyn Neustaeter, CTV News:

North, which started as Thalmic Labs in 2012, announced on June 30 that it would be “winding down” production of its Focals smart glasses following the acquisition. After July 31, the “smart” element of the glasses will be unusable.

In a statement posted on the company’s website, North said Focals 1.0, its first generation of smart glasses released last year, will be discontinued. The wearables company also said it has cancelled any plans to ship its second-generation Focals 2.0.

When Apple bought Dark Sky in April, I remember a not-insignificant number of writers complaining about how unfair it was that its API and Android apps would be discontinued, even though Dark Sky and Apple provided clear timelines.

By contrast, Google was not upfront about when these glasses would be killed off; North posted a help article the same day it was acquired. I don’t imagine that the product is particularly successful but, even so, it seems like a dick move to give buyers of its $600 glasses just one month’s notice that they would entirely stop working.

Deadspin Staffers, Who Quit in Protest, Start Defector

In October last year, writers at Deadspin quit en masse after G/O Media’s private equity owners asked them to write only about sports. You would think that this ownership would be thrilled that the site was already profitable and had a dedicated following that enjoyed its unique take on everything, but c’est la vie.

Marc Tracy, New York Times:

Now Deadspin’s former writers and editors — 18 of the roughly 20 who quit last year — have reunited to start a digital media company, Defector Media, that they will own and operate themselves.

Defector Media is scheduled to start a podcast next month and roll out its website in September, its founders said. Tom Ley, a former features editor at Deadspin, will be the editor in chief. The business side will be led by Jasper Wang, a former Bain & Company employee who said he had been an avid Deadspin reader since age 19.

Defector’s founders said the company had no outside investors, and each employee has taken a stake of roughly 5 percent in the venture. Unlike Deadspin, a free site that relies on ads, Defector will offer subscriptions at $8 a month, with an annual subscription available at a discount.

I am somewhat stingy with my subscription purchases, but a year of Defector was a no-brainer — and I don’t even like sports.

Checking Up on Promises Made During Tech Company Acquisitions

Cory Doctorow, writing for the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

[…] Regulators used to go to court to block mergers to prevent companies from growing so large that they could abuse their market power. In place of blocking mergers, today’s competition regulators like to add terms and conditions to them, exacting promises from companies to behave themselves after the merger is complete. This safeguard continues to enjoy popularity with competition regulators, despite the fact that companies routinely break their public promises to safeguard users’ privacy and rarely face consequences for doing so.

Tech companies are not alone in reneging on promises like these. Telecom firms like T-Mobile and AT&T have repeatedly failed to uphold agreed-upon acquisition terms, with absolutely no consequences.

Quarterly Earnings Announcements From All Four Tech Companies Represented at Wednesday’s Antitrust Hearing

Apple PR:

Apple today announced financial results for its fiscal 2020 third quarter ended June 27, 2020. The Company posted quarterly revenue of $59.7 billion, an increase of 11 percent from the year-ago quarter, and quarterly earnings per diluted share of $2.58, up 18 percent. International sales accounted for 60 percent of the quarter’s revenue.

Ina Fried, Axios:

In a conference call following blowout earnings, CFO Luca Maestri said that supply of the new iPhones will come “a few weeks later” than last year, when the new models went on sale in late September.

Mark Gurman on Twitter:

Cook also said that the pandemic likely hurt iPhone and wearables sales, but boosted iPad and Mac purchases. Also said AppleCare and ads were impacted, but said they made record revenue for the App Store, Apple Music, video and cloud services.

Jason Snell notes that this is a record-breaking third quarter. I bet Tim Cook is relieved these results were not yet public during yesterday’s hearing, when big tech companies were accused of profiteering during the pandemic.

Emily McCormick, Yahoo:

Facebook reported second-quarter results that handily topped estimates, growing its user base and advertising business further even during the pandemic and as the social media giant came under increased scrutiny for its policies around policing harmful content on its platforms.

Shares of Facebook rose 5% in late trading to $246.83, as of 4:09 p.m. ET following results.

Casey Newton, the Verge:

The surge in Facebook usage during early shelter-in-place orders in the United States was not just a blip. Daily users of Facebook increased 12 percent year over year, to 1.79 billion. Monthly usage across its family of apps, which also include Instagram and WhatsApp, rose 14 percent, to 3.14 billion. And Facebook’s mostly ad-based based business rose along with them: the company’s revenue was up 11 percent year over year, to $18.69 billion.

It’s not just the uncertainty of the markets right now — Facebook was also ostensibly the target of an advertiser boycott. It didn’t appear to have much impact. I bet Mark Zuckerberg is relieved these results were not yet public during yesterday’s hearing, when big tech companies were accused of profiteering during the pandemic.

Annie Palmer, CNBC:

Amazon reported blowout second-quarter results on Thursday, including a huge beat on the top line and double-digit revenue growth year-over-year, helped by surging sales amid the coronavirus pandemic. The stock climbed about 5.3% after hours.

[…]

Third-party sales grew 52% year-over-year during the quarter, outpacing growth in Amazon’s first-party sales, which increased 48% year-over-year.

I bet Jeff Bezos is relieved these results were not yet public during yesterday’s hearing, when big tech companies were accused of profiteering during the pandemic.

Jennifer Elias, CNBC:

Google parent-company Alphabet beat expectations for its second quarter earnings Thursday, but marked its first revenue decline in company history as the coronavirus pandemic slowed economic growth and advertisers pulled back spending during the quarter. The company’s stock barely moved after hours.

Natalie Gagliordi, ZDNet:

Strong growth in Google’s cloud business helped buoy an otherwise challenging quarter for Alphabet, as ad revenues across Search and YouTube struggle to rebound to pre-pandemic levels.

I bet Sundar Pichai is relieved yadda yadda.

The reality is that all four of these companies are infrastructural elements of working from home — even Facebook, which provides messaging services, can be considered essential. As far as I know, none of them deliberately increased prices to reflect higher demand. Some products did see a jump on Amazon, but that was the result of gougers exploiting the platform combined with the company’s dynamic pricing; Amazon said it was trying to combat gouging. But that’s a side-effect of already-established pricing mechanisms, not an indication that Amazon was taking advantage of a pandemic.

That’s not to say that these companies are benevolent. Whether they kept prices the same out of ethical obligation or simply because it would be a public relations nightmare is up to the whims of your particular brand of cynicism. Maybe it’s a little of both. In a tumultuous economy and with record unemployment in the United States, it sure is hard to look at these numbers and see them as something to celebrate, per se. These earnings are a reflection of the outsized role played by all four companies — and Microsoft, which announced strong growth last week. Tech companies don’t need to engage in profiteering when they are already so dominant.

Antitrust Finally Gets Its Hearing

Casey Newton, the Interface:

And yet for everything there is to criticize about today’s hearing, I came away from it mostly heartened. For the first time in half a century, Congress is taking its role as antitrust regulator seriously, and has undertaken a 13-month investigation that has so far produced 1.3 million documents laden with evidence. Members of the subcommittee have largely come to believe, as I do, that tech companies have grown too powerful and are in need of regulation. Wednesday offered them a chance to show us what they have found so far — and to hint at where they might be going next.

Newton’s is the most optimistic take I’ve seen yet — including my own — with less attention given to Congressional poseurs. I admire that.

You can read a portion of the internal documents uncovered by investigators on the House Judiciary website. One thing I noticed as I was reading through them is how easy it is to become entranced by this dialogue. It’s no wonder that many executives find themselves unable to step out of this bubble.

Ben Thompson’s Questions for Tech Company CEOs

Another good piece written before Wednesday’s antitrust hearing, from Ben Thompson:

To that end, I thought it would be interesting to think about what questions I would ask each of the CEOs were I on the committee — and to be clear, not all of these questions are being antagonistic (to take one example, I actually believe that Apple is justified in not allowing side-loading); I do think they deserve greater scrutiny though. […]

The fact that Apple and Google have more questions than Amazon and Facebook is not an accident: as I detailed in that article they have much more significant antitrust issues. It will be interesting to see if that fact is recognized by the committee. I am also interested to what extent these CEOs address each other; if any one CEO does make statements about another company, I would bet on Tim Cook attempting to raise questions about privacy and data collection, and thus focus more attention on Google and Facebook. Remember, though, this is the antitrust subcommittee — I hope committee members stay focused on competition issues.

I love Thompson’s optimism here, but this panned out almost exactly opposite of how he was hoping. Apple faced the least number of questions; Facebook and Google were each questioned more than twice as often. And, no, it did not stay focused on competition.

Despite Virtual Testimony From Tech Company CEOs, It Was In-Person Congressmen Who Departed From Reality

Robin Givhan, Washington Post:

The hearing was billed as an investigation into online competition. And much of the evidence laid out before Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, speaks to ruthless business practices. Zuckerberg still doesn’t quite grasp the impact of Facebook on civic life. And most of those on the subcommittee weren’t really up to the task of questioning Cook on Apple’s business practices. Still, the voices of small-business owners whose livelihoods had been upended by Amazon were at least piped into the room.

Too many of the Republicans were focused on playing put upon and abused. They seemed more interested in Trump Jr.’s Twitter habit and throwing out accusations of anti-Americanism at the only executive of color testifying. Stifled competition and bullied employees were side notes. The event was virtual, but the disgrace was real. The titans were diminished, but far too many of the subcommittee members were the ones who looked small.

An absolutely perfect summary of an excruciating four hour grandstanding session.

Big Tech’s Power Comes Under Fire at Congressional Antitrust Hearing

Ryan Tracy, Wall Street Journal:

The chief executives of Amazon.com Inc., Facebook Inc., Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google faced relentless criticism at a congressional hearing Wednesday, with Democrats and Republicans alike challenging their business practices.

[…]

The hearing was marked by lawmakers interrupting witnesses before they finished their responses. Mr. Bezos’ video feed went out early in the session, causing Mr. Cicilline to call a recess. At the outset, instead of asking the witnesses to stand and swear to tell the truth, Mr. Cicilline had a different request: “Unmute your microphones and raise your right hands.”

This was ostensibly a hearing about antitrust violations and anti-competitive behaviour, but Republicans by and large used it as an opportunity to accuse Google and Facebook, primarily, of being biased against American conservatives. For example, here’s Florida man Greg Steube recapping some of his questioning on Twitter:

When I confronted Google’s CEO about conservative censorship, he dodged the question.

His company allows videos of violence but blocks videos of medical doctors discussing a medication to treat COVID-19. We need answers and accountability.

It is a symptom of a jaundiced political environment that medical efficacy is being used by people like Rep. Steube as a wedge in his culture war conspiracy theories. It is also completely bananas that he equates minimizing harm from the spread of unproven coronavirus miracle cures with silencing conservative voices.

Rene Ritchie:

At what point does it sink in for Zuckerberg and Pachai that the anti-trust hearings — and fates of their companies — now rest, in part, with people their own algorithms, in part, helped indoctrinate into the cockamamie conspiracy theories now being weaponized against them?

Axios reporter Sara Fischer:

Tech execs always get a free pass from being pressed on serious, substantive issues when they go to The Hill because conservatives, who should care deeply about fair competition, are too distracted by unproven allegations of political censorship.

My problem is not with conservatism more generally, or even necessarily Republicans. It is with a handful of morons — Rep. Steube, Rep. Jordan, Rep. Gaetz, and Rep. Sensenbrenner — who wasted their entire questioning by soapboxing these plainly false theories. A useful public service would be to create a copy of this hearing without their bad faith questioning and, in Rep. Jordan’s case, frequent interruptions. Their presence was an embarrassment that only served to feed the most cynical of people who believe that regulation is inherently bad.

Happily, most of the Democrats on the Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee stayed on topic and repeatedly dug into these companies’ business models, acquisition strategies, and anticompetitive practices. The Verge apparently received under embargo internal Facebook emails discussing a potential acquisition of Instagram. The story, by Casey Newton and Nilay Patel, was published concurrent with Rep. Nadler’s questioning:

It’s a combination of neutralizing a competitor and improving Facebook, Zuckerberg said in a reply. “There are network effect around social products and a finite number of different social mechanics to invent. Once someone wins at a specific mechanic, it’s difficult for others to supplant them without doing something different.”

Zuckerberg continued: “One way of looking at this is that what we’re really buying is time. Even if some new competitors springs up, buying Instagram, Path, Foursquare, etc now will give us a year or more to integrate their dynamics before anyone can get close to their scale again. Within that time, if we incorporate the social mechanics they were using, those new products won’t get much traction since we’ll already have their mechanics deployed at scale.”

Forty-five minutes later, Zuckerberg sent a carefully worded clarification to his earlier, looser remarks.

“I didn’t mean to imply that we’d be buying them to prevent them from competing with us in any way,” he wrote.

Nice save.

Tim Cook’s opening remarks, meanwhile, stuck to Apple’s current antitrust messaging, flaws and all. Rob Pegoraro, Forbes:

Cook has a stronger case with mobile apps. Installing apps on early handheld organizers was not so easy, requiring a download to a computer and then a transfer to the gadget. But by the mid 2000s, Palm OS handhelds and smartphones hosted a thriving market for third-party software.

Apple first ignored that precedent: A year before the iOS App Store’s debut, Steve Jobs told developers to content themselves with shipping web apps for the iPhone.

“The App Store certainly added efficiency and greater breadth, which I wouldn’t argue with—but that’s a function of improving technology,” emailed Mark Vena, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy (his firm also posts on Forbes).

The App Store’s exclusivity over native iOS app distribution rarely came up during today’s hearing, and Cook deftly sidestepped questions about Apple’s control over the market. At one point, when asked about control, he noted that Apple does not control web apps. That’s entirely true, but I cannot recall anyone pressing Cook on whether that’s a fair comparison. Web apps and native apps do not have all of the same capabilities,1 and there is no other avenue by which native apps may be installed on the most popular smartphone model in the United States, the most popular tablet in the United States, the most popular watch in the United States, or an Apple TV.

I wish it were not so easy for Cook to deflect.

Peter Kafka of Vox nailed it before the hearing began:

Some of you already know that congressional hearings are just that — a chance to hear from citizens and government officials. At a minimum, they are a place to get public answers on the record, like the grilling US Attorney General William Barr received from the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday over everything from his handling of the Mueller investigation to his use of federal troops to quell protests in Washington, DC, and Portland, Oregon.

And sometimes, like in Wednesday’s case, they can also be high-profile bits of theater.

Aside from the theatre, gotcha moments, and wild conspiracy theories, what this hearing demonstrated is that insipid antitrust enforcement has failed the American consumer for decades. I’m Canadian — the biggest tech companies in the world are mostly American, but I feel the side effects of a lack of regulatory responsibility.


  1. I have previously argued that this is a good thing, and I stand by that. ↩︎

A Preview of Wednesday’s Big Tech Antitrust Hearing

Om Malik:

The big tech is going through the great American ritual — the making of stars, the praise of the stars, and then the tearing down of the stars. We do it to our celebrities. We do it to our sports stars. And we do it to our technology companies. It is not a judgment on the cause or the punishment. I am merely pointing out the pattern of our media-saturated society. We may not manufacture a lot of things in America, but we produce new heroes and newer villains quite well in America.

At some point, we sour on the success we once celebrated. That is why we have this constant need for new heroes. Frankly, we could use some new heroes in technology. It is hard to romanticize the big tech. It was not always that way.

Kevin Roose:

Gotta love the ultra-earnest people who are like “I hope Congress delves into neo-Brandeisian antitrust theory during tomorrow’s Big Tech hearing.” We will be lucky if we escape without Alex Jones zoombombing in a Captain Shadowban costume.

I don’t know that I agree with Malik’s assertion that it is entirely a waste of time to bring CEOs of four of the biggest tech companies to Washington — metaphorically, if not literally — to answer questions. But he’s right: it’s a manufactured event. Everyone there is wholly aware that they are on camera, so expect the usual grandstanding and loaded questions from those with ulterior motives, mixed with tech support complaints. Maybe we will learn something from the handful of representatives who are genuinely inquisitive and attentive.

Testimony from the four CEOs is available on Congress’ website. Of them, only Sundar Pichai’s matches his company’s branding. Jeff Bezos’ is typeset in Calibri, while Mark Zuckerberg and Tim Cook chose Times. For some reason, Cook’s is a scanned copy of a printed document.

Uzi Nissan, Internet Domain Owner Who Fought Nissan in Court for a Decade, Has Died of Covid-19

Justin T. Westbrook, Jalopnik:

Uzi Nissan, the infamous owner of the nissan.com web domain who fought with the automaker of the same name for nearly a decade in court, has passed away from Covid-19 complications this month.

Please wear your mask in public and look over the Centers for Disease Control guidelines for protecting yourself and others from spreading Covid-19.

I reported on Uzi Nissan’s legacy battling the Nissan car company in court back in early 2018, as my first big assignment as a full-time writer for the website. I interviewed Uzi several times, sifting through a decade of court documents, attempting to recall one of the most inspiring and stubborn underdog stories of the internet age. The only person willing to still piece it all together for me was the man himself, Uzi Nissan.

You should read Westbrook’s report on the battle over nissan.com. It is a story of a half-triumphant, half-hollow legal victory that came at enormous financial and emotional cost.

The Icons of Big Sur

A few of these are better than the icons they replace, a few are worse — what the fuck is going on with that QuickTime icon? — but most are equivalent replacements. Many of the icons I have been ambivalent about since Yosemite I feel similarly about in Big Sur.

One weird thing about these is that Apple is now packaging the icon along with most of an app’s visual resources in the app’s Assets.car file. Back in the days when it was still called “Mac OS X”, you could open up an app’s Resources directory and take a look at all of the .png and .tif pieces that built it, but those days are numbered. If you have even a passing interest in this sort of stuff, I recommend familiarizing yourself with Bartosz Janda’s excellent acextract.

See Also: Nick Keppol’s 2014 article about Yosemite’s redesigned icons.

Reuters Interviews Phil Schiller Ahead of U.S. Antitrust Hearing

Stephen Nellis, Reuters:

“One of the things we came up with is, we’re going to treat all apps in the App Store the same – one set of rules for everybody, no special deals, no special terms, no special code, everything applies to all developers the same. That was not the case in PC software. Nobody thought like that. It was a complete flip around of how the whole system was going to work,” Schiller said.

I know I wrote this once before today, but this simply isn’t true and I don’t understand why Apple’s representatives keep repeating it when it is so easily proved false.

Peter Steinberger enumerated several entitlements given to high-profile developers in a Twitter thread:

Panic’s com.apple.developer.security.privileged-file-operations

BBEdit’s com.apple.security.automation.apple-events

Microsoft’s com.apple.security.files.user-selected.executable

com.apple.developer.passkit.pass-presentation-suppression that we didn’t get

Amazon’s com.apple.storekit.request-data to run purchases without that 30% tax.

Uber’s com.apple.private.allow-explicit-graphics-priority

These entitlements are given to apps from trusted and revered developers; I do not necessarily think that it is wrong for Apple to be selective about the use of these exemptions. But the very existence of anointed apps shows that Schiller’s claim is not accurate.

It also means that it’s harder for an ordinary developer to compete with these apps. Uber’s use of that entitlement allowed it to improve the performance of its Apple Watch app; the entitlement afforded to Panic allows a user of Transmit, purchased through the Mac App Store, to edit unowned files. Microsoft’s products have a host of entitlements that allow for a similar user experience no matter if they were purchased through the Mac App Store or separately. Normal developers, lacking access to these entitlements, may not be able to implement some features with the same experience.

Nellis, Reuters:

In the mid-2000s, software sold through physical stores involved paying for shelf space and prominence, costs that could eat 50% of the retail price, said Ben Bajarin, head of consumer technologies at Creative Strategies. Small developers could not break in.

Bajarin said the App Store’s predecessor was Handango, a service that around 2005 let developers deliver apps over cellular connections to users’ Palm and other devices for a 40% commission.

With the App Store, “Apple took that to a whole other level. And at 30%, they were a better value,” Bajarin said.

This piece of analysis is pretty generous to Apple, and Nellis does not adequately contextualize it or push back. Software differs from physical goods in that it is both pragmatic and typical for creators to sell their product directly to users. I get why the App Store is being compared to other stores and marketplaces, but it isn’t as though buying software from the developer is uncommon.

But the App Store had rules: Apple reviewed each app and mandated the use of Apple’s own billing system. Schiller said Apple executives believed users would feel more confident buying apps if they felt their payment information was in trusted hands.

“We think our customers’ privacy is protected that way. Imagine if you had to enter credit cards and payments to every app you’ve ever used,” he said.

That’s how it has been done for ages, but I think Schiller’s right — I prefer using Apple’s in-app payment mechanism. I wish it was a better solution for developers, even without considering Apple’s commission. I wish it was something developers and users got to choose rather than having it forced upon them.

Apple’s Thirty Percent Cut

Brent Simmons:

Quality costs money, and profitability is just simple arithmetic: anything that affects income — such as Apple’s cut — goes into that equation.

To put it in concrete terms: the difference between 30% and something reasonable like 10% would probably have meant some of my friends would still have their jobs at Omni, and Omni would have more resources to devote to making, testing, and supporting their apps.

Jack Nicas and David McCabe, New York Times:

ClassPass built its business on helping people book exercise classes at local gyms. So when the pandemic forced gyms across the United States to close, the company shifted to virtual classes.

Then ClassPass received a concerning message from Apple. Because the classes it sold on its iPhone app were now virtual, Apple said it was entitled to 30 percent of the sales, up from no fee previously, according to a person close to ClassPass who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting Apple. The iPhone maker said it was merely enforcing a decade-old rule.

Airbnb experienced similar demands from Apple after it began an “online experiences” business that offered virtual cooking classes, meditation sessions and drag-queen shows, augmenting the in-person experiences it started selling in 2016, according to two people familiar with the issues.

[…]

Apple said it believed that Airbnb had long intended to offer virtual experiences — not that the business was created simply because of the pandemic — and that it would continue to do so once the world has resumed to normal. Apple also pointed out that Airbnb had never paid Apple any money despite the fact that it built its multibillion-dollar business with the help of its iPhone app.

At least Apple is being consistent and not offering Airbnb and ClassPass a sweetheart deal, as it did with Hulu and Netflix on the Apple TV.

I’m not sure many people are swayed by the line Apple keeps dropping about how some developers, despite paying no more than the Apple Developer annual fee, have built successful businesses with its platforms. Developers sold software for the Mac decades before the App Store came along — it’s not like Apple got a cut of any of those purchases, but I bet it gained some lifelong customers because of some of that software.

Dieter Bohn, the Verge;

All of these arguments are old hat. And though the Netflixes, Fortnites, and Spotifys of the world are surely vexed by Apple’s policies, I think that for many smaller developers the 30-percent fee is simply not at the top of their list of concerns. Higher priorities likely include prices being driven down, market dynamics being corrupted by free-to-play games, upgrades made difficult because of limited pricing models, review-bombing over subscription fees, and just making payroll.

No matter whether the thirty percent commission is at the top of a developer’s list of priorities, it is only being scrutinized so closely because native third party apps cannot be distributed for any of Apple’s non-Mac platforms outside of the App Store. I feel like something has to give.

John Gruber:

Why not pull a Steve Jobs on the App Store? Cut the commission rate to 85/15 across the board and act like it’s innovative and something only Apple could or would do. Open up the Netflix rule to all developers — maintain the rule that if your app charges money as an in-app purchase, you must use Apple’s in-app payment system — but let any and all apps choose to do what Netflix does if they want to opt out of that, and sign up customers on their own outside the app. Just make all of this antitrust stuff disappear before it even starts by eliminating the complaints about money and maintaining what matters more to Apple: independence and control.

Matt Birchler:

This is done video games (like the Unreal Engine) and coincidentally also in payments, but Apple could have a system where you pay your $99/year to publish your app, and then you don’t pay a penny more unless you sell over X units per year. Maybe that’s 1,000, maybe it’s 10,000, but there would be some cut off where you would go from paying either nothing or a very small portion of each sale to Apple, but once you hit the big time, that percentage would go up to the standard rate.

This would benefit smaller indies who really need every penny to stay float, but it would make no difference to the bigger players, so while it would make some people in our community happy, it would do nothing for the Netflixes, Spotifys, and Amazons of the world.

I’m surprised Apple has let the App Store’s policies drag along largely unchanged for twelve years, even as momentum has built around antitrust cases. This is something Apple could have — should have, I think — dealt with as iPhone and app sales grew. The same goes for its insistence that all developers play by the same set of rules as it exempted some developers from various App Store policies.

These are both choices Apple has made, and it can change at any time. It can be more honest about the way it treats higher-profile developers, and it can modify its revenue agreement.

While it is inaccurate to call the App Store commission a “tax” and it would be inadvisable to duplicate the tax code, Apple has used the App Store’s cut in a similar way. For example, it allowed a handful of tvOS developers to use their own payment mechanisms in exchange for implementing platform features. Along similar lines, I’ve been arguing for years for a progressive fee structure which, I believe, would help independent developers in particular.

I still can’t work out why Apple — a company that notoriously loves control — is risking having its App Store policies changed by regulators.

Update: E.U. regulations took effect a couple of weeks ago that require online marketplaces, like the App Store, to disclose preferential treatment and enforces transparency around search rankings. It also requires Apple to give thirty days’ notice to developers before an app or service is removed from sale, with exceptions for scams, intellectual property infringement, and similar offences. These regulations seem not to apply to console stores, which are not being treated as marketplaces. Via Michael Tsai.

A Bloomberg Report Says That Twitter Has Struggled for Years to Control Internal Access to High-Profile Accounts

Jordan Robertson, Bloomberg:

Twitter’s oversight over the 1,500 workers who reset accounts, review user breaches and respond to potential content violations for the service’s 186 million daily users have been a source of recurring concern, the employees said. The breadth of personal data most of those workers could access is relatively limited — including such things as Internet Protocol addresses, email addresses and phone numbers — but it’s a starting point to snoop on or even hack an account, they said.

The controls were so porous that at one point in 2017 and 2018 some contractors made a kind of game out of creating bogus help-desk inquiries that allowed them to peek into celebrity accounts, including Beyonce’s, to track the stars’ personal data including their approximate locations gleaned from their devices’ IP addresses, two of the former employees said.

If you recognize the byline on this article, it might be because Robertson is one of the two reporters credited for Bloomberg’s as-yet uncorroborated 2018 report about Chinese interception of server hardware. I don’t normally have a problem with Bloomberg’s articles, its use of anonymous sources, or any specific nit to pick in this piece. But it must be read with the knowledge that its author also wrote a high-profile information security story that, nearly two years later, has not been expanded upon by Bloomberg, corroborated by another publication, or commented upon by its reporters.

For the sake of this post, I am assuming Robertson’s sources at Twitter are reliable and that he is conveying this information accurately, but it would be so much easier to read stories like this if someone — anyone — would explain what the hell happened with that “Big Hack” story.

A couple of years ago, Deepa Seetharaman reported for the Wall Street Journal about Facebook’s unfair implementation of employee access:

Facebook alerts users if they’ve been hacked by outsiders but doesn’t inform them about employees’ access. “Anyone can get alerts about unrecognized logins from other users and check for suspicious activity.” the FB spokesman said.

The ability to log into Facebook as a user without needing that person’s password is limited to a small group of security personnel and other employees. Their actions are closely monitored, current and former employees say.

[…]

Employees, though, are always notified when Facebook engineers access their accounts, even when the company is investigating a possible crime or wrongdoing, the person said.

Twitter will also show new and unrecognized logins on the Notifications page and send the user an email. I cannot think of a good reason why a similar notification should not be displayed when an engineer accesses private information in a user’s account — with the exception of criminal investigations when Twitter or Facebook would be prohibited from doing so. Ideally, employees should have to get some sort of confirmation from a user before their account is able to be accessed.

WaPo Reporter Emphasizes Nondisclosure Agreements in Article About Apple’s ‘Find My’ Spec

Reed Albergotti, Washington Post:

During Apple’s annual developers conference last month, it announced that smaller developers would finally have access to its Find My app, a move that on the surface could appease developers who have asserted that Apple has too much power.

It turns out the announcement was not what it seemed, according to a secret Apple document obtained by The Washington Post.

Apple is notorious for its control over disclosure of materials, even internally, but there is nothing especially secretive about the Find My spec. Just about all materials provided to developers are subject to a nondisclosure agreement; by that standard, they are all “secret”. Albergotti seems to find that surprising and maybe nefarious:

But the details of the announcement — kept secret by a confidentiality agreement all developers were required to sign — tell a different story. A 50-page PDF obtained by The Post shows Apple has placed strict restrictions on how consumers will be able to use the app. Apple customers who use Find My to locate a device will be barred from using other competing services simultaneously, the document says.

[…]

Before doing so, developers had to sign an additional document called the “Limited License to Find My Network Accessory Spec,” which prevented them from sharing details about the new specification. The document threatened legal action by Apple against individual developers for speaking about it, according to a developer who downloaded the document. The developer shared the details of the document and spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being sued by Apple.

That developer said the confidentiality agreement was stricter than the ones Apple sometimes distributes along with prerelease software.

If you are an Apple developer, you can find both the nondisclosure agreement and Find My spec on the developer website. And, as an Apple developer, you will likely recognize the format of the NDA as being almost identical to that of any other Apple NDA you have previously signed. Neither are marked “Apple confidential” unlike, for example, a Made for Apple contract. This arrangement is not unique to Apple, either, and Albergotti’s obsession with it has led to shocked and misleading headlines.

It also has nothing to do with the main story:

A 50-page PDF obtained by The Post shows Apple has placed strict restrictions on how consumers will be able to use the app. Apple customers who use Find My to locate a device will be barred from using other competing services simultaneously, the document says.

In the interest of accuracy, the document does not say that customers won’t be able to use competing services. As it is a developer-focused document, it says that devices made for the Find My network may not use other device finding networks. A user is able to use a Find My locating device alongside a locator supported by another service.

But that does seem limiting. It means that Tile, for example, cannot integrate with the Find My app and also use its proprietary spec. Products that do not adopt Apple’s Find My spec also do not get to take advantage of its more permissive access to background location activity. One reason for this could be that there is no reason why a third-party service could not piggyback on the always-running Find My service to get a person’s live location, creating an obvious privacy vulnerability. That’s why third-party services have restrictions on Bluetooth and location access in the first place.

Albergotti does not explore any of these avenues, opting instead to connect these restrictions to the ongoing pandemic:

The Bluetooth antenna limitation became a major issue for countries and states trying to build “contact-tracing” apps to follow the spread of the coronavirus. Because of Apple’s limitations on Bluetooth antenna use, the apps, which were meant to track when people were potentially exposed to the virus, did not work properly. Countries and states pleaded with Apple to allow full access to Bluetooth, but the company refused.

That link points readers to Albergotti’s previous reporting for the Post that misrepresented the restrictions placed on third-party users of location and Bluetooth access in Android and iOS. Perhaps it should have linked to this other Post article that explains how many contact tracing apps built outside of the framework developed jointly by Apple and Google often lack basic security protections and are sharing users’ location data without their consent. Given that, I find it much less mysterious why Apple is so strenuously guarding the use of its other always-on location-based service. Does it have a knock-on effect of disadvantaging third parties like Tile? I guess, though an Apple spokesperson told Albergotti that it offers a means of developing a locator product without having to build out a dedicated network.

This is yet another reason why strict privacy legislation is so badly needed. I don’t know that Apple would offer live location access to developers if it were confident that it wouldn’t be used in ways abusive to user privacy. I think it would; a more cynical person might think it would not. But if private user data were more strictly regulated, Apple would not have to make that choice; instead, users could decide, with less compromise.

User Interfaces for Streaming Video Apps Are Almost Universally Terrible

Alan Sepinwall, Rolling Stone:

The part of the streaming shell game that I’ve never been able to fully understand — and that has somehow gotten worse with each passing year and each new service debut — is just how bad the user experience is on all of them. It’s been 13 years since Netflix began offering streaming content, with Hulu and others soon to follow, yet the user interfaces consistently seem designed to make finding what you want to see — whether continuing a binge or discovering something new — a Herculean effort. Spend enough time toggling between the services, and you’ll want to quote Hall of Fame baseball manager Casey Stengel trying to make sense of the historically inept 1962 Mets: Can’t anybody here play this game?

Via Jason Snell, who writes:

And Sepinwall doesn’t even get into the playback interfaces themselves, which on the Apple TV are maddeningly inconsistent and fail to honor the (very nice) interface conventions of the platform.

I only hop between a handful of streaming media apps on my Apple TV, but they are each uniquely infuriating to an almost impressive degree. I did not know that it is, apparently, so difficult to make an adequate seek bar.

What Happened to Digital Contact Tracing?

Chas Kissick, Elliot Setzer, and Jacob Schulz, Lawfare:

In May of this year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged the United Kingdom would develop a “world beating” track and trace system by June 1 to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. But on June 18, the government quietly abandoned its coronavirus contact-tracing app, a key piece of the “world beating” strategy, and instead promised to switch to a model designed by Apple and Google. The delayed app will not be ready until winter, and the U.K.’s Junior Health Minister told reporters that “it isn’t a priority for us at the moment.” When Johnson came under fire in Parliament for the abrupt U-turn, he replied: “I wonder whether the right honorable and learned Gentleman can name a single country in the world that has a functional contact tracing app—there isn’t one.”

Johnson’s rebuttal is perhaps a bit reductive, but he’s not that far off.

Natasha Singer, New York Times:

Pete Voss, a Google spokesman, said the virus alert apps that use the company’s software do not use device location. That’s including for people who test positive for the virus and use the apps to notify other users. The apps use Bluetooth scanning signals to detect smartphones that come into close contact with one another — without needing to know the devices’ locations at all.

Since 2015, Google’s Android system has required users to enable location on their phones to scan for other Bluetooth devices, Mr. Voss said, because some apps may use Bluetooth to infer user location. For instance, some apps use Bluetooth beacons in stores to help marketers understand which aisle a smartphone user may be in.

Once Android users turn on location, however, Google may determine their precise locations, using Wi-Fi, mobile networks and Bluetooth beacons, through a setting called Google Location Accuracy, and use the data to improve location services. Mr. Voss said apps that did not have user permission could not gain access to a person’s Android device location.

Apple, which does not require iPhone users of the virus apps to turn on location, declined to comment on Google’s location practices.

I imagine this is purely Google’s design for access to Android’s Bluetooth API, but what a mess. It is already impossible to explain the difference between contact tracing apps and the Apple and Google-created APIs that enable them.

Chiara Farronato, Marco Iansiti, Marcin Bartosiak, Stefano Denicolai, Luca Ferretti, and Roberto Fontana, writing for the Harvard Business Review:

One way to drive adoption is to mandate the use of the app — an approach that has worked in China. But in most countries where adoption is voluntary, the uptake has been low. For example, in Singapore, which guaranteed that adoption would be voluntary and that it would respect individuals’ privacy, only 35% of the population are using the app. In Iceland, the first country in Europe to launch its app (in early April), the adoption rate is still less than 40% as of July 8. And the adoption rates have been even lower in other European countries — despite the European Union issuing recommendations for a coordinated approach to design secure, protected, and interoperable contact-tracing apps in April.

I imagine mandating the use of a contact tracing app would be politically impossible in many countries. After weeks of the Albertan government encouraging mask wearing, the city of Calgary only just voted to require masks indoors as of August 1, but they are still not mandated province-wide. Even with its exemptions, plenty of people here are utterly furious and calling for resignations at city hall.

Apple Pledges to Be Carbon Neutral by 2030

Sarah E. Needleman, Wall Street Journal:

Apple Inc. is pledging to become carbon neutral across its business, including its mostly overseas supply chain, within the next 10 years, the latest corporate giant planning to shift its operations to battle climate change.

The iPhone maker said Tuesday that the new commitment means that by 2030, every Apple device sold will have been produced with no net release of carbon into the atmosphere. The company plans to reduce its emissions by 75% and develop carbon-removal solutions for the remaining 25% of its footprint.

Apple said its global corporate operations are already carbon neutral and that all of its iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple Watch devices released in the past year are made with some recycled content.

As Needleman reports, this pledge is similar to those made by Amazon and Microsoft; it also builds upon Apple’s 2017 commitment to make its supply chain a “closed loop”.

Emily Farra interviewed Lisa Jackson, who is leading these efforts at Apple, for Vogue:

Farra: To me, this feels like a turning point in the way brands are taking a stand and getting involved in these issues like climate change, systemic racism—things that were relegated to the government in the past.

Jackson: There is a huge, important role for the government to play when you talk about any of these issues—sustainability, human rights, civil rights. Nothing we do can replace the role of government and leadership, because the government can help set a level playing field so you don’t have companies shirking their responsibilities. There has to be leadership to tackle these big issues on behalf of citizens. We’ve heard companies talk about their social and environmental commitments before, but I think what’s new is that the current generation is saying, “Don’t talk to me, show me.”

Zoya Teirstein, Grist:

Apple also still hasn’t changed its repair policy to allow users and independent fixers to fix phones without Apple’s permission. Right now, people who own Apple products have three options when their devices break or die: spend lots of money on an Apple-authorized repair, void their warranty by going to an unauthorized repair shop, or buy a new device. Giving consumers a “right to repair” would keep electronics out of landfills and cut down on rampant consumerism. Apple’s Environmental Progress Report touts a recent expansion of the Apple Authorized Service Provider network, which should make it easier for users to find repair businesses that can fix their devices without voiding their warranties, and it also says it’s making “design choices so that products are easier to repair.” But Apple is still monopolizing the repair process, even as it notes that “making repairs more convenient and reliable is directly aligned with our goal of creating long-lasting products that maximize the resources we use.”

Apple does a lot to encourage people to keep their old products even as it introduces new ones nearly annually. iOS 14 will run on the five year old iPhone 6S; MacOS Big Sur will run on seven year old Macs. But I think it is fighting a losing battle against right to repair legislation.

Republicans Call on Jack Dorsey to Testify During Monday’s Antitrust Hearing

Lauren Feiner, CNBC:

But Twitter is much smaller than the four other companies already set to testify, making an antitrust argument against the company more challenging. Though size is not necessarily an indication of anticompetitive behavior in the U.S., Twitter holds far less of the social media market than Facebook. Last quarter, Twitter reported 166 million monetizable daily active users (mDAUs). Though it says that metric is not comparable to those for other platforms, it’s far below the 1.73 billion daily active users (DAUs) Facebook reported last quarter.

Still, last week’s hack demonstrated the amount of power Twitter wields by virtue of its elite userbase comprised of journalists, politicians and CEOs. Hackers were able to post fake messages soliciting cryptocurrency from the accounts of prominent people including former Vice President Joe Biden, Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

Conservatives, including [Jim Jordan], have argued that Twitter and other tech companies censor their voices through biased algorithms and inconsistent application of policies, which Twitter has denied. The company has recently become even more of a focus of conservative ire after it placed fact-check and warning labels over tweets by President Donald Trump it claimed had violated its policies. Shortly after, Trump announced an executive order calling for federal agencies to consider new rules around the legal shield that protects online platforms from liability for their moderation practices and users’ posts.

Jordan is the guy that John Boehner called, in a 2017 Politico interview, a “legislative terrorist” and an “asshole”. His behaviour since then has worsened, and this is entirely performative.

Unlike the rest of the companies called to this hearing, all of which are fighting antitrust investigations around the world, Twitter was praised by Margrethe Vestager for its moderation. There is a vast difference between moderation and censorship, and it is a myth that social media companies — Twitter included — have a unique inclination to ban or stifle conservative voices.

By the way, nobody has called any of the major American telecom companies to these hearings despite their long history of blatant anticompetitive practices. This is unsurprising.