Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for August, 2020

Facebook Here — May We Interest You in Some Transparency?

Whitney Kimball, Gizmodo:

If you haven’t been on the receiving end of updates from Facebook comms, then you’re lucky to have avoided the equivalent of a weekly robocall pitching you new and exciting offerings. We got another one today, this time on the subject of “Recommendation Guidelines.”

These crumbs always seem to appear around when Facebook is implicated in something awful. In this case, it was leaving up the “Kenosha Guard” vigilante page which 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse was part of, despite over 450 user reports. Rittenhouse is charged with two counts of homicide and one of attempted homicide after opening fire with an illegally-owned gun into a crowd of protesters. Leaving the page up was an “operational mistake” according to Mark Zuckerberg.

Anyway, here’s some transparency!

Kimball explains that these guidelines are not new. Facebook is merely making them public and spinning that for some positive coverage since, day after month after year, reporting has revealed how shitty Facebook seems to be at, well, everything.

Can Duruk:

With all the negative press around, you might think they are not doing a good job at avoiding criticism, but consider the alternative that they’ve been able to weather all this because they’ve been able to deflect the criticism and avoid scrutiny and accountability. I know this all sounds pretty unhinged right now, but, stay with me. This is a company who hires conservative politicians to its highest ranks in multiple countries, while maintaining a veneer of political neutrality. The same company pretends its not the arbiter of truth while employing tens of thousands of people to do exactly that. Ask yourselves: What has changed at Facebook?

[…]

At some point, the multi-dimensional reality will clash with the supposed two-dimensional narrative. The cute catchphrases and the sober speeches will no longer be able to act as the glue between what the company thinks it is, and what it really is. You can also wrap together so much PR ganache over what is a pile of turd. And who knows, maybe they are not even that good at that either. This, after all, is a company that once thought comparing itself to a chair was a good idea.

Facebook controls the news that billions of people around the world see every day but, along the lines of Duruk’s piece, it still seems to be responding to moderation failures by smoothing over public relations instead of, like, changing. Sure is easy to move fast and break things when you can claim that you know nothing about the mess and it is, in fact, not a mess but an opportunity — or whatever.

Apple Notarized Commonly-Used MacOS Malware

Lily Hay Newman, Wired:

College student Peter Dantini discovered the notarized version of Shlayer while navigating to the homepage of the popular open source Mac development tool Homebrew. Dantini accidentally typed something slightly different than brew.sh, the correct URL. The page he landed on redirected a number of times to a fake Adobe Flash update page. Curious about what malware he might find, Dantini downloaded it on purpose. To his surprise, macOS popped up its standard warning about programs downloaded from the internet, but didn’t block him from running the program. When Dantini confirmed that it was notarized, he sent the information on to longtime macOS security researcher Patrick Wardle.

“I had been expecting that if someone were to abuse the notarization system it would be something more sophisticated or complex,” says Wardle, principal security researcher at the Mac management firm Jamf. “But in a way I’m not surprised that it was adware that did it first. Adware developers are very innovative and constantly evolving, because they stand to lose a ton of money if they can’t get around new defenses. And notarization is a death knell for a lot of these standard ad campaigns, because even if the users are tricked into clicking and trying to run the software, macOS will block it now.”

The good news is that Apple was able to revoke the app’s notarization the same day this was reported, so any copies in the wild have now been rendered inoperable.

The bad news is that this is evidence that notarization is not as sufficient a prophylactic as I had hoped. It is unclear that notarization offers improvements for disabling malicious software over Apple’s existing mechanisms.

Perhaps it is the case that the notarization process really is restricting the spread of malware and helping ensure the safety of Mac users. But, as this process is entirely opaque and it failed to recognize a common type of malicious software, it seems like an extraneous step.

‘A Travelogue of Monopoly’

Asher Schechter, of ProMarket, interviewed David Dayen about monopoly power and antitrust regulation:

Q: The contrast between ordinary people and the experts is at the heart of your book. The people you interview (and polls show that most Americans as well) seem to have at least an intuitive understanding that competition is waning, yet at least until very recently, most antitrust experts were very opposed to this notion. How do you explain this disconnect?

You have to give the American people a little bit of credit here. They don’t sit there and study the changes in antitrust doctrine and how it has moved from a story of anticompetitive harms to a story about consumer welfare. That’s not how they live their lives.

They don’t just see themselves as consumers. They are workers. They are members of the community. They are, in some cases, small businesses and entrepreneurs. They are all citizens.

They see the infringement on their liberty as such, in all of those different contexts. They see themselves that we are more than our Amazon Prime accounts. We’re more well-rounded than that. The antitrust doctrine that we’ve seen over the last 40 years simply does not match the lived experience of people.

One of the unique characteristics of this laissez-faire approach to antitrust regulation in the United States is how it affects global trade. It’s sort of the opposite of Boeing and Airbus each accuse the other of improper government subsidization; the effect of lax regulation is like having a thumb unfairly lifted off the scale.

The Room

Paul Ford, in an essay for the Message in 2014:

The curtains are drawn. Some light comes through, casting a small glow on the top left of the air conditioner. It’s daytime. The wall is an undecorated slab of beige. That is the American room.

[…]

It’s a standardized room. Like Diet Coke or iPhones, American rooms are a kind of product, built as quickly and cheaply as possible to a standardized specification. Here are Benjamin Moore’s best-selling shades of white. Look familiar?

I live in a 1970s apartment building; my walls are a predictable off-white with eight foot ceilings. It is not ideal. Working from home has required me to make the most of this limited canvas. I have framed and hung many pictures, including stored artworks and some photos I have taken.

Amanda Hess, writing earlier this year in the New York Times:

Imagine that you are a member of the expert class — the kind of person invited to pontificate on television news programs. Under normal circumstances, your expertise might be signaled to the public by a gaudy photograph of skyscrapers superimposed behind your head. But now the formalities of the broadcast studio are a distant memory, and the only tools to convey that you truly belong on television are the objects within your own home. There’s only one move: You talk in front of a bookcase.

The Times separately reported on the conspicuous placement of Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker” on bookshelves of what it calls the “political class”.

I also recommend Andrew Ishak’s tutorial on making a room look more “professorial” for remote instruction.

Apple Once Again Rumoured to Be Working on a Web Search Engine

Jon Henshaw (via MacRumors):

Regulatory pressure, a contentious relationship with Google, and the maturation of Apple’s Siri and iCloud are presenting an opportunity for Apple to create and launch a search engine. There are several signs right now that indicate Apple may be doing just that.

[…]

Based on Apple’s numerous search engineer job descriptions, and the continued consolidation of web and app results in Spotlight Search, an Apple search engine will likely function as a highly personalized data hub. It will be similar to Google Assistant on Android, but different since it (initially) won’t have ads, will be completely private, and have significantly deeper integrations with the OS.

An Apple web search engine to rival Google has been rumoured for years: I found stories from 2018, 2015, 2010, and 2008. My instincts — and the multibillion-dollar contract it has with Google — tell me that I should add this to the trash heap of forgotten Apple rumours and call it a day.

After all, it isn’t like Apple doesn’t have a search engine — it does, but it is only accessible from its own products. Does it make sense for it to be more widely available on the web? Apple has been offering more web apps and services recently, so it feels more plausible. Add regulatory pressure on default search engines and it transforms this story, in my head, from unlikely to strong maybe.

Also — and this is a complete guess — it feels like a good opportunity for Apple to repurpose its siri.com domain, doesn’t it?

Uber and Lyft Are Counting on Automation

Aaron Benanav, the Guardian:

One might assume that misclassifying drivers as independent contractors enables rideshare companies such as Uber to make exorbitant profits. The reality is far weirder. In fact, Uber and Lyft are not making any profits at all. On the contrary, the companies have been haemorrhaging cash for years, undercharging users for rides in a bid to aggressively expand their market shares worldwide. Squeezing drivers’ salaries is not their main strategy for becoming profitable. Doing so merely slows the speed at which they burn through money.

The truth is that Uber and Lyft exist largely as the embodiments of Wall Street-funded bets on automation, which have failed to come to fruition. These companies are trying to survive legal challenges to their illegal hiring practices, while waiting for driverless-car technologies to improve. The advent of the autonomous car would allow Uber and Lyft to fire their drivers. Having already acquired a position of dominance with the rideshare market, these companies would then reap major monopoly profits. There is simply no world in which paying drivers a living wage would become part of Uber and Lyft’s long-term business plans.

I’m not sure about you, but I find it pretty revolting that a bunch of venture capital dorks gave bottomless funding refills to these companies as they illegally expanded operations and blew up the livelihoods of drivers around the world on the off chance they can build cars that drive themselves and, until they can figure out how to do that, exploit drivers — some of whom used to be taxi drivers that they put out of work — by often paying less than minimum wage.

First Impressions of the Microsoft Surface Duo Hardware

After being announced last year, U.S. preorders for Microsoft’s Surface Duo began earlier this month, with devices shipping to users in just a couple of weeks. Right on cue, Microsoft has begun seeding members of the press with review units — though, so far, the software remains embargoed. That means they are only allowed to show hardware, and that means quality videos like those created by Marques Brownlee and Justine Ezarik are the best demonstration vehicles.

So, what did we learn? Well, it appears to be very thin and very well constructed — particularly the hinge, which appears to be smooth and sounds sturdy. I have no idea when I might be able to try one of these things in person, but it appears to be impressive from a hardware engineering perspective.

Both videos also give us an idea of the retail packaging. There’s a giant box in both that seems to be only for reviewers, but it contains boxes for a Surface Duo and a set of earbuds. I know it’s a cliché to point out stuff like this, but it’s kind of funny how similar the Surface Duo — along with many other Android phones — is to the iPhone’s packaging.

Brownlee compares the Surface Duo to Samsung’s Galaxy Fold in his video. The Galaxy has always looked like a janky prototype and, in comparison to the Surface, it looks even worse. There’s still no chance that I would drop nearly $2,000 Canadian on any folding phone right now, but at least Microsoft’s attempt looks like a real product.

Unredacted Suit Shows Google’s Own Engineers Were Confused by Privacy Settings

In 2018, Ryan Nakashima of the Associated Press reported that some Google apps and services recorded locations over time even when users had the “Location History” option switched off. This wasn’t a bug; it was a product of Google’s confusing privacy options.

Kate Cox, Ars Technica:

Newly unsealed and partially unredacted documents from a consumer fraud suit the state of Arizona filed against Google show that company employees knew and discussed among themselves that the company’s location privacy settings were confusing and potentially misleading.

[…]

“Speaking as a user, WTF?” another employee said, in additional documentation obtained by the Arizona Mirror. “More specifically I **thought** I had location tracking turned off on my phone. So our messaging around this is enough to confuse a privacy focused (Google software engineer). That’s not good.”

I don’t think comments like these are worrying. It is good that Google’s own staff is self-critical and effectively treated Nakashima’s reporting as a bug report. Nor do I believe that the cynical view that Google deliberately made these preferences hard to figure out for its advantage. The correct take is far more mundane: contrary to popular belief, Google just isn’t very good at design.

Uber and Lyft’s AB-5 Fight Reveals Their Reliance on Full-Time Drivers

Tyler Sonnemaker, Business Insider:

“As these companies went to IPO, they used drivers as the bank account … so that they could look better for investors,” Nicole Moore, a part-time Lyft driver (pre-pandemic) and volunteer organizer for Rideshare Drivers United. “We lost 25% to 40% of our income last year, and we’re way below minimum wage.”

There have been clear beneficiaries of that approach: Uber and Lyft founders, early investors, executives, riders, and to a certain extent, part-time drivers who have made some side-income through the apps.

However, by building a business model around skirting labor costs for a significant number of drivers who are effectively working full-time, the companies have passed those costs to taxpayers, pensioners (whose investments in Uber and Lyft stock made private investors enormously wealthy), and other companies who do pay into social safety net programs like unemployment insurance.

Ride sharing companies created two primary innovations: they made getting a taxicab seamless for users, and they offloaded costs to a staggering degree to create the illusion of lower prices. We should encourage the first, but it does not require the second. Ride sharing companies shouldn’t get to lose billions of dollars of venture capital funds in predatory pricing schemes while under-compensating drivers and having the rest of society pick up the tab. That isn’t innovation; it’s exploitation.

App Store Desire Paths

A few years ago, the construction of a particular office tower in Calgary closed a sidewalk for several months. I promise this will be relevant. Signage directed pedestrians to use the sidewalk on the other side of the street. However, this construction site happened to be adjacent to a train platform in the downtown business district, and many people needed to get to offices that would be easier to access if the sidewalk were open. So, they walked in the road — a sort of desire path that has already been paved.

At some point, the police got involved. They hid behind the barricade of the construction site and ticketed passing pedestrians walking in the street. There was legal justification for this: the foot traffic often held up a lane of vehicles in a way that jeopardized the pedestrian’s safety, and caused increased risk of accidents due to cars, buses, and cyclists dodging them. But the number of people who risked their safety — and a ticket — indicated that there were fundamental problems with the way the construction site was built. The sidewalk should not have been entirely closed due to the heavy foot traffic, and pedestrians should have been accommodated in a way that would require minimal detouring.

I thought of this incident in light of recent App Store matters: first it was Hey, and then WordPress, Charlie Monroe’s mistaken account suspension, and — of course — Epic Games’ lawsuit joined the mix of confusing App Store policing. In the cases of WordPress and Monroe, Apple said that it had made mistakes in communication and that Monroe’s account should not have been suspended. Both Hey and WordPress had to make modifications to conform to unclear rules. Epic, meanwhile, is singlehandedly attempting to change the App Store business model.

It would be unwise to speak to the legal aspects of these cases, so let’s think about this more conceptually. Apple undoubtably has what it believes are many great reasons for cracking down on apps like Hey and WordPress, which it sees as attempting to work around its in-app purchase model by only allowing registrations outside of each app. Many other apps offer similar behaviour — Netflix, Bloomberg’s mobile terminal, and Amazon Drive, to name just a few, are useless without signing in, offer no way to create an account from within the app, and have no in-app purchases to subscribe or change tiers. I understand why developers dislike the in-app purchase requirement: a thirty percent haircut off every purchase adds up to a lot of money, and some developers have legitimate reasons for wanting to more directly manage customer relations.

As a privacy-conscious user, I am less enthused about these tradeoffs. I prefer using the in-app purchase sheet as I know that an app has no access to my credit card details. I also don’t know anything about the developers in the store, so I would rather they did not have my contact details. I agreed to Apple’s terms of use, not those of third party developers.

A reasonable counterargument to what I see as benefits of the current model is that Apple should be more selective of the developers it allows into the store in the first place instead of their apps. But this potentially creates a system where it is difficult for new developers to become successful — even more so than it is today.

Then there’s the case of Epic, which wants iPhones and iPads to be smaller Macs with similar capabilities. According to the email its CEO sent to several members of Apple’s executive team, it feels as though it should have native access to app installation and management, and it should be able to run basically whatever code the user agrees to. Unsurprisingly, Apple’s legal team sent a six-page letter that can be summarized as uh, no. As a result, Epic is suing to permit its vision of the iPhone as a developer platform.

Alas, I am getting lost in the marsh and bogs of App Store policy. These individual cases are not as important as the overall picture they paint: Apple’s vision for the App Store is unclear, and developers often find themselves at odds with inconsistently-enforced policy.

I think the latter conundrum often and rightfully gets all of the attention, so I’d like to focus on the former: how do these policies create the ideal App Store as Apple sees it? Its talking points of quality, security, and privacy are pretty consistent, but its enforcement of these policies is unequal and clumsy, with account creation and in-app purchase requirements often becoming specific points of contention.

I do not think it would be helpful for me — some guy in Canada — to propose ideas for what Apple ought to do. That is a waste of everyone’s time. Purely as an observer and user, it seems that Apple’s current enforcement of App Store policies has made them the police officers hiding behind the construction site barricade ticketing pedestrians instead of trying to figure out why so many tickets are being written in the first place. Surely it more desirable to think less about what is legally possible and more about what is best.

This is not an argument for Apple to abandon all control over iOS and bend to the demands of every developer. It is only an observation that the attempts at policy circumvention and aggressive enforcement actions are not sustainable for a healthy developer ecosystem. It has been a long time since Apple was a company that prioritized developer needs, but there is a big difference between being standoffish and hostile — and the latter is increasingly an apt way to describe building apps for the iPhone and iPad.

One final thought: imagine for a second that iOS is a platform with a Mac-like policy of allowing apps to be downloaded and run from anywhere. Apps may use any in-app payment mechanism, too. What if the App Store and native in-app purchase API were actually preferred by most developers? That is, what if developers could use anything, but they usually chose Apple’s because it was the best option? The way these things are set up today seems to rely on developers having little other choice if they wish to have a native iOS app. What if they were, instead, a truly great choice — even if Apple still doesn’t allow any other choices?

Trade Organization Representing American Press Pushes for Same App Store Rate as Amazon

Benjamin Mullin, Wall Street Journal:

In a letter to Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook on Thursday, a trade body representing the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and other publishers said the outlets want to know what it would take for them to get better deal terms—which would allow them to keep more money from digital subscriptions sold through Apple’s app store.

App developers, including news publishers, pay Apple 30% of the revenue from first-time subscriptions made through iOS apps; that commission is reduced to 15% after the subscriber’s first year. Apple says the revenue split is similar to other app marketplaces and allows the company to cover the app store’s operating expenses.

Apple has repeatedly claimed that all developers are treated the same under its App Store rules. For example, Tim Cook testified (PDF) that “[the] App Store guidelines […] are transparent and applied equally to developers of all sizes and in all categories”. But the Congressional investigation into antitrust matters uncovered an email (PDF) from Eddy Cue to Jeff Bezos, in which Cue confirms the details of an earlier private discussion:

  • Amazon Prime Video app in iOS and Apple TV

  • 15% rev share for customers that signup using the app (uses our payment); no rev share for customers that already subscribe

  • content meta-data is provided for Siri and Spotlight search

  • support “Watch [showname]” in Siri which will launch your app to the show page

  • support new TV app so that shows/episodes being watched are shown and link directly to your app

  • upsell streaming services (e.g. Showtime) in your app – pay 15% only when its a subscriber that originally signed up through us

  • understanding any tax issue is an open question – ready to have our tax team engage in discussions

In its letter to Apple (PDF), Digital Content Next, the media trade organization, cites this email and asks that Apple “clearly define the conditions that Amazon satisfied” to be given this favourable treatment.

Apple set this trap for itself. It could have been honest and admitted that bigger companies are treated differently, or its payment mechanism could have been an equalizer. Instead, it made a deal with Amazon — or deals, plural, as we learned of a similar arrangement earlier this year for its Apple TV app — that it would comprehensively support system features in exchange for paying half the commission rate.

Apple’s credibility on the fairness of its application of App Store policies is increasingly tattered by cutting special deals like these. It is widely rumoured that a similar agreement existed for Netflix as well. If Apple is going to open the door to half-rate commission for some, I say kudos to any developer demanding similar treatment.

Apple Disabled a Long-Time Developer’s Account and Remotely Nuked His Apps

Charlie Monroe:

On Aug 4, 2020 I woke up to a slightly different world – I had lost my business as it seemed. Full inbox of reports about my apps not launching (crashing on launch) and after not too long I found out that when I sign into my Apple developer account I can no longer see that I would be enrolled into Apple’s developer program – au contraire – it shows a button for me to enroll, which I tried clicking, but only got a message that I can’t do that.

After more investigation, I found out that the distribution certificates were revoked. Each macOS app these days needs to be codesigned using an Apple-issued certificate so that the app will flawlessly work on all computers. When Apple revokes the certificate, it’s generally a remote kill-switch for the apps.

[…]

Fortunately, possibly thanks to the traction the story got and all the support I received from everyone (for which I am infinitely grateful), after almost 24 hours after 10PM, I got my account re-instated. Apple has called and apologized for the complications. The issue was caused by my account being erroneously flagged by automated processes as malicious and the account was put on hold.

It is shocking that a developer’s livelihood and reputation can be put on the line by automatic means. How was any of this possible? Sure, Monroe’s account could have been flagged for some reason, but many human beings should have had to look at it before taking any action. The responsibility of holding this power cannot be automated.

Apple said in an apology email to Monroe that it is “taking action to make sure this doesn’t happen in the future”, but what does that mean? Why isn’t this being communicated more broadly to developers who might reasonably be spooked by this incident?

See also Michael Tsai’s roundup of commentary.

Instagram Rolls Out Suggested Posts to Create an Infinite Feed

Ashley Carman, the Verge:

Instagram is expanding its feed today with the launch of “suggested posts.” These posts, from accounts you don’t follow, will show up after you’ve reached the end of your feed and give you the option to keep scrolling with Instagram’s suggestions. Up until now, the feed has been entirely determined by users’ preferences and the people they follow.

Instagram has been testing this for a while; suggested posts began showing up in my feed earlier this year. It tried something similar about two years ago, but stopped after some time.

This time, the change seems permanent, and irritates me so much that it singularly caused me to abandon Instagram. I signed up days after it launched, and posted often. I love the creativity that it encouraged. But I do not want to see photos in my feed from accounts I do not follow, and there is no way to turn this off. This is a purely business decision — a way for Facebook to juice the amount of time people spend using Instagram, and a way to keep serving advertising — that comes at the expense of the product’s integrity. The Facebook-ification of Instagram has taken some time, but it has fully arrived now.

Longplay, a Music App for Complete Albums

Adrian Schönig:

Longplay is a music player for anyone who enjoy listening to entire albums start-to-finish. It digs through your Apple Music or iTunes library – that might have grown over the years or decades and is full of a mix of individual songs, partial albums, complete albums and playlists – to identify just those complete albums and gives you quick access to play them.

It provides a beautiful view of all your album artwork, and lets you explore your albums (or playlists) by various sort options. A unique one is Negligence which combines how highly you’ve ranked an album and when you last listened it, to let you rediscover forgotten favourites. Brightness sorts the albums by their primary colour for an interesting visual take on your albums collection.

This is one of those charming little utility apps that I am going to use all the time. The “Negligence” option is something I didn’t know I needed until I tried it. Just a few bucks in the App Store, too. If you like spending your time with the full albums in your library, I think you will like this app a lot. (Via Marco Arment.)

Uber and Lyft Consider Becoming Transportation Businesses for Real

Kate Conger, New York Times:1

Uber and Lyft, which are facing mounting pressure to classify their freelance drivers as employees in California, are looking for another way.

One option that both companies are seriously discussing is licensing their brands to operators of vehicle fleets in California, according to three people with knowledge of the plans. The change would resemble an independently operated franchise, allowing Uber and Lyft to keep an arms-length association with drivers so that the companies would not need to employ them and pay their benefits.

The idea would effectively be a return to the days of how groups of black cars were run. Lyft has presented the plan to its board of directors, one person said. Uber, which already works with fleet operators in Germany and Spain, is also familiar with the business model.

I know it’s a bummer that the cost of taking an Uber or a Lyft will likely increase as a result of this legislation, but the deal users get on those platforms is an illusion. It is the result of grotesque labour exploitation by companies that somehow still manage to lose billions of dollars every year.

It may also become harder to be an occasional driver — but perhaps rules around transportation companies were in place for a reason. The medallion system is awful, but replacing it with a free-for-all model doesn’t make sense either if it means that gig economy drivers and taxi drivers alike can no longer earn a living.


  1. A local news aside: there is a photograph in this article that includes a billboard for a company called “Brex”. In Calgary, those four letters will forever be tied to the Bre-X scandal, which brought down a huge mining company that grossly exaggerated the amount of gold it found in Indonesia. ↩︎

Apple Says Epic Games’ Developer Account Will Be Terminated in Two Weeks, Threatening the Viability of Games Built on Unreal Engine

Do I have to write about gigantic companies battling in a way that is shitty for everyone? I suppose I don’t — I am my own editor, for better and for worse, and it bums me out. Forgive me for not being invested in the plight of companies that make more money every day than I will see in my lifetime. But I am interested in its effects, and it is capital-i Important so here, begrudgingly, is the latest development.

Kate Cox, Ars Technica:

The new legal battle between game developer Epic and iPhone-maker Apple continues to heat up, as Epic says Apple will be cutting it off from the developer platform for Mac and iOS before the end of this month.

Epic wrote in a court filing (PDF) that Apple said its membership in the Developer Program will be terminated as of August 28. According to Epic, Apple’s move threatens not only Fortnite but also every game that uses Unreal Engine: “By August 28, Apple will cut off Epic’s access to all development tools necessary to create software for Apple’s platforms — including for the Unreal Engine Epic offers to third-party developers, which Apple has never claimed violated any Apple policy,” Epic said.

This sounds extraordinary — the Verge highlighted the word “catastrophic” in its headline — but, so far, it seems by the book:

  • Given that Apple is having a dispute with the way payments are implemented in Fortnite and has no problem with Unreal Engine, there seems to be some confusion about why the latter would be affected by this dispute. It seems likely that both are managed under the same developer account, so if that account is terminated, it would lose the ability to sign anything.

  • The letter Apple sent Epic Games, which begins on page number 51 of the copy of the filing Cox posted, is not exactly a form letter, but similar wording can be found in other cases across the web. A fourteen-day timeframe to comply or appeal is typical for flagrant and repeated disregard of App Store policies. Apple has said that it treats all developers the same, though we know that is not strictly true. But, in this case, Apple’s ultimatum is in line with precedent.

  • Apple lays out explicitly prohibited behaviours for its App Store. Epic Games knowingly violated those terms. Apple responded as it would if any developer submitted an app that, after approval, enabled a workaround for Apple’s in-app payment mechanism. Now we’re all supposed to be upset?

If anything, this teaches us that those who run platforms ought to behave responsibly. That goes for Apple; it is also true for Epic Games, as it decided to embark on this public relations battle and lawsuit with little regard for all of the developers that rely on Unreal Engine.

So, is all of this to say that Apple is the hero in this situation? Oh hell no; on a PR basis alone this is a terrible move. Epic Games is portraying it as the nuclear option in the filing, though it should be noted that it carefully avoids saying that it could simply resubmit its app in a way that follows the rules.

Those rules are what is at stake here. So far, my argument that Apple was playing by the book is based on the notion that the book is accurate and can be trusted. Epic is arguing that these rules are deeply flawed and, to prove it, it is possible that it was forced to break the rules. That doesn’t absolve the company of rule-breaking; it’s just that none of the effects of the last several days should be a surprise. Epic is probably right that Apple should have changed the App Store rules. What surprises me is that a company as notoriously controlling as Apple might be required to let lawyers and judges make those changes instead of doing so of its own volition.

The Truth Is Paywalled but the Lies Are Free

One more to make a hat trick of commentary about media income strategies and related topics. Nathan J. Robinson, Current Affairs:

Paywalls are justified, even though they are annoying. It costs money to produce good writing, to run a website, to license photographs. A lot of money, if you want quality. Asking people for a fee to access content is therefore very reasonable. You don’t expect to get a print subscription to the newspaper gratis, why would a website be different? I try not to grumble about having to pay for online content, because I run a magazine and I know how difficult it is to pay writers what they deserve.

But let us also notice something: the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the New Republic, New York, Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, the Financial Times, and the London Times all have paywalls. Breitbart, Fox News, the Daily Wire, the Federalist, the Washington Examiner, InfoWars: free!

Robinson points to academic journals and the U.S. Courts system as more examples of places where getting accurate information costs money. But I will note that you can go to YouTube and watch a conspiracy-minded grifter explain these documents badly for free. It is true that there are also people and organizations out there that offer honest work for free. But the stratification of access to knowledge makes it far less likely that anyone will read source materials that cost money when they are able to get a diluted version that rewards their biases for free.

The Cult of the Free

Speaking of free, here’s Peter-Paul Koch writing about the knock-on effect of layoffs at Mozilla:

This brings us to the core point I’d like to make: the culture of volunteering in web development, and especially within the Mozilla segments of our community. To my mind it’s not only outdated and should be replaced, it should never have been allowed to take root in the first place.

I see the cult of the free as the web’s original sin. To my mind it’s an essentially random historical development that could have gone quite differently, but, once the idea of everything on the web being free took root, became a cultural touch point that is almost impossible to dislodge.

Granted, the cult of the free also has its positive points. But today I’m focusing on the negative ones that, to my mind, outweigh the positivity by a rather large margin. If we continue to give everything away for free, the big companies will win.

Koch argues that Mozilla ought to add the option to donate from within Firefox — he argues the same for those who provide their writing for free on the web — but that seems like a mediocre solution for ongoing support. From Armin Vit’s post introducing the paywall at Brand New:

We considered this and there is the potential of that we would be amazed by your generosity but, at best, donations solve our problem this year and we are left wondering what happens the year after that and the year after that. At worst, we do not get enough donations and we need to keep asking you all to donate while adding hours of effort into doing those asks on a consistent basis. At this point, our goal is to build a consistent, long-term solution that not only keeps Brand New going but gives us the foundation to keep building on it.

I know there are some people who make a decent living from pledged supporters on Patreon, and organizations like PBS and CKUA are able to keep the lights on through donor support, but it does not seem like a scalable model to turn the web into interactive cable TV channels, either.

Brand New Will Shift to a Subscription Model

Armin Vit:

For the past ten years, when anyone has asked us about going into a subscription model, we have proudly said that it’s not something we need, have, or want to do because the Brand New Conference has been a way of monetizing the blog since the audience for that conference lives here so the effort and time spent on the blog pays off in the form of conference attendance. In the past two years, this nice feeling of being able to keep Brand New free was enhanced by the introduction of First Round, which gave us another source of income. This was going so well that, as some of you know, our business plan for 2020 revolved around nine in-person events which are not happening anymore and, to be honest, for the first time in months we are questioning if they will happen at all… ever again.

We still have a sliver of hope — because there is literally nothing we love to do more — that we will be able to do our 2020 events in 2021 and that we will be able to get back on track with in-person events as our main source of income but, from the tone of this post, you might be able to gather that we are not fully optimistic of that.

Two bucks a month or twenty dollars a year for one of the best branding and design resources around is shockingly cheap as far as I’m concerned. The bad news is that it’s a hard paywall, not a metered one — as of Monday next week, non-subscribers will only see the before and after image. The good news is that those who really cannot afford a subscription can request a free account.

I suppose the other bad news is that this is another nail in the coffin for the expectations of a free — as in beer — and discoverable web. If you’re a student or you’re just casually interested in design, you’re now either committed to paying for Brand New or it’s off-limits. It’s almost like the web is now part of the real world or something. It would be cool if the web were more like a library; but, of course, physical libraries themselves are seen as radical and potentially unviable in the current financialized climate.