Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for September, 2020

What Is It Like to Be a Smartphone?

Nicholas Carr:

Look at your phone. You see a mere tool, there to do your bidding, and perhaps that’s the way your phone sees you, the dutiful but otherwise unremarkable robot that from time to time plugs it into an electrical socket.

I try to add context or something extra to everything I link to, but in this case, you get one relevant word: tremendous.

‘The Social Network’ Ten Years Later

Speaking of — or, at least, nodding toward — “The Social Network”, James Rettig of Stereogum wrote about the influence of its unique score composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross:

The general eeriness of The Social Network’s score feels prescient considering how large and chaotic a role Facebook would go on to play in disinformation politics. “When we were creating these ideas, we weren’t scene specific. We thought, ‘This could be the sound of an asteroid hitting the Earth at the end of humanity,’” Reznor half-joked back in 2011. “But I don’t know if that fits in with the tale of founding Facebook, when someone finds out someone stole their website. Is that the appropriate level of drama, or is it comically overdone?”

It was not comically overdone. The wannabe frat boy antics of the real people behind The Social Network has changed the face of the world. Reznor and Ross made a story about geeks seem grand and imbued their technological developments with a hubris that rings true. Fincher and Sorkin made a story about a character that viewers could almost empathize with; Reznor and Ross’ score seems, purposefully or not, to act in opposition to that. It constantly sounds as if the world of the film is on the precipice of disaster, which turned out to be accurate.

I cannot think of a better pairing of score to standalone film in recent memory than the soundtrack to “The Social Network”. It is also a great record, separate from the film. Speculators have pushed up its price for years, but it has just been reissued with its original cover art.

‘The Social Dilemma’ Dilemma

The first thing you need to know about “The Social Dilemma”, Jeff Orlowski’s new documentary-esque movie on Netflix, is that it is inaccurate and fails to meet expectations in a fuller context, but it gets close enough that it might make some Facebook and YouTube users think twice about what is in their timeline. The other thing you need to know is that the film’s gross oversimplifications have made it an easy and reasonable target for criticism.

Mike Masnick of Techdirt accurately calls out a key omission:

Also, I should note that nowhere do they mention that Netflix, the company which funded the documentary, is also arguably the first big internet company to spend time, money, and resources on trying to perfect the “recommendation algorithm” that is at the heart of the film’s argument that these internet companies are evil. I guess some folks no longer remember, but a decade ago, Netflix even held a huge $1 million prize contest asking anyone to try to build a better recommendation algorithm.

But Masnick also links approvingly to what he calls a “dismantling” of the film by former Facebook employee Antonio García Martínez — and it’s just full of nonsense. After some mockery over the way Tristan Harris, one of the film’s interviewees, says his name is pronounced, Martínez decides he has equal parts “self-righteousness [and] narcissistic self-importance”, which is pretty rich from a guy who claims that he was the force protecting Facebook advertising from “general big-company mediocrity”. Then:

One of the first reprieves from The Tristan Harris Show is none other than Shoshana Zuboff, author of that much-ballyhooed cinder block of a book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

[…]

Less diplomatically, everything Zuboff says is a nonsensical non sequitur.

“This is a world of certainty.”

Then why am I, crusty ad tech veteran, building probabilistic models all day?

What Zuboff actually said is that companies like Facebook and Google “sell certainty” to advertisers. Because they collect so much data, they promise a high degree of accuracy in ad targeting, and that helps justify their insatiable appetite for a more complete data collection picture. That is, near as makes no difference, selling certainty.

Whether they actually deliver certainty is another matter altogether. A study last year found that behavioural ad targeting caused scant improvement in publisher revenues compared to more loosely-targeted ads. That certainly suggests that attempting to pinpoint specific users’ desires for marketing purposes does not have the same meteoric impact that Facebook and Google pitch — at least in the category of many types of ads on publisher websites.

But it would be irresponsible to so quickly disclaim the possibility that the data economy and feedback loops that undergird Facebook and Google’s enterprises has little to no effect on society, just as it is ridiculous for the film to frame it as a singular driving force for increased polarization. The film cites Facebook as a catalyst for genocide in Myanmar through conspiracy theories spread by users and military leaders on the platform, but it barely mentions brutal attacks in India facilitated by viral misinformation on the chat app WhatsApp. WhatsApp may be owned by Facebook, but it behaves nothing like its parent company’s flagship product. Yet, it is possible that both products allow misinformation to spread rapidly for different but similarly damaging reasons.

Martínez mentions much of this in his newsletter, but far too easily writes off the film’s thesis. It is a polemic and, consequently, presents few counterarguments, but dismissing it out of hand means Martínez’s piece reads less like a “dismantling” — Masnick’s word — and more like an absurd justification for technologists using products they created to build the solution to problems they couldn’t possibly have anything to do with.

Adi Robertson of the Verge wrote perhaps the best critique of the film about a week before it came out on Netflix:

Big social platforms can play a key role in amplifying hate and conspiracies. The QAnon movement, for instance, began on 4chan and 8chan but spread through Facebook’s group recommendations and similar algorithmic promotional tools. In a world without gigantic, centralized social giants, its power might have been far more limited.

But small, toxic online spaces have already proven adept at hijacking a simple backlash against Big Tech by presenting themselves as alternatives. The Social Dilemma, by contrast, doesn’t offer a terribly convincing portrayal of life without its fictional Facebook clone. It assumes that if you weren’t scrolling through your feed, you’d be drawn to spontaneous tête-à-têtes or reading Zuboff’s 700-page sociopolitical tome The Age of Surveillance Capitalism… instead of tabloids, telephones, movies, television, shopping centers, pornography, talk radio, internet forums, or any of the million other activities that were previously blamed for killing good books and conversation.

The sad reality is that this is a mediocre movie about a difficult topic. It uses lazy filmmaking techniques and a knockoff of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score to “The Social Network” to frame complex problems in a far too simple light. It shows tech employees as they seek atonement, but it does not dive deeper because doing so would be a longer and dull movie. Its corny vignettes of an ordinary family torn apart by their smartphones are predictable and not helpful.

Despite all of this, it is the closest a mainstream movie has come to stumbling across a key reason online social networking platforms may be enabling our worst tendencies: we create those circumstances ourselves. Many of us habitually spend a lot of time on social media, much of which is fine if not particularly satiating entertainment. We share things we’re not certain are true because we lack expertise and cannot fact check everything that comes down the firehose. We stimulate our anger by hate-watching some cable news or talk radio asshole. All of these things are juiced by engagement predictions and financed by unethical advertising, and it is hard to argue that both of those things are directly responsible for our indulgence. But they may well be playing a part in making our worst tendencies worse. It’s hard to say for sure — that is what the film gets so wrong — but our own experience with our digital habits should tell us that we cannot assert an imperceptible impact.

Even though I think Robertson’s review is the best of the bunch, I do not think the conclusion she reaches in the paragraphs I quoted is fair. I do not think the overall expectation is that reducing targeted social media feeds from our lives will free up time to write the next great novel or begin studying Mesopotamian architecture. But perhaps a combination of stricter controls on personalization and behavioural targeting combined with antitrust regulation can reduce the outsized impact of a few Silicon Valley giants. We cannot disclaim personal responsibility for our social media diet. We also should not ignore the possibility it is being abused. We might not read more books or have more face-to-face conversations with a more regulated industry, but we might have a better chance of reading better news and having better online conversations.

Misaimed Moderation on the App Store

John Voorhees, MacStories:

Apple has published new online resources about the App Store and its developer program. The new webpages cover a wide range of topics related to the App Store and developing for it, and include several new facts and insights about the Store.

About the App Store’ is a page meant for consumers that explains the advantages of Apple’s Store, starting with the lead tagline: ‘The apps you love. From a place you can trust.’ The page covers the Store’s editorial curation, search functionality, global reach, privacy and security features, and the benefits of App Review. […]

Apple cites many legitimate benefits on this page as it pitches the App Store model as the best way to distribute apps to a varied market often wary of new technologies. But, though Apple promotes how many bad actors and unapproved business models its reviewers have caught, there are still plenty of instances of malware and fleeceware getting into the store while inconsistently applying new and seemingly arbitrary restrictions.

Miguel de Icaza:

Since the App Store launched, developers have complained about the review process as too strict. Applications are mostly rejected either for not meeting requirements, not having enough functionality or circumventing Apple’s business model.

Yet, the App Store reviews are too lax and they should be much stricter.

I am not sure this framing is right; I don’t think many developers would criticize the App Store as being “too strict”, but misaligned in the objectives of that moderation. There are some great examples in this piece of the factors that are not working as well as they ought to.

Google Changes Billing Policies, Requiring Apps Use In-App Payment Mechanism With Thirty Percent Commission

Daisuke Wakabayashi, New York Times:

Google said in a blog post on Monday that it was providing “clarity” on billing policies because there was confusion among some developers about what types of transactions require use of its app store’s billing system.

Google has had a policy of taking a 30 percent cut of payments made within apps offered by the Google Play store, but some developers including Netflix and Spotify have bypassed the requirement by prompting users for a credit card to pay them directly. Google said companies had until Sept. 30, 2021, to integrate its billing systems.

In a news vacuum, this story is about Google claiming money it has been leaving on the table. Android allows sideloading, so if developers are resistant to comply with this change, they can distribute their apps elsewhere.

But there is important context to this story, as governments around the world investigate tech giants for what they suspect are illegal anticompetitive practices. These antitrust investigations are spurring some peculiar behaviour at major tech companies. Last week, Apple said that it would hold off on collecting commission from ticket purchases to virtual classes. Apple also publicized a partner program for “premium subscription video entertainment services” from which it took only a 15% commission that it said it had been running since 2016. I am unclear as to how that fits Apple executives’ statements that the company treats all apps the same.

If Apple is trying to defend its practices and ease enforcement action against it, it is almost as though Google is encouraging it. There are complaints from developers and regulators in many countries about its Play Store, and it appears that Google has decided its best course of action is to embrace the inferno. As I said: it’s peculiar.

People Tolerate Bugs and Problems Because Technology Is Still Confusing

Jay Sitter:

If my screen were at 5% brightness, or if I couldn’t use my phone without hitting “Cancel” every five seconds, I’d spend hours or days on Google trying to find a solution if that’s what it took. That these people mostly just lived with it means that these problems couldn’t have been markedly worse than technology has already been for them historically.

[…]

These are design problems, not user problems. I hate thinking that in 2020 we still live in a world where most people continue to hate technology because the experience has been so hostile to them their whole lives.

About seven years ago, Marc Scott wrote an article about how kids do not actually know how to use technology, contrary to popular belief. He cited an instance of a student turning on her PC tower but not the monitor as an example of someone not knowing how computers work.

I wrote a response because I was so incensed by its condescension, but I often think about Scott’s article as a reminder that most people just want to get things done. Whenever I am designing or building something, it is my job to make the resulting product as straightforward and reliable for a user as I possibly can. I am not saying that I always achieve those ideals; I just think standards need to be higher. Users should expect better than they do.

Nikita Prokopov:

[…] The point is, this happens all the time, every day, multiple times a day, and one person can dedicate only so much time to dealing with it. The stream of minor annoyances is so large people just got tired of dealing with it! And no, there’re no better alternatives.

To prove my point, I decided to record every broken interaction I had during one day. Here’s the full list I wrote yesterday, September 24, 2020.

I maintain that, while the number of bugs and problems users experience is linear, their understandable frustration is exponential. It’s no wonder they have learned to tolerate poor-quality work.

Update: Blog posts about poor quality software are a reliable trope — and I mean that in a complimentary way. That should indicate just how frustrating it is to deal with year in and year out. Sadly, business incentives are often more aligned with new features and redesigns; making things work really well only results in pride and admiration.

The Peculiar Rise of the Paid Email Newsletter

Email-based newsletters have existed in some form or another for decades — it is the origin story for now-giant websites like the Drudge Report and Fark — but I think the current boom of paid subscriptions owes itself to the success of Ben Thompson’s Stratechery. I have been fascinated by this format’s rise in popularity for years because I loathe email; yet, it makes complete sense to me from the perspectives of both a publisher and a reader.

First, from the publishers, Casey Newton, who has been writing the Interface newsletter for several years at the Verge and is now going solo:

The launch of Substack in 2017 has made turning a newsletter into a business radically easier. It has been thrilling to watch reporters like Judd Legum, Emily Atkin, Alex Kantrowitz, and Anne Helen Petersen turn their journalistic passions into independent businesses. I’m so grateful to be able to have learned from their experiences to date, which have informed and hopefully improved my own tiny media company ambitions.

For the past few months, I’ve been building Platformer, a new publication about tech and democracy. A platformer is a video game in which the character leaps from surface to surface, dodging various obstacles along the way to reaching their goal. That more or less describes my life as a writer on the internet over the past decade. But it also feels like as good a metaphor as any for understanding life online as this decade unfolds.

Marc Tracy, New York Times:

Most Substack writers offer a mix of paid and free email newsletters. They make money through subscriptions, not ads. Writers own their newsletters, and the platform takes a 10 percent cut. Substack also offers a legal defense service to writers of paid newsletters in the United States.

[…]

[Substack CEO Chris] Best said Substack’s reliance on email — rather than social media or search engines — promoted a one-on-one relationship between writers and readers, something that should be prized at a time of online noise.

One of the hardest aspects of writing on the internet is developing a core audience of people who will make a daily task out of reading your website. Website feeds have long been a good way to alert subscribers of something new, but they need to be explained, so they aren’t great for reaching a wide audience of varying technical ability. For a brief moment, it seemed like automatic delivery of links through pages on Twitter and Facebook would be a good in-between answer, but their constant fiddling with feed contents based on unknown user metrics severely hampers reliable delivery to subscribers.

Email is a great lowest common denominator solution. It is an open standard that everyone already knows how to use. An email client is a feed reader without a learning curve.

A few weeks ago, Tom MacWright explained how the web has bifurcated into document-based websites and web apps. Apps based on web technologies are commonplace and, though I dislike them, are immensely popular for their cross-platform appeal. However, every technology that enables the creation of better web apps can also be used to turn the document-based web into a bullshit web experience. MacWright’s proposed solution was to sever the two approaches with a new Commonmark-based markup language for document sites.

That is a radical proposal, but it is accidentally being implemented, sort of, with email newsletters. Anyone who has ever built an HTML email template can tell you that rendering engines in email clients are an inconsistent and catastrophic mix of website development eras. The safest route is to build HTML emails like you’re building a webpage in about 1997. Which, yes, is awfully limiting from a design perspective. But that also means there’s no JavaScript, no complex CSS, no scrolljacking, no time-on-page metrics, limited analytics, and virtually no surveillance. That’s not an accident; email is private, and most clients still treat it that way despite Google’s best attempts.

Email gives publishers — whether they are individuals or collectives — a more direct relationship with their audience and, not coincidentally, a more direct revenue stream. But both of those things are true of websites. Why do paid email newsletters seem to be succeeding where website paywalls struggle? I think Best is right: email is a more intimate medium than a website. Even though you know you are just one row in a database, it feels like the author is contacting you directly. Also, because email is an inherently private space, I think it feels more attuned to being locked-down than the more open web.

Yet, despite all of these clear advantages, I still find it difficult to think of my email inbox as somewhere I will go to find something enjoyable to read. I still think of email as a one-to-one communications method, or a place where I find receipts, see that stuff is on sale, and read some press release. For the vast majority of newsletters that I’m subscribed to, I use my Feedbin email so I can read them alongside all of my other subscriptions. Perhaps the growing email newsletter market explains the seemingly parallel ascendence of email clients that go beyond a single inbox view.

It seems almost tragically ironic to think that newsletter subscriptions are the future of independent publishing. Email has been around for far longer than the World Wide Web, and has almost none of the design advantages or surveillance mechanisms celebrated by web publishers. All this time we have been subject to the whims of ad technology firms when the solution seems to be a rewind button.

As a minor solo publisher, I don’t know that an email newsletter makes sense for what I write. Anyone who wants to give me money for my efforts is free to do so and also very kind, but I like that anyone can stumble across my corner of the web. That is the trade-off of having a freely-available open presence: more people can see it, but I cannot imagine that this could become a career. And that is why many serious independent writers have paywalled newsletters.

Apple Describes Its Video Partner Program

Apple:

This program is designed for apps that deliver premium subscription video entertainment services. Participating apps are required to integrate with a number of Apple technologies, such as Universal Search, Siri, AirPlay, and single sign-on or zero sign-on, to ensure a seamless experience for customers.

As a result of this integration, these apps are featured on the Apple TV app and throughout tvOS, and their content is discoverable through Universal Search and Siri.

As a program member, you earn 85% of sales from customers who sign up using Apple’s in-app purchase system. You may also allow customers who subscribe using your payment method outside of the app to use that payment method for additional video transactions within the app. You must enable in-app purchase to enjoy these economic benefits.

Via Michael Tsai:

Netflix does not participate, having abandoned IAP and AirPlay, but it still enjoys the “reader” clause in the guidelines, which exempts certain types of apps from having to offer IAP. The guidelines incentivize multi-platform apps. If all you have is an iOS version, IAP is required.

This seems to be the until-now undocumented agreement between Apple and Amazon revealed earlier this year which Apple describes as being available “since 2016”. I’m sure that comes as a surprise to many developers, as does its use by, apparently, “over 130” partners.

There are a bunch of requirements that partners must fulfill, including apps for both iOS and tvOS, and support for a bunch of platform features. In exchange, Apple halves its commission for in-app purchases. I think it is telling of the Apple TV’s lack of impact that developers of iOS apps are expected to support new platform features with little incentive other than, perhaps, an App Store promotion, while Apple has to effectively bribe tvOS developers.

Fortnite in Limbo

Austen Goslin, Polygon:

According to a tweet from the Fortnite Status Twitter account, which keep players up to date on the technical side of the game, upgrading to the new Apple operating system could result in Fortnite being deleted from your phone. The iOS upgrade will reportedly ask some users if they’d like to “Temporarily Remove Apps to Install the Software Update” and, if they select yes, Fortnite is likely to be deleted.

Apple does not explain how iOS selects which apps to temporarily remove in order to free up space, but an educated guess suggests that it removes the largest apps first. Games like Fortnite have massive bundle sizes, so that’s why it is likely to be removed for an update. Apple’s UI copy indicates that it is temporary but, because Fortnite is no longer on the App Store, it is effectively permanent.

Speaking of which, there does not appear to be a way to transfer Fortnite from one iPhone or iPad to another. Both local and iCloud backups exclude App Store data, and there is no other way of transferring an installed app from one device to another. That probably won’t impact sales of this year’s iPhone models, but I imagine it will upset a good many players.

Thirteen Years Too Late, Google’s Acquisition of DoubleClick Is Being Scrutinized

Steve Lohr, New York Times:

Google’s ad business is now a focus of wide-ranging investigations by the Justice Department and state attorneys general. The scrutiny includes whether the company choked off competitors, or shortchanged advertisers and publishers, and how it assembled its ad empire, including DoubleClick, an ad technology company and marketplace.

[…]

While DoubleClick was its largest deal by far, Google built up its ad technology business with a string of acquisitions. It bought start-ups that made software for publishers, advertisers and mobile ads, including AdMob in 2009, Invite Media in 2010 and AdMeld in 2011.

Those building blocks and its in-house innovations have given Google a strong presence in every step of buying and selling online ads.

“Google has put it all together,” said Jeffrey Rayport, an online marketing expert at the Harvard Business School. “Google is the market under one roof.”

Google may have been a lot smaller in 2007, when it bought DoubleClick, but the anticompetitive likelihood of this acquisition was obvious. From a contemporary paper by the American Antitrust Institute (PDF):

DoubleClick’s advertising exchange is a recent innovation and its current market share is probably negligible. However, given its leading position in providing ad-serving services to advertisers and publishers, it is arguably poised to capture significant market share in the near future. Under the Department of Justice/Federal Trade Commission Horizontal Merger Guidelines, it is critical that the agencies look at likely future market shares, not merely current shares, particularly given that the transaction appears premised on DoubleClick’s future market potential. DoubleClick’s anticipated growth, if it comes partially at the expense of AdSense, would reduce the current level of concentration in the market. In contrast, the combination with Google would increase concentration compared to what it otherwise would be. The result may be higher intermediation costs for publishers.

Market consolidation was not the only concern people had about the DoubleClick acquisition. Stefanie Olsen in a 2007 CNet article:

How will the search-advertising powerhouse treat the massive amounts of data it already stores on people’s search histories, once it also has at its disposal a storehouse of data on people’s surfing habits from DoubleClick, the No. 1 digital ad-serving company?

Specifically, will Google combine the two data systems to map not only what someone searches for, but also which sites they visit, videos they watch and ads they click across the Web in order to better target marketers’ promotions?

[…]

Google says such fears are unwarranted. (The deal is expected to close later this year.) When asked about such worries Tuesday [Eric Schmidt] replied that the company recognizes the importance of privacy and making people comfortable with its practices. He speculated that Google could create an opt-in system for consumers or maintain separate data storehouses.

How quaint.

Just three years later, Google began merging user data across products — excluding DoubleClick — and, six years after that, decided to stop pretending DoubleClick was a separate company and began merging everything into a single personally-identifiable web tracking behemoth. This is yet another instance of a company making promises it has no intention of keeping as it pushes for an acquisition that, in a pre-Chicago School era, would have been illegal.

Widgets and Shortcuts Allow for a New Era of Jailbreak-Free iOS Customization

I have no idea if Apple thought that Shortcuts and home screen widgets would allow for such wild customization, but I think it is terrific. Austere nerds have been complaining for years that the less-flexible environments of the iPhone and iPad, in particular, would lead to less curiosity about technology and how it all works, but that isn’t the case. I doubt iOS will ever be as hacker-friendly as MacOS, but that doesn’t matter: constraints make things better.

Apple’s New Back Tap Feature in iOS 14 Is Cool, but It Isn’t ‘Hidden’

iOS 14 includes a really nice new feature that allows you to double-tap the back of your iPhone to run a shortcut or perform a specific action. It works pretty well for me, and it seems to be a boon for accessibility. But Steven Aquino, writing for Forbes, understandably disagrees with the way it is often framed:

The real harm, however, in casting Back Tap as “hidden” is to the disabled community. What does it say about society’s collective view on people with disabilities that their needs are reduced to purposeful obscurity? To label Back Tap as “hidden” insinuates it and those of its ilk are of lesser importance. That’s not only stupid and clearly wrong, but it shows profound disrespect to those people for whom Back Tap is truly needed. There’s a lesson in headline-writing here — instead of using the word hidden, why not use a phrase like “coolest features” to introduce Back Tap? Back Tap is undoubtedly cool, whereas “hidden” has a negative connotation and untrue.

There are plenty of new features in iOS 14 that are not easy to find but, as Aquino points out, the Accessibility section is on the first page of Settings. It is wrong to think of Accessibility options, in general, as being solely for those without perfect eyesight or fine motor control. The top-level positioning of this section indicates — rightly — that they are for everyone to set up an iPhone or iPad in a way that works best for them.

Spotify’s New-Generation SEO-Juiced Muzak

Liz Pelly, writing for the Baffler in 2017:

Spotify loves “chill” playlists: they’re the purest distillation of its ambition to turn all music into emotional wallpaper. They’re also tied to what its algorithm manipulates best: mood and affect. Note how the generically designed, nearly stock photo images attached to these playlists rely on the selfsame clickbait-y tactics of content farms, which are famous for attacking a reader’s basest human moods and instincts. Only here the goal is to fit music snugly into an emotional regulation capsule optimized for maximum clicks: “chill.out.brain,” “Ambient Chill,” “Chill Covers.” “Piano in the Background” is one of the most aptly titled; “in the background” could be added to the majority of Spotify playlists.

[…]

Indeed, Spotify’s obsession with mood and activity-based playlists has contributed to all music becoming more like Muzak, a brand that created, programmed, and licensed songs for retail stores throughout the twentieth century. In the 1930s, the company prioritized workplace soundtracks that were meant to heighten productivity, using research to evaluate what listeners responded to most. In many ways, this is not unlike the playlist category called “Focus” that we see now on Spotify. In March 2011, Muzak was purchased by Mood Media, a company that provides in-store music, signs, scents, and video content. The similarity between the objectives of companies like Muzak and Mood Media, and the proliferation of mood-based playlists on Spotify, is more than just a linguistic coincidence; Spotify playlists work to attract brands and advertisers of all types to the platform.

Peter Slattery, OneZero:

The key to success is to find a phony artist name that Spotify users are likely to type into search. Like Relaxing Music Therapy, some of these “artists” use names inspired by an adjective commonly used to describe music. Others name themselves after popular uses for certain kinds of music, well-known generic tunes like children’s rhymes, or entire music genres. Often, these creators optimize further by titling tracks and albums with related words and reuploading the same songs ad nauseum, which can look especially absurd when filtering to see just a single tune. Relaxing Music Therapy, for instance, has uploaded the track “Stream in the Forest With Rain” 616 times to date.

SEO spam and its various streambait cousins fit right in with Spotify’s own marketing strategy of being a one-stop shop for “music for any mood,” rather than, say, a hub that highlights the most talented artists. In 2017, the trade publication Music Business Worldwide revealed that Spotify’s curated playlists were filled with artists working under platform-specific pseudonyms, such as “Charles Bolt,” with no off-internet presence at all. (The company did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this article.)

As antitrust investigations have begun against Apple in several different countries, I find myself returning to the question of whether Spotify has a good argument. Apple gets to make 100% of the list price when a user subscribes to Apple Music, but Spotify only gets to make 70% of the list price. This gives Apple a pricing and revenue advantage, and the power of default choices gives it a user acquisition advantage. But this situation is not so different to generic brands in other industries, at least for the purposes of this piece.

In a lot of industries, national brands find ways to differentiate themselves from store and generic brands. At some level, a bottle of dish soap is a bottle of dish soap, but you might buy Sunlight instead of the supermarket brand because the latter doesn’t work quite as well. Having access to an enormous library of music for $10 per month is basically the same no matter which platform you choose. Many of them share the same libraries and artists can submit new songs to multiple platforms. Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Prime, Tidal — for many people, these are just wrappers around the same batch of songs they might listen to every month, and it doesn’t really matter which they choose. Spotify is complaining because it is trying to build a business on a single uninteresting product.

So what can it do to differentiate itself? Its push for exclusive podcasts is one step. But what about music? What can it do there? Tidal is not very popular in raw numbers, but it has successfully targeted its lossless audio tier to a specific audience that holds it in high regard. Apple Music is generically fine, I guess, but its social features are nowhere near as great as Spotify’s. Why doesn’t it shout from the rooftops about that? What about transforming itself into the space’s name-brand product, or a more premium product? Why doesn’t it do something to entice people to seek out Spotify in particular? Instead, its catalogue is full of shitty background music, and songs and artists with deliberately misleading metadata.

It’s September 21, So Here’s a Demi Adejuyigbe Interview

Bethy Squires, Vulture:

Did that cycle feel weirder this year, since days no longer have meaning?

Not really. At first I thought maybe that was an excuse to not do it this year. But it started really early this year. We got into quarantine, and people were like, “You gotta do it this year! We need it! No pressure!” And that’s not … I don’t want to hear that.

In preparing for it this year, I didn’t really feel like I had to specifically account for the fact that everyone’s stuck in their homes, just because I feel like I’m generally always stuck in my house. It didn’t feel like I had to change it up or do something different this year. But there were things — like I can’t involve too many people; I can’t involve too many different locations. So I was trying to figure out how to keep it small but also make it feel like it was escalating.

Squires includes all four past iterations, but this year’s video is so much better in so many ways little and big. I don’t want to spoil all of the little wonderful surprises.

Adejuyigbe said that he wouldn’t keep doing this unless viewers raised $50,000 for a bunch of great causes. So far, the total donation amount is cruising toward triple that amount — in the time that it took me to write the last few sentences, another $2,000 was raised.

I feel obliged to mention that, two years ago, Adejuyigbe presented an ad for voting made by Sandwich. This year’s election is not the midterms. You should vote.

The Oracle–TikTok Potemkin Sale

It is Monday, yet TikTok and WeChat both remain available in the United States despite the president repeatedly stating that their popularity was a national security nightmare of pressing concern which required his personal intervention. It is almost as though he doesn’t have the first clue about anything ever.

At any rate, the TikTok partial sale of unknown structure is still being vetted as of Monday, contrary to the president’s position on Saturday, but it has all of the trappings of a Potemkin arrangement.

Scott Rosenberg, Axios:

“Make the owners sell to an American firm” has turned into a complex transaction with plenty of Chinese involvement and a lot hanging on an IPO that might never happen.

The U.S. won some security concessions, but no one can be sure that the TikTok threat — if it was ever real — has been eliminated.

The U.S. cut is deferred and conditional. The terms save the president’s face but don’t actually give him what he demanded.

One new hiccup is the president’s requirement of a political financial kickback, despite the illegality of his previous “key money” demand.

Jennifer Jacobs, Mario Parker, and Josh Wingrove, Bloomberg:

Trump said Saturday that he had approved a transaction between Oracle Corp., Walmart Inc. and ByteDance Ltd. to create a new company called TikTok Global to run the U.S. video-sharing app. As part of the arrangement, Trump told reporters at the White House the companies agreed to contribute $5 billion to an education foundation.

[…]

ByteDance first heard about the $5 billion education fund from news reports, a company spokeswoman said.

This will probably never happen, but it is worth thinking about how the president used the pretence of national security to enrich a donor through a forced business arrangement and wants to get a cut to increase the jingoism ratio in school curriculums. I can point out how wildly corrupt, dishonest, and vile this is, but I am Canadian and can’t vote. If you’re American, you can and should vote.

Widgets in iOS 14

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch:

Despite the surprise release of iOS 14 that left app developers unprepared, an ambitious few have managed to push their way through — or even pull an all-nighter — in order to make their apps available with iOS 14 support on launch day. For the first time in years, the new version of iOS offers a new way for consumers to organize their home screens. Now, your less frequently used apps can be shuffled away to the App Library on the iPhone’s back screen, while those apps offering information and updates can feature their content through new home screen widgets.

The team at MacStories has been posting about apps with great widgets, and David Smith — known primarily for building more utilitarian apps like Workouts++ and Feed Wrangler — has gone viral on TikTok with his multipurpose arbitrary widget builder.

A home screen of something more than a grid of icons with badges has been an iOS dream basically since the iPhone’s launch. I remember having experimenting with all sorts of home screen add-on stuff on a jailbroken first-generation iPod Touch. But even though this feels like a finally moment, Apple’s implementation of widgets in iOS feels just about perfect. I love the combination of Smart Stacks and multiple instances of an app’s widget. Nate Boateng is using the latter capability to have a second home screen full of Things widgets. I have been trying a bunch of weather apps and am experimenting with a stack of small Carrot weather widgets with current conditions, upcoming conditions, and multiday forecast. The Siri Suggestions widget is also a delight when it works as designed which, to be fair, is more often than I had anticipated. Monday mornings, I get a little prompt to open Microsoft Authenticator around the time that I start my workday — it’s damn near perfect at that.

iPadOS 14 is somewhat worse off because, for some reason, widgets cannot be placed amongst home screen icons.

Regardless, credit must go to Apple for its thoughtful widget implementation, and third-party developers for creating such an exciting mix of options for users to play with.

Department of Commerce Orders Removal of TikTok and WeChat From U.S. App Stores on Sunday

Kate Cox, Ars Technica:

Consumers inside the US will no longer be allowed to download TikTok or WeChat from any US app store after Sunday, the Trump administration announced today.

Any “provision of service to distribute or maintain” the mobile applications or their “constituent code” is prohibited beginning after 11:59pm ET September 20, the Department of Commerce said this morning. That means Google Play and Apple’s App Store will have to yank their listings for the apps, and users who already have one or both apps will not be able to download updates or patches for them.

The theoretical security risks of apps involved in what Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross calls “China’s civil-military fusion” are hazy but plausible. These restrictions only apply to TikTok and WeChat, not all apps with Chinese origin. Furthermore, WeChat is effectively the default digital layer for many in China, so it is an essential app for Americans staying in touch.

So, to summarize the saga so far:

  • The capability to download WeChat and TikTok in the U.S. will stop Sunday night under the umbrella rationalization that Chinese apps are unique security threats. No other apps or devices of Chinese origin will be prohibited, and no specific security problem has been identified.

  • Software updates for those apps, including bug fixes and security patches, will also stop Sunday night for, you know, security reasons.

  • WeChat’s functionality will be kneecapped then, cutting off a popular communications bridge between the U.S. and China.

  • TikTok will continue to work until November 12 as the finer details are worked out to transfer U.S. hosting contracts from companies Donald Trump personally dislikes to one that he does.

  • Election day is November 3 and it would be politically fraught to have headlines reading Trump Bans TikTok in the coming week.

  • So far, the TikTok deal does not appear to have a meaningful impact on national security or user privacy — the two concerns that created this vortex of corruption and bullshit in the first place.

I get why China’s state-connected businesses are worrying for some Americans, but this order does almost nothing to alleviate those concerns. It adds a communications roadblock for Americans with family, friends, and coworkers in China, and it lays the groundwork to enrich a company whose executives have fundraised for the president.

The Very Colourful Apple Watch Series 6

Apple seeded review units of its new Apple Watches to traditional press and a few YouTubers, and I am struck by how colourful they are. Valentina Palladino of Engadget, Jacob Krol of CNN, and Brian Heater of TechCrunch received blue models; Marques Brownlee, Dieter Bohn of the Verge, and Caitlin McGarry of Gizmodo got the Product Red model.

The blue is pretty muted, but the red model is very red, like the iPod Nano used to be. I know it’s a lot of colour and it may not be for everyone, but I think I prefer these to the more traditional palette of silvery aluminum, stainless steel, shades of grey, and gold. Those latter materials all ape traditional watch materials, but the Apple Watch is more fun and funky. I am sure it will be harder to pair these models with clothing, but I think this represents a more honest take on an Apple Watch’s hardware. If the choice were binary, I would rather see more explorations in this direction than an attempt to make it more like a traditional wristwatch.