Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for September 8th, 2020

The Money Store

Allow me to try summarizing the last two weeks of tedious Apple, Epic Games, and antitrust stuff:

The legal aspects of everything here will play out in court and I have no interest in playing “backseat lawyer”. But I am sort of perplexed by each company’s strategy here — particularly Apple’s.

It seems like these two corporate giants — though “giant” at different scales — are very happy to test how much they can piss off users and regulatory bodies. Epic is being belligerent in its steadfast refusal to play by the iOS App Store rules. Apple is going all-in on whatever it can get away with. Both of these angles make a bunch of Fortnite players miserable pawns in a business fight which, I recently learned, will only be interesting in film if the screenplay is written in Sorkinese.

Since Apple, as a company, is valued at a staggering amount and views its platforms as vertically-integrated units of hardware, software, and services, it has unique leverage despite not having monopoly market share in any category. If people disliked these attributes, they could simply purchase different stuff, but Apple maintains a high degree of customer loyalty across its product categories. It is reasonable to assume that users are not bothered by these qualities or perhaps even prefer them. It is also possible that users have trouble switching away but I maintain that Apple’s ecosystem has less of a lock-in quality than other major tech companies; it’s just more obvious.

Even so, the mess of lawsuits and investigations into its behaviour means that there are questions about whether it is squeezing its platforms too tightly. None of these legal cases are directly about customer experience, which has no definition in law and cannot be quantified, but they have everything to do with whether Apple is breaching the trust of its users — whether it has overextended its interpretation of its corporate rights and minimized those of its users.

One of the things I keep wondering about everything here is what it would take for Apple to change course if the law were not involved. I wonder how much control it would be able to exert before users began to switch away in large enough numbers that it would cause consternation in Cupertino. But, then, I also wonder why it would even get to that level — no company should be pushing so hard as to test customer loyalty and trust. This Fortnite thing gets awful close for some players, I imagine. Some will simply stop playing; others will play on another console. But some might decide that they no longer want to be a part of Apple’s ecosystem. You can have all of the gaming consoles you want and switch between them, but most people only have one phone.

The investigations in Australia and Italy are a little different. Australia is looking into App Store policies from users’ and developers’ perspectives, similar to the U.S. antitrust investigation, while Italy’s regulators are asking whether cloud storage services have fair user agreements.

From a gambling perspective, the certainty of maintaining similar App Store rules for twelve years with the possibility that they might be changed is, I suppose, a more logical position than making alterations with a similar uncertainty of future investigations. But it has left Apple in the difficult position of maintaining that its business practices are not unlawfully anticompetitive — and risks having them altered, possibly in unique and conflicting ways, by different regulators around the world. That seems out of character for a company as controlling as Apple.

The short and decidedly non-legal take here is that Apple’s control has frayed its relations with third-party developers and it is pushing users’ trust. So far, everything is more-or-less holding: many developers need Apple’s platforms and I doubt they are shedding users in meaningful numbers. But it is bizarre and troubling that we are having this conversation. It suggests that Apple is increasingly finding ways to financially exploit its products for self-enrichment at the expense of users and developers. From a strategy perspective, as far as I am concerned, that is not as inspiring as make great products that practically sell themselves.

David Graeber Dies Aged 59

Sian Cain, the Guardian:

David Graeber, anthropologist and anarchist author of bestselling books on bureaucracy and economics including Bullshit Jobs: A Theory and Debt: The First 5,000 Years, has died aged 59.

On Thursday Graeber’s wife, the artist and writer Nika Dubrovsky, announced on Twitter that Graeber had died in hospital in Venice the previous day. The cause of death is not yet known.

Graeber’s writing has had a formative impact on my work and, more broadly speaking, my outlook. I will miss his unique and often brilliant perspective, and savour his final book to be released next year.

Tests Show 5G Networks in U.S. Are Rarely Fast and Wildly Overhyped

Sascha Segan, PC Magazine:

We admit it, we bought into the 5G hype. Carriers, phone makers, and chip makers alike have all been selling 5G as faster and more powerful than 4G, with lower latency. So I was shocked to see that our AT&T 5G results, especially, were slower than 4G results on the same network.

This is a crisis for marketing, not for performance. All three US carriers showed significantly higher download speeds and better broadband reliability than they did in our 2019 tests. It’s just that these gains, particularly on AT&T, are largely because of improvements in 4G, not 5G networks.

[…]

It’s worth mentioning that neither AT&T’s nor T-Mobile’s 5G networks are faster than the Bell and Telus 4G networks in Canada. Bell and Telus were able to outpace our 5G technologies without a lick of 5G.

Beaten by Canadians — ouch.

Geoffrey A. Fowler, Washington Post:

Apple is expected to unveil its first 5G-enabled iPhones at an event on Sept. 15. Samsung’s entire flagship lineup is now 5G-equipped. So these 2020 models are going to really fly, right?

Well, hold on just a minute. 5G may hold promise for the years ahead — but across most of America in 2020, a 5G phone does diddly squat. Testing 5G phones, I’ve been clocking download speeds that are roughly the same as on 4G LTE ones. And in some places, like inside my house and along the California highway, my 5G phones actually have been slower.

The on-page headline of Fowler’s article may be “The 5G lie: The network of the future is still slow”, but the title tag says that “Apple’s September event will bring a 5G iPhone”. However, Mark Gurman says that it will not, and Apple previously said that new iPhones would be available a “few weeks” later than in years past. For these and other reasons, I’m inclined to side against Fowler’s prediction despite its confidence.

At any rate, do not be surprised if only one iPhone model is 5G-capable. The usual suspects will say that this puts Apple at a severe competitive disadvantage despite 5G having zero measurable impact on the livelihood of Americans. It’s like LTE all over again.

With the Departure of the Williamses, There Are No More Family-Run Formula One Teams

Elizabeth Blackstock, Jalopnik:

There was a point in time when plenty of Formula One teams were owned by either families or single people. Brabham, Tyrrell, Hesketh, Hill, Jordan, Surtees—all were teams that were once owned or run by either one person or their family unit. Even McLaren has long since been owned by anyone with the eponymous last name. With Frank and Claire Williams stepping down from their team after being bought out by Dorilton Capital, the end of an era is upon us.

If you haven’t caught the news, Frank and Claire Williams will no longer be involved with its namesake team after the Italian Grand Prix now that it has been bought out by someone else. Dorilton reportedly wanted the family to remain involved, but Claire Williams “felt it was the right choice for me to step away.”

Formula One has long been a festival of sponsorship, but there was something delightful about family-run teams crossing the start line of every race alongside cars from corporate giants. I will miss the Williams family’s involvement.