Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for October, 2020

Microsoft Told Employees It Plans to Bring Xbox Game Pass to iOS Through the Web

Ashley Stewart, Business Insider:

Microsoft’s gaming boss Phil Spencer told employees at an all-hands meeting on Wednesday the company is planning to bring Game Pass to Apple’s iPhone and iPad, targeting 2021 for the potential release of a “direct browser-based solution,” Business Insider has learned.

[…]

A hint as to what that might look like comes from Amazon, which says that it’s able to bring its forthcoming cloud gaming service Luna to iPhone by offering it as a web app. In an interview with Engadget, Luna engineering and technology head George Tsipolitis said that Amazon worked with Apple to make that functionality possible. Google, meanwhile, makes its similar Stadia service available on PCs and Macs via its Chrome web browser, though it too is not available on iPhone or iPad.

That interview with Tsipolitis leaves me with more questions than it answered. Jessica Conditt, Engadget:

“We worked with the Safari team to ensure that some of the things that weren’t there are there, and that allowed us to kind of get to where we are today,” Luna head of engineering and technology George Tsipolitis said.

It’s unclear if Luna will remain a PWA after its stint in early access, or if it will eventually join the app stores under the standard 30 percent fee.

“We’ll continue working with Apple,” Whitten said. “We’d love to do a native experience. They’re evaluating what their policies are there, they keep talking about them. And when we can come up with a good experience there, we’ll ship that one, too.”

I have no idea how good a web app implementation of game streaming can be, but these parallel announcements seem to water down this part of the House antitrust report (PDF, page 96):

Web sites and web apps are not competitively significant alternatives to the dominant app stores on iOS and Android devices for distributing software to mobile devices. Apps provide a deeper, richer user experience and can provide additional functionality by accessing features within the mobile device’s hardware and operating system, such as camera or location services. […] Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines differentiates apps from websites, explaining that apps submitted to the App Store “should include features, content and [user interface] that elevate [the app] beyond a repackaged website.”

The report also quotes Phillip Shoemaker — former senior director of App Store Review — as saying Apple’s new game streaming rules are “completely arbitrary”, and cites a piece by Owen Williams claiming that Apple “push[es] developers toward building native apps on iOS rather than using web technologies” by “ignor[ing] popular parts of the open web specification that other browsers implement, to its own benefit”.

I don’t know what changes have been made to Safari in the last couple of versions to make game streaming services work there, and it remains to be seen how good these implementations are. I think native apps will always beat web apps and I have not used anything I would consider a good counterargument. But the possibility that both Amazon and Microsoft see the web as a plausible alternative makes Williams’ piece look even more hysterical than when I first linked to it.

Assorted Thoughts on the Big Antitrust Report

I have now read the antitrust report about one-and-a-half times and I can confidently say that you, reader, are better served by the analysis of others. I do not think a long piece from me, a non-lawyer, trying to interpret its various nooks and crannies is helpful. So, what I can do is point you to a few smart people who wrote about it, and also add a few idle observations of my own.

I think Wednesday’s episode of Dithering offers a great high-level take. I was stunned by the million-plus documents Google produced which, as John Gruber and Ben Thompson point out, appears to be an attempt at overwhelming investigators instead of being helpful.

But I take issue with both hosts’ interpretation of the CEO’s questioning in July and the resulting lack of surprise in this report. They portray this as begging the question in the classic rhetorical sense of deriving a question from a presumed answer or position. What I saw were representatives testing a thesis: the CEOs they were questioning represent tech companies that have become very powerful, potentially through illegal means.

If you have a Dithering subscription and haven’t listened to Wednesday’s episode yet, it’s worth your while.

Kate Cox, Ars Technica:

Facebook outright “has monopoly power in the market for social networking,” the report concludes, and that power is “firmly entrenched and unlikely to be eroded by competitive pressure” from anyone at all due to “high entry barriers—including strong network effects, high switching costs, and Facebook’s significant data advantage—that discourage direct competition by other firms to offer new products and services.”

[…]

But regulators did not block Facebook’s blockbuster acquisitions of either Instagram or WhatsApp, and they didn’t stop 60 other Facebook acquisitions. This led to what one former employee described to the committee as collusion between the platforms, “but with an internal monopoly.” The employee added: “If you own two social media utilities, they should not be allowed to shore each other up. It’s unclear to me why this should not be illegal. You can collude by acquiring competitors and forbidding competition.”

The report attempts to distinguish between social media platforms and social networks. TikTok, it points out, is often cited as a knee-jerk counterpoint to the argument that it is hard to succeed against Facebook’s acquisition strategy. But, it says, TikTok is more like YouTube than Facebook or Instagram.

One thing that struck me as I read the report is how many acquisitions were involved in making all four companies as dominant as they have become. Acquisitions are a clear focus of the investigation; the last forty-odd pages of the report is simply a list of every significant acquisition made by Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Some of these companies would likely have disappeared and taken their technologies with them had they not been acquired, but others may have competed against tech giants or offered complementary products while remaining independent. It is impossible to know for sure. But acquisition-driven strategies have arguably created a market where it is increasingly difficult for anyone to even try. Success seems less determined by how well-used a product or service is, and more by which company will acquire it and for what price.

Cox:

Google’s position as the dominant search engine is well-cemented. But over the past 20 years, the company has shifted its behavior “to rank search results based on what is best for Google, rather than what is best for search users,” the report concludes, “be it preferencing its own vertical sites or allocating more space for ads.”

I am encouraged to see the report portray AMP as a technology hostile to competition and the web as a whole.

The report also raises concerns with all four companies about user privacy. Apple’s marketing focus on privacy was also questioned with regard to its ability to limit competition ostensibly on those grounds. I think the report was generally fair in its worry about the implications of having a few companies stewards by default of so much sensitive data. But though there are many recommendations in favour of limiting market dominance, I saw none for regulating the collection and use of private user data. Of course, this was a report about antitrust and anti-competitive practices; but, it seems like the committee only told half the story without recommending strong rules on user privacy.

Casey Newton, writing for his brand new newsletter Platformer:

On the other hand, even these recommendations aren’t likely to become law any time soon. America’s divided Congress has been defined by inaction this year; it is currently failing to provide basic economic relief to tens of millions of Americans during a historic pandemic. And we expect these lawmakers to pass a thoughtful collection of reforms and get the president to sign it?

In fairness, the committee has been clear that nothing will pass this year. For anything to pass at all, Democrats may have to take back the presidency and the Senate, and make it through what promises to be a chaotic and even dangerous transfer of power. Until and unless that happens, the status quo seems likely to endure.

This report is comprehensive. Returning to the Dithering episode, it is true that I found few surprises when I read it. Yet, it is worthwhile to compile all of these questionable practices into a single document. It drops like an anvil — both because of its volume and the impact of seeing these practices laid bare in such clarity. I hope it does more than gather dust. These companies are wildly powerful. Whether you believe that power should be cut down or simply be subject to greater responsibility and oversight, you will find sensible arguments in this report.

But I am not a lawyer.

Fear and Loathing of App Review

Sean Hollister, the Verge:

We’ve known for months that WordPress and Hey weren’t alone in being strong-armed by the most valuable company in the world, ever since Stratechery’s Ben Thompson reported that 21 different app developers quietly told him they’d been pushed to retroactively add IAP in the wake of those two controversies. But until now, we hadn’t heard of many devs willing to publicly admit it. They were scared.

And they’re still scared, says [Proton CEO Andy Yen]. Even though Apple changed its rules on September 11th to exempt “free apps acting as a stand-alone companion to a paid web based tool” from the IAP requirement — Apple explicitly said email apps are exempt — ProtonMail still hasn’t removed its own in-app purchases because it fears retaliation from Apple, he says.

He claims other developers feel the same way: “There’s a lot of fear in the space right now; people are completely petrified to say anything.”

Of all the problems the App Store has had since it launched, the one absolute thing that should never have become an issue is developers’ fear of reviewers. Opinions may differ on whether the degree of fear is appropriate, but the fact that it persists for many developers is a huge reputational red flag.

Enthusiast

Speaking of new podcasts, “Enthusiast!” is one that I am looking forward to. It’s from Mark Bramhill — you might be familiar with the excellent “Welcome to Macintosh” series and, if you are not, I cannot recommend it enough. “Enthusiast!” is described as a series of short vignettes of people talking about stuff that they are delighted by. The first episode comes out next week on October 14 and, based on the trailer, it sounds terrific.

All Consuming

“All Consuming” is a new podcast from Noah Kalina and Adam Lisagor. You probably know work from both of them, so you probably know that this will be good — and it is. They talk about their impressions of direct-to-consumer product sold through ads on Instagram and other places. I don’t love a lot of podcasts, but this is a good one.

Danny Hall’s Stolen Instagram Account

Danny Hall:

TLDR: some rich kid in LA now has my Instagram account because he got his friend who works at Facebook to steal it… and nobody at Facebook or Instagram is doing anything about it

I’ve had the Instagram account @danny since it launched (10 years ago!). I guess its a pretty sought after @. I get loads of spam, password reset/login attempt emails etc. So I have it protected with a strong random password and 2 factor auth

Via Michael Tsai:

After the story gained traction, he got his account back, but without any explanation. It reminds me of this story (Hacker News) of a woman losing her Kindle books.

It also reminds me of “OG” account breaches, like this summer’s mass Bitcoin scam using high-profile Twitter accounts.

Along similar lines, I spotted a verified account impersonating Elon Musk yesterday. The account used to belong to an American politician,1 but was apparently hijacked by someone pushing a similar cryptocurrency scam. I was under the impression that major changes to verified accounts would be a red flag for Twitter, but I guess not. Perhaps that ought to be one of the restrictions of verification — major changes to an account’s profile picture or name could be subject to review.


  1. That’s not ideal in a U.S. election year, is it? ↩︎

U.S. House Antitrust Subcommittee Investigating Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google Issues Report

Tony Romm, Cat Zakrzewski, and Rachel Lerman, Washington Post:

The House investigation stopped short of calling on the Trump administration to break up any of the companies. Instead, it proposed the most sweeping overhaul of U.S. antitrust law in decades, a series of legislative proposals that could empower the government to battle bigness in the tech industry and prevent future problematic mergers. Any such retooling would require approval from Congress, and it would affect not only Silicon Valley but the entire economy — essentially turning the House’s efforts into a broader assault against corporate consolidation.

[…]

“To put it simply, companies that once were scrappy, underdog startups that challenged the status quo have become the kinds of monopolies we last saw in the era of oil barons and railroad tycoons,” the House panel concluded in its report. “Although these firms have delivered clear benefits to society, the dominance of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google has come at a price.”

“These firms typically run the marketplace while also competing in it,” the report continues, enabling tech giants “to write one set of rules for others, while they play by another, or to engage in a form of their own private quasi regulation that is unaccountable to anyone but themselves.”

All four companies have denied any wrongdoing. If you get the time, you should read the report for yourself (PDF). It is quite long — over four hundred pages — but it is comprehensively researched and well-articulated.

Apple Pulls Third-Party Headphones From Online and Retail Stores

Mark Gurman, Bloomberg:

Apple Inc. has stopped selling headphones and wireless speakers from rivals including Sonos Inc., Bose Corp. and Logitech International SA as the company gears up to launch its own new audio products.

The Cupertino, California-based technology giant has long sold third-party hardware on its website, one of the largest e-commerce operations in the world. All headphones and speakers from Bose, speakers from Logitech’s Ultimate Ears brand and Sonos’s latest smart speaker disappeared from Apple’s online store at the end of last month, according to checks by Bloomberg.

Apple’s retail operations sure have come a long way since they were positioned as a place for “the best accessories”. That’s not a knock. Apple doesn’t sell digital still or video cameras in its retail stores any longer but I don’t think that decision has had any bearing on their sales. Best Buy and Amazon must be thrilled to hear about one less competitor.

Under Intensifying Antitrust Scrutiny, Facebook Begins Merging the Infrastructure of Its App Family

Harry McCracken, Fast Company:

On September 29, Facebook introduced Accounts Center, a one-stop hub — still in test mode — where users can view and change settings across Facebook, Messenger, and Instagram, including the ability to log into each service and automatically cross-post among them. Now it’s also beginning to push out a new version of Instagram’s messaging features that’s based on Messenger rather being its own self-contained entity. Users on both services will be able to chat with Messenger and Instagram friends from either app.

[…] VP of product and social good Naomi Gleit, who wrote about Facebook in her Stanford thesis and then joined the company in 2005 when it was less than a year and half old, still laments “the gap between what people think that our intentions are and what our intentions are.” But the fact remains that Facebook is combining its apps into one even bigger, formidable network at the same time that many are questioning whether it should exist at all in its current form.

Jeff Horwitz, Wall Street Journal:

A government effort to break up Facebook Inc. from Instagram and WhatsApp would defy established law, cost billions of dollars and harm consumers, according to a paper company lawyers have prepared in the wake of rising antitrust legal threats.

[…]

Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014 were examined by the Federal Trade Commission, which closed its reviews without issuing an objection. The company made big investments to boost growth on those platforms and they now share numerous operations that are integrated. In the paper, Facebook says unwinding the deals would be nearly impossible to achieve, forcing the company to spend billions of dollars maintaining separate systems, weakening security and harming users’ experience.

Instagram’s photo hosting was moved from AWS to Facebook’s in-house solution about six years ago, and Facebook has only attempted to tighten the integration of its products ever since. Breaking them up would be as difficult as separating YouTube from Google.

That is not a good argument for why it should not be done.

Two Years After ‘The Big Hack’

It has now been two years since Bloomberg published that wild story claiming that Chinese intelligence had infiltrated the supply chain of a company that sells servers to Amazon, Apple, the U.S. Department of Defense, and Bloomberg L.P.

I asked a Bloomberg spokesperson if they had any additional comment now that the story has been a permanent exclusive ever since. I have not heard back. Most of the story sits exactly as it did last year, except Michael Riley and Jordan Robertson have published a few more security-related articles.

This is just one story and, in case you hadn’t noticed, 2020 has been a very busy year. But it is also the year that security risks of Chinese government involvement in the tech landscape became an enormous story. The U.S. government attempted to severely curtail WeChat and TikTok. though both orders were blocked by judges and the cases are ongoing. These are the kind of stories that Bloomberg ought to be able to report on credibly: a security threat and the prospect of restricting specific companies from operating in the United States because of their connections to an authoritarian government.

But Bloomberg cannot be trusted on matters like these because it still hasn’t answered the most basic questions about its Supermicro server story. It has not published any additional reporting to clarify its story nor has it retracted the original report. It hangs in limbo — and limbo is not a great state for a high-profile national security story from a top-tier U.S. business publication.

Apple Rolls Out New Maps and Look Around Throughout U.K. and Ireland

Apple:

Today, users in the UK and Ireland can experience the new Apple Maps, with faster and more accurate navigation, and comprehensive views of roads, buildings, parks, airports, malls, and more, making it easier and more enjoyable to map out any journey.

[…]

Maps offers interactive street-level imagery with high-resolution, 3D photography and smooth and seamless transitions through major cities with Look Around. Customers from anywhere in the world can navigate through London, Edinburgh, and Dublin, with many more places to come.

As usual, Justin O’Beirne has put together the best comparison between the old cartography and its replacement. There are some dramatic improvements, some subtler ones, and I cannot wait for this to expand to Canada.

Look Around is uniquely interesting. It is the first attempt in a long time at building a true competitor to Google Street View. Microsoft’s Bing Maps has a “street level” view, but it lacks imagery for Calgary, and its last update in Vancouver occurred about eleven years ago. Meanwhile, I’ve seen Apple’s cars roaming around different cities in Alberta for about a year now.

O’Beirne has coverage of Look Around in the U.K. and Ireland. But I would like to draw your attention to a speculative article he wrote about Apple’s patterns with its rollout of Look Around and how it relates to augmented reality:

Apple has shown strong interest in AR since first unveiling ARKit at WWDC 2017. And from a purely technical standpoint, Apple would seem to have everything it needs to add AR navigation to Apple Maps.

So it seems as if Apple is waiting for something… but what?

Similar to how Google’s AR implementation is dependent upon Street View, it’s likely that Apple’s would also only work in areas where Apple already has Look Around. As we saw earlier, Apple has released Look Around for just fourteen areas […] so one possibility is that Apple is holding off on launching AR navigation until additional Look Around areas come online.

One drawback is that the fourteen areas where Look Around is available are almost entirely core city regions. If you live in a smaller city, the suburbs, or a more rural area, you might be waiting a long time for Look Around. I admire Apple’s ambition; I do not think it is helpful for Google to have a monopoly on street-level imagery.

A Look at Quality Management in Apple’s System Updates Over Time

I thought this piece by Howard Oakley was very thoughtful in examining the relationship between the length of MacOS development cycles over time and whether system updates have become more frequent. He concludes:

Surely the most important way to improve quality is to strengthen quality management processes throughout engineering — the principle of building it right first time, rather than expending more effort at detecting and remediating errors. Simply extending the cycle without changing quality management would be very unlikely to result in any improvement. But better quality management doesn’t entail making the cycle any longer, so cycle length is unlikely to be relevant, as was shown by Apple’s only real two-year development cycle with Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger.

Oakley’s data doesn’t lie, but I think it is more complex than it appears at a glance.

For the first few public releases of Mac OS X, Apple stuck to a development cycle of well under a year per release. Beginning with the Panther release in 2003, Mac OS X settled into something closer to an eighteen-month gap between x.0 public releases, with a long exception for Tiger. Then, with Mountain Lion in 2012, Apple stated that its intention was to begin releasing a new version of OS X every year; Mountain Lion had a shorter cycle than its predecessors, but it was still longer than any release after.

In all three eras of MacOS development cycles, you will find versions that are legendary for their refinement, and those which are the complete opposite.

But Tiger’s release is special. It came out in 2005, just a couple of months before Apple announced it would be switching to Intel processors across its lineup. The processor switch, the iPod effect, and Microsoft’s dreadful Vista release combined to persuade millions of people to switch to the Mac around this time — yours truly included. We all skipped past the chaotic first two years of Mac OS X and got used to a slower release cycle of major versions that did not feel bound to a calendar.

Another development is that MacOS is not the only project that is on an annual release cycle. Apple now develops six operating systems, and it ships new x.0 releases every autumn for all but audioOS. That is an enormous amount of pressure for a lot of devices and an ever-increasing number of users. Apple also employs more designers and developers, but that does not necessarily imply that design and development tasks are scalable.

There are surely more factors for why older versions of MacOS felt more stable, including faulty human memory. But I also bet cramming five OS updates into a synchronized twelve-month release pattern must have some effect on overall quality. For what it’s worth, I have found that you can get a similar feeling of stability and quality by skipping every second major release of MacOS. It is almost like implementing your own version of a longer development cycle.

Apple Suggests Restoring iPhone and Apple Watch to Fix WatchOS 7 Bugs

Arnold Kim, MacRumors:

Multiple online support threads including our own found GPS data was not being properly recorded during activities. The issue appeared to affect all models of Apple Watches.

[…]

In a newly published support document titled If you’re missing Workout GPS routes or Health data after updating to iOS 14 and watchOS 7, Apple writes that users may see the following issues after upgrading to iOS 14 and watchOS 7:

[…]

If you are experiencing two or more of these symptoms, Apple suggests unpairing your Apple Watch, backing up both your iPhone and Apple Watch, wiping both devices and restoring from backup. Apple provides steps to accomplish these tasks in their support document which was published today.

I get that bugs happen, that Apple’s internal development methods for testing WatchOS 7 probably make it difficult to test problems with upgrading during every build, and that these issues might be pretty rare. But, even so, it is frustrating to see how often Apple recommends restoring or resetting a device in its support materials.

For example, if you have a problem with Activity Sharing, Apple’s only recommendation is that you sign out of iCloud on your iPhone. This is an enormously time-consuming action if you have iCloud syncing enabled for photos, music, and videos, in particular, and it risks duplication or destruction of all iCloud-synced data.

If you can’t get Personal Hotspot working, Apple suggests resetting an iPhone’s network settings before the document advises you to check if “Allow Others to Join” is switched on, and also before turning Wi-Fi off and back on. Resetting an iPhone’s network settings will also get rid of Wi-Fi passwords, VPN configuration, and more.

These are only a couple of quick examples that I found, but it is advice that I see far too often in these support documents. In my mind, it overlaps with Apple’s semi-recent tendency to hide error messages and fail silently. In all cases, it buries problems and their causes in favour of unfriendly simplicity.