Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for March, 2021

Judge Certifies Class Action Lawsuit Against Apple for Butterfly Keyboards

Adi Robertson, the Verge:

A judge has certified a class action suit against Apple for its fragile butterfly keyboard design. The suit covers anyone who purchased an Apple MacBook with a butterfly keyboard in seven states: California, New York, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, Washington, and Michigan. That includes people who bought a MacBook model dating between 2015 and 2017, a MacBook Pro model between 2016 and 2019, or a MacBook Air between 2018 and 2019.

[…]

This suit claims Apple knew for years that its butterfly switches were defective — and that its incremental changes weren’t fixing the core problem. It cites internal communications inside Apple, including an executive who wrote that “no matter how much lipstick you try to put on this pig [referring to the butterfly keyboard] … it’s still ugly.”

The question for me is not whether Apple knew that the switches had an increased predisposition to fail. A document (PDF) filed in this lawsuit in August last year suggests — if you read between the heavy redactions — that Apple was allegedly aware of its poorer performance as far back as June 2013, and Genius Bar reports in 2016 and 2017 suggested a failure rate twice that of its predecessor. I recognize this question is half of what this lawsuit is about, so I am interested to see what eventually comes out in the trial, but public evidence has long indicated that these keyboards are less reliable than those they replaced.

But I am more curious about why it took so long to address these glaring problems. Why did this seem, from an outsider’s perspective, to not be among the highest priorities in the company? Why not, after the first year, stick the guts of the newer MacBook Pro model into a revised version of the old case? The question for me is not as much why did Apple try this keyboard in the first place? as it is why did it continue selling Macs with this keyboard? — that, for me, is a greater concern.

I wonder how much of the Mac’s nosedive in resale value may be attributed to the butterfly keyboard. It has certainly dented Apple’s reputation for delivering premium quality hardware.

The HomePod Mini Contains an As-Yet Unused Temperature and Humidity Sensor

Mark Gurman, Bloomberg (via Dan Moren):

The Cupertino, California-based technology giant never disclosed this component and the device currently lacks consumer-facing features that use it. The company has internally discussed using the sensor to determine a room’s temperature and humidity so internet-connected thermostats can adjust different parts of a home based on current conditions, according to people familiar with the situation. The hardware could also let the HomePod mini automatically trigger other actions, say turning a fan on or off, depending on the temperature.

As far as hidden components go, this is much better than finding out your thermostat has a microphone.

Irrelevant Inside

I do not have any strong feelings about the new Intel ads featuring Justin Long; I don’t really have any feelings about them at all. They’re just kind of there, out in the ether, badly composited and referencing a fifteen year old campaign.

But I couldn’t quite understand why they seemed incomplete until I read this excellent piece from Jack Wellborn:

Make fun of Apple or not, the goal of this campaign should have been “a laptop without Intel is like a burger without Heinz”. Instead, Intel commoditized itself by creating an ad campaign that highlights all of the benefits of PC laptops regardless of what’s inside of them.

The original Mac vs. PC ads worked before and after the Mac transitioned to Intel because they almost exclusively referenced software differences. In fact, that was the more-or-less the point of the campaign: the guts of the computer may be similar, but their capabilities are worlds apart because of their software.

The funny thing about these Intel ads is that they could work just as well for PC makers that use AMD or ARM processors.

Privacy, Policy

Earlier this week, Patrick McGee and Yuan Yang explained in the Financial Times how some high-profile developers based in China were seeking to evade tracking permission requests on iOS. Here is today’s update:

On Thursday, Apple fired pre-emptive warnings to at least two Chinese apps, telling them to cease and desist after naming a dozen parameters such as “setDeviceName” that could be used “to create a unique identifier for the user’s device”.

“We found that your app collects user and device information to create a unique identifier for the user’s device,” reads a screenshot of a warning to one developer who was using a new way of identifying users called CAID, which was developed by the state-backed China Advertising Association.

This is promising news; it appears that Apple will be taking seriously any attempt at tracking users without their permission, something which was unfortunately unclear in McGee and Yang’s earlier report.

There are two reasons this is noteworthy. The first is that this tracking ID and these developers are connected to the government of China, a country with a human rights record as of late that has differed from Apple’s professed values. Apple has been mostly compliant with escalating demands, presumably because of its manufacturing dependence. So, the thinking goes, would Apple risk challenging apps from politically-connected companies?

The second reason is that Apple has also shown more deference to rule-breaking from big-name developers. Uber, for example, was granted an in-person meeting after it was found to be tracking device serial numbers in a manner disguised from App Review by geofencing, and was not punished for this insidious privacy violation. As Michael Tsai observed:

That said, it’s got to be a tough situation for Apple to be in. They’re trying to protect their customers, but denying them access to an important transportation service would harm them far more than what Uber did. And what if this were an app that provided an essential medical function? The store is full of apps that flout the rules, but I don’t think Apple could ignore the geofencing. It looks like it tried to thread the needle by getting Uber to comply with the rules but then being lenient.

What if high-profile developers just stop playing by the App Store rules? If ByteDance implements the CAID tracking mechanism anyway, would Apple pull TikTok from the store, particularly as there is that ongoing Epic Games lawsuit? I recognize that Apple has nothing that competes with TikTok and, so, this is not a comparable case. Still, that would surely look like a risky move to pull with lawmakers watching.

But if Apple is deferential, that looks like it is permitting different rules for some developers: perhaps because they are from China, perhaps because they are well-known, or perhaps because of antitrust litigation. None of those are acceptable options.

The only choice is for Apple to permit no leeway for any developer, big or small, if they break its rules. Apple has long promised that this is the case anyhow, but it has granted plenty of exemptions. If it only wants to allow native iOS apps to be installed from its own moderated store, it must be especially careful in enforcing these privacy rules evenly.

The Facial Recognition Pandora’s Box Has Been Opened. Now What?

Kashmir Hill has continued to report on Clearview AI after breaking the news of its existence early last year. Today, for the New York Times Magazine, she shared an update on the company:

It seemed entirely possible that Clearview AI would be sued, legislated or shamed out of existence. But that didn’t happen. With no federal law prohibiting or even regulating the use of facial recognition, Clearview did not, for the most part, change its practices. Nor did it implode. While it shut down private companies’ accounts, it continued to acquire government customers. Clearview’s most effective sales tool, at first, was a free trial it offered to anyone with a law-enforcement-affiliated email address, along with a low, low price: You could access Clearview AI for as little as $2,000 per year. Most comparable vendors — whose products are not even as extensive — charged six figures. The company later hired a seasoned sales director who raised the price. “Our growth rate is crazy,” Hoan Ton-That, Clearview’s chief executive, said.

Clearview has now raised $17 million and, according to PitchBook, is valued at nearly $109 million. As of January 2020, it had been used by at least 600 law-enforcement agencies; the company says it is now up to 3,100. […]

Any way you cut it, this is disturbing. The public’s reaction to news of Clearview’s existence was overwhelmingly negative, but police saw that article as an advertisement.

Shameless companies will not change from public pressure.

Hill:

Clearview is now fighting 11 lawsuits in the state [Illinois], including the one filed by the A.C.L.U. in state court. In response to the challenges, Clearview quickly removed any photos it determined came from Illinois, based on geographical information embedded in the files it scraped — but if that seemed on the surface like a capitulation, it wasn’t.

Clearview assumes that it can scrape, store, and transform anything in the public realm unless it is certain it would be prohibited from doing so. Data is inherently valuable to the company, so it is incentivized to capture as much as possible.

But that means there is likely a whole bunch of stuff in its systems that it cannot legally use but has no way of knowing that. For example, there are surely plenty of photos taken in Illinois that do not have GPS coordinates in their metadata. Why would any of those be cleared from Clearview’s inventory? Clearview also allows people to request removal from its systems, but there are surely photographs from those people that are not positively matched, so the company has no way of identifying them as part of a removal request.

This is an aside, but that raises an interesting question: if images scraped without legal consent were used to train Clearview’s machine learning models, is it truly possible to remove those illegal images?

If Clearview were even slightly more ethical, it would only scrape the images it has explicit permission to access. I would still disagree with that on its face, but at least it would be done with permission. But this is the perhaps inevitable consequence of the Uber-like fuck your rules philosophy — as Hill writes, it is a “gamble that the rules would successfully be bent in their favor”.

Sadly, that Silicon Valley indifference to legality and ethics will not remain localized. There is no way to know for certain that Clearview has complied with the Privacy Commissioner’s recommendation that the company must delete all collected data on Canadians.

Hill digs into Clearview’s origin story, too, which of course involves Peter Thiel and someone who is even more detestable:

After I broke the news about Clearview AI, BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post reported that Ton-That and his company had ties to the far right and to a notorious conservative provocateur named Charles Johnson. I heard the same about Johnson from multiple sources. So I emailed him. At first, he was hesitant to talk to me, insisting he would do so only off the record, because he was still frustrated about the last time he talked to a New York Times journalist, when the media columnist David Carr profiled him in 2014.

“Provacateur” is an awfully kind description of Johnson, though Hill expands further in the successive paragraphs. Just so we’re clear here, Johnson is a hateful subreddit in human form; a moron attached to a megaphone. Johnson has a lengthy rap sheet of crimes against intelligence, decency, facts, and ethics. He has denied the Holocaust, and did Jacob Wohl’s dumb bit before Wohl was old enough to vote.

Johnson is, apparently, a sort of unofficial cofounder of Clearview, who agreed to talk with Hill apparently because he thought it would rehabilitate his image. Reading between the lines, as of earlier this month he still held shares in a company that seeks to eradicate privacy on a global scale, so I am not sure how that is supposed to make me think more highly of him.

I thought this was amusing:

Johnson believes that giving this superpower only to the police is frightening — that it should be offered to anyone who would use it for good. In his mind, a world without strangers would be a friendlier, nicer world, because all people would be accountable for their actions.

I thought “cancel culture” was a scourge; I guess some fairly terrible people want to automate it.

Let’s not give this “superpower” to anyone.

The Case for Better Watch Typography

Liz Stinson, Hodinkee:

Hermès’ approach to watch typography is unusually poetic. In reality, only a small and decreasing number of watchmakers go to the trouble of creating custom lettering for their dials. More often, watch brands use off-the-rack fonts that are squished and squeezed onto the dial’s limited real estate. Patek Philippe, for example, has used ITC American Typewriter and Arial on its high-end watches. French brand Bell & Ross deploys the playful 1980 typeface Isonorm for the numerals on many of its timepieces. Rolex uses a slightly modified version of Garamond for its logo. And Audemars Piguet has replaced the custom lettering on its watches with a stretched version of Times Roman.

Picture this: you sit yourself into the leather armchair that has sunken into the plush carpet on the jewellery store’s floor. You sip your complementary sparkling water as a staff member passes you a soft-lined box, inside which lays your dream watch, a Patek Philippe 5207G Grand Complications. This is among the finest examples of watchmaking and you have convinced yourself that it is worth its seven-figure pricetag. You lift it up to your eye and there you see it: Arial.

I’m not even joking — look at it. This watch has a tourbillon because of course it does, and the word Tourbillon is set in Arial of all typefaces. The calendar’s numbers also appear to be set in Arial and, to make matters worse, it appears to have been stretched vertically to fit, though it could be Arial Narrow. (Update: The numbers actually appear to be in a stretched Helvetica, so this watch has Arial and Helvetica on its face. Neat.) It is the same story across the Patek lineup, and it is a miserable detail in some truly fine work. Noted watch collector and typography enthusiast John Mayer would not be pleased.

French Regulators Say the Upcoming iOS Tracking Permission Feature Is Not an Antitrust Concern

Mathieu Rosemain and Foo Yun Chee, Reuters:

The head of the watchdog, Isabelle de Silva, said she had worked closely with France’s CNIL data privacy regulator in deciding to reject the request to suspend the feature.

She said CNIL estimated the pop-up box put in place by Apple could benefit users in an ever-more complex online advertising environment, and was presented in clear and unbiased way, as requested by the European Union’s GDPR data protection rules.

[…]

Still, the watchdog said it would continue investigating whether Apple favours its own services and products, with a decision expected by early next year at the latest.

This is the permission prompt coming with iOS 14.5. It is as good to see French regulators affirm its helpfulness as it is to see them reject advertisers’ whining.

On a related note, Apple has recently published privacy labels for its own apps on its website and in the App Store. It is pretty wild to compare some categories of apps. For example, Apple’s Weather app collects location and search data, of course, but it is not linked to users — nothing in the app is linked. But if you poke around the App Store for other weather apps, you will find that most of the big names — the Weather Network, ClimaCell’s Weather Assistant, AccuWeather, and the Weather Channel, to name just a few — all use your location and other identifiers to “track you across apps and websites owned by other companies”, in Apple’s language. Notable exceptions include Carrot Weather and Environment Canada’s WeatherCAN app.

Translation is another example. Apple and Microsoft both say that their translation apps do not link any collected data to users; Google Translate is happy to link all sorts of collected data to individual users.

These privacy labels need some work. I desperately wish to know with which companies my data is being shared. I suspect that, for many big-name apps, the list would be unwieldy and embarrassing.

Debates About ‘Big Tech’ Often Overlook Telecom Conglomerates

Osita Nwanevu, the New Republic:

And yet the telecoms rarely enter our debates over “Big Tech” and corporate power in the internet age. Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple have shaped the basic nuts and bolts of the internet. Facebook’s dominance over social media and its share of the online advertising market have made it another giant in the eyes of many. But the telecoms, which hold the keys to the internet itself for millions of Americans, have accrued more than enough power, online and off, to be just as worthy of concern and scrutiny as all of those Silicon Valley firms. The telecoms are tech companies, and they are big ones — so big that they’ve become much larger than tech itself.

This is U.S.-centric and, so, raises specific concerns about the conglomeration of big telecom providers. But many of its arguments can be echoed here in Canada as our competition bureau figures out whether Rogers can acquire Shaw. Like Comcast and AT&T, Rogers has media interests. Shaw sold its shares in then-sister company Corus Entertainment in 2019, but “sister company” remains true in its most literal sense: Heather Shaw is the executive chair at Corus, and is Shaw CEO Brad Shaw’s sister.

Anyway: different countries, same problems.

A Surveillance Contractor Is Marketing a Service for Locating Cars in Nearly Every Country in ‘Near Real-Time’

Joseph Cox, Vice:

“Ulysses can provide our clients with the ability to remotely geolocate vehicles in nearly every country except for North Korea and Cuba on a near real time basis,” the document, written by contractor The Ulysses Group, reads. “Currently, we can access over 15 billion vehicle locations around the world every month,” the document adds.

[…]

Consumers may be unaware that automakers and Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) often include sensors in vehicle parts that collect information such as their airbag and seatbelt status, engine temperature, and current location, and then transmit that information either back to the automaker or to third parties. Aggregator companies also purchase or obtain this data, repackage it, and then sell that data or products based on it to their own clients.

“Vehicle telematics is data transmitted from the vehicle to the automaker or OEM through embedded communications systems in the car,” the Ulysses document continues. “Among the thousands of other data points, vehicle location data is transmitted on a constant and near real time basis while the vehicle is operating.”

I have been writing about the intrusions on our privacy by unaccountable technology companies for nearly a decade now, but I have not lost the capacity to be surprised. This article shocked me.

On some level, it should not be so surprising, right? Like, we all know that cars have computers in them and a bunch of communications equipment. We can all assume that automakers are not building their own GPS systems, automatic emergency diallers, or traffic detection software. So of course a bunch of data is just floating around on practically every car made in the last twenty years or so, and because data is inherently valuable, of course it is being sold by scummy vendors to some terrifying company nobody has heard of.

Yet this feels like an intrusion on a vastly different scale. Imagine if this is combined with those automatic license plate readers that have little to no privacy legislation governing their use in many countries.

Update: I have updated the headline from “locating nearly any car on Earth” to “locating cars in nearly every country”.

Apple Has Agreed to Prompt for Installation of iOS Apps From Russian Developers, According to Local Media

Valery Kodachigov of the Vedomosti business newspaper broke the news. Alas, this story is in Russian, though Google seems to do a pretty good job of translating it:

A high-ranking source in the Ministry of Digital Industry told Vedomosti about reaching an agreement with Apple. The agreements stipulate that when you first turn on an Apple device purchased in Russia, during setup, the user will see a dialog box in which he will be prompted to install applications from the list approved by the government by default, the source told Vedomosti. It will be possible to refuse the installation by unchecking the boxes in front of certain applications, explains the source of the publication.

The Apple office confirmed this information.

If a Google Translate version isn’t your thing, the Radio Free Europe version appears to be a good rewrite. TASS is separately reporting that device manufacturers will be required to set a domestic search engine as the browser default, though precisely which one will be announced later.

Nickstradamus got it wrong again:

This Russian law really is something else. While I could see a situation in which certain apps aren’t available in Russia, I cannot imagine that Apple would sell iPhones specially customized in accordance with the Russian government’s wishes. That’s an indefensible precedent. Russia’s internet policy goals are increasingly distant from the rest of the world. If isolation is what they wish for, the rest of us should not be dragged along.

I hate getting stuff like this wrong. I stand by this on principle, but clearly I overestimated Apple’s willingness to withdraw from what is an increasingly authoritarian market. It does seem like Apple was able to strike something of a compromise — on Android phones and other devices, the apps will apparently be preinstalled without any configuration on the user’s part. Still, this sets a worrying precedent when it comes to privacy and surveillance concerns.

Update: Via Matthew Baker, who confirmed that this is still the case, a reminder that Apple hides the emoji flag for Taiwan when an iPhone’s region is set to China. Apple Maps and Google Maps also show different borders for some regions, depending on your location and device region. But suggesting app installation is an escalation of acquiescence to the demands of a country with a miserable human rights record and significant backsliding of democratic principles.

Google Cuts Play Store Commission to 15% for First Million Dollars in Developer Revenue

Sameer Samat of Google:

Starting on July 1, 2021 we are reducing the service fee Google Play receives when a developer sells digital goods or services to 15% for the first $1M (USD) of revenue every developer earns each year. With this change, 99% of developers globally that sell digital goods and services with Play will see a 50% reduction in fees. These are funds that can help developers scale up at a critical phase of their growth by hiring more engineers, adding to their marketing staff, increasing server capacity, and more.

The simplicity of this fee structure is refreshing, and highlights the needless pedantry of Apple’s Small Business Program.

App Developers in China Are Testing an IDFA ‘Substitute’ for Tracking Users Without Consent

Patrick McGee and Yuan Yang, Financial Times:

Apple is expected to update its smartphones in the coming weeks so that applications that want to gather tracking data will have to ask users for permission. Until now apps have been able to use Apple’s IDFA system to see when users click on ads and which apps they download.

[…]

In response, the state-backed China Advertising Association, which has 2,000 members, has launched a new way to track and identify iPhone users called CAID, which is being widely tested by tech companies and advertisers in the country.

ByteDance, the owner of the social video app TikTok, referred to CAID in an 11-page guide to app developers obtained by the Financial Times, suggesting that advertisers “can use the CAID as a substitute if the user’s IDFA is unavailable”.

Sure will be interesting to see Apple’s response to this. This article says that Apple is aware of CAID, that it has “so far turned a blind eye to its use” — possibly because the new IDFA policies have yet to be implemented — and also that “App Store terms and guidelines apply equally to all developers around the world”. I expect no exceptions will be allowed, and I will be disappointed if this is permitted on a technicality if it waters down the intent of these policies so as to avoid some kind of conflict with major developers in China.

It Is Trivial to Reroute Text Messages Given the Design of the SMS System

Joseph Cox, Vice:

Looking down at my phone, there was no sign it had been hacked. I still had reception; the phone said I was still connected to the T-Mobile network. Nothing was unusual there. But the hacker had swiftly, stealthily, and largely effortlessly redirected my text messages to themselves. And all for just $16.

This is not a SIM swapping attack. It uses a bulk SMS service — in this case, from Sakari — to reroute messages from a target phone. It is wild how trivial this is.

This paragraph made me chuckle a bit:

In Sakari’s case, it receives the capability to control the rerouting of text messages from another firm called Bandwidth, according to a copy of Sakari’s LOA obtained by Motherboard. Bandwidth told Motherboard that it helps manage number assignment and traffic routing through its relationship with another company called NetNumber. NetNumber owns and operates the proprietary, centralized database that the industry uses for text message routing, the Override Service Registry (OSR), Bandwidth said.

One of the great miracles of the economy we participate in is the extent to which no entity feels responsible or liable for anything. Everything that goes right is marketed as a success by everyone in the chain; anything that goes wrong is somebody else’s problem. Nobody goes to jail and nobody has to pay a fine.

Nice work if you can get it.

To its credit, Sakari did make some changes to improve its consent policies. But that is just one company and, anyway, it is bananas that this was possible in the first place.

Judge Says $5 Billion Lawsuit Can Proceed Against Google for Chrome’s Incognito Mode

Malathi Nayak and Joel Rosenblatt, Bloomberg:

Google failed to kill a lawsuit alleging that it secretly scoops up troves of internet data even if users browse in “Incognito” mode to keep their search activity private.

The consumers who filed the case as a class action alleged that even when they turn off data collection in Chrome, other Google tools used by websites end up amassing their personal information. A federal judge on Friday denied the Alphabet Inc. unit’s initial request to throw out the case.

“The court concludes that Google did not notify users that Google engages in the alleged data collection while the user is in private browsing mode,” U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in San Jose, California, wrote in her ruling.

I stand by what I wrote in June: this is a silly lawsuit in part because Chrome does inform users that Incognito mode does not prevent website tracking. However, I find it an amusing consequence of Google’s mission to become the entire infrastructure of the internet. If Google did not have its own browser or its business model did not depend on mass user surveillance, this lawsuit would make no sense. But because they do both, it kind of makes a little sense, even though it is ultimately ridiculous.

Rogers Announces Its Intent to Purchase Shaw for $26 Billion

Rogers and Shaw in a joint press release announcing their intended merger:

As part of the transaction, the combined company will invest $2.5 billion in 5G networks over the next five years across Western Canada, which will enhance competitiveness, offer consumers and businesses more choice and improved services, help close the digital divide between urban and rural communities, and deliver significant long-term benefits for businesses and consumers.

This transaction will create Canada’s most robust wholly-owned national network, and as a result of the combined spectrum holdings and enhanced capacity, will generate more choice and competition for businesses and consumers, as well as realizing the full benefits of next generation networks for Canadians and Canada’s productivity.

It is laughable on its face that this will create more choice and, after hearing both CEOs brag in today’s conference call (MP3) about the “synergies” in this transaction, it is hard to believe it will create 3,000 jobs either.

The Canadian ISP and cellular markets already have little competition. Depending on where you live, you can typically only choose between only two or three providers for each — but it is already hard to tell the difference between any of them. Most offer near-identical services at near-identical price points and, when one provider makes a change, the others will follow in lockstep.1

Rogers and Shaw have a quirky backstory. At a local level, they only compete in cellular service. They made a point to highlight their geographically separated wired internet service on their conference call and in press releases today, but failed to explain that it was because they made a deal in 2000 to entirely avoid competing on internet service. Rogers and Shaw are making the argument that they compete on cellular service but they do not compete on wired internet and, because of that, they would like to combine companies so they can not compete on both and this will somehow create more competitive options across Canada.

On a cynical level, this deal is almost a formality. It will certainly reduce the hypothetical incentive for either company to expand and create more actual choice, but Canadians have only the illusion of that right now, even down to their technologies. As was pointed out in today’s conference call, Shaw and Rogers both use the same Comcast-licensed networking stuff and the same video service. These are not markets defined by their innovation or competition.

And how will it create jobs, anyhow? Shaw has frequently “restructured” its company inducing buyouts and layoffs. In 2018, Shaw gave over six thousand long-term non-union staff just two weeks to decide whether to accept a buyout offer from the company. Shaw was not in a dire financial position (PDF) at the time to necessitate massive cost-cutting — nor, for what it’s worth, is it now; it reported margins of over 44% last quarter (PDF). It expected only ten percent of those offered the deal to accept, but the environment was so “grim” and demoralizing that nearly half said they would take the buyout, costing Shaw hundreds of millions of dollars extra. Why would the combined companies need to hire another three thousand people? If the regulatory agencies permit this acquisition, I bet that is the first commitment that will be casually forgotten as the combined company likely announces mass layoffs.

One more thing, from the press release:

Additionally, Rogers will commit to establishing a new $1 billion Rogers Rural and Indigenous Connectivity Fund dedicated to connecting rural, remote and Indigenous communities across Western Canada to high-speed Internet and closing critical connectivity gaps faster for underserved areas. As part of this fund, Rogers will consult with Indigenous communities to create Indigenous-owned and operated Internet Service Providers, which would leverage Rogers’ expanded networks and capabilities to create sustainable, local connectivity solutions.

It seems awfully cruel to be holding hostage the promise of rural and Indigenous expansions to sweeten the likelihood of regulator approval of this anticompetitive deal.


  1. In Calgary, where I live, Rogers has a bring-your-own-device cell plan for $80 per month that includes 30 GB of high-speed data, unlimited slow data after that, unlimited nationwide talk, text, and MMS, call display, and voicemail. Telus’ $80 per month plan is identical to that, as is Bell’s. If you’re comfortable with spending exactly $100 per month, less taxes and fees, all three providers will give you 50 GB of high-speed data per month. All three providers even charge the same one-time $45 new account fee.

    The same story repeats in Ontario, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and probably most other provinces. But if I were to move next door to Saskatchewan or across the country to Quebec, the cost of that 50 GB plan drops to $85 per month, and if I am comfortable with only 15 GB of high-speed data per month, I could spend as little as $65 per month. Both of those provinces have other providers — Sasktel and Vidéotron — and, unsurprisingly, cellular service is much less expensive there. ↩︎

‘Your Brain Doesn’t Know It, but Your Heart Can Tell’

John Mayer respects the work of quality type designers. The clip that has been going around Twitter from Red Gaskell is good, but it is worth watching the few minutes surrounding it from the interview to get the full context of what he is talking about. Mayer is right: great creative work comes from caring about the details, and that includes the choice of typeface.

It is dispiriting to read the bad faith comments at the top of that Twitter thread accusing Mayer and type designers of creating barriers to creative work. That is nonsense. It is attention to detail that creates better work and more of it.

Throwing Shade on Grey

Peter N. Lewis, developer of Keyboard Maestro:

How exactly do I explain to someone that in Big Sur menus, command keys that are dimmed out in menus are not disabled, despite being drawn in exactly the same grey as menu items that are dimmed out and disabled? What lunatic decided this was a good idea?

Dr. Drang:

If Big Sur had chosen some new method to tell the user that a command was disabled, then maybe using gray text for the keyboard shortcut would be defensible. But as Peter says, it still uses gray — the exact same shade of gray — for disabled items.

[…]

I know that complaining about how things were better in the past is a laughable characteristic of the elderly, but god damn it, this was better before. Yes, I can still learn new keyboard shortcuts by slowing down and peering carefully to read the gray-on-gray text. But why should I have to?

One of the main knocks I have against the principles of Big Sur’s design refresh is how many interface elements are minimized or hidden completely until you interact with them. This seems to be intended to minimize visual clutter, but it almost turns different parts of the interface into mystery meat navigation.

The presentation of keyboard shortcuts is in that same vein: by making them grey, the thinking presumably went, the command becomes more prominent and indicates availability, while the keyboard shortcut is still shown for those who need it. But is this a problem that needs solving? Are even the pickiest designers bothered by the apparent clutter of keyboard shortcuts in menus? If you want to consider it a problem, this solution means that the keyboard shortcut is hard to read and the meaning of grey text is ambiguous.

Oh, and for extra measure, it is compounded by physical keyboards that do not share the same markings. This is not a new phenomenon. I’m looking at the keyboard of my 2012 MacBook Air and none of the keys except Command have the symbols for what they mean. If anything, recent keyboards are an improvement.

Spotify ‘HiFi’ Lossless Audio Is Coming Later This Year

Chris Welch, the Verge:

Spotify is going hi-fi. Well, “HiFi.” It’s taken longer than competitors like Tidal and Amazon Music, but today, the leading subscription music service announced a new lossless streaming tier that will allow listeners to get the most from their digital music library. The news came at the company’s Spotify “Stream On” virtual event.

If this sounds like deja vu to you, that might be because Spotify tested lossless audio with some of its subscribers four years ago before dropping it shortly after. I can’t find a precise date when it disappeared, but it seems to be coming back in a more concrete form later this year. So, if CD quality audio is something you would like from your streaming service, Spotify has surely become a more attractive option.

I remembered this news item while I was writing about the HomePod’s discontinuation, because I briefly wondered if it may indicate that Apple is perhaps less interested in a competitive feature. But of course that is not the case. Apple has emphasized audio quality with the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, and those appear to be selling as fast as they can be made despite their steep — and very steep — price tags.

Maybe the reason the big HomePod didn’t work is that high-quality home audio is something most people just aren’t very interested in. And those who are willing to spend a little more are probably not going to be buying some Siri-based speaker. But CD quality audio? That might be an easier sell, even as I remain skeptical of the audible difference. At any rate, Spotify is about to find out.

The Big HomePod Goes the Way of the iPod Hi-Fi

It must be spring cleaning week in Cupertino — first the iMac Pro, and now the original HomePod. And, as with the former, the announcement of the HomePod’s demise was made through a press outlet.

Here’s the statement given to Matthew Panzarino of TechCrunch if, for some reason, you haven’t already seen it:

Apple gave TechCrunch a statement about the discontinuation:

HomePod mini has been a hit since its debut last fall, offering customers amazing sound, an intelligent assistant, and smart home control all for just $99. We are focusing our efforts on HomePod mini. We are discontinuing the original HomePod, it will continue to be available while supplies last through the Apple Online Store, Apple Retail Stores, and Apple Authorized Resellers. Apple will provide HomePod customers with software updates and service and support through Apple Care.

Existing HomePods will continue to be sold but Apple’s website is already out of Space Gray. It will continue to provide support for existing HomePods. Apple seems to be betting on the mini going forward, which could point to their desire to fill every room with ‘good enough’ sound rather than to focus on the living room with ‘truly unbelievable’ sound. The HomePod itself never quite got to the level where it could act as a full home theater replacement, though paired in their multi-speaker configurations.

One quirk of this decision is that the HomePod Mini does not — yet? — support home theatre surround sound with the Apple TV, so that feature seems like it is on ice for the time being. Perhaps it will come to the Mini later this year.

And, speaking of the Apple TV, I really hope this spring cleaning doesn’t go three for three by discontinuing the standalone box.

Update: Luke Miani, via Ish ShaBazz:

It’s so weird that there’s now just a mini version of a thing that doesn’t exist…

There are also “Air” and “Pro” versions of the “MacBook” that doesn’t exist, and a “Touch” version of the nonexistent “iPod”. And, if you wanted to be pedantic, “Pro” and “Mini” versions of a hypothetical “Mac”. It is a kind of strange situation where there are lots of names in Apple’s lineup suggesting the existence of other products that simply aren’t there.