Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for June, 2021

Three Weeks With iOS and iPadOS 15

Victoria Song, Gizmodo:

Most people are perfectly fine waiting until September for the annual upgrades to iOS, iPadOS, and watchOS. But for the impatient few among us, you can actually test out Apple’s next-generation software for the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch starting today by downloading the public betas if iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and watchOS 8.

Federico Viticci:

For the past three weeks, I’ve been running the developer beta of iOS and iPadOS 15 on my iPhone 12 Pro Max and M1 iPad Pro, respectively. Common wisdom says you’re not supposed to install early developer builds of iOS and iPadOS on your primary devices; I have to ignore that since work on my annual iOS and iPadOS reviews starts as soon as the WWDC keynote wraps up, which means I have to get my hands on the latest version of the iPhone and iPad operating systems as quickly as possible. As I explained on AppStories, putting together these reviews is some of the most challenging work I do all year, but it’s rewarding, I have fun with it, and it gives me a chance to optimize my writing setup on an annual basis.

The result of jumping on the beta bandwagon early is also that, at this point, having used iOS and iPadOS 15 daily for over three weeks, I have a pretty good sense of what’s going to be popular among regular users, which features power users are going to appreciate, and what aspects of the OSes still need some fine-tuning and tweaks from Apple. […]

Like every year since iOS 5, I have done the same because I am an impatient fool. So far, I have found that these betas are remarkably stable and, since the most recent seed — which happens to be the same as the now-available public beta — battery life isn’t too bad, either.

I appreciated Viticci’s early look at the good, the bad, and the Safari. I am still getting used to the Focus options. One little thing I noticed is that the “Driving” Focus mode defaults to switching on when it detects that you are in a vehicle in motion. This is perhaps something you may want to change if you, for example, ever take the bus or are a passenger.

Google Plus Launched Ten Years Ago This Week

Steven Levy, writing for Wired in 2011 about the launch of Google Plus, code-named “Emerald Sea”:

The massive wave symbolizes the ways Google views the increasingly prominent social aspect of the web — as a possible tsunami poised to engulf it, or a maverick surge that it will ride to glory. Beirstadt’s turbulent vision is the perfect illustration. “We needed a code name that captured the fact that either there was a great opportunity to sail to new horizons and new things, or that we were going to drown by this wave,” [Vic Gundotra] said last August, when Google first showed me a prototype.

Did he say drown? It almost beggars belief that the king of the search — the most successful internet business ever, with $30 billion in yearly revenue — would be running scared by the social networking trend led by Facebook, a company that barely rakes in a few billion. Nonetheless, people at Google feel that retooling to integrate the social element isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity. As early as last August, I asked Gundotra whether he felt Emerald Sea was a bet-the-company project.

“I think so,” he replied. “I don’t know how you can look at it any other way.”

It is hilarious in hindsight to look back at the fanfare afforded to the launch of Google Plus. Just two years into the experiment, I felt confident enough to call Google Plus a ghost town; it took the New York Times another year to do the same.

But was it really a “bet the company project”? Google’s then-CEO Larry Page thought it was worth tying part of employees’ bonuses to the success of Google Plus, so the product got integrated into most of Google’s user-facing products, only for that to be unwound just a year after Gundotra left the company. Everything has worked out fine without Google growth-hacking its way into popularizing its miserable Facebook knock-off; if anything, keeping it around would have been a mistake.

Visualizing the Northwest Heat Wave

The New York Times published a series of visualizations of this week’s record-breaking heat wave across the Pacific Northwest and into the Canadian North, via Andy Baio. Lytton, British Columbia hit nearly 50°C today, breaking the Canadian record for the third day in a row and which, according to Wikipedia’s list, is greater than any temperature recorded in Europe, Central America, South America, or Southeast Asia. Many people in the province have died as a result of the heat.

It has not been nearly as extreme in Calgary, but it is certainly anomalous, with every day since Sunday breaking 30°C, and today’s high temperature just 0.2°C shy of the all-time record. Only about a quarter of residences have air conditioning; my apartment does not, and I am sure it has remained in the mid- to high-twenties all week long.

We are all so ill-equipped for these extremes.

Western Digital Removed a Password Requirement for Resetting My Book Live Hard Drives, Allowing Them to Be Wiped

Dan Goodin, Ars Technica:

Last week’s mass-wiping of Western Digital My Book Live storage devices involved the exploitation of not just one vulnerability but a second critical security bug that allowed hackers to remotely perform a factory reset without a password, an investigation shows.

The vulnerability is remarkable because it made it trivial to wipe what is likely petabytes of user data. More notable still was that, according to the vulnerable code itself, a Western Digital developer actively removed code that required a valid user password before allowing factory resets to proceed.

I remember when Western Digital was the gold standard in hard drives. The My Book line of external drives, in particular, offered a clean look that fit onto a desk, FireWire connectivity for speed, and long-term reliability. The five-line code snippet posted by Goodin has largely erased my confidence in the company. This is an extraordinary breach of trust.

‘Disabled People Shouldn’t Need to Justify Their Right to Live’

Steven Aquino, Forbes:

The political attitude towards Amazon is not necessarily wrong. Big Tech surely ought to be held accountable for their actions; indeed, holding those in power accountable vis-a-vis accessibility reporting is to call them out when warranted. The problem with such a binary, either/or stance is it ignores any gray areas. In this case, what lies in the gray is accessibility and the real needs of disabled people deserving of amplification.

The fact of the matter is Amazon is a godsend for countless scores of disabled people. The canonical example is the super popular Prime delivery service. Not everyone with a disability can afford the $119/year service, but for those who can, the accessibility gains can be substantial. For those whose mobility is compromised, for instance, the ability to order paper towels or even groceries online and have items arrive at their doorstep in days (or hours, with Amazon Fresh) is hugely empowering in terms of survival, but also independence and self-reliance. Rather than possibly burden family and friends to help run your errands all the time, you can instead use the Amazon app or website to shop for yourself. Especially for something like grocery shopping, having a gallon of milk or a carton of eggs brought right to your door frees someone with a disability from having to deal with navigating a store and wrestle with logistics on how to get stuff home. Maybe a person can’t even literally get to a store easily, for travel or health reasons. Thus, Amazon to the rescue. The bourgeois idea people should shop locally instead of on Amazon is nice and romantic, but it’s also steeped in privilege. After all, not everyone can get out to a farmer’s market or corner store to get food.

Aquino’s argument is very strong: the failures of Amazon’s internal policies — or those of any large company — are beyond the responsibility of any individual consumer to bear. It is a little bit like arguing that we should avoid air travel because of its impact on climate change — our individual efforts pale in comparison to the kinds of policies that can be enacted by governments and industries. Amazon needs to do better by its workers, and regulators need to do their jobs, so that services that are mere conveniences to some but absolute essentials for many are not delivered with feelings of guilt or unethical behaviour. I do not think it is necessary to create a binary choice between ethics and services, especially not when many people find there is not really any choice in using those services.

U.S. Judge Dismisses Two Antitrust Suits Against Facebook, Invites FTC to Refile

Hannah Murphy and Kiran Stacey, Financial Times:

A judge has dismissed two antitrust lawsuits against Facebook, one from the Federal Trade Commission and another by a coalition of US states, dealing a significant blow to regulators and sending the social media group’s share price to record levels.

In an opinion on Monday, Judge James Boasberg in Washington, DC said the FTC’s lawsuit was “legally insufficient” and the federal agency had “failed to plead enough facts to plausibly establish” that Facebook had monopoly power over the social networking market.

However, the FTC will have 30 days to file a new complaint, he added.

Diane Bartz and Elizabeth Culliford, Reuters:

Facebook shares rose more than 4% after the ruling. The share price rise put Facebook’s market capitalization over $1 trillion for the first time.

[…]

The judge said that the FTC did not adequately support its assertion that Facebook has more than 60% of the market. But Boasberg said the agency could potentially fix the issue in a refiling.

Just three years ago, Apple became the first publicly-traded American company to hit the trillion-dollar market cap mark. As of this writing, all five “big tech” companies are part of that club, plus Saudi Aramco, the sole non-tech, non-U.S. entry. It is a hell of a time to be part of the shareholder class, I imagine.

Matt Stoller:

That said, I’m not sure panic is warranted. I talked to a bunch of smart lawyers, and I’m told that what matters about today’s decision are four things. First, the judge dismissed the way the FTC characterized the market, which sounds bad, but isn’t that big a deal. In his dismissal, moreover, the judge told the FTC how to fix its complaint, which it can do by refiling in 30 days with more market share data. (As antitrust scholar Daniel Crane notes, the FTC will almost certainly refile.) That’s a huge loss for Facebook, since market definition is perhaps the most important legal battlefield and the judge will probably come to accept the government’s framework.

Second, the judge said the FTC’s biggest claim — that Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp were done to foster monopoly — can go forward. That’s another big loss for Facebook. […]

Ever since speculation began about a forced divesture of Instagram, a narrative has spread among some tech commentariat that everyone mocked the acquisition at the time as a stupid move that would inevitably flop. That is completely wrong; contemporaneous publications from the tech-centric to the bloggy to the mainstream praised the deal.

If I am speculating cynically, I might guess that one reason startup founders and venture capital types have been eagerly spreading this narrative is because their ability to turn theoretical value into real money partly hinges on the possibility of selling unprofitable high-valuation companies to bigger technology conglomerates. But who knows? Maybe they really do believe that the Instagram purchase was widely seen as a tossing away a billion dollars, only for all those haters to flush beet red after being outsmarted by Mark Zuckerberg, smoked meats demigod.

Stoller, continued:

[…] Third, he tossed the FTC’s allegations of anti-competitive conduct, saying that Facebook as a monopoly is allowed to crush anyone it wants. That’s a loss for the government. And fourth, he also dismissed the state AG cases entirely on the doctrine of ‘laches,’ a bureaucratic limit which will constrain state antitrust action going forward (unless Congress fixes it). Another loss.

The first — or, well, third — thing that Stoller is referring to here is how the judge was comfortable with the idea that Facebook could shut off a competitor’s platform access. In the case of this suit, it is referring to Vine’s terminated access to Facebook’s friend-finding API. The ACCESS bill in the big tech company antitrust package requires API interoperability, and Rep. Cicilline’s bill prohibits limitations that do not apply to the platform owner. If the ACCESS bill becomes law, I am intrigued by a web where our social graph becomes truly portable and cross-communicative. I do not think it would have kept Vine alive; its closure reflects some truly Twitter-specific product focus problems.

Windows 11 Is Officially Compatible Only With Processors From Four Years Ago or Newer

Alina Yee, PCWorld:

A new operating system incompatible with older hardware—that’s surely another MacOS announcement, right? Not this time. Windows users could soon find themselves in the same boat as Apple fans: Following close behind Thursday’s official announcement of Windows 11 was the reveal of much stricter hardware compatibility for Windows 10’s successor.

I am not sure I understand the comparison to MacOS in this lede. Surely many new versions of operating systems phase out support for older processors; you cannot run Windows 10 on a Pentium 2. But it is bizarre for another reason that Yee surfaces just a few paragraphs later:

At the moment, Intel processors compatible with Windows 11 date back to mid-2017 and no earlier. Think 8th-generation CPUs and beyond. Microsoft has the full rundown on its site, which includes Pentium, Celeron, and Xeon chips. For ease of scanning, we’ve culled that list to a handful of the common mainstream consumer processors from each generation.

Officially, Windows 11 is incompatible with processors in computers released starting just a few years ago, but even more recent models are going to be stuck on Windows 10. Microsoft’s own Surface Studio 2 cannot be upgraded to Windows 11 despite being released in October 2018, and which the company is still selling today with the same CPU.

Does that mean that a lot of this hardware is rendered obsolete, leading to “heaps of needless trash”? There are some people who will get rid of their computer simply because it will not work with Windows 11, but will that be a lot or a little? I am not sure; I hope it is not many, since that would be wasteful. In practical terms, Windows software developers tend not to limit their compatibility requirements to the latest and greatest version. Users of devices stuck on Windows 10 will likely have access to a large software library for years to come, in addition to Microsoft’s own security updates. It is just incongruent to see the company touting advancements in Windows 11 for devices like the Surface Studio 2 which will not be made available to anyone who buys one of those computers today.

And since Yee brought up the Apple comparison, I felt compelled to check out which Macs the next version of MacOS will work with. Turns out that if you have an iMac, a MacBook Air, or a MacBook Pro from 2015, you can upgrade; if you have something more specialized, like a 2013 Mac Pro, you can also get Monterey. Like Windows 11, it also has stricter requirements than its predecessor, but at least it will comfortably work with all of the Macs Apple currently makes.

WatchOS, though? That’s a different story.

The Devils You Don’t Know

Om Malik:

The companies we should be worried about are the many smaller and mid-sized companies that most of us have never heard about. Whether it is app developers surreptitiously selling information to third parties, data breaches at retailers (and their digital platforms), or data-brokers with security systems that have more holes than swiss cheese, these companies will continue to be the cause of most headaches in our digital lives. And they are the group more likely to take liberties with data and privacy.

[…]

And at the top of the list are companies that have always been hostile to their customers: telephone companies, electric utilities, insurance companies, for-profit hospital systems, big airlines, and other such organizations. They will only use “smart data” to amplify their past bad behavior.

There is good reason to focus on the biggest and most valuable companies, since they, by default, have the most influence. But setting the bar so high — the bills proposed in the United States only apply to companies with a market cap over $600 billion — neglects the many smaller companies and industries that are begging for better oversight.

This is something I have been concerned about for years because an overwhelming focus on the biggest tech firms means far less scrutiny of companies that are big enough to do real harm and anonymous enough to avoid consequences. Every company is a technology company now, to some extent or another: oil refineries rely on computer control and proprietary software; lumber mills use automated multi-axis saws; airplanes are computers with engines, seats, and wings, all of which have their own computers. All of these connected systems come with risks for the market and for consumers from the supply chain level up.

Malik cites a recent case of utilities in Texas changing customers’ smart thermostats as an example of a previously unthinkable concern. I would point to cellular carriers, ad tech companies, and data brokers as industries that exploit privacy vulnerabilities without consent for their own gain.

The high value bar of the legislation currently proposed in the U.S. means that many sectors with little competition remain unaddressed. I have been looking at hotel reservations for an upcoming trip, and I was reminded of the lack of competition in travel booking websites. Booking Holdings owns Booking.com — obviously — plus Priceline, Agoda, and Kayak, among several other brands. In addition to Expedia.com, Expedia Group owns many other companies such as Hotels.com, Hotwire, Orbitz, Travelocity, and Trivago. If you are from North America or Europe and you are booking a hotel room online, chances are that it will be through a service owned by one of these two companies which, combined, represent 92% of the U.S. market. But neither one is worth anywhere near $600 billion, so they would not be required to divest any of their brands should the current crop of U.S. tech company bills become law.

Some Digital Packrattery

A recent piece by Doc Searls was the inspiration for today’s post:

The best new phones come with the ability to shoot 108 megapixel photos, record 4K video with stereo sound, and pack the results into a terabyte of onboard storage. But what do you do when that storage fills up?

If you want to keep those files, you’ll need to offload them somewhere. Since your computer probably doesn’t have more than 2Tb of storage, you’ll need an external drive. Or two. Or three. Or more. Over time, a lot more.

Welcome to my world.

Like Searls, I am a digital packrat; unlike him, I do not have quite so many terabytes of storage sitting around on hard drives. But it is a lot, and I know that my large collection of spinning drives will probably die one day. The thing is that most of the files on my drives, I can safely assume, would not be missed if they disappeared. But some of them would be, and I do not know which ones.

I do know that I dodged a bullet earlier this year.

I should preface this by saying that this is not some stealth advertising for Backblaze, nor have I received any compensation for posting it. I have questions and qualms with Backblaze. But this is a true story of a Groundhog Day tragedy averted.

In 2019, shortly after I had finished setting up my kind-of new iMac, I was laying in bed about to drift off to sleep when I sat straight upright with the fear that I would lose my entire iTunes library in some catastrophic hard drive failure. This is not an exaggeration: the database file that is among my most prized digital possessions dates back to when I bought an iPod Mini in 2004, and has ballooned to just shy of fifty thousand songs. These songs are all properly tagged and titled, and everything had correct cover art until Music somehow shuffled all of the pictures between different albums and songs earlier this year. It is a modern marvel how Apple removed the App Store and podcasts and e-books and a virtual university from iTunes, stripped it down to just music, and the result is somehow worse than the app it replaced.

Anyhow, I like and appreciate streaming music services, but if they disappeared tomorrow, I would be mildly upset. If I lost my iTunes library — now my Music library, I suppose — I would be devastated. But I have always been treated it with a level of risk that does not comport with how much I value it. My library totals over half a terabyte, which makes it the digital equivalent of one of those overstuffed sectional sofas: impossible to fit comfortably in a space, and quite awkward to move around. Despite this, it has been moved onto and off of external hard drives with alarming regularity as the library expands and then I get a bigger hard drive to move it to, and then — well, you see where this goes.

So, after a terrible night’s sleep in 2019, I spent the following morning setting up a remote backup service. I chose Backblaze; you may prefer something else. And — lo — just four months later, a full mirror of my iMac’s internal and external hard drives.

Jump cut to earlier this year. February 2. I was sitting at my desk, copying some files onto that very same external hard drive, when it spontaneously disconnected. I unplugged it, plugged it back in, and it would not mount. Running various Disk Utility commands did not help. Luckily, I was copying files onto one partition, but my iTunes library was stored on a different partition — because, you know, I’m not a fool — and that appeared to be okay. But the main reason I was able to remain calm is that I knew that my entire library was preserved in some data centre and I could entirely restore it.

That day, I ordered a modern solid state drive to replace the spinning rust version. There is another story here about how I needed to order from Amazon because I was unable to find an adequate drive locally, and Amazon lied to me about shipping speed and caused a small amount of grief in trying to sort that out, but that is remarkably even less interesting than my Backblaze story. Anyway, the drive arrived a week later — despite selecting and paying for one-day shipping — and I was able to fully recover my iTunes library from the broken drive.

Is there a point to this story? Sure: I never want to be without local and remote backups. This is a lesson most people learned about a decade ago, but I fully understood it a few months ago.

Microsoft Announces Windows 11

Not every day brings a new major version of Windows, but Microsoft is pitching today’s announcement of Windows 11 as just such an occasion. On the surface, it is more of an iterative update than any new version of Windows for a long time; it seems like, with Windows 10, Microsoft established a good foundation that does not require radical changes. At the time, Microsoft even went so far as to claim that Windows 10 would be the “last version of Windows”. Things change.

I’m probably never going to love any new version of Windows so long as it keeps feeling and acting and looking like Windows, but there are a couple of things announced today that are notable in relation to its role in the broader operating system market.

Aaron Tilley, Wall Street Journal:

Microsoft said it won’t require developers to use its payment system, drawing a contrast to Apple, which typically takes a 30% cut on sales made through its iPhone App Store. Microsoft has backed Epic Games Inc. in its legal battle with Apple over app-store fees. Apple has fiercely defended its app-store policy as providing customers greater security.

That’s true not only of iOS but of the app stores on each of its platforms. In Apple’s world, if someone got an application through the App Store, Apple usually owns that customer relationship, not the developer. There are exceptions; but, as a general rule, if an app comes from one of Apple’s app stores, Apple owns that financial relationship.

Microsoft has decided that it does not need to be a part of every transaction that occurs through its platform, even if that customer relationship began from the Microsoft Store. That seems wise. How much of that is driven by regulatory action that specifically targets very large, very valuable technology companies is up to you to decide — but it seems pretty obvious that none of this would be happening without intensifying legal scrutiny around the world.

Tilley:

Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney on Thursday tweeted: “The 2021 version of Microsoft is the best version of Microsoft ever!”

App developers still need to pay Microsoft a 15% fee on sales if they want to use the software giant’s apps payment system. The charge is 12% for game developers.

I am not sure what Sweeney is cheering about on Twitter. PC games are still subject to a 12% commission, and it is my understanding that this does not apply to the Xbox where games are subject to a 30% commission. According to figures released during the Epic Games lawsuit against Apple, Xbox players represent the second-biggest source of Fortnite revenue, while PC gamers generate so little revenue for Epic that their share was not broken out.

The other thing that caught my eye was how Satya Nadella ended the presentation.

Dieter Bohn, the Verge:

Nadella’s speech was almost entirely about building a case that Windows would be a better platform for creators than either macOS or (especially) iOS. He argued that “there is no personal computing without personal agency,” insisting that users should be more in control of their computers.

Nadella called out the changes Microsoft is making to its app store rules, allowing more types of apps, Android apps, and — most importantly — allowing apps to use their own payment systems if they so choose. He said, “A platform can only serve society if its rules allow for this foundational innovation and category creation.” That rhetoric sounds vaguely nice and inspiring out of context, but in the specific context of the current debates, lawsuits, and legislation over app store rules, it’s a sharp and direct critique.

That quote about personal agency will, I think, resonate particularly with the kind of person who watches a forty-five minute presentation about a new operating system. It is probably something we can all appreciate, however, as something that bridges the extremes of the Free Software Foundation’s mantra and something like the console model.

It is also a reflection that the desktop platform model that has worked for Microsoft for decades will continue to work for the foreseeable future. This is not a new strategy — not really. About ten years ago, Microsoft tried chasing a console model with Windows RT, but it did not go well; four years ago, it tried again with Windows 10 S. Both platforms restricted users to apps from Microsoft’s own software marketplace, and both contained many software limitations akin to those of Apple’s operating systems.

Bohn:

[…] Just as Google and Apple build their companies around their business models, so does Microsoft. But Microsoft’s business model has nothing to do with selling Windows or even getting a cut of app sales anymore. It’s about Microsoft 365, Azure, and enterprise services.

This is not entirely true; Microsoft’s most recent quarterly earnings indicate that the category into which it categorizes Windows represents about a third of the company’s overall revenue. But it is remarkable that Windows — a product that used to be so synonymous with Microsoft that I often heard people calling the company “Windows” — ceased to be its flagship product in financial terms, even though it is the foundation on which most of Microsoft’s products are built — and, it should be pointed out, the environment where much of the world’s business and governance passes through.

Apple’s ‘Building a Trusted Ecosystem’ Argument

Katie Canales, Insider:

In a sweeping post published Wednesday, Apple warned allowing users to sideload — or download apps onto their smartphones from outside the App Store — would open the doors to cybercriminals, malware, and scammers. That reality would also put children at risk, Apple says, since apps from outside its App Store wouldn’t have parental controls.

“Allowing sideloading would degrade the security of the iOS platform and expose users to serious security risks not only on third-party app stores, but also on the App Store,” Apple said.

I am not sure I would call a sixteen-page white paper (PDF) a “post”. This is a full-throated argument by Apple against any intervention in its platform policies. The message that the company is trying to get across is simple:

Would allowing sideloading from websites and third-party app stores on iPhone threaten users who only download apps from the App Store?

Yes. […]

There’s more, but that’s the argument in a nutshell. Allowing apps to be delivered through mediums other than Apple’s App Store is, in the company’s view, a nonstarter and a massive security threat. That is not exactly true. But it is hard to see how Apple did not create this situation for itself through years of control — specifically, over in-app purchases. The company’s anti-steering rules prohibit developers from mentioning the rules themselves, let alone any other purchasing options, and it has hell-bent on enforcing those rules in particular. It gambled that regulators would continue to treat app marketplaces as private entities in little need of regulatory oversight, and it bet big.

In a parallel universe — one in which Apple cut its commission over a period of several years, as Phil Schiller suggested, and where it was not so prohibitive with its anti-steering rules — would it be getting sued by developers over its App Store rules, investigated by governments around the world, and be facing a battery of proposed legislation that would, if passed, eliminate the most compelling qualities of its products? I cannot imagine the situation would be this heated. But we do not live in that universe; in this one, that is the gamble Apple is making, and customers and developers are left hanging in the balance.

Also — and this is a little thing — but the repeated use of the “locked Apple” privacy graphic in that report is, I think, maybe not the greatest way of disabusing people of the notion that Apple’s ecosystem is so closed-off that it entraps users.

Instagram Is Going to Start ‘Suggesting’ Posts Throughout Users’ Feeds

Taylor Hatmaker, TechCrunch:

The days of a scrolling to the end of your Instagram feed look to be coming to an end. After adding algorithmic suggestions to the bottom of the app last year, Instagram is running a test that would splice more recommended posts from accounts you don’t follow into the feed with those you do.

[…]

The experiment might not make it into the final product, but from the way the winds over at Facebook have been blowing lately it looks pretty likely. Like we mentioned, Instagram and parent company Facebook introduced some tools to give people more control over their own behavior on the notoriously addictive-by-design apps back in 2018, including the “You’re all caught up” message and a way to track time spent.

[…]

In 2020, it sounds like Facebook is done humoring those concerns. Instagram is feeling the heat from TikTok’s preternaturally well-tuned endless algorithmic feed and booming success. Like it has so many times in the past, the company is looking to shift its own identity to chase a threatening competitor rather than staying the course or trying something new.

The warped language of this increasingly terrible idea fascinates me. A “suggestion” in day-to-day use is a small piece of advice, perhaps, that you can choose whether to devote attention toward. A “suggested” picture in Instagram appears between posts from people you actually follow and ads, and there is no way to opt out. You have to give it approximately the same attention you would give any other photo or ad.

The expansion of “Suggested Posts” to the bottom of the timeline was so off-putting to me that I stopped using Instagram for several months, until I discovered that almost none of the worst parts of the service appear on the web version. I missed catching up with friends, and the web offers a much better experience than the app. Unfortunately, I found that pictures I was posting through the web were noticeably compressed. Compare this puddle shot with this one — the first one looks blurry and lacks definition. I promise the originals have similar sharpness.

So, maybe a month ago, I started using the app again a little more. I do not love it; I find its inevitable and growing Facebook-ization off-putting. The reason Facebook is able to make user-hostile decisions like these is the same reason it was hard for me to stay away from Instagram: it is, for many, the social network to catch up with real-life friends.

VentureBeat’s Sage Lazzaro on Twitter:

None of the “social networks” are actually social networks anymore. None of them are interested in helping us connect with friends. It’s just about pushing as much content — especially monetized content — on us as possible.

Exactly — down to the word “content”.

Amazon Prime Is a Tremendous and Terrifying Thing

Ellen Cushing, in what I think is a must-read article in the Atlantic:

This type of loyalty is remarkable. “It used to be that being a consumer was all about choice,” says Emily West, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the author of the forthcoming book Buy Now: How Amazon Branded Convenience and Normalized Monopoly. But now, “two-thirds of people start their product searches on Amazon.” Prime discourages comparison shopping — looking around is pointless when everything you need is right here — even as Amazon’s sheer breadth of products makes shoppers feel as if they have agency.

[…]

“Amazon is a beast we’ve never seen before,” [Jake] Alimahomed-Wilson told me. “Amazon powers our Zoom calls. It contracts with ICE. It’s in our neighborhoods. This is a very different thing than just being a large retailer, like Walmart or the Ford Motor Company.”

Even the most ardent capitalist must recognize how corrupted the marketplace has become after decades of conglomerate-making acquisitions. Amazon’s web services and logistics know-how are part of modern life’s infrastructure. I do not think we have even begun to contend with the present-day effects of such a vast empire of shareholder-led control.

Canadian MPs Pass Bill C-10, but It Is Unlikely to Pass in the Senate

Menaka Raman-Wilms and Bill Curry, the Globe and Mail:

Members of Parliament have passed Bill C-10, an act to amend the Broadcasting Act, handing the controversial legislation to the Senate just ahead of the summer recess.

The bill was passed early Tuesday morning with a vote of 196 to 112. The Conservatives have been staunchly opposed to the government legislation, arguing that the removal of a clause that protected the rights of individuals to upload content such as videos to social media sites means Canadian citizens could fall under the new regulations. The government has said that other amendments ensure that people’s rights will not be threatened.

Michael Geist:

Given the woefully inadequate Canadian Heritage committee hearings with the exclusion of digital-first Canadian creators, technology companies, consumer groups, and numerous independent experts as well as the passage of amendments without debate, discussion or experts, Bill C-10 desperately needs a comprehensive review. If Parliament resumes in the fall, there will be an opportunity for that review in the Senate. If, as most expect, there is an election, Bill C-10 will die, providing a much-needed opportunity to start from scratch by developing forward-looking, balanced legislation that supports the creative sector, safeguards freedom of expression, and recognizes the risks of over-broad regulations overseen by the CRTC.

Even though its passage seems mostly for show than any real effect, this is a terrible piece of legislation. I expect better.

Prime Day Press Prostration

Karl Bode in a lengthy Twitter thread:

It’s so bizarre that the lion’s share of tech news sites traffic in Amazon blogspam a few days a year and nobody in any position of power seems to think that’s gross or weird in any way.

Affiliate linking schemes seem to blur the line between advertising and reporting when they are used as an excuse to promote a sale. These posts do not represent a typical ad or “native ad”, where an ad is made to look like an article; Amazon has not directly paid for this coverage. But Amazon does give media outlets a cut of every sale they direct readers toward.

The remarkable thing is that these posts are not tainting coverage of Amazon as one might assume. If anything, the press is leaning into the company’s worst aspects in the same breath as providing critical coverage, which is almost surreal in its presentation. I have used Bode’s thread as a starting point for a few examples.

This morning, the Verge’s homepage contained thirteen separate Prime Day posts — plus another with links to products on sale at other big box retailers — alongside a summary of that ITV investigation that found millions of products destroyed by Amazon annually. Wired’s homepage yesterday featured a story about Amazon’s poor labour practices — strangely tagged “Office Politics” — literally surrounded by posts about Prime Day and competing promotions from other retailers. CNN’s homepage this morning contained an entire block of Prime Day promotion just below the top stories.

I think there is a subtle difference between this ravenous Prime Day coverage and something like the New York Times’ ownership of the Wirecutter. The latter is a review website that uses kickbacks to fund its operations instead of advertising. I have often used the Wirecutter’s advice, but purchased the product in a store or through a different online retailer. These Prime Day posts are different: they specifically instruct readers to go shop at Amazon. They are nakedly promotional in a way that I think crosses a line and cannot be seen as ethical.

Analysis of the iOS SSID Format String Bug

Carl Schou on Twitter:

After joining my personal WiFi with the SSID “%p%s%s%s%s%n”, my iPhone permanently disabled it’s WiFi functionality. Neither rebooting nor changing SSID fixes it :~)

Zhi Zhou analyzed this bug:

For the exploitability, it doesn’t echo and the rest of the parameters don’t seem like to be controllable. Thus I don’t think this case is exploitable. After all, to trigger this bug, you need to connect to that WiFi, where the SSID is visible to the victim. A phishing Wi-Fi portal page might as well be more effective.

Embarrassing — but, apparently, not dangerous.

In One British Warehouse, Amazon Is Destroying Over a Hundred Thousand Items a Week

Richard Pallot, ITV News:

In one week in April, a leaked document from inside the Dunfermline warehouse showed more than 124,000 items marked ‘destroy’. To repeat, that’s just for seven days. In contrast, just 28,000 items in the same period were labelled ‘donate’.

[…]

Why are hundreds of thousands of products being destroyed in this way? The answer is Amazon’s hugely successful business model. Many vendors choose to house their products in Amazon’s vast warehouses.

But the longer the goods remain unsold, the more a company is charged to store them. It is eventually cheaper to dispose of the goods, especially stock from overseas, than to continue storing the stock.

To be clear, this is just one Amazon warehouse. Amazon says it has 185 of them around the world. I would be careful not to extrapolate directly, but it seems likely to me that millions of items are being destroyed every single week around the world. This is certainly not a solely Amazon problem, but this story reveals a staggering amount of needless waste and destruction, incentivized by the company’s policies, our ruinous buying habits, and fast shipping expectations.