Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for September, 2021

Food Publishers Harm Users’ Experiences With Too Much Advertising and Affiliate Linking

Mark Stenberg:

The world of digital media works in predictable patterns, and the rise of g-commerce is simply the latest iteration of a familiar phenomenon. When a new technology allows for a new kind of ad placement, publishers tend to over-indulge.

If you strain your ear, you can practically hear the drool dropping from the salivating mouths of boardroom financiers:

“You mean we can monetize … everything? From the equipment, to the ingredients, to the grocery delivery itself? Yes … yes must have it. We must!”

(“G-commerce” is the nauseating term for “grocery commerce”.)

Complaints about lengthy stories preceding recipes are so common they have become a cliché, but I wish more people would be complaining about the phenomenon described by Stenberg. This is why I rely on apps like Paprika and new favourite Mela: I get just the recipe, sans referral nonsense and online grocery shopping widgets that do not work outside of the U.S.

Most often, though, I just use a printed cookbook, which continues to offer the best user experience of any medium.

Siri Regressions and Bugs in iOS 15

Apple:

Starting with the customer release of iOS 15, iPadOS 15, macOS Monterey, tvOS 15, and watchOS 8 this fall, some SiriKit intent domains will be deprecated and will no longer be supported in all new and existing OS releases. If a user makes a request that leverages one of these APIs after it’s been removed, Siri will reply that it can’t support the request.

Benjamin Mayo, 9to5Mac:

Affected Siri domains include ride booking, configuration of vehicles via Siri over CarPlay, and third-party Photo Search. Many of these SiriKit intents were introduced when third-party Siri support was first added to the system back in iOS 10. Apple didn’t provide a reason for their abrupt removal.

Since the initial implementation of SiriKit, Apple has integrated Shortcuts workflows into iOS and these can be invoked via Siri using keywords. However, interactions with the native SiriKit intents was always more sophisticated and supported a much wider range of natural language as input.

SiriKit also works using common language patterns and keywords if you have installed a supported app, while Shortcuts requires manual configuration.

Juli Clover, MacRumors:

Several Siri commands that provide details on phone calls, voicemails, and sending emails no longer appear to be working. The following commands used to be functional, but have recently been removed.

  • Do I have any voicemails?

  • Play my voicemail messages

  • Check my call history

  • Check my recent calls

  • Who called me?

  • Send an email

  • Send an email to [person]

As Clover reports, these omissions were first documented by users on the AppleVis forums who support disabled people who use iPhones. This may be a bug — the behaviour is also present in iOS 14.8 — but it amounts to a regression until it is fixed.

Allow me a brief tangent: I found iOS 15’s beta cycle to be, all things considered, pretty stable. Aside from a redesign of Safari, seemingly in real-time, it was otherwise a minimally-disruptive experience — but I am not a heavy Shortcuts user.

Federico Viticci:

Unfortunately, the Shortcuts experience in iOS and iPadOS 15 is hindered by a variety of severe UI and performance bugs that have made this update the least stable and reliable one in recent memory. I believe Apple is aware of these bugs and is actively working on fixing them, but that doesn’t change the core problem: the Shortcuts app shipping with iOS and iPadOS 15.0 is buggy, crashes often, and gets in the way of power users with SwiftUI-related issues that prevent interactions with the editor.

As my professional and personal technology experiences increasingly revolve around the software-as-a-service model, I have recently been thinking a lot about the lack of stability as a priority. We are on the receiving end of a firehose of changes, redesigns, new features, and reimplementations of existing products. Yet the threshold for problems that will prevent a product from being shipped seems to be getting stricter.

What Viticci describes is an application that Apple shipped — in a production release of its most popular operating system — in an entirely unusable state. It is not a solitary case, nor is Apple the only software vendor to rush something out the door. But stuff like these Shortcuts problems — some of which are UIKit problems — and Siri regressions are profoundly disruptive to frequent users. And because they offer more niche functionality — compared to, say, Messages or Mail — it is almost worse: the people who are heavy users of Shortcuts or Siri need these specific functions to work well.

I know: issues like these get raised pretty much every year; this is a x.0 release; there are bigger problems to worry about. I know. I hope there is a day when stability and quality will be incentivized to the same degree as new features, but I cannot see that happening. At the very least, however, apps should not ship in a broken state, and deprecations should be clearly communicated to users as well as developers. Am I asking too much for companies to stand behind the products they ship?

Ozy Ozy Ozy

Speaking of fragile CEOs, if you have not yet read this week’s Ben Smith column in the New York Times, I promise it is worth making time for. In a nutshell, there’s this media company called Ozy that believes it is more popular than there is any evidence for to an egregious degree. There might be an FBI investigation into a specific incident where its cofounder apparently impersonated a YouTube executive. It is, if nothing else, an entertaining article.

Ozy CEO Carlos Watson claims this piece is a “ridiculous hitjob”. But while he says the impersonation incident was a result of a mental health issue, he offers little counterpoint to the seemingly trumped-up audience metrics.

Joshua Benton, of Nieman Lab, used the article as a jumping-off point to examine Ozy’s frequent claim that it finds up-and-coming talents before anyone else. This, too, seems to be bullshit — and, as Benton shows, it is alarming how often the company’s claims seem to be approvingly echoed by others — but I wanted to explore one tangental detail:

Let me twist my media decoder ring for a second. “Subscribers” is a term that can mean two things: “people who pay for regular access to your product” or “people whose email address we have.” Ozy’s number isn’t the former. They now claim 25 million “subscribers,” meaning they have a database with that many email addresses.

Watson twice claims 26 million in the same email that he claims 25 million, but never mind. I spend a lot of time on the web and also could not remember the last time one of its articles made its way into my orbit. I searched my Pinboard and could only find a single link I had saved from the site: a story about the then-author of Merriam Webster’s Twitter account.

The reason I am mentioning this is, despite its near-irrelevance in my head, the Ozy brand still rung a bell. I could not figure out why until I saw a tweet from Mike Masnick sharing Smith’s story:

This story is absolutely bonkers. Separately, I’ll note that until I read this story I had never even heard of OZY, but I just checked and somehow I’m subscribed to what appears to be all of its email newsletters (all routed directly into my spam folder).

I also checked and found that I was subscribed to email from Ozy between 2015 and 2018. I do not remember subscribing or unsubscribing, but I found that the earliest emails I received were co-branded with Wired. And I do remember subscribing to Wired. I wonder if this helps explain how Ozy built its list of 25–26 million subscribers.

Portpass App for Vaccination Proof May Have Exposed Hundreds of Thousands of Users’ Personal Data

Sarah Rieger, CBC News:

Private proof-of-vaccination app Portpass exposed personal information, including the driver’s licences, of what could be as many as hundreds of thousands of users by leaving its website unsecured. 

On Monday evening, CBC News received a tip that the user profiles on the app’s website could be accessed by members of the public.

CBC is not sharing how to access those profiles, in order to protect users’ personal information, but has verified that email addresses, names, blood types, phone numbers, birthdays, as well as photos of identification like driver’s licences and passports can easily be viewed by reviewing dozens of users’ profiles.

The Portpass app, created by a Calgary-based team, came recommended by the parent company of our sports franchises because our official vaccination proving mechanism is built terribly. If the provincial government did not have its head stuck so firmly in the ground and were actually prepared for proving vaccination status instead of making international headlines for its incompetence, Portpass would not need to exist.

Rieger:

Earlier in the day, the Calgary-based company’s CEO Zakir Hussein had denied the app had verification or security issues and accused those who raised concerns about it of breaking the law.

[…]

“Someone that’s out there is trying to destroy us here, and we’re trying to build something good for people,” he said.

Imagine being so self-absorbed or insecure that you cannot admit to your company’s failure to implement rudimentary security and privacy safeguards.

There is a trickle-down effect to the decisions that have defined this fourth wave. This is the same sort of stance that our government has held while other provinces continue mitigation efforts, even as our health system is in dire straits. The last two months of pandemic response in this province has been a tiramisu of incompetence, and it feels like it is about to collapse.

I Guess People Really Hate AMP

Amplosion, which launched last week with the release of iOS 15, has reached the top paid app position in the App Store’s Utilities category.

More notable, I think, is that it is the third most popular paid app of any kind in the Canadian App Store as I write this, sitting just behind Procreate Pocket and well ahead of Facetune, Wolfram Alpha, and at least four moose hunting apps. People are willing to spend three dollars on an app so they never have to see an AMP page again. That says two things:

  1. Google’s attempt to replace HTML was a bad experiment that abused the company’s power and dominance, and I hope it goes away forever.

  2. Amplosion is a great app with a great icon.

What Happens When the Experience of Celebrity Becomes Universal?

Chris Hayes, writing in the New Yorker:

But as the critic Leo Braudy notes, in his 1987 study, “The Frenzy of Renown,” “As each new medium of fame appears, the human image it conveys is intensified and the number of individuals celebrated expands.” Industrial technology — newspapers and telegraphs, followed by radio, film, and TV — created an ever-larger category of people who might be known by millions the world over: politicians, film stars, singers, authors. This category was orders of magnitude larger than it had been in the pre-industrial age, but still a nearly infinitesimal portion of the population at large.

All that has changed in the past decade. In the same way that electricity went from a luxury enjoyed by the American élite to something just about everyone had, so, too, has fame, or at least being known by strangers, gone from a novelty to a core human experience. The Western intellectual tradition spent millennia maintaining a conceptual boundary between public and private — embedding it in law and politics, norms and etiquette, theorizing and reinscribing it. With the help of a few tech firms, we basically tore it down in about a decade.

As I read this, I was reminded of the concept of the digital garden, which I linked to in June. In essence, the digital garden requires us to assume the best in each other, regardless of how beautiful or incomplete our “garden” may seem. But Hayes’ piece reflects on the reverse of that: we are all famous on the internet and, so, are treated with the same scrutiny that used to be reserved for a select few.

I thought this was wise, too:

The ability to surveil was, for years, almost exclusively the province of governments. […]

Well, guess what? We have now all been granted a power once reserved for totalitarian governments. A not particularly industrious fourteen-year-old can learn more about a person in a shorter amount of time than a team of K.G.B. agents could have done sixty years ago. […]

In retrospect, it shocks me that new accounts on most social media networks are set to public by default. Pew Research says that, as of July 2019, only 13% of Americans have private Twitter accounts. I wonder how many people would have made theirs public if the default was different, or if there were a free and unforced choice when registering.

Charlie Warzel Interviews Shoshana Wodinsky About the Ad Tech Ecosystem

I have been enjoying Charlie Warzel’s Galaxy Brain newsletter generally, and I think this issue from last Thursday — I am still catching up — is a particularly good example.

Shoshana Wodinsky writes the advertising technology and privacy beat at Gizmodo. I have repeatedly linked to her effective coverage of these issues, including stories about a priest using Grindr and TikTok’s ownership. I recommend this interview in Galaxy Brain because it illustrates the depths of this reporting beat: there are so many layers to privacy-abusing ad technologies, and the industry is incentivized to pursue more because there are few guardrails.

Why Does the iPhone Still Use Lightning?

John Gruber:

The sub-head on Gartenberg’s piece is “The iPhone doesn’t have USB-C for a reason”. Putting that in the singular does not justice to the complexity of such decisions. There are numerous reasons that the iPhones 13 still use Lightning — and there are numerous reasons why switching to USB-C would make sense. The pro-USB-C crowd, to me, often comes across as idealogical. I’m not accusing Gartenberg of this — though it is his piece with the sub-head claiming there’s “a” singular reason — but many iPhones-should-definitely-use-USB-C proponents argue as though there are no good reasons for the iPhone to continue using Lightning. That’s nonsense.

I thought this was a fair look at reasons why the iPhone continues to have a Lightning connector and, adjacently, how the E.U.’s mandated USB-C proposal fails to consider more nuanced arguments.

I think this also helps explain why Apple’s “Magic” accessories — keyboard, mouse, and trackpad — and the Siri Remote continue to use Lightning. Lots of people have lots of Lightning cables laying around. But accessories are designed to last for years and it does not seem as interruptive to switch those over to USB-C as it would be for iPhones.

Apple Watch Series 7 Has a Mysterious 60.5GHz Wireless Data Transfer Frequency

Joe Rossignol, MacRumors:

Apple Watch Series 7 models are equipped with a new module that enables 60.5GHz wireless data transfer, according to FCC filings viewed by MacRumors, but this functionality may be reserved for Apple’s internal use only for now.

[…]

It’s unclear how fast the Apple Watch’s wireless data transfer would be, but our understanding is that USB 2.0 speeds up to 480 Mbps might be possible. It’s also unclear if the technology will ever be made available as a consumer-facing feature on the Apple Watch or other Apple products in the future, such as a long-rumored portless iPhone.

I am getting way ahead of myself here, but I am perplexed by the rumoured goal of an iPhone without external connectors. Wireless audio is something I get: AirPods are, for most people, nicer to use with an iPhone than wired headphones. But I still have not picked up either a Qi charging pad or any MagSafe accessory for my iPhone. I still have not been convinced.

I hope this is not simply a way to require that people purchase a separate MagSafe charging puck — $39 in the U.S. — and wall plug — $19 in the U.S. — to boost the average selling price of a new iPhone order. That is especially true as we learned this week that the iPhone 13 Pro’s giant camera bump makes it sit awkwardly on the MagSafe Duo, a product released less than a year ago.

Anyway, all that is speculative and for later. What is news now is that the Apple Watch Series 7 has this mysterious extremely high frequency data transfer. I am sure we will learn more when these models begin shipping. That will likely be around October 15, since preorders begin Friday, October 8. Mark your calendars. (Thanks to Josh Calvetti for the tip.)

Study by Lockdown Privacy Finds Big-Name Apps Like DoorDash, Peacock TV, and Yelp Ignore Tracking Opt-Outs

Johnny Lin and Sean Halloran:

When it comes to stopping third-party trackers, App Tracking Transparency is a dud. Worse, giving users the option to tap an “Ask App Not To Track” button may even give users a false sense of privacy: users who would have otherwise been more cautious with giving their data to an app might let their guard down, thinking that they’re “safe” from third-party tracking. Furthermore, we found that some apps didn’t even bother to show the ATT dialog, despite contacting numerous third-party trackers.

The core problem is that App Tracking Transparency is entirely based on the honor system, so it suffers the same fatal flaw as Apple’s “Privacy Nutrition Facts”. App developers can choose whether or not to be honest about tracking, and if all their competitors are lying, why would they choose to be honest? Since the App Store has millions of apps, slipping by the rules is not only easy, but as our testing showed, it’s the norm.

Contrast the tantrum thrown by privacy-hostile ad tech companies after App Tracking Transparency was announced against the results of this study: a tiny reduction in the amount of tracking in selected high-profile apps. Lin and Halloran say Peacock TV tried to track 57 times when permission was granted and 15 times when it was not — the biggest drop by percentage I could see — while there was no difference in many apps, and a few apps actually initiated tracking more times when the user declined. Private information was still being sent to third-party trackers even when tracking was denied.

But App Tracking Transparency is being blamed for some loss in tracking fidelity, according to Alex Kantrowitz, writing in his Big Technology newsletter:

“Just completely running blind” is how Aaron Paul, a performance Facebook marketer, described it. Paul said his company, Carousel, moved from spending millions of dollars each day on Facebook to a few hundred thousand dollars. Before the iOS changes, Facebook generated 80% of the traffic Carousel sent to its product pages. Now it accounts for 20%.

Apple’s iOS changes may lead to irreparable harm to Facebook’s ad business. This moment has demonstrated to Paul and his fellow performance buyers that relying on one channel (albeit a very effective one) is risky. So they’re looking to diversify their ad spend. Paul said he’s moved his ad budget elsewhere, including “Snapchat and TikTok, but also silent killers like email.” On Twitter, Facebook marketers discussing Apple’s changes almost unanimously agreed they needed to follow suit.

The disconnect in these findings may be explained by the many apps that are following the rules, particularly those from smaller or independent developers — who cannot afford to incur the wrath of App Review — and from really big developers where it would be obvious if they did not comply. In the middle lies this assortment of apps not quite notable enough to attract attention — at least, until this study came out.

I do not think it is surprising there are bad actors ignoring or abusing this feature. The nature of this feature is such that it is impossible to guarantee that apps will respect users’ privacy and choices. Groups of developers have already tried to create workarounds, though Apple has said that it would block any attempt to use them. What will Apple’s response be to this selection of apps?

Lin and Halloran:

In the Settings app, Apple needs to be extremely clear that iOS currently does not and cannot stop third-party tracking. Before iOS 14.5, every app permission (Camera, Contacts, etc) in the Privacy panel has always been enforced by iOS, ensuring that certain apps can or can’t access certain features. iOS 14.5’s Tracking permission breaks this ten-year-old iOS pattern and misleads users into thinking that it’s enforced like every other permission. In fact, iOS even claims something completely untrue here: that “new app tracking requests are automatically denied.”

A quick correction: the quote at the end refers to the dialog box that asks whether an app is allowed to track. If you have “Allow Apps to Request to Track” switched off, you will never see a tracking prompt, and all will be treated as though you tapped “Ask App Not to Track”. I do not think that it is “untrue”.

That aside, I do think the similarities between other permission prompts and the one for app tracking could be misleading. I do not think this is deliberate. But I can see how many people could view their effects similarly, even though the negative option is to “ask” for the app to comply with the user’s request instead of simply disallowing permission.

Visual Lookup With Siri Knowledge in Photos Is Only Available in the U.S., Which Is Something I Learned Earlier Today

Until this evening, I had mostly forgotten about Visual Lookup, the feature where you can take a picture of something and Siri will tell you what is in the photo. But I spotted a tree today that I wanted to know more about, and was disappointed when Siri refused to identify it. Then I noticed that it had not identified anything at all: not plants, not landmarks, not any type of bird.

I thought I had somehow misconfigured a zero-configuration feature, so I tweeted about it. It turns out that Visual Lookup is only available in the United States — but you will have a hell of a time figuring that out from Apple’s website.

If you visit the iOS 15 webpage, the only footnote pertaining to Visual Lookup is that it is “available on iPhone with A12 Bionic and later”, and my iPhone 12 Pro checks that box. Live Text is available in Canada, so I falsely assumed the same should be true for Visual Lookup. There is a general footnote indicating that “some features, applications, and services may not be available in all regions or all languages”, but there is no link to a more specific page, nor is there one on the feature list page.

I found the feature availability page by searching the web. And then you have to know that it is called Visual Lookup and that it is not indexed under “Photos” or “Siri”. Only then will you learn that it is only available in the U.S.

In fairness, Apple’s Canadian marketing page does not have a Visual Lookup section, which ought to have clued me in. But Apple’s marketing is worldwide, and its press release in Canada did not give any indication that it was a feature only for iPhones that speak American.1

Anyway, I changed the language on my phone about half an hour ago, plugged it in, and have now learned through Siri the tree I spotted is a horse chestnut or buckeye. Neat.


  1. One side effect of all tech companies being based in the U.S. is that feature availability typically means U.S.-first, followed by the rest of the world, which is where I and billions more people happen to live. ↩︎

iOS 15 is ‘Also Available’

Kirk McElhearn and Joshua Long writing at Intego’s Mac Security blog:

Apple released iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 on Monday, September 20, and, as usual, many people updated their iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches to the new operating systems. But unlike in the past, Apple is not pushing people to make the upgrade. For the first time, Apple is going to maintain the previous operating system for users who don’t want to upgrade. You can choose to remain on iOS 14, and still get essential security updates, if you’d rather not move to iOS 15. (When I mention iOS in this article, I also include iPadOS.) This is similar to the way Apple manages macOS; you can upgrade to the new version, or continue to receive security updates on the previous version.

When Apple announced it would be creating two update tracks, I assumed that minor updates to the existing operating system would be listed in the “Also Available” section. But it turns out that is not the case: new versions of iOS 14 are given top billing in the software update screen, and iOS 15 is in the secondary area, kind of like Apple is shy about its availability. This is a much quieter notification than in years’ past.

‘How Important Is Night Photography?’

Brian X. Chen, New York Times:

So in summary, the iPhone 13 cameras are slightly better than those of last year’s iPhones. Even compared with iPhones from three years ago, the cameras are much better only if you care about taking nice photos in the dark.

Just how important is night photography? I posed the question to Jim Wilson, a longtime staff photographer for The New York Times, as he was taking pictures of the new iPhones for this review. He said it would be a crucial feature for people like him, but not as important for casual shooters.

“Sometimes I wait until the night to make an ordinary scene look different and exciting,” he said. “But for most people who aren’t professional photographers, this is of no consequence.”

Via Nilay Patel on Twitter:

The NYT does not believe regular people stand to benefit from better iPhone photos in the dark. I live for this review from another planet every year.

The Times called the iPhone 13 “the most incremental upgrade ever”, which is certainly one way to frame noticeable improvements in battery life and camera quality. Chen does not mention the former, and seems unimpressed with the latter. This review includes a picture of a dog shot with an iPhone XS that is basically unusable. While I agree that most people should hold onto their phones for a few years — I plan on hanging onto my iPhone 12 Pro for at least another year’s worth of revisions, if not longer — someone coming from an iPhone XS would find lots of changes to love in the iPhone 13 line.

Also, better low-light capability undoubtably improves the whole camera system. Smartphone sensors are tiny; to them, anything sub-daylight is a lower-light situation. Hardware and software improvements that benefit performance in poor lighting conditions — aside from something specific like Night Mode — will also show benefits in mediocre lighting conditions.

I am not saying that Chen ought to have given a more positive review to these phones. I have not touched them; I have no idea. But his piece seems out of step with every other review I have read. I do not get it.

Bain Brains Take Pains to Ascertain Gains in Mains’ Reign

As part of its second annual Technology Report, Bain & Company published a study yesterday that reframes large acquisitions by tech companies — anything over $300 million — as inconsequential or even beneficial for competition. In an environment of increasing wariness of massive conglomerates, this raised my eyebrows, especially since it was being promoted by the CEO of a tech company lobbying organization.

It is not my place to assess the economics or business acumen of this study. I went to art school, which is sort of an anti-education in those kinds of fields. Usually, I would stay out of this sort of commentary since my reaction probably means that I am missing something non-obvious. But there are several things in this study that, so far as I can tell, do not require an economics degree to see that the conclusions drawn do not match the evidence presented.

The first case study is Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods in 2017. Bain produced three graphics. One shows that Whole Foods’ “pricing premium” over standard grocery store chains fell in the two years after Amazon bought the company. That is great, except Bain draws the conclusion that this “[made] healthy, fresh food more affordable for consumers”. That is an absurd summary. Last I checked, regular grocery stores had fresh, healthy food too, and at lower prices than the 13% premium Whole Foods charges, according to Bain’s own chart.

The second and third charts show that there was a modest increase in online grocery purchases between 2015 and 2019, followed by an explosion of the same in 2020. A similar trajectory is shown for delivery, in a graphic comparing 2016 to 2020 and carrying the headline “acquisition intensified pressure to adopt delivery”.

I am wondering if you, reader, can think of anything else beginning in 2020 that may have encouraged many more people to shop for groceries online and have them delivered. Anything at all?

Bain:

Amazon’s 2013 expansion into grocery delivery with Amazon Fresh added pressure on US grocery retailers to begin offering online ordering and delivery services, and that pressure only intensified after Amazon acquired Whole Foods. Now, every major US grocery retailer offers online ordering and delivery services, either managed in-house or via partnerships. This was true even before the Covid-19 pandemic.

I buy the basic thrust of this argument. Amazon is a classic conglomerate, but many of its innovations have been in logistics. It is unsurprising that the biggest online retailer in the U.S. would be able to extend those logistics capabilities to a grocery store, and it is arguably beneficial for consumers, particularly persons with disabilities.

But there are reasons beyond stagnation why supermarkets in the U.S. have been reluctant to embrace delivery. It is dependent on delivery drivers and, without the artificially low pay structure of gig workers, it is prohibitively expensive because of its inherent inefficiencies. But because the gig economy is now a reality, grocery delivery has become a practical option, initiated — if anything — by Instacart, which launched in 2013 months before Amazon’s effort.

The benefits Bain describes can also be attributed to scale. Amazon also offers perks like free shipping in its online store, which small businesses struggle to compete against. Lower prices and free shipping are the kinds of consumer benefit derived from massive scale, but they must be weighed against the benefits of retailer choice and local businesses.

I am getting into the weeds here and away from the point I think we ought to focus on: Bain asserts that Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods was a key reason we now have widespread grocery delivery. It seems far more likely to me that grocery delivery was yet another industry where startups could underpay gig workers to do tasks that were previously economically unviable, and Amazon was well-positioned to hop on that ride. Instacart was in an even better place when Amazon bought Whole Foods, since grocery stores saw it as a lesser evil.

Another case study in the Bain report looks at the acquisition of WhatsApp by Facebook. The authors point to the effect this acquisition ostensibly had on SMS prices in the U.S., producing a chart that showed — in two-year increments — the average cost of an SMS.

I have reproduced that sole data series here and I would like you to point to the spot on this line of average SMS prices where WhatsApp was acquired:

Illustration based on Bain & Company chart.
Illustration based on Bain & Company chart

Is it not obvious?

Here is the full chart they presented:

Source: Bain & Company “Regulate with Care: The Case for Big Tech M&A” report.
Source: Bain and Company Regulate with Care: The Case for Big Tech M and A report

This chart shows that the biggest drop in SMS costs came before app-based messaging went mainstream, even before iMessage launched in 2011. The price of voice calls also catered around the same time. 2010 was about when carriers realized that charging people for texts was unnecessary since data was the new gravy train.

The story presented in Bain’s series of charts is really the story of switching from a protocol to several platforms. SMS, for all its faults, is a platform-agnostic messaging protocol that requires nothing extra. Now, we have a bunch of messaging applications that compete, but also silo our communications. My conversations span seven different messaging apps, and it is a good thing I am not an Android user or I would be struggling. Is it inherently good that we have many different messaging clients now? I appreciate the many features these platforms provide, but it seems to have come at the expense of interconnectedness. Imagine if we had many different telephone protocols that were platform-specific and incompatible with each other.

One more example from this Bain report is Google’s acquisition of YouTube. Here’s how the authors explain that:

In video streaming, YouTube helped fuel the proliferation of “over the top” (OTT) video providers such as Hulu, Sling, and Disney+. Now, YouTube competes for advertising dollars both with other OTT providers and traditional television companies.

The reason people were not consuming streaming video as much in 2006 — or 2001, when Blockbuster and Enron launched their own streaming service — is not because Google did not own YouTube at that time. Widespread broadband connections are a far more likely reason people are consuming more streaming video now.

More to the point, there simply is not another YouTube. I ran a poll last week — which, with only 43 respondents, is not some kind of robust study — in which I asked Twitter followers how many pre-roll ads YouTube could run before it sees a decline in viewership. 65% thought three pre-rolls was the cap, but I think it could be pushed way higher. If there were suddenly five or six pre-roll ads before the first video you watched that day, and then three or four on subsequent videos, do you really think people would stop watching? Where would they go?

The most robust user-generated video competitor, according to Bain’s charts, is Twitch. The Amazon-owned site is not really a YouTube competitor aside from in specific verticals and, as Ryan said in response to my poll, it is also running several ads before streams. These platforms are both terrible for users, and they know they can be increasingly horrible because they have no replacement.

I can continue to nitpick, but near the end, the study veers from mixing up cause and effect to being almost deceptive (“hyperscalers” is what Bain calls Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft):

The common narrative is hyperscalers are acquiring disruptive competitors. But their M&A activity is only a small piece of the overall landscape, representing just 5% of total tech start-up exits last year (see Figure 5).

Switching from the value of acquisitions — which is mostly what the preceding paragraphs are all about — to their quantity masks their impact. Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp or Apple’s purchase of Beats is not equal to a small tech company merging with another small tech company. That is an obviously unfair comparison.

The impression I get from this study is that an acquisition by a big company of something else can be a wider indication of the value of that market, hopefully creating competition in that space. But that is not what much of this data shows. There are so many examples here of “hyperscalers” hopping onto an existing market trend that it is hard to see that case being made. The closest the authors get is with Instacart’s boom following Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods — but “Instacart” appears nowhere in this study.

It is a frustrating article where I am sure I am missing a great deal. I wish I could read the authors’ references or see their analysis in more detail. But all we get is this lightweight summary that does not prove its case.

Federico Viticci on Safari in iOS 15

Federico Viticci of MacStories has published his annual longform review of the iOS and iPadOS updates, and it is typically comprehensive and carefully constructed. Given my criticisms of Safari’s redesign this summer, I wanted to highlight his impressions:

And here’s the thing: the way I see it, this year’s Safari is an excellent upgrade over iOS 14, with desktop-class features that are finally making their way to mobile devices and a design direction that paves a new path for Apple to follow over the coming years. I have some reservations, particularly regarding the iPad version of Safari. But overall, I feel like the struggles with Safari’s design earlier this summer were necessary for Apple to end up in a much better place than iOS 14’s Safari.

The new Safari, especially on iPhone, may take a while to get used to, but I’m a convert, and I wouldn’t want to go back to Safari’s older look on iPhone now. Let’s take a look.

I feel entirely the same. There is a setting for reverting to the previous layout, but I urge you to give this new version a fair shake.

The one annoyance I continue to have on iOS is when I trigger the tab bar when I mean to drag the home indicator, and vice-versa. These gestures are all very clever but they tend to collide on an iPhone’s relatively small display.

On my iPad — and on my Mac, where I have been running beta versions of Safari 15 for weeks — I still think this redesign is a mess. It is unnecessarily cramped, it is visually unappealing, and there are usability problems even if you enable the separate tab bar to mimic previous versions. The best updates to Safari 15 on iPad and Mac will be those that make it look and work more like Safari 14.

But everything else works pretty well, at least. Tab Groups have made it easier for me to keep several projects organized, I am glad to see extensions in iOS and iPadOS, and I like the improved Safari start page.

Amplosion for iOS

If you have updated to iOS 15, you get to take advantage of Safari Extensions on your iPhone. A great place to start is with Christian Selig’s Amplosion, which automatically redirects bad Google AMP links to good normal links. Even if you like Google AMP links for whatever bizarre inhuman reason — who am I to judge? — Amplosion is worth getting just for its beautiful set of icons.

Remember beautiful and fun icon design? Those were the times.

Do not miss Selig’s announcement video.

Alberta’s Proof-of-Vaccination Program Begins Today

Natalie Valleau, CBC News:

The Alberta government launched its COVID-19 immunization record on Sunday so vaccinated individuals can print out a card-sized copy — but it turns out getting your name on one isn’t difficult.

After the site launched, many took to Twitter to exclaim that the PDF was not locked and that virtually anyone can edit the information on it if they have access to Adobe Reader.

I get the concern, but a home-printable copy of a Helvetica-typeset list of vaccinations is not some unforgeable document. It is trivial to unlock PDFs, too. This is apparently a stopgap measure until QR code-based authentication rolls out later, and it sure feels half-assed. It is not even the size of something you can easily fit in your wallet.

I think it is pretty objectionable they launched this program at a separate URL — albertavaccinerecord.ca — instead of a subdomain of alberta.ca. The first time I saw the address, I had to visit the Alberta Government’s website to verify that it was a legitimate address. I bet very few people did the same. This teaches terrible security practices.

Monotype Acquires Hoefler&Co, and Jonathan Hoefler Is Leaving

Monotype:

Monotype today announced that it has acquired Hoefler&Co, the prominent type foundry based in New York City. Hoefler&Co is one of the most iconic names in type design, having designed the fonts that give voice to many of the world’s foremost institutions, publications, causes, and brands.

Jonathan Hoefler on the Hoefler&Co website:

In the meantime, I’ll be stepping down from my role in the company, to finally make the time to recharge, reflect, and explore some new ideas. In these past few years, participating in a documentary and using typography to help elect a president have been potent reminders of just how many ways there are for type to make a difference, and just how many people are moved by the splendor of typography.

I hope Monotype will be a good steward of the Hoefler&Co collection, but it is always a little bit disappointing to see a seemingly successful independent business get swallowed up by some giant.

In a Story About Increasing Activism at Apple, the New York Times Offers No Credit to the Verge

Apple held an all-hands meeting with employees earlier today. We know this because Zoë Schiffer, of the Verge, reported it on Twitter and live tweeted through it. Schiffer has been a go-to reporter on internal activism efforts at Apple, breaking story after story about employees’ complaints.

But you would not know that if you only read today’s piece from Jack Nicas and Kellen Browning of the New York Times. The article is mostly a retread of ground already covered by Schiffer, but without a single attribution to Schiffer’s work. The Times Guidelines on Integrity document is clear what the reporters ought to be doing:

Our preference, when time and distance permit, is to do our own reporting and verify another organization’s story; in that case, we need not attribute the facts. But even then, as a matter of courtesy and candor, we credit an exclusive to the organization that first broke the news.

Nicas and Browning certainly have their own sources within Apple. Given the number of employees present during today’s all-hands, its contents were certain to leak to someone on the Apple beat. The Times says it has a recording of the meeting, too.

But Schiffer was first to report on all of these stories. The Times should be giving credit.

Facebook’s Design at Scale Means Every Decision Has Extraordinary Consequence

Charlie Warzel:

I’ve come to believe that arguments weighing Facebook’s good and bad outcomes are probably a dead end. What seems rather indisputable is that as currently designed (to optimize scale, engagement, profit) there is no way to tweak the platform in a way that doesn’t ultimately make people miserable or that destabilizes big areas of culture and society. The platform is simply too big. Leave it alone and it turns into a dangerous cesspool; play around with the knobs and risk inadvertently censoring or heaping world historic amounts of attention onto people or movements you never anticipated, creating yet more unanticipated outcomes. If there’s any shred of sympathy I have for the company, it’s that there don’t seem to be any great options.

I think there are plenty of overwrought claims about Facebook that are really not about Facebook and mostly about scoring political points. It can feel performative when people say things like “Facebook is not compatible with democracy.” But I do believe that Facebook, at its current scale and in its current design, is not really compatible with humanity.

Working through the Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files series this week has been an educational experience. These articles are chock full of evidence from inside the company effectively proving what has long been assumed externally: that it has all of the research and data to show the dangers of its platform, yet attempts to control for them are either shot down for profit reasons or, if implemented, cause unintended consequences that are just as bad. The world coalesced around Facebook’s properties as a primary communications channel and we are worse for it — but we struggle to turn away.