Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for February, 2022

G Suite Education Customers Surprised to Find They Were on a Free Trial, and It Has Expired

Shantanu Sinha of Google:

During the 15 years we’ve been building tools for educators, we’ve seen the needs of instructors, education leaders and students evolve. We’ve learned that a one-size-fits all approach isn’t what educators need from tools like G Suite for Education. Whether you’re in a rural elementary school, urban university or homeschool setting, our technology and tools should adapt so you can focus on what matters most: teaching and learning. That’s why we’re making a few changes to provide you greater choice and flexibility in selecting the best tools to empower your institution.

[…]

Google has traditionally offered unlimited storage to qualifying schools and universities for free. However, as we’ve grown to serve more schools and universities each year, storage consumption has also rapidly accelerated. Storage is not being consumed equitably across — nor within — institutions, and school leaders often don’t have the tools they need to manage this. To support schools into the future and ensure fair distribution of this valuable resource, we will be implementing a new pooled storage model and helping admins and school leaders manage their storage. Nothing is changing today and we expect that more than 99% of institutions will be within the pooled storage provided by the new policy.

In November 2020, Google announced it would begin charging users for Google Docs storage. Last month, the company said it would soon begin charging legacy G Suite users who signed up for free no sooner than ten years ago.

Google’s product strategy seems to be to treat new ventures as a trial release. Users are compelled by the company’s marketing efforts, and these services are backed by one of the most valuable businesses in the world — surely these are serious ideas. But if the new services do not meet internal expectations, Google kills them off, often with little notice. If they are successful, Google often charges for their use: either explicitly, as in the case of today’s this Google Education announcement, or with photos not too long ago; or implicitly, like how it is pushing users’ tolerance with YouTube ads that can be removed with the purchase of a YouTube Premium subscription.

It all reeks of dishonesty. Why should anyone trust Google if it constantly pulls these bait-and-switch moves? It also smells of market position abuse. How many other companies can start and stop projects on a whim? How many other companies can give away storage until individuals and businesses and institutions are fully locked-in, and then turn around and charge them a fortune? The only reason this does not have a greater negative effect on Google is because its primary business has nothing to do with selling services. So long as its dominant advertising business is raking in cash, it has the flexibility to do this same trick over and over.

Update: This announcement is from exactly one year ago, not today. I read “February 17, 2021” and thought “yeah, that is today”, but it is not. I regret the error. Thank you to reader Dan for pointing this out.

Lost Media, Found

A couple of years ago, I wrote a love letter to What.cd, the defunct and legendary private torrent tracker. The catalogue of music being shared through the site was nearly bottomless, with plenty of extremely rare records available to be heard beyond the handful of ears they were intended for. But one release that never materialized was the first recording by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Titled “All Lights Fucked on the Hairy Amp Drooling” and recorded on just thirty-three cassette copies in 1994, it was long assumed to be entirely lost. Nevertheless, it was by far the most requested recording on What.cd.

In 2013, a Reddit user claimed to have a copy and it seemed legitimate, but they never published the whole thing. I assumed that was the closest I would ever get to hearing this long lost record, until someone posted it to the web earlier this month. But because virtually nobody had heard the thing, nobody knew whether it was real. This week, we got the answer.

Christian Eede, the Quietus:

Speaking to Vish Khanna’s Kreative Kontrol podcast, [Efrim Manuel] Menuck, who recorded the cassette mostly alone before forming the band as it’s known today, suggested he didn’t fully welcome the leak, but recognised upon hearing it that it was indeed the authentic material, and thus decided to officially release it.

Menuck had recorded the tape in 1993 for friends, distributing it among them, and selling an additional handful of copies at a show in the Canadian city of Moncton. A lack of finances prevented further distribution of the material at the time, and having formed GY!BE, he ultimately decided that he didn’t want to release it more widely as the material was made, he told Khanna, during “rough times.” He added that he’s happy for people to listen to the release now, even if it’s “not the Godspeed you know.”

It is completely different from even Godspeed’s first full-length release, but it is interesting to finally hear it regardless. It is now available on Bandcamp, and that episode of Khanna’s podcast is worth listening to for a fuller context, and for Menuck’s explanation of the title.

Clearview AI Investor Pitch Reveals Photo Ingestion Rate and Expansion Plans

Big scoop for Drew Harwell at the Washington Post:

The facial recognition company Clearview AI is telling investors it is on track to have 100 billion facial photos in its database within a year, enough to ensure “almost everyone in the world will be identifiable,” according to a financial presentation from December obtained by The Washington Post.

[…]

And the company wants to expand beyond scanning faces for the police, saying in the presentation that it could monitor “gig economy” workers and is researching a number of new technologies that could identify someone based on how they walk, detect their location from a photo or scan their fingerprints from afar.

Slides Harwell posted on Twitter reveal a stunning expansion of personal recognition. For example, Clearview is exploring ways of tying identity to license plates, movements, and locations. This is a brazen theft of personal liberty undertaken by a private company with virtually no accountability or regulation.

Harwell’s story is full of outrageous details, one paragraph after another. But one must be mindful they are sourced from an investor presentation that puts the company in the best possible light for people with deep pockets. While unearned optimism is allowed, outright lies are not supposed to be included, though some of the companies’ logos apparently associated with Clearview denied to Harwell any connection.

With that in mind, Clearview says it has thousands of clients in the United States alone, even as it is increasingly banned in other countries. It says it is ingesting photos at a rate of one-and-a-half billion per month, and wants to identify pretty much everyone on Earth, though that presumably excludes children and everyone from Australia, Canada, and France. It should also be excluding images posted to major social media networks, many of which have told Clearview to cease and desist its scraping practices.

It has plenty of ideas for how it wishes to use its database and, according to the slides posted by Harwell, it also wants to license them to third parties for their own uses. How does that square with its promise to only permit law enforcement uses?

Clearview has dismissed criticism of its data collection and surveillance work by saying it is built exclusively for law enforcement and the public good. In an online “principles” pledge, the company said that it works only with government agencies and that it limits its technology to “lawful investigative processes directed at criminal conduct, or at preventing specific, substantial, and imminent threats to people’s lives or physical safety.”

[…]

In his statement to The Post, [founder Hoan Ton-That] said: “Our principles reflect the current uses of our technology. If those uses change, the principles will be updated, as needed.”

If your principles change because of financial incentives, you do not have principles. Clearview is sketchy as hell and has no place being in business.

Ton-That told The Post the document was shared with a “small group of individuals who expressed interest in the company.” It included proposals, he said, not just for its main facial-search engine but also for other business lines in which facial recognition could be useful, such as identity verification or secure-building access.

He said Clearview’s photos have “been collected in a lawful manner” from “millions of different websites” on the public Internet. A person’s “public source metadata” and “social linkage information,” he added, can be found on the websites that Clearview has linked to their facial photos.

I found the second sentence here confusing, but it seems to mean that a user of Clearview is able to see where an image in the database was sourced from. The way Ton-That phrases it makes it sound like a reassurance or something, but nothing could be further from the case. The company still makes people individually opt out from the mass surveillance machine it is hoping to grow and license if they happen to live in California or Illinois. Otherwise, Clearview says it will scrape anything it can access and it is your responsibility to remove from the web anything you do not wish to contribute to its business.

Any reasonable nation should be working hard on legislation that would prevent anything like Clearview from being used, and level crippling penalties for any of its citizens’ data found to be in its systems. That is my baseline expectation. I am not optimistic it will be achieved.

The Asymmetry of App Review

This is a good collection of links from Michael Tsai about the inherent asymmetry of App Review.

David Barnard on Twitter:

I think the asymmetry of App Review is still lost on Apple. For indie developers our hopes and dreams (and sometimes our finances) hang in the balance, for the App Review team it’s just another app rejection among tens of thousands. I know they think they get it, they just don’t.

I often wonder if Apple knows whether it wants the iPhone to be a general-purpose platform or something more tightly controlled. I know fourteen years of the App Store suggests the latter must be true, but it is not really. App Review is lax enough that it permits exploitative games for children, the kind of “amateur hour” apps Apple has long said are prohibited, and plenty of apps that break its rules. Prank phone call apps are disallowed, yet there are dozens on the App Store; scams and unnecessarily expensive subscriptions are commonplace.

Apple has third-party accessories available in its retail stores. It chooses only a handful of the ones it thinks are of the quality it is willing to stand behind. But the App Store? Just chock full of trash.

So the iPhone’s App Store is not a carefully curated selection of only the best apps for the iPhone after all. It is a flea market with a few high-profile vendors. It is completely backwards. Great developers should be rewarded for building high quality apps. Instead, they are frightened every time they submit an update to the store while watching yet another crappy horoscope app with abusive in-app purchases creep up the charts.

Google’s Toothless Android Privacy Sandbox

Anthony Chavez of Google:

We realize that other platforms have taken a different approach to ads privacy, bluntly restricting existing technologies used by developers and advertisers. We believe that — without first providing a privacy-preserving alternative path — such approaches can be ineffective and lead to worse outcomes for user privacy and developer businesses.

Our goal with the Privacy Sandbox on Android is to develop effective and privacy enhancing advertising solutions, where users know their information is protected, and developers and businesses have the tools to succeed on mobile. While we design, build and test these new solutions, we plan to support existing ads platform features for at least two years, and we intend to provide substantial notice ahead of any future changes.

The only surprise here is that Google refers to a plural “other platforms”. Maybe it is keeping its options open for a reunion tour from BlackBerry, Palm, and Windows. That is generous.

I am curious about how Google plans to ensure user privacy more effectively than App Tracking Transparency is able to. We know that Apple’s solution is more policy-based than it is a guarantee, and we know it has many gaps. If a more reliable solution is in the cards, I am all ears — though why it would come from a company with a business model built around abusing privacy seems unlikely.

The information Google has released so far needs more explanation, but it is more-or-less an Android version of the questionable Topics plan for targeting ads in Chrome.

Ron Amadeo, Ars Technica:

That bit about being a sandbox for “compatible SDKs” is the big catch for the SDK Runtime and the Android Privacy Sandbox. It’s optional. Chrome’s Privacy Sandbox, even if it is a watered-down privacy solution, is at least starting with the progress of blocking third-party cookies. The existing tracking methods in Chrome will be blocked, and Google is offering an alternative solution that will have some (again, watered-down) privacy benefits. Google has not announced plans to block or limit any existing tracking techniques on Android. Android apps have a lot more privileges than a website, and developers could choose to ignore this and include an ad SDK that does not use the SDK sandbox.

I am finding it hard not to read the details as an overcomplicated way to meet in the middle without clear benefits. Google’s market dominating advertising business means regulators will surely raise concerns if any Android ad tech companies are affected by more meaningful changes, so Google must take a more cautious approach. But that means the result will likely be ineffective for privacy.

Shoshana Wodinsky, Gizmodo:

The weirdest part about our “privacy,” as far as our devices are concerned, is that the way you define the word is pretty tied to your finances. Just ask Google.

The lesson Google and Facebook learned from Apple’s relentless marketing around privacy is not that their business models are based on fundamentally unethical principles. They learned they simply need to find a definition of “privacy” that works for their business.

Public Figures Should Stop Luring Their Fans Into the Risky World of NFTs

Anthony Fantano, in an op-ed for the Washington Post:

This is a plea to popular musicians: Please stop herding your young fans into potential crypto and NFT scams. Please, please, please, please, please. That’s six pleases in total, so you know this is pretty serious.

[…]

This isn’t a passion; it’s barely a newfound interest. The whole thing stinks like an astroturfed promotional campaign to generate interest in cheaply made primate doodles.

My only quibble with this is how it should not be limited to musicians — all public figures ought to use their platforms more responsibly and avoid directly or tacitly promoting these questionable financial products.

Second Sight’s Retinal Implants Are Now Obsolete and Unsupported

Eliza Strickland and Mark Harris, IEEE Spectrum:

Barbara Campbell was walking through a New York City subway station during rush hour when her world abruptly went dark. For four years, Campbell had been using a high-tech implant in her left eye that gave her a crude kind of bionic vision, partially compensating for the genetic disease that had rendered her completely blind in her 30s. “I remember exactly where I was: I was switching from the 6 train to the F train,” Campbell tells IEEE Spectrum. “I was about to go down the stairs, and all of a sudden I heard a little ‘beep, beep, beep’ sound.”

It wasn’t her phone battery running out. It was her Argus II retinal implant system powering down. The patches of light and dark that she’d been able to see with the implant’s help vanished.

[…]

These three patients, and more than 350 other blind people around the world with Second Sight’s implants in their eyes, find themselves in a world in which the technology that transformed their lives is just another obsolete gadget. One technical hiccup, one broken wire, and they lose their artificial vision, possibly forever. To add injury to insult: A defunct Argus system in the eye could cause medical complications or interfere with procedures such as MRI scans, and it could be painful or expensive to remove.

This sounds devastating, and reeks of an area in desperate need of oversight. Health technologies are not gadgets.

Trust in Google Search Is Dying

DKB”:

Reddit is currently the most popular search engine. The only people who don’t know that are the team at Reddit, who can’t be bothered to build a decent search interface. So instead we resort to using Google, and appending the word “reddit” to the end of our queries.

[…]

Why are people searching Reddit specifically? The short answer is that Google search results are clearly dying. The long answer is that most of the web has become too inauthentic to trust.

This article claims that “Google Search is dying”, but that is not quite right: trust in Google’s own results seems to be dying if you extrapolate from the charts shared by Paul Graham in a tweet, but people are still treating Google as the index of everything. But “DKB” is right about one thing: even if you are skeptical of the extent to which you can treat those charts as an indicator of trust in Google’s results — as I am — that results page is still pretty poor. The bizarre relationship between Google and marketers often means the first page is full of display ads and results that are effectively ads. Big publications are all trying to do their own take on the Wirecutter for home goods, and results for software are mostly marketing disguised as informative articles.

Perhaps declining trust in Google’s results may be better attributed to an overall decline in the quality of what is on the web. Websites are increasingly optimized for revenue generation on their own terms, so marketers desperate to get on the first page of Google results have broken it as a search engine.

Pirate Site Traffic Surged in 2021

Ernesto Van der Sar, TorrentFreak:

The “State of the Internet” report that was released by Akamai this week shows that there is plenty of potential. According to their data, provided by MUSO, the number of global visits to pirate sites rose significantly over the past year.

[…]

Looking at the various content categories, it’s clear that TV-related piracy is dominant. The report shows that there were over 67 billion TV piracy visits, which is roughly 50% of all pirate site traffic.

The publishing category is in second place with 30 billion visits (23%), followed by films with 14.5 billion (11%) and music with 10.8 billion (8%). Software piracy closes the ranks with a ‘measly’ 9 billion visits (7%).

Severing ties to legacy media subscriptions — cable television in particular — was idealized as a way to only pay for the media you want to watch, using whatever devices are most convenient for you. Software companies were supposed to do what they are best at, studios would provide media, and everyone would be happier.

Instead, it looks like a combination of many of the worst legacy traits. There are conglomerates hoarding companies at every stage of the media production and distribution pipeline, and guarding their intellectual property. This makes it harder and more expensive for consumers to watch a variety of movies and shows. Because software is, somewhat unfortunately, eating the world, conglomerates are now developers shipping crappy apps we must use to access their media. They have successfully migrated the miserable set top box experience onto this century’s sophisticated devices. Bravo.

Look at the category splits in Akamai’s research: about two-thirds of all piracy site traffic is for movies and TV shows, and only a tiny sliver is for music. It does not matter what music streaming service we use; we can access mostly everything we want to listen to from any provider. But visual media are locked to specific studios’ streaming services with inconsistent libraries in different countries.

We can pay ten dollars per month per service to maybe see a show we are interested in, or we can do some light googling. That is not an exclusive “or” — Akamai’s research found that many people choose to do both, which is unsurprising to me. A terrible streaming app is still better than most illicit providers’ websites. But is that the very low bar well-funded movie studios just barely wish to cross?

An Unsolicited Streaming App Spec

John Siracusa:

I subscribe to a lot of streaming video services, and that means I use a lot of streaming video apps. Most of them fall short of my expectations. Here, then, is a simple specification for a streaming video app. Follow it, and your app will be well on its way to not sucking.

This spec includes only the basics. It leaves plenty of room for apps to differentiate themselves by surprising and delighting their users with clever features not listed here. But to all the streaming app developers out there, please consider covering these fundamentals before working on your Unique Selling Proposition.

Siracusa is not kidding: this is the lowest possible bar for a streaming app, yet it is hard to find one that could pass.

It reminded me of something from not too long ago. We had just finished watching a recent Marvel movie in the Disney Plus app on our Apple TV, and were waiting for the post-credits scene to play. But midway through the credits, the screen changed to a view where the video was playing at a thumbnail size and there were a couple of onscreen buttons. We tried scrubbing over to the thumbnail to return it to a fullscreen view, but it was not selectable. One of the buttons was marked “Play Movie” or something similar, so we clicked on that one thinking it would let us play it from where we left off, but it restarted the movie. So we scrubbed to the very end where we could see the post-credit scene, pressed play, and it immediately shrank to that thumbnail screen with two buttons.

This is a Marvel movie — a movie where scenes in and after the credits are entirely normal — playing in the parent company’s app. And, as far as I can figure out, there is simply no way to watch the post-credit scene.

Over Half of Apple Music Subscribers Are Listening to Spatial Audio

Micah Singleton, Billboard:

Apple Music’s Spatial Audio push helps the company differentiate itself in a commoditized market. With every major music streaming service maintaining the same catalog of songs, an improved and easily noticeable audio experience would help the company separate itself from its competitors like Spotify. For the labels, remastering catalog music in Spatial Audio can reinvigorate streams around an album or artist and provide new artists with an additional promotional tool alongside the improved listening experience for fans.

[…]

“We now have more than half of our worldwide Apple Music subscriber base listening in spatial audio and that number is actually growing really, really fast,” says [VP of Apple Music and Beats Oliver] Schusser. “We would like the numbers to be higher, but they are definitely exceeding our expectations.”

Left unsaid by anyone in this article is that Spatial Audio is turned on by default for Apple Music users with AirPods or Beats connected to their device. Nevertheless, only a small part of the Apple Music catalogue is available in the format, so users still have to seek it out more deliberately than lossless, which Apple says is offered for every song it has.

In this interview, Schusser also emphasized that lossless audio does not work over current wireless headphones. Apple keeps dropping hints about its efforts to change that situation.

What Happens to Online Shopping Returns

Meaghan Tobin, Wency Chen, and Abubakar Idris, Rest of World:

There were more than 1,600 listings for Shein suppliers on Alibaba at the end of January, and ten of the first 30 listings also advertise as sellers of used, secondhand, or bulk wholesale clothing. Some of the pages offer to ship Shein goods in bulk, while others include photos of piled, Shein-branded plastic bags. Shein told Rest of World that the company’s suppliers are not authorized to sell Shein products for any purposes aside from fulfilling Shein orders. “Shein only orders what it can sell,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “We prohibit suppliers from selling oversupply, to prevent the production of counterfeit material, of which all overstock is.”

[…]

Retailers who sell on Amazon can choose to have the e-commerce behemoth manage their logistics with their in-house team. “There’s a setting where you can choose to have all of your returned inventory destroyed,” said Ada. She chooses this option most frequently. Another alternative is to have the Amazon warehouse evaluate the item’s resale potential, but she would have to pay Amazon for storage space for those items until they resold.

Among the most eye-opening details in this article, about one-fifth of the value of U.S. online orders are returned every year. That is an enormous amount of waste — potential and realized.

Also, a neat use of AirTags in this article.

Previously: Free returns incentivize waste, and Amazon’s product destruction.

With Its App Marketplace Principles, Microsoft Positions Itself as a Friend to Developers

Microsoft president Brad Smith:

Today we’re announcing a new set of Open App Store Principles that will apply to the Microsoft Store on Windows and to the next-generation marketplaces we will build for games. We have developed these principles in part to address Microsoft’s growing role and responsibility as we start the process of seeking regulatory approval in capitals around the world for our acquisition of Activision Blizzard. This regulatory process begins while many governments are also moving forward with new laws to promote competition in app markets and beyond. We want regulators and the public to know that as a company, Microsoft is committed to adapting to these new laws, and with these principles, we’re moving to do so.

Microsoft is making eleven promises to developers for its Windows software marketplace. Some are straightforward enough, like how it says it will hold developers to standards of security — but not privacy — while others are clear shots at Apple and Google, like its flexible rules around in-app payments. But it says not all of the same rules will apply for Xbox developers, particularly those around in-app purchases and developer communications, because these promises are designed to get ahead of proposed legislation. That is not an oversimplification; Smith:

Second, some may ask why today’s principles do not apply immediately and wholesale to the current Xbox console store. It’s important to recognize that emerging legislation is being written to address app stores on those platforms that matter most to creators and consumers: PCs, mobile phones and other general purpose computing devices. For millions of creators across a multitude of businesses, these platforms operate as gateways every day to hundreds of millions of people. These platforms have become essential to our daily work and personal lives; creators cannot succeed without access to them. Emerging legislation is not being written for specialized computing devices, like gaming consoles, for good reasons. Gaming consoles, specifically, are sold to gamers at a loss to establish a robust and viable ecosystem for game developers. The costs are recovered later through revenue earned in the dedicated console store.

Microsoft says it will eventually make these rules standard on Xbox, too, but one wonders how that is possible when it says those existing payment structures are necessary for a “robust and viable ecosystem”. It may be happy to apply what it calls a “principled approach” in its Windows marketplace, but that is an open platform for developers. It would be like if Apple applied these same policies to its Mac App Store, but not iOS — I would have questions.

Emmanuel Maiberg and Edward Ongweso Jr, Vice:

We should recognize Microsoft’s messaging for what it is: an attempt to convince us that self-regulation will turn out good for all of us. Self-regulation is how we got here, though. We need laws, not agreements — antitrust actions backed up by law, not corporate rhetoric that will disappear at Microsoft’s earliest convenience.

Becky Hansmeyer:

As I think about Microsoft cleverly positioning themselves as a developer’s best friend, I can’t help but assume that Apple execs are whining “they’re making us look like the bad guys!” instead of asking themselves, “ARE we the bad guys?”

Well said.

A Comparison Between the Tracking Capabilities of AirTags, Tiles, and a GPS Tracker

Kashmir Hill, New York Times:

In mid-January, my husband and I were having an argument. Our 1-year-old had just tested positive for Covid-19 and was occasionally grunting between breaths. I called urgent care and was told we should take her to the emergency room. But, because I had been up all night with her, I was too exhausted to drive.

[…]

He eventually caved and set out for the hospital a half-hour away. Knowing he was already annoyed by me, I did not want to pepper him with questions about how it was going.

Instead, I turned to the location-monitoring devices that I had secretly stashed in our car a week earlier.

I put a quarter-sized Apple AirTag in a seat pocket; a flat, credit card-shaped Bluetooth tracker made by Tile in a dashboard pocket; and a hockey-puck-like GPS tracker from a company called LandAirSea in the glove compartment.

I realize I sound like the worst wife ever, so let me explain. It was for journalism.

As soon as I read these paragraphs, I knew I had to link to this. Hill did this with permission, but also got a photographer to surreptitiously tail her husband. What a great little experiment.

Hill writes that Apple’s AirTags were the most accurate in the dense streets of New York City, even tracing a path through the subway where GPS signals cannot reach, and that they were also the most privacy-friendly of the three trackers. But I do not think that is saying much. Hill’s husband received tracker notifications after many hours of recorded movements, and sometimes could not find the AirTags he was unwittingly carrying. Some of the changes announced yesterday should help but, again, only for iOS users; Android users or those without smartphones are out of luck.

Apple Is Working on More Ways to Reduce Abuse of AirTags for iOS Users

In response to concerns about people using AirTags in malicious and abusive ways, Apple says it is working on more ways to notify users being tracked. The changes coming soonest are pretty weak: Apple says it will remind users when setting up an AirTag that tracking people without their consent is wrong, and it also says it will refine its wording when alerting users about AirPods or Find My accessories.

But the changes coming later this year are more promising. Apple says it will enable Precision Finding to help someone locate an AirTag they may be carrying, and add audio alerts on iOS devices. Unknown AirTags will also notify their carrier sooner.

But all of these software changes are, necessarily, iOS software updates. The sole recourse available for Android users is downloading the Tracker Detect app — which has apparently been installed over a hundred thousand times since it launched in mid-December — and manually scanning for AirTags every so often.

Apple also confirms it can help investigators find someone associated with an AirTag used abusively:

Every AirTag has a unique serial number, and paired AirTags are associated with an Apple ID. Apple can provide the paired account details in response to a subpoena or valid request from law enforcement. We have successfully partnered with them on cases where information we provided has been used to trace an AirTag back to the perpetrator, who was then apprehended and charged.

But this is only helpful if someone is able to find the AirTag first, or as evidence in a trial. Again, I do not see any benefits for Android users. Even in the U.S., where iOS is the market share leader, Android still represents 47% of smartphone users. That represents tens of millions of people in the U.S. alone who are vulnerable to being tracked by an AirTag to a precise degree, thanks to iOS’ large market share. What about them?

Bruce Schneier’s Letter to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on App Stores

Bruce Schneier:

S.2992 bars large tech companies from unfairly preferencing their own products on platforms they own or control. S.2710 prohibits forcing app developers to use a specific in-app payment system owned or controlled by the owner of the app store. Both have size thresholds to ensure these limits only apply to extremely large firms.

I would like to address some of the unfounded security concerns raised about these bills. It’s simply not true that this legislation puts user privacy and security at risk. In fact, it’s fairer to say that this legislation puts those companies’ extractive business-models at risk. Their claims about risks to privacy and security are both false and disingenuous, and motivated by their own self-interest and not the public interest. App store monopolies cannot protect users from every risk, and they frequently prevent the distribution of important tools that actually enhance security. Furthermore, the alleged risks of third-party app stores and “side-loading” apps pale in comparison to their benefits. These bills will encourage competition, prevent monopolist extortion, and guarantee users a new right to digital self-determination.

Schneier’s letter is not breaking new ground for close watchers of this topic, but it is a concise and compelling argument against centralized singular app marketplaces.

Schneier attributes many of the moderation decisions made by Google and — in particular — Apple to profit. Specific incidents are debatable and both companies may have legitimate privacy or security concerns with apps they deem violate their platform policies. However, it is difficult to trust them when their decisions are undermined by the potential for profit motivations.

Facebook’s Market Cap Is Now Under the $600 Billion Threshold for U.S. Antitrust Bills

Lauren Feiner, CNBC:

The company, recently renamed Meta, closed with a market cap below $600 billion on Tuesday for the first time since May 2020. The stock fell 2.1%, bringing it to a market cap of $599.32 billion.

The $600 billion market cap figure also happens to be the number House legislators picked as the threshold for a “covered platform” under a package of competition bills designed specifically to target Big Tech. If Meta were to remain below that threshold, it could avoid the additional hurdles the bills would install for how it can conduct its business and make deals, while its larger peers like Amazon, Alphabet, Apple and even Microsoft become subject to the rules.

Feiner acknowledges that both the House and Senate antitrust bills would require Facebook to maintain its sub-$600 billion market cap for months around the time of both bills’ hypothetical passage for it to be exempt. Nevertheless, it re-surfaces questions for me about whether public valuation is a fair way to measure a degree of antitrust concern — especially a fixed value.

Apple’s 2021 Report Card

Jason Snell, Six Colors:

It’s time for our annual look back on Apple’s performance during the past year, as seen through the eyes of writers, editors, developers, podcasters, and other people who spend an awful lot of time thinking about Apple.

This is the seventh year that I’ve presented this survey to a hand-selected group. They were prompted with 12 different Apple-related subjects, and asked to rate them on a scale from 1 to 5 and optionally provide text commentary per category. I received 53 replies, with the average results as shown below: […]

I love that Snell puts this survey together every year. It is such a good indicator of the way the winds are blowing for the world’s most valuable company. I am pleasantly surprised the Mac is recording its second year in a row as the highest scoring category, showing quite the turnaround from just a few years ago.

Federico Viticci posted a full copy of his survey comments and scores, and I am sure others will shortly as well. Mine was pretty close to the overall averages for the categories in which I graded — I did not score for HomeKit, Apple Watch, or wearables — so I do not want to post everything I wrote. But there were a couple of areas where my scores differed from the panel’s average that I wanted to highlight.

When I started putting this together, I remembered the new iPhones and Macs and iPads, and assumed I would assess a more pleasant year for Apple than I ultimately graded. I always write the paragraphs first and, in digging around for that information, my optimism started to unravel. I am not sure if I am being particularly harsh this year, but it feels from my more distant perspective like a bunch of things did not come together smoothly on Apple’s end. Product-wise, a brilliant year; but in software, developer relations, and social responsibility, a disappointing one.

Software Quality — 2

My experience with Apple’s software over the past year has been unpleasant. To be entirely fair, it has been that way for a while, and I think I was too generous with my grading last year. For years, there seems to have been a tick-tock cycle to Apple’s software cycle: some years are more feature-heavy, and some years are about quality and stability. This year felt like neither; more like engineers being pressured to deliver under extraordinary circumstances for the second year running.

There were big problems: MacOS Monterey bricked some Macs, a software update overheated some HomePod models to the point where they stopped working, Siri is still Siri, and Shortcuts shipped in an unusable state across all platforms. But there are little things that also do not work correctly that are as aggressively grating. On my Mac, every Quick Look preview flashes bright red. When I use CarPlay, audio sometimes does not initiate and I have to reconnect my phone. Nine of the bugs I filed in 2021 were about scroll position not being maintained in several high-profile applications. Searching Maps still returns locations thousands of kilometres away, even when there is a matching result around the corner. Apple’s Podcasts service became a mess. Mail does not return accurate search results for my inbox, let alone any other folder. Album artwork does not sync properly to my iPhone. If I resume playing music I have paused on my Mac, it will sometimes play with no audio, and I have to change tracks to force it to re-download. iOS’ autocorrect changes “can” to “can’t”, which is an open problem with “more than 10” reports. Media keys do unexpected things in MacOS. Dragging tracks to the bottom of the play queue in Music reverses their play order. There are a hundred more problems like these which I have reported in the last year. 
Apple is far from the only software vendor where it feels like products are rushed and bugs accumulate. But this is the Apple report card, not the one for Microsoft or Adobe. From nearly every vendor, including Apple, it feels like users’ continued patronage is taken for granted. To some degree that is probably true. Even so, I wish it still felt like there was a fight for my business.

I am sometimes running beta releases, but my main Mac is almost always on the latest public release. Right now, Music often crashes when switching between Apple Music, local library, and search views — on the very latest released version. A common response is that Apple needs time to fix bugs after release but, even if these operating systems mostly stabilize by about February, it is not fair that even typical users on the public release track have four or five months of frustrating bugs every year.

I am begging software vendors to please, please prioritize quality and stability.

Environmental and Social Issues – 2

2021 was rough for Apple’s social commitments. Even its calling card, privacy, was hampered. Yes, iCloud Private Relay was sort-of launched, and App Tracking Transparency debuted to the chagrin of ad tech companies. But a third-party experiment in the autumn found that many name-brand apps simply ignore users’ tracking preferences.

Apple’s biggest controversy in 2021 was its announcement of a new Child Sexual Abuse Materials detection system that was supposed to be baked into iOS but, Apple said, would only affect photos and video uploaded to iCloud. But the idea of locally checking files against an opaque database was torn apart. Apple said it has postponed that part of its CSAM mitigation plans as it reworks it, but the damage to its reputation has been done.

There are lingering geopolitical issues, too, like Apple’s dependency on manufacturing in China and antitrust-related cases around the world. Like, we learned in 2021 that a disputed archipelago in the East China Sea appears at a different scale for Apple Maps users in China. That’s still very weird!


I do not mean to accentuate the negative and ignore the positives — of which there were many — but these are two areas where I see Apple’s biggest liabilities. The third is developer relations, to which I also gave a score of 2. I am so impressed by the quality of hardware Apple has been shipping, and the company’s fast adoption of its own processors. But I remain frustrated by software that never seems to feel solid enough, developers taken for granted, and a mixed bag of social repercussions that come with being a corporate giant.

Belgian Data Protection Agency Fines IAB Europe Over Cookie Consent Banners

Shoshana Wodinsky, Gizmodo:

This week, European authorities struck a massive blow to the digital data-mining industrial complex with a new ruling stating that, quite simply, most of those annoying cookie alert banners that sites were forced to onboard en masse after GDPR was passed haven’t… actually been compliant with GDPR. Sorry.

[…]

While the ruling showed that GDPR is very much still in effect, it doesn’t do a lot to explain how blatant some of these infringements were, or how loudly critics inside the industry had been raising red flags. Simply put, when the GDPR asked the adtech industry to get consent from users before tracking them, the IAB responded with a set of guidelines with loopholes large enough that data could still get through, anyway, without consent. And now that these practices are out in the public, nobody seems sure how to make them stop.

Bulk cookie consent banners so obviously violate the spirit and letter of the GDPR, it is no wonder authorities are taking action against them. Unfortunately, the offices in charge of investigating problems and administering fines are so under-resourced I am not surprised it took this long.