Day: 25 January 2023

Patrick McGee, Financial Times:

Apple is taking steps to separate its mobile operating system from features offered by Google parent Alphabet, making advances around maps, search and advertising that has created a collision course between the Big Tech companies.


One of these people said Apple is still engaged in a “silent war” against its arch-rival. It is doing so by developing features that could allow the iPhone-maker to further separate its products from services offered by Google. Apple did not respond to requests for comment.

This is a strange article. The thesis, above, is that Apple is trying to reduce its dependence on Google’s services. But McGee cannot seem to decide whether Apple’s past, present, or future changes are directly relevant, so he kind of posits that they all are. Here, look:

The first front of this battle is mapping, which started in 2012 when Apple released Maps, displacing its Google rival as a pre-downloaded app.

The move was supposed to be a shining moment for Apple’s software prowess but the launch was so buggy — some bridges, for example, appeared deformed and sank into oceans — that chief executive Tim Cook said he was “extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers”.

Apple Maps turns eleven years old in 2023, so it is safe to say that Apple adequately distanced itself from its reliance upon Google for maps, oh, about eleven years ago. Whether users have is another question entirely. The 3D rendering problems may have been the most memorable glitches, but the biggest day-to-day problems for users were issues with bad data.

So what is new?

Apple’s Maps has improved considerably in the past decade, however. Earlier this month it announced Business Connect, a feature that lets companies claim their digital location so they can interact with users, display photos and offer promotions.

While businesses have been able to claim their listing and manage its details for years, the recently launched Business Connect is a more comprehensive tool. That has advantages for businesses and users alike, as there may be better point-of-interest data, though it is another thing businesses need to pay attention to. But as far as ways for Apple to distance itself from Google, I am not sure I see the connection.


The second front in the battle is search. While Apple rarely discusses products while in development, the company has long worked on a feature known internally as “Apple Search”, a tool that facilitates “billions of searches” per day, according to employees on the project.

Now I am confused: is this a service which is in development, or is it available to users? To fit his thesis, McGee appears to want it both ways:

Apple’s search team dates back to at least 2013, when it acquired Topsy Labs, a start-up that had indexed Twitter to enable searches and analytics. The technology is used every time an iPhone user asks Apple’s voice assistant Siri for information, types queries from the home screen, or uses the Mac’s “Spotlight” search feature.

Once again, I have to ask how a feature eight years old means Apple is only now in the process of disentangling itself from Google. Apparently, it is because of speculation in the paragraphs which follow the one above:

Apple’s search offering was augmented with the 2019 purchase of Laserlike, an artificial intelligence start-up founded by former Google engineers that had described its mission as delivering “high quality information and diverse perspectives on any topic from the entire web”.

Josh Koenig, chief strategy officer at Pantheon, a website operations platform, said Apple could quickly take a bite out of Google’s 92 per cent share of the search market by not making Google the default setting for 1.2bn iPhone users.

There is no segue here, and no indication that Apple is actually working to make such a change. Koenig insinuates it could be beneficial to users, but McGee acknowledges it “would be expensive” because Apple would lose its effort-free multibillion-dollar annual payout from Google.

As an aside: an Apple search engine to rival Google’s has long been rumoured. If it is a web search engine, I have long thought Apple could use the domain it already owns. But it may not have to be web-based — it is plausible that searching the web would display results like a webpage in Safari, but it would only be accessible from within that browser, kind of like the existing Siri Suggestions feature. An idle thought as I write this but, as I said, the article provides no indication that Apple is pursuing this.


The third front in Apple’s battle could prove the most devastating: its ambitions in online advertising, where Alphabet makes more than 80 per cent of its revenues.

This is the “future” part of the thesis. Based on job ads, it appears Apple is working on its own advertising system, as first reported by Shoshana Wodinsky at Marketwatch in August. As I wrote then, it looks bad that Apple is doing this in the wake of App Tracking Transparency, and I question the likely trajectory of this. But this is, again, not something which Apple is doing to distance its platform from Google’s products and services, unless you seriously believe Apple will prohibit Google’s ads on its platforms. So long as Google is what it is to internet ads — by the way, stay tuned on that front — Apple may only hope to be a little thorn in Google’s side.

These three examples appear to fit into categories which seem similar but are very different. Business Connect for Apple Maps is not a competitor to Google Business Profile; any business is going to have to maintain both. There are no concrete details provided about Apple’s search ambitions, but it is the only thing here which would reduce Apple’s dependence on Google. Another advertising platform would give Google some competition and put more money in Apple’s pocket, but it may only slightly reduce how much advertisers rely on Google. It seems to me there are pro-competition examples here and there are anti-anti-competition arguments: the U.S. Department of Justice sued Google in September over its exclusivity agreements.

Anyway, speaking of Apple’s contracts with Google, whatever happened to Project McQueen?

Security researcher Jeffrey Paul was using a Mac without signing into iCloud and has blocked many internet-connected services using Little Snitch in MacOS Ventura 13.1:

Imagine my surprise when browsing these images in the Finder, Little Snitch told me that macOS is now connecting to Apple APIs via a program named mediaanalysisd (Media Analysis Daemon – a background process for analyzing media files).

That sure is surprising. The daemon in question is associated with Visual Look Up, which can be turned off by unchecking Siri Suggestions in System Settings. Given that Paul has done so, mediaanalysisd should not be sending any network requests. This is a privacy violation and surely needs to be fixed.

So Paul has found a MacOS bug, and has a couple of options. He can research it further to understand what information is being sent to Apple and publish a thorough but perhaps dry report. Or he could stop with the Little Snitch notification and spin stories.

Which do you think he did?

It’s very important to contextualize this. In 2021 Apple announced their plan to begin clientside scanning of media files, on device, to detect child pornography (“CSAM”, the term of art used to describe such images), so that devices that end users have paid for can be used to provide police surveillance in direct opposition to the wishes of the owner of the device. CP being, of course, one of the classic Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse trotted out by those engaged in misguided attempts to justify the unjustifiable: violations of our human rights.

I think you can probably see where this is going.


Some weeks later, in an apparent (but not really) capitulation, Apple published the following statement:

Based on feedback from customers, advocacy groups, researchers and others, we have decided to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features.

The media erroneously reported this as Apple reversing course.

Read the statement carefully again, and recognize that at no point did Apple say they reversed course or do not intend to proceed with privacy-violating scanning features. As a point of fact, Apple said they still intend to release the features and that they consider them “critically important”.

That was certainly true of this, the first statement Apple provided in response to the CSAM detection plans in September 2021, which media outlets accurately reported as a “delay” or “pause”. But in claiming the media erred and that Apple intends to continue building the feature, Paul cites a statement provided to Wired in December 2022 which reads:

“After extensive consultation with experts to gather feedback on child protection initiatives we proposed last year, we are deepening our investment in the Communication Safety feature that we first made available in December 2021,” the company told WIRED in a statement. “We have further decided to not move forward with our previously proposed CSAM detection tool for iCloud Photos. Children can be protected without companies combing through personal data, and we will continue working with governments, child advocates, and other companies to help protect young people, preserve their right to privacy, and make the internet a safer place for children and for us all.”

It is fair to report, as Wired and others did, that this constitutes Apple ending development of on-machine CSAM detection for Photos.

Paul does not stop there. He implies Apple has lied about stopping development, and this bug with Quick Look previews in Finder triggering the Visual Look Up process is proof it has quietly launched it in MacOS. That is simply untrue. Howard Oakley reproduced the bug in a virtual machine and saw nothing relevant in the logs and, when Mysk monitored this activity, it found the API request was entirely empty. It is an issue which appeared in MacOS 13.1 and Apple fixed this bug in 13.2, released earlier this month.

But if Paul is going to speculate, he may as well take those conclusions as far as his imagination will go:

Who knows what types of media governments will legally require Apple to scan for in the future? Today it’s CP, tomorrow it’s cartoons of the prophet (PBUH please don’t decapitate me). One thing you can be sure of is that this database of images for which your hardware will now be used to scan will regularly be amended and updated by people who are not you and are not accountable to you.

Nothing about these images was being sent to Apple when this bug was present in MacOS 13.1 despite what Paul suggested throughout this article. A technically savvy security researcher like him could have figured this out instead of rushing to conclusions. But, granted, there is still reason to be skeptical; even if nothing about users’ images have been sent to Apple by this bug, there is no way to know whether the company has some secret database of red flag files. This bug violated users’ trust. The last time something like this happened was with the OCSP fiasco, when Apple promised a way to opt out of Gatekeeper checks by the end of 2021. As of writing, any such option remains unavailable.

However, it is irresponsible of Paul to post such alarmist claims based on a tiny shred of evidence. Yes, mediaanalysisd was making an empty API call despite Siri Suggestions being switched off, and that is not good. But veering into a land of speculation in lieu of missing information is not productive, and neither is misrepresenting what little information has been provided. Paul says “Apple PR exploits poor reading comprehension ability”, yet his own incuriousity has produced a widely shared conspiracy theory that has no basis in fact. If you do not trust Apple’s statements or behaviour, I understand that perspective. I do not think blanket trust is helpful. At the same time, it is unwise to trust alarmist reports like these, either. These are extraordinary claims made without evidence, and they can be dismissed unless proven.

Isabelle Bousquette, Wall Street Journal:

LG Electronics Inc. said that less than half of the smart appliances it has sold stay connected to the internet — a number it is actively working to increase, according to Henry Kim, the U.S. director of ThinQ, an LG platform primarily aimed at helping products leverage advanced technology.

Whirlpool Corp. said that more than half of its smart appliances remain connected, but the company declined to be more specific.

Amid pressure from weaker demand and rising materials costs, internet-connected appliances, including dishwashers and ovens that link to a customer’s home Wi-Fi network, could help manufacturers such as LG and Whirlpool recast what has traditionally been a one-time purchase business model into ongoing relationships with customers.

“Ongoing relationships” is a generous way to phrase what these companies would like to do with your credit card.

Via Charles Arthur, who writes:

I suspect some of those licences wouldn’t survive contact with the GDPR, it’s hard not to feel that this is just companies looking for upselling opportunities.

Bousquette cites leak detection capability, which Maytag apparently rolled out to its internet-connected washing machines. According to Maytag’s App Store listing page, that is not actually a built-in feature, but a way to connect the app to a third-party Wi-Fi connected leak detector from Resideo. Reviewers say Maytag’s smart services cost one dollar per month for which you get poor security practices, slow connectivity, bad VoiceOver compatibility, and frequent bugs. But if you get past all of those things, your washer can send you a notification when your load is finished.

Is there any wonder people are not falling head-over-heels for smart home devices and internet-connected appliances?