Month: April 2023

Normally, I would not link to something for which I have not read the source story. In this case, I will make an exception, as the original is by Wayne Ma of the Information, who has a solid track record. I hope these two summaries are accurate reflections of Ma’s reporting.

Hartley Charlton, MacRumors:

The extensive paywalled report explains why former Apple employees who worked in the company’s AI and machine learning groups believe that a lack of ambition and organizational dysfunction have hindered Siri and the company’s AI technologies. Apple’s virtual assistant is apparently “widely derided” inside the company for its lack of functionality and minimal improvement over time.


Apple executives are said to have dismissed proposals to give Siri the ability to conduct extended back-and-forth conversations, claiming that the feature would be difficult to control and gimmicky. Apple’s uncompromising stance on privacy has also created challenges for enhancing Siri , with the company pushing for more of the virtual assistant’s functions to be performed on-device.

Samuel Axon, Ars Technica:

For example, it reveals that the team that has been working on Apple’s long-in-development mixed reality headset was so frustrated with Siri that it considered developing a completely separate, alternative voice control method for the headset.

But it goes beyond just recounting neutral details; rather, it lays all that information out in a structured case to argue that Apple is ill-prepared to compete in the fast-moving field of AI.

By the sound of that, Ma is making a similar argument as was reported by Brian X. Chen, Nico Grant, and Karen Weise in the New York Times last month. I linked to it noting two things: first, that the headline’s proclamation that Apple has “lost the A.I. race” is premature; second, that the vignette in the lede is factually incorrect. But there was a detail I think is worth mentioning in the context of Siri’s capabilities:

Siri also had a cumbersome design that made it time-consuming to add new features, said [former Apple employee John] Burkey, who was given the job of improving Siri in 2014. Siri’s database contains a gigantic list of words, including the names of musical artists and locations like restaurants, in nearly two dozen languages.

That made it “one big snowball,” he said. If someone wanted to add a word to Siri’s database, he added, “it goes in one big pile.”

This is a claim sourced to a single person, but it would not surprise me if the entire Siri backend really is a simple database of known queries and expected responses. Sources the Times reporters spoke to say this structure cannot be adapted to fit a large language model system and, so, Apple is far behind.

Maybe all that is true. But what I cannot understand is why anyone would think users would want to have a conversation with Siri, when many would probably settle for a version of that basic database association schema working correctly.

Siri is infamously frustrating to use. It has unknowable limits to its capabilities — for example, requesting a scoreboard works for some sports but not others, and asking for a translation is only available between a small number of languages. It, like other voice assistants, assumes a stage-practiced speech cadence, which impairs its usability for those with atypical speech, or queries with pauses or corrections. But the things which bum me out in my own use of Siri are the ways in which it does not seem to be built by the same people who made the phone it runs on.

I know reading a list of bugs is boring, so here are two small examples:

  1. My wife, driving home, texts me while I am making dinner to ask if there is anything she should pick up. I see the notification come in on the Lock Screen, but my hands are dirty, so I say “hey Siri, reply to [her name]”. Instead of the prompt asking “okay, what would you like to say?”, I am instead asked “okay, which one should I use?” with the list of phone numbers from her contact card.

    There are three things wrong with this: my query uses the word “reply”, so it should compose a message to whatever contact method from which she sent the message; for several versions of iOS now, Messages consolidates conversations from the same contact, so Siri’s behaviour should work the same way; and, I am trying to send something to one of my most-messaged contacts, so it feels particularly dumb.

  2. Siri is, as of a recent version of iOS, hardwired to associate music-related commands to Apple Music. It will sometimes ask if the user wants an alternative app. But it also means it does not reliably play music from a local library, and it has no awareness of whether one has turned off cellular data use for Music.

    So if you are driving along, with a local library full of songs, and you ask Siri to play one of them, it will stream it from Apple Music instead; or, if you have cellular data off for Music, it will read out an error message. Meanwhile, the songs are sitting right there, in the library.

Neither of these examples, as far as I can see, should require a humanlike level of deep language understanding. In fact, both of these queries used to work as expected before becoming broken. It seems likely to me the latter was a deliberate change made to promote Apple’s services. In a similar vein, Ma, via Charlton, reports “specific decisions [were made] to exclude information such as iPhone prices from Siri to push users directly to Apple’s website instead”. If true, it is a cynical decision that has no benefit to users. The first problem I listed is simply baffling.

Perhaps these kinds of bugs would be less common if Siri were based on large language models — this is completely outside my field and my inbox is open — but I find that hard to believe. It is not the case that Siri is failing to understand what I am asking it to do. Rather, it is faltering at simple hurdles and functioning as an ad for other Apple services. I would be fine with Siri if it were a database that performed reliably and expectedly, and excited for the possibilities of one fronted by more capable artificial intelligence. What I am, though, is doubtful — doubtful that basic tasks like these will become meaningfully better, instead of a different set of bugs and obstacles I will need to learn.

Ma reports, via Charlton, that some people working on Siri left because there was too much human intervention. I wish it felt anything like that.

StopTheMadness was released five years ago this Sunday. It is one of those Safari extensions that quickly became indispensable for me because it lets me override bad decisions made by some web developer, marketing person, or executive who is not thinking about what is best for users.

In recognition, Jeff Johnson has dropped the price to just $5 until Monday. I think that is a great deal for an extension which, in a perfect world, would not need to exist. Alas, we are not living in that world, and Johnson’s Safari extension makes some of those little daily annoyances go away.

Schuyler Velasco, of Northeastern University’s Global News publication:

Rébecca Kleinberger, an assistant professor at Northeastern; Jennifer Cunha, a parrot behaviorist and Northeastern researcher; and Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas, an assistant professor at the University of Glasgow, showed a group of parrots across a range of species and their volunteer caregivers to use tablets and smartphones how to video-call one another on Facebook Messenger.

The researchers then observed how the birds used that newfound ability over a three-month period. They wondered: If given the choice, would the birds call each other?

The answer, relayed in delighted squawks and head bobs, was a resounding yes. “Some strong social dynamics started appearing,” Kleinberger says.

Maybe the best story you will read this week. There are videos.

One more story to complete the car news trifecta, and it is sort of like a cocktail of the last two stories: a little General Motors idiocy mixed with a dash of CarPlay confusion.

Molly Boigon, Automotive News:

Nearly a decade after most automakers touted smartphone mirroring through CarPlay and Android Auto as a standard feature, many wonder if they surrendered an important part of the car to big tech and are looking to reclaim the vehicle interface before Apple can expand its reach.

The automakers are emulating newcomers such as Tesla and Rivian Automotive, which opted to develop their own advanced interfaces instead of mirroring a smartphone screen. They want to claim an attractive revenue stream — subscriptions to software features sold to drivers directly through the infotainment center.

It is like all the worst trends of the past decade are coming together in the toxic sludge that is the second quoted paragraph. Touch screens in cars replacing common button-based controls? Check. Consumer data harvesting? Oh yeah. Subscriptions? Better believe it.

According to surveys quoted in this article, people do not actually want any of this stuff. Car buyers want CarPlay because it beats the stock infotainment system pretty much always, and requires no fiddly configuration to get music and maps onto the dashboard. But people prefer physical controls for features like climate control and seat operations.

Also, high praise to Boigon for these two sentences later in the story:

GM is designing its new interface using Android Automotive, Google’s open-source software development kit. It is a different product from Android Auto, Google’s automotive phone mirroring software. […]

Truly a story that has everything, including Google’s unintelligible product strategy and naming conventions. I need to lie down.

David Zipper, Slate:

Happily, there is one area where we are making at least marginal progress: A growing number of automakers are backpedaling away from the huge, complex touchscreens that have infested dashboard design over the past 15 years. Buttons and knobs are coming back.


It will be interesting to see how this plays against Apple’s CarPlay plans for this year, which requires a stunning amount of screen space in its prototypical application. If customers are increasingly frustrated by distracting and dangerous touch screens and demand physical controls, perhaps automakers will reject deep CarPlay integration on that basis alone.

Dan Seifert, the Verge:

This [the Chevrolet Bolt] was a brand-new EV for a total cost well under $30,000. There’s literally nothing quite like it on the road, and it’s a shame that GM has decided it no longer has a future.


But Americans don’t like to buy compact hatchbacks (RIP, BMW i3, another small EV that’s no longer available). Other parts of the world already or soon will have their choice of many compact and affordable EVs, including ones made by GM itself. Instead, we’ll get cars and trucks with obscene amounts of horsepower and oversize battery packs that cost more to produce and charge and aren’t practical for the kind of driving most Americans actually do.

First, an obligatory note that a world in which every internal combustion car is replaced with an electric car still incentivizes the same bad city planning behaviours, and that we should encourage building other options wherever possible. I am a cycling commuter and it is actually faster for me than driving. Trains are great, too.

But some people are still going to use cars, at least some of the time. It would be great if there were more choices — not just in price or brand, but in form factor, too. Unfortunately, the Canadian auto market is basically the same as the U.S. one and, so, we end up with a sea of samey SUVs, crossovers, and trucks, all of which are too big to the extent a separate license should be required to drive many of them. They make the roads more dangerous for others, which drives some people to buy a similar-sized vehicle for their own safety perception. It is madness.

Richard Raycraft, CBC News:

After years of debate, the Senate gave its final approval Thursday to Bill C-11, also known as the Online Streaming Act. It received royal assent shortly after.

The bill makes changes to Canada’s Broadcasting Act. The legislation requires streaming services, such as Netflix and Spotify, to pay to support Canadian media content like music and TV shows.

It also requires the platforms to promote Canadian content. Specifically, the bill says “online undertakings shall clearly promote and recommend Canadian programming, in both official languages as well as in Indigenous languages.”

As promising as the bill sounds on first pass for the Canadian arts industry, Ramneet Bhullar explained last year its faulty premise and the risk of its more overly-intrusive regulations.

Michael Geist:

The lengths the government was willing to go to avoid compromise still astonishes me. Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, who has largely avoided publicly addressing the bill ever since he was surprised by tough questions on it from Vassy Kapelos at the Prime Time Conference, spent months denying what was evident to anyone who took the time to read it (including the former chair of the CRTC, independent Senators, experts, and digital creators), namely that user content is subject to potential regulation in Bill C-11. There was no bottom to these false denials: indigenous creators were disrespected, opponents investigated, critics ignored, and debate repeatedly cut off with time allocation motions.

A list of truly unforced blunders, in pursuit of a law which is so over-broad as to be worrisome. Its effects will be watched closely.

Jason Scott:

Datpiff, one of the main sources present and historical for mixtapes, is pivoting in a different direction, and contacted the Archive about hosting a library of pretty much all past releases. I naturally said yes.

Sometimes, websites just say they are going to delete a whole bunch of user data in a matter of weeks, and that really sucks. It is refreshing to hear Datpiff is proactively archiving its massive collection of mixtapes.

Aisyah Llewellyn, Rest of World:

It’s been TikTok’s ambition to boost its vast audience into a moneymaking shopping arm, TikTok Shop, for two years now. That effort is being stymied in the U.S. by concerns of a potential countrywide ban, and had collapsed in the U.K. last year under a cloud of missed targets and management concerns. But TikTok Shop is sweeping across Indonesia, the company’s second-biggest market behind the U.S. — home to an estimated 110 million users, according to consultancy DataReportal.

A counterpoint to my speculation last year that the supposed reinvention of shopping is unlikely to pan out after the failure of Amazon’s Dash buttons, and direct-to-consumer brands opening physical storefronts. There is a caveat, though: Llewellyn says some of these DIY shopping channels are streaming constantly for eighteen hours a day.

Scharon Harding, Ars Technica:

Selling a new smartphone is the hardest it has been in years. Rising device costs, limited differences between model upgrades, and economic and environment-related desires to keep electronics alive as long as possible are making people turn to refurbished phones, data shared this week by analyst Counterpoint found. And if someone is buying a refurbished phone, there’s a good chance it’s an iPhone.

Quite the counterargument to the longstanding narrative that Apple kneecaps older phones to encourage upgrades. The reverse is more true: Apple wants to support users with older models because an increasing part of its revenue picture is services and, as Joanna Stern wrote last month, “[e]ven a refurbished iPhone means a blue bubble”.

Mark Bramhill:

It’s no surprise Apple is looking to double-down on health for AirPods Pro. Features like Adaptive Transparency and Live Listen are amazing — refining these and getting official certification for their health applications is a no-brainer. But I think Apple has an opportunity in front of them, without any regulatory hurdles, to disrupt a whole product category: concert earplugs.

This is a great idea in every way, with the sole exception of the optics of a crowd of people watching their favourite band while apparently listening to something else. That will never not look strange to me.

I was at the supermarket the other day behind someone who had a set of AirPods in while talking with the cashier. I know AirPods have passthrough modes and I am sure this person was using one of them because they appeared to be participating in the conversation just fine. But, still, it looked odd, and more than a little rude.

Perhaps this is all part of a societal shift we will be obliged to make. At some point, it may not just be headphones which create a barrier of potential distraction between people.

In December, Mark Gurman was first to report the possibility of app sideloading coming in iOS 17, in addition to expanding third-party capabilities for other features:

Currently, third-party web browsers, including ones like Chrome from Alphabet Inc.’s Google, are required to use WebKit, Apple’s Safari browsing engine. Under the plan to meet the new law, Apple is considering removing that mandate.

Apple is also working to open up other features to third-party apps, including more camera technologies and its near-field communications chip — at least in a limited fashion. Currently, only the company’s Wallet app and Apple Pay service can use the NFC chip to enable mobile wallet functionality. Apple has faced pressure to let third-party financial apps have the same capability.

Gurman noted these kinds of changes would only be enabled for European users, setting up an intriguing public relations dilemma. In his newsletter last week, Gurman claimed sideloading is still expected for the next version of iOS; Michael Tsai has a good roundup of related commentary.

A question remains about how Apple may restrict sideloading to only European devices. For many past location-gated features, Apple’s guardrails have been flexible. For example, switching an iPhone’s region to “United States” — in Settings, General, Language & Region — is often enough to enable features like Apple News or Apple Pay Cash. It is not possible complete setup of Apple Pay Cash without U.S. payment information, but it is surfaced merely through this Settings change. Sideloading is tempting for some users; it is not beneficial for Apple. It is obviously reluctant to embrace the changes mandated in the European Union, and it appears it is building a more robust way to ensure it is only active where legally required.

Filipe Espósito, 9to5Mac:

Based on our findings, the new system internally called “countryd” was silently added with iOS 16.2, but is not being actively used for anything so far. It combines multiple data such as current GPS location, country code from the Wi-Fi router, and information obtained from the SIM card to determine the country the user is in.

With all this information combined, it will become harder for users to bypass these restrictions, but at the same time easier for the device to automatically ignore them when you travel to another region. Code seen by 9to5Mac makes it clear that this system is designed to set restrictions determined by government regulators.

If this is effective at preventing non-European users from peering over the garden walls, it seems possible it could more aggressively enforce other geographically gated features. For example, FaceTime is banned in the United Arab Emirates, but changing the device region is a well-known workaround. It is also plausible to me that Apple would only use this new system for E.U.-specific changes. I expect we will find out in a few weeks.

Update: After thinking about this more, I am increasingly worried Apple’s development of the countryd system will compel it to rigorously adhere to the demands of more controlling regimes. If it is as described, all the location-gated features and restrictions which may currently be bypassed by changing the device’s region will be scrutinized by governments which made those demands.

Global Encryption Coalition:

Among the troubling strategies of those who are threatening the right to privacy, whatever their stated motives, overtly shaping public opinion against encryption is once again rearing its head. Recent media reports state that senior government officials in the US and EU agreed to cooperate on measures to shape public opinion with the goal of legitimising the demands of law enforcement agencies to access encrypted communications. […]

The “reports” link is, unfortunately, a paywalled Politico Pro article, but European Digital Rights published an article concurrent with the GEC’s and summarized the issue so:

The leak meeting report between EU-US Senior Officials on Justice and Home Affairs from March 2023, reveals transatlantic plans to influence public opinion around ‘law enforcement’s legitimacy to investigate’ encrypted communications and on ‘the need to mirror privacy by design with lawful access by design’. This is an unacceptable clear intention to undermine end-to-end encryption, privacy and confidentiality of communication, which are essential for democratic digital societies.

Matthew Green:

Many folks in law enforcement and politics seem genuinely confused about the popularity of end-to-end encrypted messaging, like we all just decided to become anarchists or something. That’s not at all the dynamic we’re seeing here. The entire basis of our communications infrastructure shifted in a direction that’s inimical to privacy; encryption is the obvious solution.

It is hard to shake the feeling that law enforcement and intelligence agencies had a brief window into a world where they could endlessly mine the permanent records we are inadvertently creating about all that we do, and they long for that ease again. Now, we have devices which are encrypted and communications which are protected end-to-end. But we must not forget how everything used to be analogue; much of it was ephemeral, and anything written down could be destroyed by burning it.

Alex Kleber:

In the last 30 days, I have been closely monitoring the Mac App Store and have made a disturbing discovery. In the midst of the OpenAI frenzy, several apps have surfaced that are copying the iconic OpenAI logo and color scheme in order to mislead unsuspecting MacOS App Store users. But that’s not all — I also found that some developers are abusing Apple’s Developer Agreements by spamming multiple accounts and flooding the store with nearly identical applications. […]

Kleber notes these apps are paywalled with “no close button”. That is not quite true: in very small text, the developer offers the option to “Continue with free plan”, but it is highly misleading. This should be the sort of thing Apple polices against in the App Store. These apps ride a rising tide of interest in a specific product, they offer in-app purchases, and they appear to be duplicative.

These apps are all still available in the Mac App Store, by the way, and this is not the first time fake ChatGPT apps have climbed the charts. In fact, upon opening the App Store on my iPhone, the first thing I saw was an ad on the search page for an app which looks, at first glance, like an official OpenAI app — same colours, similar logo, and a description with a conspicuous use of the word “Open”. As of writing, it is the ninth most popular app in the Productivity category — and, yes, of course it offers paid subscriptions.

Ina Fried, Axios:

Ex-Apple employee Imran Chaudhri gave TED attendees on Thursday an early glimpse of the AI-powered wearable that his startup, Humane, has been developing.

The screenless device, which does not require a nearby cell phone to work, uses a combination of voice and gestures for input and can display information by projecting it onto nearby objects.

Fried embeds a photo from Twitter of the device in action, and Ray Wong posted a video of the phone call demo in action. A free copy of the TED Talk should be posted online in the coming days, but it appears to be available now for those of you who have a spare $150 burning a hole in your pocket. My curiosity is piqued.

Update: Wong has been updating his report about the demo at Inverse:

Another function according to [Zarif] Ali: “a camera-enabled dietary feature that lets you check if you can eat a certain food based on your dietary restrictions.”

[Michael] Mofina told Inverse that in another demo, the wearable “gave [Chaudhri] a specific answer about going shopping in a nearby district.” Such a feature would be useful while traveling.

Almost like it is augmenting reality, to borrow a term.

On its blog, WhatApp published an open letter co-signed by representatives of Signal, Wire, and other messaging apps which support end-to-end encryption:

The UK government is currently considering new legislation that opens the door to trying to force technology companies to break end-to-end encryption on private messaging services. The law could give an unelected official the power to weaken the privacy of billions of people around the world.

We don’t think any company, government or person should have the power to read your personal messages and we’ll continue to defend encryption technology. We’re proud to stand with other technology companies in our industry pushing back against the misguided parts of this law that would make people in the UK and around the world less safe.

Shiona McCallum and Chris Vallance, BBC News:

Mr Cathcart has told BBC News WhatsApp would rather be blocked in the UK than weaken the privacy of encrypted messaging.

Ms Whittaker has said the same – Signal “would absolutely, 100% walk” should encryption be undermined.

And Swiss-based app Threema has told BBC News weakening its security “in any way, shape, or form” is “completely out of the question”.

Paige Collings and Joe Mullin, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

If it passes, the censorious, anti-encryption Online Safety Bill won’t just affect the UK — it will be a blueprint for repression around the world. The UK promoters of this bill talk about the worst content online, like pro-terrorism posts and child abuse material. But the surveillance won’t end there. Companies will be pushed to monitor wider categories of content, and to share information about users between jurisdictions. Journalists and human rights workers will become targets.

It has been said before but it bears repeating: there is no method for a hole in encryption through which only authorized people are able to peek. Whether they admit it or not, U.K. lawmakers have a record of opposing encryption and have repeatedly shown their intention to ban it.

Ben Smith, Semafor:

My old boss and partner Jonah Peretti announced today that he’s shutting down BuzzFeed News, which we built together starting in 2012.


Peretti created BuzzFeed in 2006 while he was working at Huffington Post, as it was then called, which he co-founded. In 2020, BuzzFeed — shaky but still apparently ascendant —acquired HuffPost off the hands of its latest owner, Verizon. (As I recall, they basically paid BuzzFeed to take it off their hands.)

Make no mistake: this is a significant loss. Defying its laughingstock initial reception, Buzzfeed’s news division began breaking one important story after another. From allegations against R. Kelly and Kevin Spacey, to the U.S. government’s failure to correctly account for deaths in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, to bizarre inner-workings of investor-state dispute settlement — for which it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist — to the FinCEN Files, its reporters have broken important stories for years. I will miss it.

By the way, I got many of the above links from the membership page for Buzzfeed News which, as of writing, is still live and accepting subscription purchases.

In a memo to staff, Peretti blames his own failure to adapt to a series of rapid and significant changes as the SPAC bubble burst. This news comes after repeated layoffs and cost-cutting measures. Even so, Peretti is not resigning.

Citizen Lab found three new ways in which NSO Group is able to get its Pegasus spyware onto devices running iOS 15 and iOS 16. That is the bad news. The good news is that Lockdown Mode, introduced with iOS 16, appears to prevent those exploit chains from working:

Apple’s Lockdown Mode feature makes signs of an attempted PWNYOURHOME attack visible to the phone’s user by displaying notifications (Figure 4). We have seen no recent notifications on Lockdown Mode, nor have we seen any evidence of successful PWNYOURHOME compromise on Lockdown Mode. Given that we have seen no indications that NSO has stopped deploying PWNYOURHOME, this suggests that NSO may have figured out a way to correct the notification issue, such as by fingerprinting Lockdown Mode.

Lockdown Mode adds many restrictions which would make a device much more cumbersome for regular users. But for high-risk users and likely targets, it should be considered essential.

Cory Doctorow:

This is enshittification: surpluses are first directed to users; then, once they’re locked in, surpluses go to suppliers; then once they’re locked in, the surplus is handed to shareholders and the platform becomes a useless pile of shit. From mobile app stores to Steam, from Facebook to Twitter, this is the enshittification lifecycle.


An enshittification strategy only succeeds if it is pursued in measured amounts. Even the most locked-in user eventually reaches a breaking-point and walks away, or gets pushed. […]

This essay has been enthusiastically passed around since it was published earlier this year, but I keep forgetting to put it into the syllabus I call a website. It is true of online platforms, software-as-a-service providers, operating systems, and services. You may quibble with individual aspects of Doctorow’s argument — tech company layoffs, for example, are probably less a result of their self-preferencing strategies and more likely because the company overbuilt itself by assuming the trend line of the pandemic would remain at a similar rate. There is little denying its compelling underlying premise, however.