Month: May 2023

It has already been a busy year for Apple, and the company has not yet held a single presentation. Just two weeks into the new year, it launched new Macs and a refreshed HomePod, followed by some services updates, and new iPad software. All of those things — and more — were launched via press release instead of the full power of a real demo. They are all things which do not require much of a demo.

What Apple is rumoured to have in store for WWDC, however, demands the pomp and circumstance of one of its signature events.

The rumour mill paints a picture of a headset in the company style. The hardware is allegedly a technical masterstroke.1 But none of that is very interesting, nor does it tell the story of this product. Apple has not tried to quell the rumours and expectations leading up to Monday; on the contrary, it is marketing the conference as a “new era”. The single thing everyone will be asking going into this WWDC is what a mixed reality headset can do when it is developed by a company famously obsessed with the bigger picture.

Earlier entries in the field have come from the usual suspects, with familiar results. Google’s Glass was an interesting but antisocial experiment. Microsoft spent most of 2022 attempting to convince HoloLens users of the future of the device, but announced layoffs in January which affected its augmented and mixed-reality pursuits. Meta is as enthusiastic about these kinds of products as it is institutionally visionless.

The one thing these products have had in common is their lack of a use case that piques the interest of more than a niche audience. Make no mistake: this will disappoint anyone expecting a product which immediately and obviously usurps the iPhone’s place as the go-to, do-anything device for a billion people. I do not think it will feel as capable as a Mac, either, nor do I think it will be as limiting as an Apple Watch.

What it will be, undeniably, is fascinating. It could very well represent a vision of the future of how we all use computers, though it may not be immediately so at its introduction. But even if you lower the massive expectations for this product, it is at the very least a new Apple product category, which is inherently interesting. It may not be a company making just four Macs, but its product line still is not very large. Another category appearing in the main navigation on Apple’s website is a big deal.

Whatever it is, it will also likely represent the kind of product which few of us will buy immediately, even if we want to. If the rumours are correct, the price tag will make our eyes pop, the features will feel somewhat limited, and the hardware — while powerful and polished — will be obviously compromised. While many of us are waiting for a day many years from now when this category feels more attainable, we will be using our existing devices — two billion of them. If much of Apple’s own attention has been directed at the future, what does that mean for its here-and-now lineup?

This is an honest question, not just a rhetorical one. As Apple’s operating system line has grown from one to at least five — more if you count the HomePod’s audioOS and BridgeOS for Macs with T-series chips — the limitations of scale have begun to show. New versions of iPadOS oscillate between key feature updates to fundamental parts of the system, like multitasking, one year, and tepid improvements the next. iOS is a mature platform and, so, it makes sense for there to be fewer core feature updates, but one wishes the slower development cycle would bring increased stability and refinement; actual results have been mixed. MacOS is the system which feels like it ought to be the closest to some imagined finish line, but it also seems like it is decaying in its most core qualities — I am having problems with windows losing foregrounding or not becoming focused when they should. Also, why are Notifications still like that?

Whatever the future may bring, what I hope for this WWDC is what I hope for every year: bug fixes and performance improvements. If iPadOS represents one vision for the future of computing and xrOS is another, more distant one, the most mature products in Apple’s line should reflect a level of solidity and reliability not yet possible for its more ambitious ideas.

I believe coverage of its event should reflect that, too. As magnetic as an entirely new Apple product may be, I hope that can be balanced with scrutiny of the updates which affect the billions of devices already in use. After all, these operating systems and devices go hand-in-hand; neither is available without the other. That represents a great deal of trust between vendor and customer in a weakly competitive market. As excited as I am for what is new and what is next, I know my world for the foreseeable future will be tied to what is announced for the products I already own. They are the tools I use for work and play. I need to have confidence in them, which has been dimmed by Apple’s mediocre record for changes. I filed an average of something like three bug reports every week last year solely from a user-facing perspective. I would love to be able to close some of those and, by doing so, feel like the computers I use today are a solid foundation on which the next generation of digital environments will be built.

  1. Like some kind of reality distortion field. ↥︎

Sapna Maheshwari and Ryan Mac, New York Times:

[…] According to the documents obtained by The Times, the driver’s licenses of American users were also accessible on the platform [ByteDance’s Lark], as were some users’ potentially illegal content, such as child sexual abuse materials. In many cases, the information was available in Lark “groups” — essentially chat rooms of employees — with thousands of members.


TikTok has played down the access that its China-based workers have to U.S. user data. In a congressional hearing in March, TikTok’s chief executive, Shou Chew, said that such data was mainly used by engineers in China for “business purposes” and that the company had “rigorous data access protocols” for protecting users. He said much of the user information available to engineers was already public.

The internal reports and communications from Lark appear to contradict Mr. Chew’s statements. Lark data from TikTok was also stored on servers in China as of late last year, the four current and former employees said.

Alexandra S. Levine, Forbes:

TikTok uses various internal tools and databases from its Beijing-based parent ByteDance to manage payments to creators who earn money through the app, including many of its biggest stars in the United States and Europe. The same tools are used to pay outside vendors and small businesses working with TikTok. But a trove of records obtained by Forbes from multiple sources across different parts of the company reveals that highly sensitive financial and personal information about those prized users and third parties has been stored in China. The discovery also raises questions about whether employees who are not authorized to access that data have been able to. It draws on internal communications, audio recordings, videos, screenshots, documents marked “Privileged and Confidential,” and several people familiar with the matter.

In testimony before Congress earlier this year, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew claimed U.S. user data has been stored on physical servers outside China. “American data has always been stored in Virginia and Singapore in the past, and access of this is on an as-required basis by our engineers globally,” he said under oath at a House hearing in March.


“Even if TikTok was not a subsidiary of a Chinese company, this would be pretty alarming IT security malpractice,” Bryan Cunningham, a former national security lawyer for the White House and CIA, told Forbes. He described tax records as some of the most sensitive data there is.

Add these to the long list of things being investigated by European regulators since September 2021, especially as it now falls under its list of Very Large Online Platforms. If there are concerns about Europeans’ private data being intercepted by U.S. intelligence agencies, a similar level of worry should apply in this case as well.

Andy Maxwell, writing at TorrentFreak in March:

After almost 17 years online, file-hosting veteran Zippyshare will shut down at the end of the month. Founded in 2006, Zippyshare was known for its free, no-nonsense, no-frills approach to storing files online. Having changed very little over the years, Zippyshare’s operators say the platform is now a dinosaur that costs too much to run in a world where ad-blocking is widespread.

I missed this news when it was announced, but I wanted to call it out. Zippyshare joins a long line of file hosting services — most notably Megaupload and RapidShare — which have either shut down willingly or been forced to do so by law enforcement. All of these services have been historically used by, among others, plenty of old-school music blogs. There are many reasons to object to file sharing, but I do think there is something special about that era of online publishing.

These abandoned blogs — many full of rare albums usually unavailable without carefully watching the Discogs marketplace for an expensive vinyl record — now have a series of worthless links at the bottom of each post. It somehow feels appropriate, as though these records will always elude all but the most dedicated collector.

Thomas Brewster, Forbes, 2021:

Paragon Solutions doesn’t have a website. There’s very little information at all about them online, even if the Tel Aviv-based smartphone surveillance startup’s employees are all over LinkedIn, more than 50 of them. That’s not a bad headcount for a company that’s still in stealth mode.


With an American backer, it appears Paragon is going to try and crack American law enforcement agencies where others like NSO have failed. According to a LinkedIn profile, a 30-year veteran of Israeli intelligence, Menachem Pakman, has been employed to help find business in the U.S. There’s no indication that they have clients across the Atlantic yet, however.

Mehul Srivastava and Kaye Wiggins, Financial Times:

The Israeli start-up had watched local rival NSO Group, makers of the controversial Pegasus spyware, fall foul of the Biden administration and be blacklisted in the US. So Paragon sought guidance from top American advisers, secured funding from US venture capital groups and eventually scored a marquee client that eludes its competition: the US government.


President Joe Biden signed an executive order in March barring any US agency from purchasing spyware that “poses risks to national security or has been misused by foreign actors to enable human rights abuses around the world.”

The wording of the executive order is seen by experts as targeting NSO, while carving out a space for companies like Paragon to continue selling similar spyware, but only to the closest of US allies. The American expectation — still unproven — is that friendly nations are less likely to abuse such a weapon on civil society, or to spy on US government officials deployed abroad.

According to a New York Times report last month, the U.S. government is very much a client of NSO Group. It seems the Biden administration’s policies are neither motivated by a moral objection to an unregulated spyware market, nor heeded by U.S. officials, making Paragon’s more cautious on-side approach look a little unnecessary. These are scuzzy companies no matter how careful their public relations teams frame them.

Hundreds of experts in artificial intelligence — including several executives and developers in the field — issued a brief and worrying statement via the Center for AI Safety:

Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.

The Center calls out Meta by name for not signing onto the letter; Elon Musk also did not endorse it.

OpenAI’s Sam Altman was among the hundreds of signatories after feigning an absolute rejection of regulations which he and his peers did not have a role in writing. Perhaps that is an overly cynical take, but it is hard to read this statement with the gravity it suggests.

Martin Peers, the Information:

Perhaps instead of issuing a single-sentence statement meant to freak everyone out, AI scientists should use their considerable skills to figure out a solution to the problem they have wrought.

I believe the researchers, academics, and ethicists are earnest in their endorsement of this statement. I do not believe the corporate executives who simultaneously claim artificial intelligence is a threat to civilization itself while rapidly deploying their latest developments in the field. Their obvious hypocrisy makes it hard to take them seriously.

One week before WWDC is scheduled to begin, during which Apple is widely expected to introduce its take on a mixed-reality headset, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman spent some time with a prototype of Meta’s Quest 3 headset, and it is a bizarre article.

Begin, naturally, with the title, which now reads “A First Look at the Headset That Could Be Apple’s Biggest Competition”. That appears to have been changed. If early tweets, the page title, and the metadata in this archived version are anything to go by, it originally ran under the headline “Meta Quest 3 Real Life Hands-On: How It Compares to Apple Mixed-Reality Headset”. That is what I remember reading yesterday when it dropped into my inbox, and I had to wonder how Gurman would compare a prototype product to one which does not yet exist.

Then there is the story of how Gurman got a hands-on with a product which Meta has not yet announced. Presumably, it was a demo arranged by Meta in an attempt to anchor reporting of a forthcoming announcement from Apple. But Gurman does not say, and there is the possibility this is an unsanctioned demo from someone who is working on the device or, perhaps, a third-party developer. Such details would help the reader form a clearer understanding about the intention of this article — how much of it is Gurman trying to provide context, and how much is Meta attempting to sway coverage?

The story itself seems fine if highly speculative. It is a hands-on experience with a prototype, which may or may not be representative of the product Meta announces or ships. If Meta is responsible for arranging this demo, it is a clever way of getting people thinking about what the company could announce later this year — at least until Monday.

TimeGuessr is a fun game that, as you might expect, plays a lot like GeoGuessr except it involves still photography. The object is to guess where the photo was taken on a map and when, on a timeline from 1900–2023. Also notable, to me, is the use of Apple’s MapKit JS instead of the Google Maps or OpenStreetMap embed you might expect.

Via this week’s Web Curios.

Mike Scarcella, Reuters:

A U.S. judge on Thursday approved Apple Inc’s $50 million class-action settlement resolving consumer claims over certain defective MacBook keyboards, in a ruling that spurned challenges to the deal.


The plaintiffs’ lawyers announced the deal a year ago. Apple denied any wrongdoing.

Class members will receive $50 up to $395 based on the number and nature of repairs made to a keyboard.

More than 86,000 claims for class member payments were submitted as of early March, Davila’s order showed.

$15 million of that settlement will be paid to the lawyers representing the eleven lead plaintiffs.

I am still irritated this lawsuit was settled before substantive information was publicly disclosed. Perhaps the similar Canadian class action will help explain how these keyboards were developed and then stayed on the market for so long.

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

[…] Last year, the US and the EU announced yet another deal on transatlantic data flows. And, as we noted at the time (once again!) the lack of any changes to NSA surveillance meant it seemed unlikely to survive yet again.

In the midst of all this, Schrems also went after Meta directly, claiming that because these US/EU data transfer agreements were bogus, that Meta had violated data protection laws in transferring EU user data to US servers.

And that’s what this fine is about. The European Data Protection Board fined Meta all this money based on the fact that it transferred some EU user data to US servers. And, because, in theory, the NSA could then access the data. That’s basically it. The real culprit here is the US being unwilling to curb the NSA’s ability to demand data from US companies.

As noted, and something which aligns with other examples of GDPR violations.

There is one aspect of Masnick’s analysis which I dispute:

Of course, the end result of all this could actually be hugely problematic for privacy around the globe. That might sound counterintuitive, seeing as here is Meta being dinged for a data protection failure. But, when you realize what the ruling is actually saying, it’s a de facto data localization mandate.

And data localization is the tool most frequently used by authoritarian regimes to force foreign internet companies (i.e., US internet companies) to host user data within their own borders where the authoritarian government can snoop through it freely. Over the years, we’ve seen lots of countries do this, from Russia to Turkey to India to Vietnam.

Just because data localization is something used by authoritarian governments does not mean it is an inherently bad idea. Authoritarian governments are going to do authoritarian government things — like picking through private data — but that does not mean people who reside elsewhere would face similar concerns.

While housing user data in the U.S. may offer protection for citizens, it compromises the privacy and security of others. Consider that non-U.S. data held on U.S. servers lacks the protections ostensibly placed on U.S. users’ information, meaning U.S. intelligence agencies are able to pick through it with little oversight. (That is, after all, the E.U.’s argument in its charges against Meta.) Plenty of free democracies also have data localization laws for at least some personal information without a problem. For example, while international agreements prevent the Canadian government from requiring data residency as a condition for businesses, privacy regulations require some types of information to be kept locally, while other types must have the same protections as Canadian-hosted data if stored elsewhere.

It has been a while since I checked into the cryptocurrency and alternative financial instruments space, mostly because it has been a while since I wanted to read anything about the pump-and-dump schemes of NFTs and gambling of real money on bits of fictional and untethered value.

Ed Zitron:

Cryptocurrency has become a monument to the absolute worst and most exploitative systems of the internet, where hucksters con rubes into joining get-rich-quick schemes using decades-old internet memes, only to be sued by a law firm representing the corporate entities that exist solely to protect their copyrights.


Their whining about the SEC “regulating by enforcement” — as in regulating by enforcing the law — is just a tacit admission that they knew they were on the wrong side of history, and had simply decided that they were special snowflakes that deserved even more special treatment. 

These people don’t deserve your pity. They deserve your disgust, and in a just world would have their unimaginable riches torn from them as a punishment for leading so many regular customers into the loser’s casino of crypto.

Same as it ever was.

Signal CEO Meredith Whittaker, in the Telegraph:

During my two decades in tech I’ve seen governments manufacture public outrage to serve their desire for control more times than I can count. There’s a predictable pattern that starts with a complex social problem receiving widespread attention. Everyone acknowledges the gravity of the issue. There is a rush to “do something”.

But “something” too often involves magical thinking and specious “solutions”. Frequently, technology is painted as both cause and solution. Problems are presented as existing “online” and thus their solution is framed as technological. This almost always involves some combination of expanding surveillance and curbing the fundamental human right to privacy and free expression.

Technology is not neutral, and I do not think Whittaker is implying that to be so. These opening paragraphs are a worthwhile reminder of understanding the nature of the problem in attempting to solve it. There is more to blame than end-to-end encryption for the problems it may exacerbate, and there are solutions which do not require making everybody less safe nor setting a horrible precedent.

Lily Hay Newman, Morgan Meaker, and Matt Burgess, of Wired, acquired an official survey (PDF) of the views held by E.U. countries’ governments about end-to-end encryption:

For years, EU states have debated whether end-to-end encrypted communication platforms, such as WhatsApp and Signal, should be protected as a way for Europeans to exercise a fundamental right to privacy—or weakened to keep criminals from being able to communicate outside the reach of law enforcement. Experts who reviewed the document at WIRED’s request say it provides important insight into which EU countries plan to support a proposal that threatens to reshape encryption and the future of online privacy.

Of the 20 EU countries represented in the document leaked to WIRED, the majority said they are in favor of some form of scanning of encrypted messages, with Spain’s position emerging as the most extreme. “Ideally, in our view, it would be desirable to legislatively prevent EU-based service providers from implementing end-to-end encryption,” Spanish representatives said in the document.

Most of these governments — save for Estonia, Finland, and Germany — are in alignment with American and British authorities in their wish to weaken privacy and security.

This is the latest evidence in this shared, albeit largely independent, project. I have not gone all conspiracy theorist on you, I promise. Governments and law enforcement the world over hate end-to-end encryption and are working to undermine it, both with technical means and in the public mindset. The unique horror of CSAM is an understandable vehicle for messaging that compromising encryption is the correct position, and those who oppose these goals must have something to hide. But supporting strong privacy and security is not a radical position in an era of communications which are permanent, centralized, and outside our control.

The European Data Protection Board:

Following the EDPB’s binding dispute resolution decision of 13 April 2023, Meta Platforms Ireland Limited (Meta IE) was issued a 1.2 billion euro fine following an inquiry into its Facebook service, by the Irish Data Protection Authority (IE DPA). This fine, which is the largest GDPR fine ever, was imposed for Meta’s transfers of personal data to the U.S. on the basis of standard contractual clauses (SCCs) since 16 July 2020. Furthermore, Meta has been ordered to bring its data transfers into compliance with the GDPR.

Meta’s Nick Clegg and Jennifer Newstead:

Today, the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) has set out its findings into Meta’s use of this common legal instrument to transfer Facebook user data between the EU and the US. Despite acknowledging we had acted in good faith and that a fine was unjustified, the DPC was overruled at the last minute by the European Data Protection Board (EDPB). We are appealing these decisions and will immediately seek a stay with the courts who can pause the implementation deadlines, given the harm that these orders would cause, including to the millions of people who use Facebook every day.

Natasha Lomas, TechCrunch:

As noted above, with today’s decision, the DPC [Irish Data Protection Commission] is actually implementing a binding decision taken by the EDPB [European Data Protection Board] last month in order to settle ongoing disagreement over Ireland’s draft decision — so much of the substance of what’s being ordered on Meta today comes, not from Dublin, but from the bloc’s supervisor body for privacy regulators.

This apparently includes the existence of a financial penalty at all — since the Board notes it instructed the DPC to amend its draft to include a penalty, […]

A report earier this month from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties found the DPC frequently negotiates decisions on a case-by-case basis, which leads to enforcement which is both unclear and not sufficiently dissuasive. Ireland is, of course, where many U.S. tech companies locate their international headquarters for tax avoidance purposes — as Dr. Johnny Ryan noted (PDF) in that report, those businesses include Airbnb, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Tinder, Twitter, and Yahoo, in addition to Meta.

As Lomas writes, European authorities have become increasingly worried about data transfers between the E.U. and the U.S., and has been treating the possibility of interception and espionage as a GDPR violation. Meta seems to be right in pleading scapegoat for a technique used by plenty of other businesses. However, few can claim the scope and scale of Meta’s violations, and especially its frequency. Companies owned by Meta represent seven of the ten greatest penalties issued under GDPR rules. Maybe Meta just sucks at privacy protections.

Jason Snell, Six Colors:

[…] Neil Jhaveri, who previously worked on the engineering team for Apple Mail itself, founded a company to build a new email app: Mimestream. After a few years in open beta development, on Monday Mimestream 1.0 was officially released.

If you don’t use Gmail as your mail service or need to use the same app across Mac and iOS, Mimestream isn’t for you—yet. I asked Jhaveri what he meant when he said the company will be “turning its attention a bit broader” in the future, and he told me that while the company needed to focus in order to launch a compelling new app, “our mission is to just be the best general-purpose prosumer email client on the market.” That will take time, and the next step is probably an iOS version.

Neil Jhaveri:

Today’s launch culminates a public beta of over 2 years, with more than 167,000 users joining the beta. During this time, we released 220+ updates, made 2500+ improvements, added 100+ new features, and grew the company from a solo founder to a team of 5. Mimestream is mature, reliable, ready to take on your most serious email workloads, and will continue improving.

I cannot remember how early into the public beta cycle I started using Mimesteam, but I do remember being completely sold on it very quickly. It has been a key reason I have stuck with Google’s email service, and I was only too happy to pay Jhaveri as soon as it was possible to do so in February.

Unlike a lot of email clients which have been released in recent years, Mimestream does not really have any gimmicks to help you manage your email better or read it faster. I consider that a good thing because it means Mimestream is fully compatible with other clients on other platforms. That is important as it is Mac-only right now.

I cannot overstate how great, how polished, and how nice Mimestream feels to use. It is damn good Mac-assed software, and is my favourite mail client for MacOS.

Pixelmator recently announced a new version of its photo editing software, now called Photomator and available for MacOS:

Today’s a big day! Our team has just released Photomator for Mac. From state-of-the-art color adjustments to intelligent AI tools, powerful Repair and Clone tools, and batch editing, Photomator for Mac is a photo editing powerhouse. Built from the ground up for macOS, it runs incredibly smoothly and fast, redefining the photo editing experience on Mac.

It has been a while since I took this app for a spin, and I figured it was time to experiment with it.

As is so often the case, some of these tools did not work as well for me as are shown in demos. For example, the Repair tool is shown to fully remove a foreground silhouette covering about a quarter of the image area. On one image, I was able to easily and seamlessly remove a sign and some bollards from the side of the road. But, in another, the edge of a parked car was always patched with grass instead of the sidewalk and kerb edge. I also found the machine learning-powered cropping tool produced lacklustre results, and the automatic straightening feature only worked well about a quarter of the time.

But, as these are merely suggestions, it makes for an effectively no-lose situation: if the automatic repair or cropping works perfectly, it means less work; if neither are effective, you have wasted only a few seconds before proceeding manually.

The Photos integration is fantastic. If you have ever used a mixed Lightroom and iCloud Photos environment, the simplified workflow is a dream come true. Photomator is also a damn good RAW photo editor. While Photos has some editing tools built in, they are cumbersome for experienced users — there are three modes for white balance editing in Photos, but you cannot select Temperature/Tint as the default, for example. Photomator feels like it has been designed by people who edit photos for people who edit photos. The layering and masking tools are excellent, and the built-in presets are a good starting point, if a little extreme.

The free trial is a full-featured version of the app, but you can only save three photos. It is a great way to give the app a try for your needs. It is priced monthly, with a yearly subscription, or for life. For some people, I could see Photomator being a replacement for Lightroom.

Rebecca Sloan of Lux:

Today we’re excited to launch a new little app: Skylight Forecast. Skylight is an iPhone app that predicts your evening light. With the help of dozens of atmospheric factors and some of our own intelligent prediction technology, Skylight makes a daily forecast of the golden hour, sunset and afterglow — to tell you whether you can expect a spectacular sunset, an average glow, or barely anything at all.

Lux launched this app last week and I have been using it since, with impeccably poor timing: Calgary has been immersed in smoke ever since. Not ideal photography conditions, to be sure.

Nevertheless, I have tried to use it for much of the past week, but have been disappointed. While this is a challenging environment, I have to wonder why Skylight’s forecast is not reflecting that. Instead of telling me golden hour and the sunset will be good to great, I wish it was more accurate to the sad and grey conditions. I emailed Lux to ask about this but, as of writing, have not heard back.

Also, I wish there were a morning forecast for sunrise and early golden hour, especially since it seems to be clearer when I wake up than in the evenings.

There is good news. The app is beautiful, and the widgets are simple and easy to understand. It is privacy sensitive. And, while there is an subscription cost, its forecasting premise makes sense as it needs ongoing access to weather data.

There is a free week-long trial, so I recommend playing around with it. If your forecast is more accurate than mine has been, I could see why someone would use this regularly — especially professional photographers and filmmakers. For me, it has been a mixed bag, and I will have to try it again when it is less smoky for a clearer picture.

Michael Steeber:

Today, Apple revealed its most comprehensive redesign of the Apple Store experience in nearly a decade. The Genius Bar is returning with a reimagined design. There’s an all-new space for more immersive product discovery. Store accessibility has been improved, and new design elements emphasize sustainability. It was 22 years ago at Tysons Corner that Steve Jobs showed the world how to “Shop Different.” Now Apple is back in the mall where it all began to start a new chapter.

Seven years ago, Apple debuted a series of changes to its retail branding in an effort to turn them into destinations. It replaced Genius Bars with Genius Groves, and even reduced the prominence of the word “store”. But this era of changes has not translated well to Apple’s mall locations. Where would you go for help in this store? Compared to the older design, the newer stores are more confusing. The changes shown by Steeber are a welcome course correction.

I have questions about how long all that wood panelling will continue looking good, though.

The biggest story in tech for the past fifteen years has been the convergence of a bag full of stuff into a single, pocket-sized, take-everywhere product. From its beginnings on the hips of Wall Street types, it rapidly became the best-selling piece of consumer electronics ever — and it is not even a close race.

I mean, of course it is a success without equal. Many of us can leave our houses with scarcely more than our phone and a set of keys, and the latter is becoming optional, too.

But its Jack-of-all-trades status of course implies it is a master of none. And, as great as a smartphone is, there are still things which other devices do better. That argument was the premise for the introduction of the iPad. It is the reason why I drafted the first notes for this on my phone, but I am currently writing it on a laptop. A smartphone is by no means the best camera you can buy, for example, so it is not uncommon to see people carrying a dedicated camera even if they own a smartphone. I am one of those people.

What if there are other categories for which most people currently find a smartphone useful, but which a dedicated device could do a better job? What if the big story in tech for the next fifteen years — aside from the rise of A.I. — is an undoing of this great convergence, at least in part?

This is not entirely speculative; or, at least, not any more so than the future of tech is in general. The device Humane previewed at TED earlier this year is approximately a standalone version of Siri, for example. Whether it will be a success is a good question, and I have doubts. But some people clearly believe someone would buy one of these things for use in addition to a smartphone, if not to replace one entirely for some people.

So, this is an article of mostly guesswork. I have no confidence in this; let us not even call them “predictions”. But there seems to be something worth exploring here and, since this website has no market swaying powers, I feel totally fine with spending a few hundred words thinking more deeply about this.

Back to Humane. Its product looks like an unbundled and perhaps better personal assistant. Smart speakers are already one example of a device extricated from the confines of the smartphone world, and Humane’s product is effectively one which you can wear, having seemingly similar benefits and restrictions. You cannot watch a movie on one, but you can ask it for nearby recommendations or to translate something. It is a peek at a world seamlessly augmented by high technology.

That future is something which is apparently in the works at every giant computer company. Microsoft released a video in 2008 — you can tell it was 2008 because everything is typeset in Gotham — predicting magic translation glasses by the year 2040. Google actually released augmented reality glasses in 2012 without success. Scaled-back attempts at similar devices have been released by Snap and Meta. The latter is also reportedly working on a more capable product to the point it staked its very identity on its ability to deliver. Apple might be working on some kind of augmented reality glasses as well.

The devices we have today already allow us a taste of an augmented reality experience. It works fine, I suppose. I have used it to place furniture in my living room and try on eyeglasses. I have also used it to plunk a giant skeleton inside my house.

The devices which have been released after the smartphone seem more specialized than ever. Perhaps that is in part because nearly anything looks more specialized than a smartphone, but there are also whole categories of seemingly niche products. Headphones were barely thought of as a device before the craze for wireless earbuds; the market for advanced fitness trackers and smart watches has been booming for years. These were niche markets, yes, until they were not.

This is what got me thinking about this more deeply: these are products which do not need to do everything better all of the time; they are things which can do a lot of things better some of the time, or a handful of things better a lot of the time.

Products with an increased degree of specialization have business justifications, too, since there are more products to sell. It may be very difficult to beat the smartphone in terms of raw sales of another single product, but it is possible to get similar results in the aggregate. It seems like this would benefit tightly integrated businesses, too.

One reason the smartphone is so popular is because it has become possible to make very good phones for not very much money — partly thanks to standardization, partly thanks to components no longer needing to be cutting-edge to be very good, and partly due to exploitative labour practices. As a result, it has become possible for people across income brackets and around the world to use a smartphone. As remarkable as that may be, it is worth remembering technology is not a panacea. Smartphones will not correct the inequality we see in cities or around the world. That said, these devices have been beneficial in developing regions and for individuals of a wide range of incomes. They are the best-selling devices ever created for a reason: they connect just about everyone. People are able to make a living by selling goods through WhatsApp, and can find jobs and services locally.

It therefore seems unlikely to me for the smartphone to disappear in the near future. But, for some, perhaps it becomes increasingly optional. Perhaps the story for them is of less convergence and more specialization. That was an early vision for the Apple Watch. Maybe some of those ideas, while premature, will finally begin to come to fruition in a more meaningful sense for more of us. For what it is worth, I cannot imagine giving up my iPhone but, then again, I could not imagine how truly great a smartphone could be before I saw one.

Lia Haberman:

You might have read about a new, decentralized, social network Instagram is building for “creators and public figures.”


All new details have surfaced based on secret calls Meta has been having with select creators, hinting at a potential release in late June. Here’s what I’ve been told by a creator who met with Meta.

I keep arguing that Meta has no vision for its products. Its biggest long-term bet is obviously its ideas about augmented and virtual reality, but none of that is really taking off and it is unclear whether it ever will. While it waits, Meta appears to know what it does not want for its existing products — for them to stagnate — but it does not seem to know what it should do. It is treating Instagram as an amorphous container into which it can stuff whatever apparently trendy ideas surface for its still hot-to-advertisers space, without any coherent narrative for what Instagram is supposed to be. It has cloned Snapchat, it has cloned TikTok, and now it is cloning Twitter.

Is desperation a synonym for strategy?