Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Toggling Bluetooth and WiFi From Control Centre Doesn’t Switch Them On or Off in iOS 11

Joe Rossignol, MacRumors:

Even when toggled off in Control Center on an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch running iOS 11 and later, a new support document says Bluetooth and Wi-Fi will continue to be available for AirDrop, AirPlay, Apple Pencil, Apple Watch, Location Services, and Continuity features like Handoff and Instant Hotspot.

Toggling off Bluetooth or Wi-Fi in Control Center only disconnects accessories now, rather than disabling connectivity entirely.

I don’t toggle either Bluetooth or WiFi so I didn’t notice this, but I also didn’t think to check whether Bluetooth was, indeed, switched off if I toggled it off in Control Centre. I kind of get why this change was made: a frequent barrier in my use of AirDrop “just working” is that a friend’s Bluetooth connection has been toggled off. I don’t think that most people would be fully aware that both networking services must be switched on for many of Apple’s “continuity” features to keep working.

Still, this does feel a bit wrong. A toggle switch that looks like it’s on or off should behave accordingly. There are some affordances — when you toggle WiFi from Control Centre, a message across the top of the screen reads “Disconnected from WiFi Network Name“. This doesn’t say that WiFi will continue to be available for iOS features, though, and it seems counterintuitive.

Reviews of the Apple Watch Series 3 and WatchOS 4

Nicole Nguyen, Buzzfeed:

I used the on-watch keypad to dial my on-shore boyfriend, and the dial tone came blaring through the built-in speaker, which I’m pretty sure disturbed some nearby seagulls. I’m sure the high volume was intentional to compete with loud, busy outdoor environments, and I was impressed by how much audio power was packed into the thing. His voice came in loud and clear, and we had a short conversation, before I hung up and attempted to send a text. Interacting with the screen with wet fingers is mostly miserable, but voice-to-text dictation worked supremely well.

Apple’s marketing materials for the Series 3 Watch heavily feature surfers and swimmers taking calls, so that’s what several reviewers tried, including Nguyen, Joanna Stern of the Wall Street Journal, and Lauren Goode of the Verge:

I actually went surfing, in the ocean, wearing the Apple Watch, hoping to replicate the glorious ad that Apple put out of a woman surfing and receiving a phone call on her Apple Watch. (Is this glorious? Real surfers would disagree. And I looked like a serious kook shouting “Hey Siri!” at my wrist in the ocean.) I wasn’t very far from shore, but the Watch vacillated between one bar of service and being disconnected entirely. I did manage to make one phone call from a surfboard. That was kind of wild.

Goode and Stern both found that their review units struggled to connect to LTE, leaving them with either a single bar — well, dot — or no service at all. For the defining feature of this model, that’s discouraging.

Serenity Caldwell of iMore dug into this problem and found out that an existing WatchOS 4 bug is the likely culprit:

Essentially, the Series 3 GPS + Cellular watch tries to save battery life at all times by using your iPhone’s connection, or failing that, a Wi-Fi network. What’s happening here is that the watch is attempting to jump on a so-called “captive” network — a public network with an interstitial login prompt or terms and conditions agreement. (You’ve probably seen these at a Starbucks, McDonalds, or Panera.)

Caldwell’s explanation sounds reasonable, but it’s surprising to me that Goode’s experience, out in the ocean, would be affected by a WiFi bug.

Regardless of the cause, this is a bad bug. Preordered Watches have already begun shipping, so this won’t be fixed before those are delivered. And, because the process of updating an Apple Watch is so slow and cumbersome, even for small updates, this bug’s impact will be pretty noticeable for anyone who has already ordered a Series 3 Watch.

In contrast to the Series 3 hardware, WatchOS 4 has been getting rave reviews, and I’m not surprised. Goode:

Speaking of saving a workout: when you finish a workout on the Watch now, there’s only one option, Done. The Apple Watch used to offer two options, Save and Discard. I suspect some people were accidentally discarding workouts when they were finished, instead of saving them. This is a much simpler way to do it.

I imagine the number of people who intentionally discarded a workout was vanishingly small compared to the number of people who accidentally did so. I know I have. This is one of the refinements that I love most.

John Gruber:

Second, there’s a new feature in WatchOS called “Auto-launch Audio Apps”. It’s in the Apple Watch app on your iPhone, in the General: Wake Screen section. What happens with this is that when you initiate audio playback on your iPhone, if there’s a corresponding WatchOS app on your watch, when you raise your wrist that app is what you see, instead of your watch face.

The first time I saw this for Music, I was pleasantly surprised; the first time I saw this for Overcast, I was blown away that it worked for third-party apps without any developer intervention. Once you get used to it, it’s hard to imagine the Watch ever not showing audio controls by default.

The new Siri watch face is fantastic, by the way. I’m sure the other new faces featuring a kaleidoscope and Toy Story characters are cool, but I haven’t once switched from the Siri face since June. It is one of the best arguments for owning an Apple Watch, even — perhaps especially — if you are not a fitness buff. My only complaint is that it doesn’t work with third-party apps, so if you keep todos in Things, for example, it may not be as useful to you.

Matt Birchler wrote a much more comprehensive review, and it’s worth checking out. Of note, the Phone app now includes a keypad:

Second, this keypad is available from inside the app while you’re on a call, so you can interact with automated systems that require you to “PRESS 4 TO TALK TO A HUMAN”. This again is not required functionality, but it removes some of the limitations the watch used to have when making phone calls.

I never open the Phone app on my Apple Watch, but this might actually be useful for buzzing someone into my apartment. I’ll have to give that a try.

iOS 11: The Pixel Envy Review

I’ve got my balcony door wide open this evening and the breeze it’s creating simply isn’t making a difference — I feel like I’m melting into my couch. I should be used to this after a record-shattering summer, but I am not. I live in Canada, in a city where snowfall has been recorded in every month. I am exhausted. I’m holding in one hand a glass of The Hatch’s 2016 “Rhymes with Door Hinge” and, with the other, I am balancing my iPad perhaps a little too precariously on my leg.

I’m flipping through one of the Atlantic’s excellent weekly photo galleries and I see an amazing picture that I know a friend of mine will love. I put down my glass of wine to be able to perform a somewhat tricky routine of dragging the photo with one finger, dragging the URL with another, swiping from the right-hand part of the screen to float Messages over Safari with a third finger, then navigating to that friend’s chat thread and dropping both the image and URL into a message to send it off. I’m impressed, but also not quite used to these complex interactions. I still feel clumsy sometimes when I do them — a thought that was underscored moments later when I went to pick up my glass of wine only to spill it all over my coffee table.

iOS 11, then: it gives you all kinds of fun new powers, especially on an iPad, but it won’t save you if you’re already a klutz.

iOS 11 Review

I’ve been using iOS 11 daily since it was announced at WWDC and, rather than go through each feature point-by-point like an extended changelog with commentary, I thought I’d explore a bit of how this update feels different with daily use. There’s a lot to unpack and, while I think the vast majority of this upgrade is excellent and demonstrates clear progress in areas previously ignored, I feel there are some things that are really and truly confused. Let me show you what I mean.

The Weird Stuff

Let’s start with the lock screen, because that’s where pretty much every iOS interaction will start. When you unlock the device, the lock screen now slides up as though it’s a cover overtop the rest of the system. In some places, like notification preferences, Apple even calls it the “Cover Screen”. But, while this animation suggests that the lock screen is now sitting in an invisible place above the top of the screen, you can’t swipe upwards to unlock a non-iPhone X device — that action will scroll notifications instead — nor can you pull down from the top to lock it.

Lock Screen.
Lock Screen
Notification Centre.
Notification Centre

Making matters even more confusing, if you do pull down from the top of an unlocked device, the screen looks like the lock screen, but doesn’t actually lock the device.

Control Centre now supports 3D Touch-like gestures on the iPad, but no iPad today has 3D Touch.
Control Centre on iPad

Here’s another example: the iPad and other devices that don’t have 3D Touch displays now support some 3D Touch functionality. If you touch and hold on a notification on the lock screen, for example, it looks like you’re doing the “peek” gesture. The new grid-based Control Centre requires 3D Touch interactions on the iPhone but, again, those gestures have been substituted for touch-and-hold on the iPad. I guess these are fine adaptations, but it indicates to me that aspects of the system were designed in anticipation for a mix of devices that don’t yet exist and some — but not all — of the devices that do. It is inconsistent, though: while it’s possible to use 3D Touch interactions in Control Centre and on notifications in Notification Centre, similar “Peek” interactions don’t work on home screen icons or within apps.

The differences in iOS 11, then, continue to balance new functionality with further complications. But this should be no surprise to those who have used Apple’s ecosystem of devices for several years; it is merely accelerating a trend of growing the features of iOS without forgetting its roots. iOS was, in many ways, a fresh start for the future of computing and each iteration of the OS has built upon that. Sometimes, as above, it feels as though these additions are moving a little too fast. I notice this most when additions or updates feel perhaps incomplete, or, at least, not wholly considered.

These can all be added to Control Centre, if you’d like.
Control Centre options
As an example, this iteration of Control Centre is the third major interpretation since iOS 7, released just four years ago. It no longer splits its controls across two pages which, I’m sure, ought to make some people very happy — I was never bothered by that. Its grid-like layout has been touted as being “customizable”, but that’s only true of the app launching and single-function icons across the bottom: you know, the buttons for Calculator, Camera, or the flashlight. You can now choose from over a dozen different apps and functions, including screen recording and a quick-access remote for the Apple TV, and you’re no longer limited to just four of these controls — if there are too many, Control Centre will scroll vertically.

You’d think, though, that by turning Control Centre into a grid that it would be possible to rearrange sections of it by what you use most, or hide controls you never use. That isn’t possible in this version. You might also think that adding a level of customizability would make it possible to assign third-party apps to certain Control Centre launching points — for example, launching PCalc instead of Calculator, or Manual instead of Camera. But that hasn’t happened either. It is also not possible to change which WiFi network you are connected to from Control Centre, despite the additional depth enabled by 3D Touch controls.

Here’s another example of where things feel a bit incomplete: Slide Over and Split View on the iPad. Previously, dragging an app into either multitasking mode required you to swipe from the right edge to expose a grey panel full of oddly-shaped rounded rectangles, each of which contained an app icon. Apart from looking ugly, which it was, this UI made absolutely no sense to me. What were the rounded rectangles representing? Why did they need to be so large? Why did such an obviously unscalable UI ship?

iPad multitasking on iOS 9 and 10.
Old iPad multitasking UI

Thankfully, this interface is no more for iOS. iPad multitasking is now made somewhat easier by the new systemwide floating Dock. It works and looks a little bit like the Dock on MacOS, insomuch as it contains your favourite apps and can be accessed from within any app simply by swiping upwards from the bottom of the screen. If you want to get an app into Split View or Slide Over, all you need to do is drag its icon up from the Dock and let it expand into a multitasking view on either side of the open app.

But hang on just a minute: if you’re on the home screen, dragging an app icon up from the Dock will remove that app from the Dock. So, in one context, the action is destructive; in others, it’s constructive. That inconsistency feels bizarre in practice, to say the least.

And then there’s the process of getting an app into a multitasking view when it isn’t a Dock app. You can start from the home screen or Spotlight in Notification Centre by finding your app, then touch and hold on the icon until it starts to float. Then, either launch an app with another of your fingers (if you’re starting on the home screen) or press the home button to close Spotlight. Wait until the app icon expands in place, then drop it on either side of the screen to get it into multitasking. It took me a little while to figure out this gymnastics routine and, if I’m honest with myself, it doesn’t feel fully considered. The Dock is brilliant, but the trickiness of getting non-Dock apps into a multitasking view doesn’t yet feel obvious enough.

There is, however, a minor coda of relief: the Dock has space on the righthand side, past the very Mac-like divider, for “suggested” apps. This area tends to include non-Dock apps that you’ve recently used, apps from Handoff, or apps triggered when you connect headphones. But, as this Dock area relies upon technology that is “learning” user patterns rather than being directly user-controlled, the apps you’re expecting may not always be in that area of the Dock. When it works, it’s amazing; when it doesn’t, you still have to do the somewhat-complicated dance of launching apps from the home screen.

Dock popovers in iOS 11

Finally, the Dock has more of that pseudo-3D Touch functionality. You can touch and hold on a supported app’s icon to display a kind of popover menu, which looks a lot like the 3D Touch widgets that display on iPhone apps. But they’re not the same thing; apps that have a widget on the iPhone will have to add a different kind of functionality to show a very similar feature in the iPad’s Dock.

So these things — the Dock and Control Centre — feel like they are hinting at newer and more exciting things, but don’t quite conclude those thoughts. They feel, simply, rushed.

In other ways, though, it can sometimes feel like an addition to iOS has taken longer than it should.

Drag and Drop, Keyboard Flicks, and Other iPad Improvements

That statement, naturally, leads me neatly onto systemwide cross-application drag and drop, making its debut this year. There are apparently lots of reasons for why drag and drop was not in iOS previously — for example, it seems as though APFS and its cloning and snapshot features help enable a faster and more efficient drag and drop experience. The new Dock, which allows for more efficient app switching, also seems to have played a role. But regardless of why it took so many years for such a natural interaction to debut on Apple’s touch devices, we should focus on the what of it. Is it good?

Oh, yes. Very.

I love many of the iPad enhancements in this release, but none has been as strong for me as the implementation of drag and drop. Not only can you drag stuff across apps, the drag interactions are separate from the apps themselves. They kind of live in a layer overtop the rest of the system, so you can move around and find just the app you’re looking for — whether you launch it from the Dock, app switcher, home screen, or Spotlight.

You can pick up multiple items from multiple different apps and drop them into any of several different apps. This takes full advantage of the multitouch display on the iPad.
iOS 11 drag and drop

But my favourite thing about drag and drop on iOS and the reason I’ve been so impressed by it is that you can use all of your fingers to “hold” dragged items until you’re ready to drop them. You can also drag items from multiple sources and even multiple apps. It’s crazy good, to the point where dragging and dropping on a traditional computer using a mouse cursor feels like a kludge. In fact, drag and drop is one of the biggest reasons why I’ve chosen to use an iPad more in the past few months than I did for the preceding year.

Developers do have to add support for drag and drop in their apps, but some UI components — like text areas — will support drag and drop in any app without the developer needing to make adjustments.

The other really big enhancement that has completely transformed my iPad experience is the new app switcher. Swiping from the bottom of the screen reveals the new floating Dock, but a continued (or second) swipe will show the new app switcher. Instead of showing a single app at a time, six thumbnails now fit onto the screen of my 9.7-inch model at once, making for a much better use of the display’s space. I’m not sure how many app thumbnails fit into a 12.9-inch model’s screen; I hope for more.

iOS 11 app switcher

Other than being vastly more efficient, which makes the Swiss half of me extremely happy, the app switcher also preserves app “spaces”. When I’m writing, I like to have Slack and Tweetbot open in split-screen, put Safari and Notes together, and keep Byword in its own space. Now, whenever I switch between these, those pairings are retained: if I tap on Tweetbot in the Dock, I’ll see Tweetbot and Slack, exactly as I left them. This makes it really easy to construct little task-specific parts of the system.

Another great enhancement to the system is the new keyboard. Instead of having to navigate between letters, numbers, and symbols with a modal key, you can now swipe down on individual keys to insert common characters. It takes some getting used to — especially for the ways I type, I often insert a “0” where I mean to type a “p”, for instance. Unfortunately, this relatively common typing mistake isn’t caught by autocorrect. Maybe I’m just sloppy; I’m not sure. Even with my misplaced numerals, I appreciate this keyboard refinement. It makes typing so much faster, especially since I frequently have to type combinations of letters and numbers while writing Pixel Envy. I still think frequent patterns — say, postal codes, for example, which in Canada alternate between letters and numbers — should be automatically formatted as you type, but this keyboard is definitely a great step up once you get used to it.

There are some lingering problems I have with the iPad’s keyboard, in particular, however. I find that it occasionally registers keys tapped in fast succession as a two finger tap, which invokes a text selection mode. I have begun to replace entire sentences without realizing it because of this. I wish the iPad’s keyboard could do a better job of understanding the difference between fast typing and invoking selection mode. The goal should be to make the virtual keyboard as close to a physical keyboard in terms of user confidence and key registration accuracy. Also, I continue to have absolutely awful luck with autocorrect: it capitalizes words seemingly at random, changes word tense several typed words later — when I began typing the word “seemingly” just now, it changed “capitalizes” to “capitalized” — and is frequently a focus-disrupting nuisance. It can be turned off in Settings, but I find that the amount of times autocorrect is actually useful just barely outweighs the times that it is frustrating. Enhancing autocorrect is something I believe should be a focus of every iOS release, major or minor.

But, even with all the attention lavished upon the iPad this year, there are still some ultra-frustrating limitations. With the exception of Safari, you can only open one instance of an app at a time. I cannot tell you how frequently I have two different windows from the same app open at the same time on my Mac, and it’s really irritating to not be able to do that on my iPad, especially with the far better support for multiple apps in iOS 11.

There are other things that have left me wanting on the iPad, too, like the stubbornly identical home screen. I’m not entirely sure it needs a complete rethink. Perhaps, somewhere down the line, we could get a first page home screen that acts a little more like MacOS, with recent files, suggested apps, widgets, and a lot more functionality. But even in the short term, it would make sense to be able to add more icons on each page, especially on the larger-sized models.

And, strangely, in terms of space utilization, the iPad fares slightly worse on iOS 11 than it did running iOS 10 because Notification Centre has reverted to a single-column layout. There may be a reason for this — maybe even a really good one — but any attempt to rationalize it is immediately rendered invalid because the iPhone actually gains a two-column Notification Centre layout in landscape on iOS 11. I do not understand either decision.

iOS 11 replaces the two-column Notification Centre with a single column on the iPad, but adds a second column on the iPhone, even on my non-Plus model.
Notification Centre on iPhone.

I also think that it’s unfortunate that Siri continues to take over the entire display whenever it is invoked. I hope a future iOS update will treat Siri on the iPad more like a floating window or perhaps something that only covers a third of the display — something closer to the MacOS implementation than a scaled-up iPhone display. I know it’s something that’s typically invoked only briefly and then disappears, but it seems enormously wasteful to use an entire display to show no greater information than what is shown on the iPhone.

Siri

Here’s a funny thing about that previous paragraph: using the word “Siri” to describe Apple’s voice-controlled virtual assistant is actually a bit antiquated. You may recall that, in iOS 10, the app suggestions widget was renamed “Siri App Suggestions”; in iOS 11, it has become clear that “Siri” is what Apple calls their layer of AI automation. That’s not necessarily super important to know in theory, but I think it’s an interesting decision; it’s one thing for a website to note that their search engine is “powered by Google”, but I’m not sure Siri has the reputation to build Apple’s AI efforts on. Then again, perhaps it’s an indication that these efforts are being taken more seriously.

In any case, the new stuff: the personal assistant front-end for Siri has a new voice. In many contexts, I’ve felt it sounds more natural, and that alone helps improve my trust in Siri. However, I’m not sure it’s truly more accurate, though I perceive a slight improvement.

This idea of Siri as a magical black box is something I’ve written about several times here. I will spare you my rehashing of it. Of course, this is the path that many new technologies are taking, from Google and Amazon’s smart speakers to the mysterious friend recommendations in Facebook and LinkedIn. It’s all unfathomable, at least to us laypeople. When it works, it’s magical; when it doesn’t, it’s frustrating, and we have no idea what to do about it, which only encourages our frustration. These technologies are like having a very drunk butler following you everywhere: kind of helpful, but completely unpredictable. You want to trust them, but you’re still wary.

Even with a new voice and perhaps slightly more attentive hearing, Siri is still oblivious to common requests. I am writing these words from a sandwich place near where I live called the Street Eatery. It was recommended to me by Siri after I asked it for lunch recommendations, which is great. However, when I followed up Siri’s recommendation by asking it to “open the Street Eatery’s website”, it opened a Trip Advisor page for a place called the Fifth Street Eatery in Colorado, instead of the restaurant located blocks away that it recommended me only moments before.

In iOS 11, Siri also powers a recommendation engine in News, and suggests search topics in Safari when you begin using the keyboard. For example, when tapped on the location bar after reading this article about Ming-Chi Kuo’s predictions for the new iPhone, it correctly predicted in the QuickType bar that I may want to search more for “OLED”, “Apple Inc.”, or “iPhone”. But sometimes, Siri is still, well, Siri: when I tapped on the location bar after reading a review of an Indian restaurant that opened relatively recently, its suggestions were for Malaysian, Thai, and Indonesian cuisine — none of which were topics on that page. The restaurant is called “Calcutta Cricket Club”, and the post is tagged in WordPress with “Indian cuisine”, so I have no idea how it fathomed those suggestions. And there’s no easy way for me to tell Apple that they’re wrong; I would have to file a radar. See the above section on magical black boxes.

To improve its accuracy over time, Siri now syncs between different devices. Exactly what is synced over iCloud is a mystery — Apple hasn’t said. My hunch is that it’s information about your accent and speech patterns, along with data about the success and failure of different results. Unfortunately, even with synced data, Siri is still a decidedly per-device assistant; you cannot initiate a chain of commands on one device, and then pick it up on another. For example, I wouldn’t be able to ask my iPad to find me recommendations for dinner, then ask my iPhone to begin driving directions to the first result without explicitly stating the restaurant’s name. And, even then, it might pick a restaurant thousands of miles away — you just never know.

User Interface and Visual Design

At the outset of this review, I wrote that I wanted primarily to relay my experiences with the iOS 11 features I use most and had the greatest impact on how I use these devices. I want to avoid the temptation of describing every change in this version, but I don’t think I can describe the ways I have used with my iPhone and iPad without also writing about the ways in which Apple has changed its visual design.

Every new major release of iOS gives Apple the chance to update and refine their design language, and iOS 11 is no exception. Last year, Apple debuted a new style of large, bold titles in News, Music, and the then-new Home app; this year, that design language has bled throughout the system. Any app defined by lists — including Mail, Phone, Contacts, Wallet, Messages, and even Settings — now has a gigantic billboard-esque title. It kind of reminds me of Windows Phone 7, only nicer. I like it a lot and, based on the screenshots I’ve seen so far, it appears to work well to define the upper area of the iPhone X.

This big title style looks nice, but I’m not sure writing “Settings” in gigantic bold letters really affects how I use this app or the system overall.
Settings in iOS 11
In practice, though, this treatment means that the top quarter of the screen is used rather inefficiently in an app’s initial view. You launch Settings, for example, and the screen is dominated by a gigantic bold “Settings” label. You know you’re in Settings — you just launched it. A more cynical person might point to this as an indication that all post-iOS 7 apps look the same and, therefore, some gigantic text is needed to differentiate them. I do not believe that is the case — there is enough identifying information in each app, between its icon, layout, and contextually-relevant components.

And yet, despite the wastefulness of this large text, I still think it looks great. The very high resolution displays in every device compatible with iOS 11 and Apple’s now-iconic San Francisco typeface combine to give the system a feeling of precision, intention, and clarity. Of course, it’s worth asking why, if it’s so great, a similar large header is not shown as one triangles further into an app. I get the feeling that it would quickly become overbearing; that, once you’re deep within an app, it’s better to maximize efficiency — in magazine terms, the first page can be a cover, but subsequent levels down within the same app should be the body.

Fans of clarity and affordances in user interfaces will be delighted to know that buttons are back. Kind of. Back when iOS 7 debuted, I was among many who found the new text-only “buttons” strewn throughout the system and advocated for in the HIG as contentious and confusing. Though I’ve gotten more used to them over the past several years, my opinion has not changed.

iOS 11 is part of what I’m convinced is a slow march towards once again having buttons that actually look like buttons. The shuffle and looping controls in Music, for instance, are set against a soft grey background. The App Store launcher in Messages is a button-looking button. But, lest you think that some wave of realization has come across the visual designers working on iOS, you should know that the HIG remains unchanged, as does the UIButton control.

iOS 11 app icons

There are some noteworthy icon changes in this update as well. I quite like the new Contacts icon and the higher-contrast icon for Settings, but I have no idea what Apple’s designers were thinking with the new Calculator icon. It’s grey; it has a glyph of a calculator on it in black and orange. And I reiterate: it is grey. The Reminders icon has been tweaked, while the new Maps icon features a stylized interpretation of Apple Park which, per tradition, is cartographically dubious. I don’t like the plain-looking Files icon; I remain less-than-enthusiastic about almost any icon that features a glyph over a white background, with the exceptions of Photos and the NY Times app.

The new App Store icon proved controversial when it launched, but I actually like it. The previous glyph was a carryover from MacOS and, while I don’t think that it was confusing anyone, I do think that this simplified interpretation feels more at home on iOS. The new iTunes Store icon is the less successful of the two redesigns, I feel. As Apple Music has taken over more of the tunes part of iTunes, it appears that the icon is an attempt to associate iTunes with movies and TV shows through the blending of the purple background colour and the star glyph — both attributes, though not identical, are used for the iMovie icon as well. But this only seems to highlight the disconnect between the “iTunes Store” name and its intended function.

Icons on tab bars throughout the system have also been updated. In some places, solid fills replace outlines; in others, heavier line weights replace thin strokes. I really like this new direction. It’s more legible, it feels more consistent, and it simply looks better. These are the kinds of refinements I have expected to see as the course correction that was iOS 7 matures. While it has taken a little longer than I had hoped, it’s welcome nevertheless.

And, for what it’s worth, the signal bars have returned to the status bar, replacing the circular signal dots. This reversion seems primarily driven by the iPhone X’s notched display, but every iPhone and iPad model gets the same status bar. I cannot figure out why the brand new Series 3 Apple Watch uses dots to display LTE signal strength.

To complement the static visual design enhancements, many of the system animations have been tweaked as well. When you lift an iPhone 6S or later, the screen now fades and un-blurs simultaneously; it’s very slick. The app launching animation has been updated, too, so that it now appears as though the app is expanding from its icon. It’s a small thing; I like it.

Assorted Notes and Observations

  • The App Store has been radically redesigned. I’m dumping it down in this section because, while I applaud the efforts behind separating games from other kinds of apps and I think the News tab is a great way to help users find apps that might be buried by the hundreds of thousands of others, it has not changed the way I use the App Store. I’m pretty settled into a certain routine of apps, so I don’t regularly need to look for more. I didn’t ever really think, during my experience testing it, to check the App Store for what is being featured or what collections have been created lately.

  • ARKit and Core ML are both very promising technologies that, I think, will need several more months in developers’ hands to bear fruit. Carrot Weather has a fun AR mode today, if you want to try it out.

  • There aren’t any new Live or Dynamic wallpapers in iOS 11. Live wallpapers were introduced two years ago; Dynamic wallpapers were introduced four years ago.

  • The new still wallpapers are a clear retro play. There are familiar six-colour rainbow stripes, a Retina-quality version of the Earth photograph from the original iPhone, and — for the first time — Apple has included a plain black wallpaper.

  • Apple Music has gained some social networking features that, I think, might actually work well. After iTunes Ping and Connect, this is the third time Apple has really tried to push any kind of social functionality (Connect still exists in Apple Music, but I don’t know anybody who actually uses it). Apple Music’s new user profiles can automatically show your friends what you’re listening to, and you can display your playlists too. I expect the automatic sharing aspect — as opposed to requiring users manually update their profiles — to be a primary factor if it continues to be as successful in general use as it has been for me in beta.

  • There’s also a new take on a shared party playlist. I sincerely doubt that many people go to house parties to control the playlist in a group setting. Maybe this will change with the launch of the HomePod but, like Apple’s previous attempts — Party Shuffle and iTunes DJ — I expect this feature to be largely forgotten.

  • As I mentioned last year, I think the Memories feature in Photos is one of the best things Apple has built in a long time. iOS 11 promises additional event types, like weddings and anniversaries, which provides more variety in the kinds of Memories that are generated. I love this kind of stuff.

  • The vast majority of system photo filters have been replaced with much more sensitive and realistic filters. I’ve used them several times. While they’re no replacement for my usual iPhone editing process, they work much better in a pinch than the ones that date back to iOS 7, simply because they’re less garish.

  • You can now set Live Photos to loop, “bounce” back and forth, or even convert them into long exposure photos. These are fine effects, but I wish the long exposure effect would do better at detecting faces or foreground objects and creating a blur in the background. This may be more sophisticated on iPhones equipped with dual cameras; I’m not sure.

  • There’s a new file format for video and images — the latter of which is probably the one that will cause the most unnecessary concern. Instead of JPG, photos are saved in the relatively new High-Efficiency Image Format, or HEIF. I have not noticed any compatibility issues, and you get smaller file sizes and fewer compression artifacts in return.

  • The new Files app ostensibly provides access to all of your files in iCloud Drive and supporting third-party apps. However, because the most major enhancement of this is third-party app support, my time with it while testing is limited to what I have in iCloud, which makes the app function similarly to the iCloud Drive app it replaces. I look forward to using it as more third-party apps support it.

  • Maps now supports interior maps for an effective handful of malls and airports. If you live in a very large city in the United States or China, this will likely be useful to you; for the rest of us, I guess they have to start somewhere.

  • Flyover has also been enhanced in Maps, turning it into a sort of Godzilla mode where you can walk around a city overhead from your living room. It is ridiculously cool. I couldn’t confirm whether this is built with ARKit.

  • There are two new full-screen effects in Messages: “Echo” and “Spotlight”. The former is easily the more interesting and fun of the two. Also, the app drawer has been redesigned so it’s way easier to use.

  • Messages will support peer-to-peer Apple Pay in the United States later this year — my understanding is that there is a regulatory delay holding it up. As of June, the iPhone 7 was available in about ninety other countries worldwide. There are probably legal requirements that need to be satisfied for it to roll out anywhere else but, as an end user, the reasoning matters little. All that matters to me about this feature is that it will not be available where I live, and that’s a huge bummer.

  • The 3D Touch shortcut to get into the app switcher has been removed in this version of iOS for reasons I can’t quite figure out. It took me a while to get used to its removal; I used it a lot in iOS 9 and 10.

  • Safari now takes steps to restrict ad tracking and retargeting cookies to twenty-four hours of data validity. The advertising industry’s biggest trade groups are furious about this. Their creepy selves can fuck straight off.

Final Thoughts

As I’ve been writing for a few years now in occasional posts here, it feels like Apple has been going through a simultaneous series of transitions. Their services business is growing dramatically, they’ve switched over to an SSD-and-high-resolution-display product lineup — for the most part — and have been demonstrating how nontraditional devices like the iPad and Apple Watch can supplant the Mac and iPhone in some use cases.

While this story obviously isn’t going to wrap up so long as technology and Apple keep pushing things forward, iOS 11 feels like it is starting to resolve some of the questions of past releases. Despite my complaints about the rushed-feeling Control Centre and multitasking implementations, I also think that Apple is doing a lot of things very right with this update. Drag and drop is awesome, Siri is getting better, there are visual design improvements throughout, and Apple Music’s social networking features are very fun.

There is a lot that I haven’t covered in this review. That’s deliberate — some features aren’t available where I live or on the devices I use, while other changes have been small enough that you may not notice them day-to-day. However, the cumulative effect of all of these changes is a more complete, well-rounded version of iOS. I do think that the action of putting apps into Slide Over or Split View needs a more considered approach, but I can’t let that spoil how much better the Dock is than the old scrolling list overlay.

The short version of this review is very simple: if you reach for one of your iOS devices instead of running to your Mac for an increasing number of tasks, as Apple is coaxing you to do with each update, you’ll love iOS 11. Even if you don’t, and your iOS devices remain a peripheral extension to your Mac, you’ll find much to love in this version. Make no mistake: this isn’t trying to bring the Mac to your iPhone or iPad; iOS 11 is all about building upon their capabilities in a very iOS-like way. I would expect nothing less and, despite my wishes throughout this review for more, I feel like iOS 11 feels more complete than any previous update. It’s one of those ones where there’s very little you can put your finger on, but there are a lot of small things that make the system better.

iOS 11 is available as a free update for 64-bit iOS devices only: the iPhone 5S or later, iPad Mini 2/iPad Air or later, and the sixth-generation iPod Touch.

Carriers and the LTE Apple Watch

Yesterday, Juli Clover of MacRumors reported that the Apple Watch Series 3, when used on T-Mobile’s network, would be limited to 512 kbps, far below its maximum LTE speed. And there was more:

A T-Mobile representative told MacRumors reader Tony that its “High Speed Data with paired DIGITS” plan would provide 4G LTE data. DIGITS is priced at $25 per month without autopay, and $20 per month with Autopay.

For comparison, other American carriers are charging $10 per month to add an Apple Watch to a subscriber’s account. So, as a T-Mobile customer, you’d pay twice as much to get capped speeds. That’s asinine.

After an appropriate level of uproar, T-Mobile CEO John Legere said on Twitter that they would be adjusting Apple Watch plans to match the $10 per month pricing of other carriers and that speeds would no longer be capped. And, yet, it still feels like a bit of a ripoff to pay any money at all to add an Apple Watch to a cell plan.

Charles Arthur:

These are outrageous prices, on a par with the ludicrous data charges that carriers used to apply before the iPhone. In those days, up to mid-2007, to want data on the move marked you out as someone with money to burn, or else a raging desire for debt.

Why outrageous? Because Watch cellular data use is not additive; it’s substitutive. If you’re pulling in data on your cellular Watch, you must have left your phone behind. Ergo, you’re doing nothing with the phone, so it’s consuming (next to) no data. The data consumption has shifted to your Watch.

I’m not sure it’s entirely correct to assume that a person is only using data on one device at a time. Later this year, Series 3 users will be able to stream Apple Music tracks; they could conceivably be listening to music and using their iPhone at the same time. But, in the vast majority of cases, data use on the Watch is likely to be limited and infrequent. $10 per month isn’t an enormous amount of money for, I would guess, most Apple Watch customers, but it’s the kind of nickel-and-dime tactic that makes cellular carriers so frustrating to be in an ongoing financial relationship with.

I Shot the Serif

Glenn Fleishman, writing for Wired’s Backchannel:

What does international political corruption have to do with type design? Normally, nothing — but that’s little consolation for the former prime minister of Pakistan. When Nawaz Sharif and his family came under scrutiny earlier this year thanks to revelations in the Panama Papers, the smoking gun in the case was a font. The prime minister’s daughter, Maryam Sharif, provided an exculpatory document that had been typeset in Calibri — a Microsoft font that was only released for general distribution nearly a year after the document had allegedly been signed and dated.

A “Fontgate” raged. While Sharif’s supporters waged a Wikipedia war over the Calibri entry, type designer Thomas Phinney quietly dropped some history lessons about the typeface on Quora, and found himself caught in a maelstrom of global reporting. Phinney said that because Calibri has been in use for several years, people have forgotten that it’s a relatively new font. This has made Calibri a hot topic in document forgery as fakers fail to realize that this default Microsoft Word typeface will give itself away.

This wasn’t Phinney’s first forgery rodeo. He calls himself a font detective—an expert called upon in lawsuits and criminal cases to help determine documents’ authenticity based on forensic analysis of letterforms used, and sometimes the ways in which they appear on paper. Phinney even IDs each of his cases with a Sherlock-Holmesian title: The Dastardly Divorce, The Quarterback Conundrum, and The Presidential Plot.

This is such a great piece. Given how tedious it can be for even an expert like Phinney to ascertain a document’s authenticity, try to imagine the kind of forensic work that will be needed in the near future to try to identify whether a video of someone speaking is real.

Hate-Based Algorithmic Advertising

Julia Angwin, Madeleine Varner and Ariana Tobin, ProPublica:

Until this week, when we asked Facebook about it, the world’s largest social network enabled advertisers to direct their pitches to the news feeds of almost 2,300 people who expressed interest in the topics of “Jew hater,” “How to burn jews,” or, “History of ‘why jews ruin the world.’”

To test if these ad categories were real, we paid $30 to target those groups with three “promoted posts” — in which a ProPublica article or post was displayed in their news feeds. Facebook approved all three ads within 15 minutes.

Will Oremus and Bill Carey, Slate:

Contacted about the anti-Semitic ad categories by ProPublica, Facebook removed them, explaining that they had been generated algorithmically. The company added that it would explore ways to prevent similarly offensive ad targeting categories from appearing in the future.

Yet when Slate tried something similar Thursday, our ad targeting “Kill Muslimic Radicals,” “Ku-Klux-Klan,” and more than a dozen other plainly hateful groups was similarly approved. In our case, it took Facebook’s system just one minute to give the green light.

Alex Kantrowitz, Buzzfeed:

Google, the world’s biggest advertising platform, allows advertisers to specifically target ads to people typing racist and bigoted terms into its search bar, BuzzFeed News has discovered. Not only that, Google will suggest additional racist and bigoted terms once you type some into its ad-buying tool.

Type “White people ruin,” as a potential advertising keyword into Google’s ad platform, and Google will suggest you run ads next to searches including “black people ruin neighborhoods.” Type “Why do Jews ruin everything,” and Google will suggest you run ads next to searches including “the evil jew” and “jewish control of banks.”

After ProPublica’s report, Facebook announced that they would stop showing self-reported affiliations to advertisers, while Google said that they removed the terms Kantrowitz found. And, to be fair, the audience sizes reported for many of these terms are small, so Facebook and Google may prevent those ads from running.

Still, this is nowhere near good enough. Any company that sells advertising to a specific audience ought to be held accountable for it. Both Facebook and Google prohibit using their ad platforms to promote discrimination and hate, but I don’t think they can simply wash their hands of responsibility when someone uses their advertising tools for evil. I’m not necessarily arguing for regulations — though I would not necessarily object, either — but I do think both companies should be more aware of how their advertising programs are really being used, and do more to prevent misuse. Their staff wrote the algorithms that enable this, and ad revenue represents the vast majority of each company’s income. They are responsible.

Update: Brian Patrick Byrne of the Daily Beast found that Twitter’s ad suggestions also allowed advertisers to target campaigns at users who use racist and disparaging terms.

New App Store Review Guidelines Cover Face ID, ARKit, and More

Paul Hudson covers the key changes in Apple‘s App Review guidelines, including these two standouts:

  • Apps that use facial recognition for account authentication “must use LocalAuthentication (and not ARKit or other facial recognition technology)”, including a requirement for providing an alternate authentication method for users under 13 years old.

[…]

  • In terms of privacy, Apple is making it clear that you may not attempt to identify other people or guess their user profiles based on ARKit’s facial mapping tools, explicitly banning data mining on ARKit facial data.

Apple is rarely the first to use a technology, but they’re frequently the first to do something right. Facial recognition has been around for a long time but it has a) sucked, and b) been extremely invasive. I don’t know how good Apple’s implementation is yet — though everything I’ve heard through both public and private channels indicates that it’s even better in real-world use than the onstage demos showed — but they are the first consumer technology company that seems to recognize the serious implications of facial recognition data. It isn’t fair to say that no company could be as sensitive to user privacy; it’s just that no other company is being as sensitive to user privacy.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people hit Apple’s online store at the same time to try to be one of the first to get the newest iPhone. But this year is a little bit different because, for the first time, there are two availability dates for two very different models of iPhone. And, though there are sure to be plenty of people who are dead-set on which iPhone model they’re buying, I’m also certain that there are some who have no idea whether to preorder tonight or wait until the iPhone X is available.

Their predicament is understandable — iPhone availability is notoriously strained in the first few months of a new model’s release. If you’re unsure but think you might want to buy an iPhone 8 or 8 Plus, you’d be wise to preorder tonight or you might be standing in line next Friday.

Me, though — I’m going to wait for the iPhone X. I know it’s an obvious choice, price notwithstanding, simply because it’s the new hotness. Even more than that, though, it seems to me that it’s a completely different experience in a still-an-iPhone kind of way.

I have bought a new iPhone every two years since 2011, with the older model given or sold to a family member or friend. My reasoning is the same as why I’m waiting for the X — each new model I upgraded to brought with it a new take on how it works for me:

  • Going from the 4S to the 5S introduced me to the taller display and a better camera, but, more importantly, also came with Touch ID, which made unlocking my passcode-secured phone a billion times nicer.

  • Going from the 5S to the 6S brought with it a faster Touch ID sensor, a still-larger display, and a way nicer camera again. It also included 3D Touch, and I use that all the time.

My reasoning behind waiting is that the iPhone 8 is, more or less, a pretty similar phone to what I have. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a much faster device with a better display, nicer camera, inductive charging, and a way nicer back. But my hunch is that it would be broadly the same in day-to-day use.

The iPhone X, on the other hand, affords me the opportunity for that biennial experience shakeup. There’s the radical new design, of course, and Face ID, but I also love the sound of the stainless steel band — my 6S remains too slippery — and the stabilized “telephoto” camera. That adds up to a much more compelling opportunity for the device I’ll be using for the next two years.

But, to state the obvious, you are not me. If you are still uncertain about which model to get and want to see the iPhone X in person before committing to an order either way, you aren’t alone. Astute readers will recall that Apple stopped announcing first weekend iPhone sales figures last year. That decision makes a lot of sense this year, as I’m sure there will be many people waiting. But if you’re even slightly leaning towards the 8 or 8 Plus, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get your order in tonight — I bet Apple will still sell as many of them as they can make.

Apple Advises High Sierra Beta Testers That APFS Won’t Be Supported for Fusion Drives at Launch

Apple:

Beta versions of macOS High Sierra made a change in the disk format of systems by converting them to use the new Apple File System. The initial release of macOS High Sierra will provide support for the new Apple File System as the default boot filesystem on Mac systems with all-Flash built-in storage. If you installed a beta version of macOS High Sierra, the Fusion Drive in your Mac may have been converted to Apple File System. Because this configuration is not supported in the initial release of macOS High Sierra, we recommend that you follow the steps below to revert back to the previous disk format.

If you’re part of the AppleSeed beta program or are an Apple Developer using a Mac with a Fusion Drive, you’ll have to back up and reformat your drive to HFS+ if you’re upgrading from a beta copy of High Sierra to the GM.

Based on the way Apple is framing this notice, it sounds like the APFS upgrade was a bug or, at least, unintentional. After all, APFS is designed to be used for solid-state storage, not spinning hard drives.

The David Carr Generation

Mikaela Lefrak, the Atlantic:

[David Carr] had an unusual gift for recognizing young talent, and an equally unusual willingness to pull that talent up the ladder with him. He hired us for internships and jobs, edited our stories, sent out emails on our behalf, invited us to meetings we were really too junior to be a part of, and introduced us to his most successful and famous friends. But most important of all was this: He told us again and again that we had something special. We were smart, he told us. We were worthy. And we believed him, because he was the best guy we knew.

For The Atlantic’s series on mentorship, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” I spoke with over a dozen of the writers, thinkers, artists, and family members who benefited from Carr’s guidance. What follows are their stories about when Carr acted as their champion, and what he taught them about being a mentor.

Last night, I watched Vanessa Gould’s excellent film “Obit”, which features interviews with members of the New York Times’ obituary team. It’s a very funny, heartwarming, and earnest documentary, but there were times when it was pretty hard to watch — primarily, for me, when Carr’s obituary briefly appeared onscreen. Carr’s masterful command of the English language has long influenced how I write here. Lefrak’s piece shows just how amazing a human being he really was for so many.

iPhone 8 and X Models Support USB-C Fast Charging

Juli Clover, MacRumors:

Though not mentioned on stage at today’s event, both the iPhone X and the iPhone 8 are “fast-charge capable,” which means the two devices can be charged to 50 percent battery life in 30 minutes.

That’s great.

Unfortunately, that fast-charging feature is not available using accessories that are sold alongside the two devices. To charge at that level, the iPhone X and the iPhone 8 need to be plugged into Apple’s 29W, 61W, or 87W USB-C Power Adapters, which are sold alongside its USB-C MacBook and MacBook Pro models.

That’s not so great.

To make matters worse, the iPhone still appears to ship with a USB-A-to-Lightning cable, so you’ll need to buy a USB-C cable alongside a different power adapter to take advantage of fast-charging. With the iPhone 8, I kind of get it, though I still think Apple should swap USB cables out of the box for free at time of purchase.

With the iPhone X, though, both of the new charging features feel like a bit of a tease: neither a faster charger nor an inductive charging mat are included with the most premium, tomorrow’s-world-today iPhone model. I’m not complaining about the price of the iPhone X, for what it’s worth, nor am I necessarily making a value-for-money argument. But, given the premise of the iPhone X, I feel like bundling at least one of the two new charging features would have been welcomed.

Disney Is the Only Major Hollywood Studio Not Backing Apple’s $20 4K Movie Distribution Plan

Mitchel Broussard, MacRumors:

Apple yesterday revealed the Apple TV 4K, a new set-top box that will bring all the features of the fourth-generation Apple TV, along with the ability to stream 4K HDR video content. This includes iTunes 4K movies, which the company confirmed will be sold for the same price as HD movies at $20 apiece. Users will even be able to gain access to 4K movies they’ve already purchased in HD at no extra charge.

When it made this announcement, Apple showed off a list of Hollywood studios during the keynote that will support 4K movies on iTunes at this price: 20th Century Fox, Lionsgate, Paramount, Sony, Warner Bros., and Universal Pictures. In a new report today, The Wall Street Journal noted that the major absence among this list is Disney.

Not having Disney on this list is no small thing; the company’s empire is huge. Aside from films released under the Disney brand, they also own Pixar, LucasFilm, and Marvel. Of the ten highest-grossing films in each of the past four years — including the first eight months of 2017 — Disney made fifteen out of the total forty. By my count, that’s more than any other single studio.

It’s noteworthy, too, because of Apple’s historically-positive relationship with the company. Disney was the first company to have its TV shows and movies distributed via iTunes, Steve Jobs was the company’s largest shareholder, and — even today — Disney CEO Bob Iger sits on Apple’s board.

This wouldn’t have anything to do with that own-brand streaming service Disney is working on, would it?

Ron Amadeo’s Hot Take on Face ID Sucks

I really respect Ron Amadeo of Ars Technica, but this article is a real stinker. The headline is “I’m worried that FaceID is going to suck — and here’s why”, but if you look at the URL slug, you’ll notice that the original title was more like “Face ID on the iPhone X is probably going to suck”. The headline may have been toned down after publishing the post, but the thrust of the article remains the same: Amadeo is very convinced that Face ID will be awful. His evidence?

This is not the first phone we’ve tried with a facial recognition feature, and they all have the same problem. It doesn’t matter how fast or accurate Face ID is, the problem is the ergonomics: you need to aim it at your face. This is slow and awkward, especially when compared to a fingerprint reader, which doesn’t have to be aimed at anything.

Similar criticisms were leveled against Touch ID when it was launched: other devices have had fingerprint readers, and they sucked. But Touch ID was different. It was faster, more accurate, and felt more natural. I’m not saying that Face ID will necessarily replicate that success story nor do I have any idea how good it will be other than what attendees have written elsewhere, but I don’t think one can necessarily make the claim that it will “probably suck” either.

Of course, I have not used Face ID, so I cannot say; I am looking forward to trying it out. I thought maybe Amadeo had gone to today’s Apple event and was writing from his experiences there. But in the third-from-final paragraph, he discloses that he hasn’t even tried Face ID yet so he has no idea whether it’s going to be good or crap. Despite this, he’s fairly certain that it won’t be good.

That is why his hot take sucks. And I can say that with confidence, because I’ve read it.

Equifax’s Argentinian Affiliate Poorly Secured a Decade’s Worth of Customer Disputes

Brian Krebs:

Earlier today, this author was contacted by Alex Holden, founder of Milwaukee, Wisc.-based Hold Security LLC. Holden’s team of nearly 30 employees includes two native Argentinians who spent some time examining Equifax’s South American operations online after the company disclosed the breach involving its business units in North America.

It took almost no time for them to discover that an online portal designed to let Equifax employees in Argentina manage credit report disputes from consumers in that country was wide open, protected by perhaps the most easy-to-guess password combination ever: “admin/admin.”

As reports like these keep coming in, please keep three things in mind:

  1. The extremely private data that Equifax retains in bulk is used to permit or deny access to credit for nearly a billion people around the world.

  2. Equifax is a for-profit corporation, not a branch or agency of any government. Its ratings have become a de facto standard based on its market share, but Equifax’s methodology is by no means a standard or transparent.

  3. In the United States and many other countries, there are few laws governing how this private data may be stored, and fewer still providing frameworks for holding companies like Equifax and its management accountable for their mistakes.

iTunes 12.7 Discontinues Support for iOS Apps, Ringtones, and More

If you still sync ringtones or do any kind of iOS app management with iTunes, you’ll want to be aware of some changes in today’s release of iTunes 12.7:

The new iTunes focuses on music, movies, TV shows, podcasts, and audiobooks. Apps for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch are now exclusively available in the new App Store for iOS. And the new App Store makes it easy to get, update, and redownload apps — all without a Mac or PC.

The spin-free translation is that iTunes no longer supports managing or syncing locally-stored copies of apps. Most users will not notice the difference, but it does mean that the only copy of apps you download will live in iTunes or on your devices — if it has been pulled from the App Store, you will lose access to that app.

Again, virtually no users will notice this change — whether because of the death of 32-bit apps on iOS or just outdated code, many unmaintained apps won’t work with your iPhone or iPad today anyway. But the few that do continue to work yet have been pulled from the App Store are now, effectively, buried.

Ringtones: iOS 11 supports redownloading ringtones directly to your iOS device, without the need to use iTunes on your Mac or PC.

Incidentally, this also marks the death of exporting ringtones from GarageBand for the iPhone. And that’s a real bummer. Ten years — nearly to the day — after John Gruber lamented the “ringtone racket”, music labels still think they can get away with charging $1.30 for a thirty-second snippet of a song.

And it’s not like Apple has clean hands here either. When I searched for the song I use as my ringtone, it only found the live version of the track, one unrelated song, and four identical bullshit not-quite-copyright-infringement lame cover versions. I’m not against cover songs — I’m not an idiot — but these four versions are just lame attempts to trick people into paying $1.30 for a ringtone.

For what it’s worth, I tried dropping one of my .m4r files into iCloud Drive but it didn’t give me any option to add it as a ringtone. I wish there was a way to side-load tracks into an iOS device’s local music library and manually add ringtones to Settings.

Update: Apple says in a separate support document that you should be able to drag an .m4r file from Finder directly onto the device through iTunes; however, that’s not presently working for me. I still think this is something that should be able to be managed on-device, but it’s good to know that custom ringtones are not entirely dead after all. Sorry about that.

Update: I got it to work by not following Apple’s directions. Instead of dragging the file to the sidebar of iTunes, I opened the Tones playlist on my iPhone and dragged it directly in there. Once it’s there, by the way, there’s no way to remove it through either iTunes or on an iPhone. Also, for what it’s worth, it appears that you can use these same drag-and-drop steps with .ipa iPhone app files as well, rendering my complaints in this post unwarranted. Based on how much this feels like a hack, though, I’d be willing to bet these steps aren’t going to last much longer.

Update: You can also make ringtones using GarageBand for iOS.

New Apple Developer Videos

WWDC told half the story of Metal 2, ARKit, and design across Apple’s platforms; this batch of developer sessions tells the rest. Apple has just opened up the App Store to apps built for iOS 11, WatchOS 4, and tvOS 11 and, while there will be plenty of fresh, exciting bits available out of the gate, it’s clear that some developers won’t be resting quite yet.

Apple Posts Human Interface Guidelines for Apps on iPhone X

Most of these guidelines are exactly what you’d expect, but there are a few intriguing nuggets. For example, about the notch:

Don’t mask or call special attention to key display features. Don’t attempt to hide the device’s rounded corners, sensor housing, or indicator for accessing the Home screen by placing black bars at the top and bottom of the screen.

Apple wants developers to treat the display as though it were still a perfect rectangle, but to be mindful of the notch1 and rounded corners. They do advise developers not to place controls near the edges of the display, particularly at the very top and bottom; but, the display’s extremities are treated more like padding, which ought to give the display a more immersive experience.

This is very different from the way Apple has treated the OLED display in the Apple Watch, which is “designed to blur the boundaries between device and software”. Designers and developers are advised to use the full display, edge-to-edge, because the “Apple Watch bezel provides a natural visual padding around your content that eliminates the need for additional padding”. The iPhone X has a similar edge bezel; I’m curious about the choice not to embrace similar ideas. Perhaps it’s simply because iOS primarily uses white or near-white UI components — if that’s the case, will this change, maybe in iOS 12?

Don’t duplicate system-provided keyboard features. On iPhone X, the Emoji/Globe button and Dictation button automatically appear beneath the keyboard—even when using custom keyboards. Your app can’t affect these buttons, so avoid causing confusion by repeating them in your keyboard.

You can see this in action about a third of the way down the iOS on iPhone X page in the iMessage screenshot. The area around the keyboard switcher has long been cramped; this is a terrific refinement, and I’m glad to see Apple taking over the keyboard switcher functionality in third-party keyboards.

Update: Something to consider from Ian Parker’s 2014 interview with Jony Ive:

[…] He picked up his iPhone 6 and pressed the home button. “The whole of the display comes on,” he said. “That, to me, feels very, very old.” (The iPhone 6 reached stores two weeks later.) He went on to explain that an Apple Watch uses a new display technology whose blacks are blacker than those in an iPhone’s L.E.D. display. This makes it easier to mask the point where, beneath a glass surface, a display ends and its frame begins. An Apple Watch jellyfish swims in deep space, and becomes, Ive said, as much an attribute of the watch as an image. On a current iPhone screen, a jellyfish would be pinned against dark gray, and framed in black, and, Ive said, have “much less magic.”


  1. It’s still unclear to me whether Apple is referring to when they use the term “TrueDepth Camera System”. Is it the technology in the notch, or is it the notch itself? Phil Schiller seemed to use both meanings during today’s keynote. ↩︎

Equifax’s Maddening Unaccountability

Two great pieces in the New York Times on the Equifax hack, which I will continue to post about so that none of you forget that they just lost 143 million Social Security numbers.

Farhad Manjoo:

If a bank lost everyone’s money, regulators might try to shut down the bank. If an accounting firm kept shoddy books, its licenses to practice accounting could be revoked. (See how Texas pulled Arthur Andersen’s license after the Enron debacle.)

So if a data-storage credit agency loses pretty much everyone’s data, why should it be allowed to store anyone’s data any longer?

Here’s one troubling reason: Because even after one of the gravest breaches in history, no one is really in a position to stop Equifax from continuing to do business as usual. And the problem is bigger than Equifax: We really have no good way, in public policy, to exact some existential punishment on companies that fail to safeguard our data. There will be hacks — and afterward, there will be more.

Zeynep Tufekci:

Perhaps the most maddening part of the Equifax breach is that the credit-rating industry is itself unforgiving in its approach to even the smallest error. I’m still dealing with the damage to my credit rating that resulted when I forgot to return a library book and a collection agency was called in (for a paltry sum). The Equifax executives who let my data be stolen will probably suffer fewer consequences than I will for an overdue library book. Even if they do get fired, it is likely that they will be sent off with millions of dollars in severance, which is common practice for executives. (I would like to note that I am available for such punishment any time.)

I don’t think Equifax’s executives should be nailed to the underside of their cars by their toenails and driven through the Arizona desert landscape or anything, but there has to be some accountability here. As soon as possible, there should simply be no choice but to comply with security standards that I bet most people would assume are standard practice.

John Risby’s Apple Support Experience

John Risby was not treated as well as he should have been while trying to get his 15-inch MacBook Pro replaced over a known manufacturing defect:

They used to — or at least I seem to remember they used to — act like a a prestige car company. Stupidly expensive, yes, but in return the dealer knows you by name and they treat you as more than just another faceless customer.

Sadly Apple seem to have stopped trying to be the Porsche or Ferrari of computers, while keeping the same prices — or, in the case of this Macbook range, actually putting the prices up — but decided to adopt the customer services policies of a dodgy used car lot.

As Michael Tsai wrote, I’m not sure that it’s fair to treat this admittedly terrible experience as the new norm. However, the Apple Store is increasingly feeling, to me, like a more typical retail experience set inside gorgeous architecture.

There’s the little stuff: the up-selling that I had to repeatedly turn down when buying my 2017 iPad — no, I don’t want to buy an iPad Pro; no, I don’t need a larger-capacity device; no, I don’t need AppleCare, thank you — and the time that I went in for an iPhone 6S battery replacement and they didn’t have the battery in stock, despite me making the appointment explicitly about that issue.

And then there’s the more egregious stuff, like how they don’t offer a loaner unit while a machine is being serviced:

Apple, in their unquestionable wisdom, refuse to lend replacement computers when a machine has to go in for repair. I can understand this as a general policy, but sometimes — like maybe when you’ve had two laptops costing around 3k each in the space of 3 months, both faulty from the factory, countless trips to various stores, travel costs, petrol, toll roads, days off work, been called a liar etc — sometimes, you think they’d find a laptop to lend.

But no, they simply refuse.

Amazingly, a number of staff over the months suggested the solution I eventually used — to buy a new Macbook with the express intention of using it while mine was repaired and then return it under their 14 day returns policy. At one point I even considering buying everything I could afford just to mess with them. But I decided that was a tad childish.

Several years ago, about ten months after buying my top-of-the-line MacBook Air, I noticed a cluster of dead pixels on the display. As I was within the warranty period and I also had AppleCare, it should be a piece of cake to get that fixed.

Unfortunately, instead of being able to order the part in and having them swap the display in a matter of a few hours, I would have had to leave my computer with them for a week. I was in the middle of a project at the time, so I had to come back to the store a second time when it was least-inconvenient for me to be without my primary — and, realistically, only — computer. I didn’t have the cash sitting around to be able to just buy another computer, either. I get that there may have been several people in front of me, but why couldn’t they simply give me a call when they were ready to service my machine?

After I got it back, I noticed that the display had another defect. It is a minor one, and I wasn’t able to be without my Mac for yet another week at the time, so I have lived with it.

I get that one of the reasons Apple has been able to build a mountain of cash to be able to reinvest in the company is by effectively balancing their rapidly-rising income with reasonable expenditures. Building a new and exciting headquarters for employees is totally great, as is buying up renewable energy and investing in R&D.

But it disappoints me that the Apple Store seems to have been forgotten a little bit, at least on the inside. I’m not expecting Rolls Royce-level service but, as a long-time customer, I remember it being better.

See Also: Apple’s support gap, which I wrote last year. Since then, the Support app has become available in more countries, including Canada.

Update: Some additional support-related tidbits from the last year or so by me, Joel Spolsky, and Dr. Drang.

D22 and iOS 11 GM Leaks

John Gruber, on this weekend’s massive leak of the golden master build of iOS 11:

I wish I could say more about how I know what I know, but it’s good to see the BBC confirm this. The BBC doesn’t say definitively that the leak was sent by an Apple employee, but I can state with nearly 100 percent certainty that it was. I also think there’s a good chance Apple is going to figure out who it was.

Earlier this year, I was thinking about how amazing it was that a product as closely-watched as Apple’s next iPhone had not yet leaked in a substantial way. Yes, there were the occasional and inevitable part leaks showing a vertical cutout for the camera on the back, and there were lots of rumours about the new virtually bezel-less hardware and 50% greater pixel density display, but there was very little actually known.

And then the HomePod firmware leak happened, and gave everyone a rough idea of what the device would look like. A few codenames were found as well, some more obvious than others.

And then this weekend’s GM leak spilled everything wide open.

The thing I don’t understand is simply why someone would do this. It’s not an early tease of a few new features, like the lost (or stolen) iPhone 4 was, nor is it early enough for a competitor to be able to change course. Apple’s event is on Tuesday, so this leak is just a massive spoiler for anyone who likes surprises, and all the staff who have worked really hard to keep these products secret.

To be clear: I have no problem with 9to5Mac or Steven Troughton-Smith picking their way through the firmware. But I think the Apple employee who did this was acting selfish by sending these links to rumour sites. It’s the kind of stupid act that is likely to create a more restricted environment for future software and hardware.

Equifax’s Breach Response Is Inadequate, Insecure, and Dangerous

Brian Krebs:

I cannot recall a previous data breach in which the breached company’s public outreach and response has been so haphazard and ill-conceived as the one coming right now from big-three credit bureau Equifax, which rather clumsily announced Thursday that an intrusion jeopardized Social security numbers and other information on 143 million Americans.

There isn’t a single aspect of Equifax’s response to their catastrophic breach that is not in some way deeply flawed, irresponsible, insecure, flippant, or dangerous. From the poorly-secured website they — or, more likely, Edelman PR — slapped together to the inconsistent and effectively useless safety checker,1 it is, as Krebs put it, a dumpster fire.

Even the FAQs are inadequate. For instance:

Why am I learning about this incident through the media? Why didn’t Equifax notify me directly?

Equifax issued a national press release in order to notify U.S. consumers of this incident and has established a website, www.equifaxsecurity2017.com, where U.S. consumers can receive further information.

That isn’t a response, it’s a dodge. The reason Equifax didn’t notify customers directly is because then the news would have leaked before it was timed for the close of markets on Thursday. One may reasonably argue that this is fair from a PR perspective, but their delayed response clearly puts shareholders above consumer protection.

Krebs provides some useful advice, too:

First off, all consumers have the legal right to instant access to their credit report via the Web site, annualcreditreport.com. This site, mandated by Congress, gives consumers the right to one free credit report from each of the three major bureaus (Equifax, Trans Union and Experian) every year.

Second, all consumers have a right to request that the bureaus “freeze” their credit files, which bars potential creditors or anyone else from viewing your credit history or credit file unless you thaw the freeze (temporarily or permanently).

But — and you’re not going to believe this — even Equifax’s credit freezing is flawed.

Tony Webster:

OMG, Equifax security freeze PINs are worse than I thought. If you froze your credit today 2:15pm ET for example, you’d get PIN 0908171415.

… I got mine a decade ago and now that I see it, it followed the same format back in 2007

A series of digits that exactly correspond with the time the freeze was implemented is not a personal identification number. While the average person is notoriously poor at picking passwords, there should at least be something more unique and secure than the date and time the credit freeze was requested.


  1. I have no idea what’s going on with that checker. The surname field doesn’t appear to be used — I tried with the last name “Butthead”, because I am an adult, and “123456” as the six SSN digits, and was notified that “my” information may have been compromised. ↩︎

Siri Is Transforming Into the Glue for Apple’s Next Ecosystem

Dan Moren, Macworld:

More to the point, Siri isn’t just, well, Sir anymore. In addition to the agent you talk to—and who talks back to you—Siri has become Apple’s catch-all for a variety of intelligent technologies designed to predict how you want to use your device: what apps you want to launch, what things you want to search for, even what you want to say. It’s all part of Apple’s very assistant-like attempt to help you figure out what you need before you know you need it. Perhaps the most prominent example of that is the Siri watch face in the upcoming watchOS 4, which displays contextual information and controls depending on your time and location.

So, Siri is available to us via pretty much all of our devices, and it reaches deep into the operating systems that run them. But it’s not yet taken the step that will turn it from a feature into a game-changing way for us to interact with technology. In order for that to happen, there are still a few steps along the way.

I love Moren’s way of framing a ubiquitous Siri that doesn’t care what device you’re using, and becomes a sort of universal layer above an operating system. But there’s a long road in front of anything like that. It would help if it could maintain context or not be completely disobedient, for a start.

For what it’s worth, I love the Siri face in WatchOS 4; it completely changes how I use my Apple Watch, especially with fitness updates, reminders, and rain notifications served up when relevant. I like Siri’s new voice in iOS 11. But these seem like incremental improvements when you consider that Siri has been integrated with iOS for six years now. Yet, I had hoped for far more progress in iOS 11, especially considering the HomePod’s forthcoming release.

Movie Studios Are Blaming Rotten Tomatoes for a Miserable Summer

Brooks Barnes, New York Times:

Studio executives’ complaints about Rotten Tomatoes include the way its Tomatometer hacks off critical nuance, the site’s seemingly loose definition of who qualifies as a critic and the spread of Tomatometer scores across the web. Last year, scores started appearing on Fandango, the online movie ticket-selling site, leading to grousing that a rotten score next to the purchase button was the same as posting this message: You are an idiot if you pay to see this movie.

Just thinking aloud here, but have these studios considered — oh I don’t know — making better movies? For example:

Kersplat: Paramount’s “Baywatch” bombed after arriving to a Tomatometer score of 19, the percentage of reviews the movie received that the site considered positive (36 out of 191). Doug Creutz, a media analyst at Cowen and Company, wrote of the film in a research note, “Our high expectations appear to have been crushed by a 19 Rotten Tomatoes score.”

“Baywatch” did poorly because it was a terrible film — all critics did was confirm that fact. If you filter its Rotten Tomatoes page to show only reviews from top critics, the news isn’t much better: just 23% of them were okay with the movie.

Browse through Rotten Tomatoes’ summer scorecard and you’ll note that many of the bigger-budget films were simply not good. And, yet, most of them found an audience. People went to see “The Emoji Movie”, despite it being objectively appalling; people even went to go see “The Mummy”, and the latest “Transformers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, despite both of those getting crappy reviews.

But the better films of the summer — “Baby Driver”, “Wonder Woman”, “Girls Trip”, and “Dunkirk” — performed even better at the box office. Maybe that’s a clue: it’s not the fault of Rotten Tomatoes for pointing out that bad movies are bad, but the fault of studios for making expensive bad films. So, maybe make better movies.

Arbitration Clauses Lean on the Scales of Justice

Cabel Sasser and Zack Whittaker have each noticed that Equifax requires them to agree to TrustedID’s terms of service before confirming whether their private information was impacted by Equifax’s security breach. The catch? TrustedID’s terms include a binding arbitration clause:

By consenting to submit Your Claims to arbitration, You will be forfeiting Your right to bring or participate in any class action (whether as a named plaintiff or a class member) or to share in any class action awards, including class claims where a class has not yet been certified, even if the facts and circumstances upon which the Claims are based already occurred or existed.

Attorney Michael Fuller confirmed Sasser and Whittaker’s interpretation of this on Twitter. Similar arbitration clauses have become extremely common amongst software and technology companies especially. Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Robert Gebeloff wrote about this in 2015 for the New York Times:

By banning class actions, companies have essentially disabled consumer challenges to practices like predatory lending, wage theft and discrimination, court records show.

“This is among the most profound shifts in our legal history,” William G. Young, a federal judge in Boston who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, said in an interview. “Ominously, business has a good chance of opting out of the legal system altogether and misbehaving without reproach.”

Equifax’s responsibility was to securely hold the private data of half the American population. One of their other jobs is to provide services that monitor for the misuse of that private data. They failed at their primary job and, to have even a hope of succeeding at their other job, people must agree not to sue TrustedID. That may not be a protection racket, but it sure sounds duplicitous and unethical.

Update: New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman:

This language is unacceptable and unenforceable. My staff has already contacted @Equifax to demand that they remove it.

In this instance, at least, the right thing may be done. But arbitration clauses ought to be found unenforceable altogether for consumer terms of service agreements.

On Equifax’s Offer of Their Own Credit Monitoring Service

Brian Krebs:

Credit monitoring services rarely prevent identity thieves from stealing your identity. The most you can hope for from these services is that they will alert you as soon as someone does steal your identity. Also, the services can be useful in helping victims recover from ID theft.

My advice: Sign up for credit monitoring if you can, and then freeze your credit files at the major credit bureaus (it is generally not possible to sign up for credit monitoring services after a freeze is in place). Again, advice for how to file a freeze is available here.

The fact that the breached entity (Equifax) is offering to sign consumers up for its own identity protection services strikes me as pretty rich. Typically, the way these arrangements work is the credit monitoring is free for a period of time, and then consumers are pitched on purchasing additional protection when their free coverage expires. In the case of this offering, consumers are eligible for the free service for one year.

There may be nothing inherently unethical about Equifax using a product of their own to try to assist people affected by their breach, but it feels scummy. Even if Equifax disables subscription renewal notices for anyone who takes advantage of their offer — and I sincerely doubt they will — it still looks like they’re taking advantage of one of the worst data breaches in recent history to pitch one of their products.

143 Million Americans’ Highly Sensitive Data Leaked From Equifax

Bill Brenner, writing on Sophos’ Naked Security blog:

To understand how bad the data breach at Equifax is, consider this: the US has a population of approximately 324m people. The credit services provider says its breach may have affected up to 143m Americans: nearly half the population is potentially involved.

[…]

What kinds of customer data did the culprits access? Names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and, in some instances, driver’s license numbers, according to Equifax chairman and CEO Richard Smith. In addition, he said, credit card numbers for approximately 209,000 US consumers and certain dispute documents with personal identifying information for approximately 182,000 US consumers were accessed.

Equifax apparently discovered this breach on July 29, and it’s huge — not only in quantity, but in the kind of information that was leaked. Equifax is one of three major credit rating agencies in the United States, and their reports have the power to approve or reject housing, transportation, and financial services for millions of Americans.

Moreover, the leak of tens of millions of Social Security numbers is likely to wreak havoc, as it’s basically a single birth-to-death numerical identifier for all Americans with very few restrictions protecting its use. Electronic Privacy Information Center executive director Marc Rotenberg, as quoted by Jason Koebler, Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, and Derek Mead for Vice:

It is important to emphasize the unique status of the Social Security Number in the world of privacy. There is no other form of individual identification that plays a more significant role in record-linkage and no other form of personal identification that poses a greater risk to personal privacy.

Justin Paterno:

Equifax: you missed a cc payment 3 yrs ago. How irresponsible. Good luck buying a home

Also, Equifax: Your SSN’s were hacked. Shit happens

But wait — there’s more to this story. Anders Melin, Bloomberg:

Three Equifax Inc. senior executives sold shares worth almost $1.8 million in the days after the company discovered a security breach that may have compromised information on about 143 million U.S. consumers.

The trio had not yet been informed of the incident, the company said.

So, to summarize: Equifax is a private corporation that retains extremely confidential records of tens of millions of Americans’ financial habits. They are disclosing this breach over a month after it was discovered. Members of their executive team sold nearly $2 million worth of shares shortly after it was discovered, and the company’s defence is that these executives were not informed of a major confidential data breach within several days of it occurring. Got all that?

Wait, what? Members of their executive team weren’t immediately informed?

Equifax is offering a year of their own credit monitoring services, but I’m guessing that the fallout from this breach will last for a decade or more, based on the size and scope of this data set.

At this point, it’s very likely that different pieces of your personal and confidential data have been leaked multiple times in the last ten years. The last couple of years have been especially bad for big breaches: you may remember that personal details from hundreds of millions of people were leaked from a Republican National Committee database, or repeated announcements from Yahoo, or announcements from various other social networks.

At this point, if you live on Earth and have ever used money or the internet, your personal information has probably been leaked.

And, yet, there seems to be very little accountability. Between nefarious incidents, corporate acquisitions, and information sharing agreements, user data gets shuffled around all the time with seemingly no restrictions or adequate protections. Your consent to do this is probably buried in the privacy policies that almost nobody reads before agreeing to.

There’s a lot to be despondent about, but I think the most worrying thing is that there is almost no incentive for Equifax or any other company to take user privacy seriously. The company has already lost about $2 billion in value, and they might pay millions of dollars in fines. But in a year or two, do you really think it will make much of a difference? Earlier this year, even after several major security breaches were reported by Yahoo, Verizon still paid nearly the previously-agreed price to acquire the company. I genuinely doubt that, in a year, Equifax will still be feeling the effects of such a huge breach of responsibility.

The Long-Term Price of AMP

Ethan Marcotte:

I’ve had a few conversations with members of the Google AMP team, and I do believe they care about making the web better. But given how AMP pages are privileged in Google’s search results, the net effect of the team’s hard, earnest work comes across as a corporate-backed attempt to rewrite HTML in Google’s image. Now, I don’t know if these new permutations of AMP will gain traction among publishers. But I do know that no single company should be able to exert this much influence over the direction of the web.

Marcotte’s concerns echo my own.

Here’s the thing: if AMP were pitched by a big web company that is not Google and was similarly preferred in search results, I would not find it quite as objectionable — I would still object, but I don’t think it would be quite as serious an issue. If AMP were not preferenced by Google in search results, I would have less of a problem. If AMP did not require a Google-hosted JavaScript file to render correctly and be validated, I would have less of a problem.

But it is all of these things combined that creates a conflict-of-interest problem and makes AMP objectionable. Add to that Google’s already-dominating power on the web — in search, email, analytics, advertising, video, maps, music, and more — and it makes Google’s push for publishers to adopt AMP as a total power grab.

If AMP is anything other than a power grab, then Google should have no problem submitting its spec to W3C and untangling its own involvement in it other than through official W3C channels. I doubt that they will ever do that.

Behind Siri’s New Voice

David Pierce, Wired (sorry):

This fall, when iOS 11 hits millions of iPhones and iPads around the world, the new software will give Siri a new voice. It doesn’t include many new features or tell better jokes, but you’ll notice the difference. Siri now takes more pauses in sentences, elongates syllables right before a pause, and the speech lilts up and down as it speaks. The words sound more fluid and Siri speaks more languages, too. It’s nicer to listen to, and to talk to.

Apple spent years re-architecting the technology behind Siri, transforming it from a virtual assistant into the catch-all term for all the artificial intelligence powering your phone. It has relentlessly expanded into new countries and languages (for all its faults, Siri’s by far the most worldly assistant on the market). And slowly at first but more quickly now, Apple has worked to make Siri available anywhere and everywhere. Siri now falls under the control of Craig Federighi, Apple’s head of software, indicating that Siri’s now as important to Apple as iOS.

I’ll have a bit more to say about my experiences with Siri’s new voice when iOS 11 ships, but my impression closely matches Pierce’s: there’s something far nicer about it. It’s down to very subtle factors, as he points out: slight variations in the way words are said depending on what comes next, for example. These tweaks do far more than you’d expect; they’re not just cosmetic.

There’s something else in this piece, too, which I found quite revealing:

From the beginning, [Greg Jozwiak] says, Apple wanted Siri to be a get-shit-done machine. It drives him crazy that people compare virtual assistants by asking trivia questions, which always makes Siri look bad. “We didn’t engineer this thing to be Trivial Pursuit!” he says.

It doesn’t matter how Siri was engineered or what it was intended to do; what matters is how people actually use it for real. Because its UI is largely non-visual and Siri has always been marketed as something that can assist you with lots of tasks, people are going to try different things with it. Perhaps those comparison tests truly don’t show Siri’s best side, but they do show an area of deficiency that is reflected in the real world.

‘An Incredibly Destructive Force’

Earlier today, I linked to a rather terrible op-ed in the Washington Post accusing Steve Jobs of creating the Trump presidency.

Jobs himself characterized what would eventually become the defining thrust of the Trump presidency before he died, in fact, as written in his biography by Walter Isaacson and quoted here by Steve Myers in Poynter:

“You’re blowing it with Fox News,” Jobs told him over dinner. “The axis today is not liberal and conservative, the axis is constructive-destructive, and you’ve cast your lot with the destructive people. Fox has become an incredibly destructive force in our society. You can be better, and this is going to be your legacy if you’re not careful.”

Via Fark user “theflatline”.

Shiva Ayyadurai’s Idiotic Lawsuit Against Techdirt Has Been Dismissed

Cyrus Farivar, Ars Technica:

A federal judge in Massachusetts has dismissed a libel lawsuit filed earlier this year against tech news website Techdirt.

The claim was brought by Shiva Ayyadurai, who has controversially claimed that he invented e-mail in the late 1970s. Techdirt (and its founder and CEO, Mike Masnick) has been a longtime critic of Ayyadurai and institutions that have bought into his claims. “How The Guy Who Didn’t Invent Email Got Memorialized In The Press & The Smithsonian As The Inventor Of Email,” reads one Techdirt headline from 2012.

Numerous articles that dubbed Ayyadurai a “liar” and a “charlatan” followed. That, in turn, led to Ayyadurai’s January 2017 libel lawsuit.

Good.

Masnick will still have to pay legal fees, which is unfortunate, and Ayyadurai will drag this thing into appeal which is going to cost Techdirt even more. All states should have anti-SLAPP laws to help prevent this kind of nonsense in the first place, and require those filing dumb lawsuits such as this to pay legal costs if they lose.

In case you’re wondering, Google’s instant answer box still says that Ayyadurai invented email, and of the ten normal search results displayed on the first page, five are links to either Ayyadurai’s own websites or puffy articles about him.

Facebook Discloses Information About 2016 Presidential Election Ads Linked to Russian Company

Scott Shane and Vindu Goel, New York Times:

Providing new evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Facebook disclosed on Wednesday that it had identified more than $100,000 worth of divisive ads on hot-button issues purchased by a shadowy Russian company linked to the Kremlin.

Most of the 3,000 ads did not refer to particular candidates but instead focused on divisive social issues such as race, gay rights, gun control and immigration, according to a post on Facebook by Alex Stamos, the company’s chief security officer. The ads, which ran between June 2015 and May 2017, were linked to some 470 fake accounts and pages the company said it had shut down.

Via John Gruber, who writes:

$100,000 (for about 3,000 total ads) is chump change for Facebook. In fact, chump change is probably too strong a word. Facebook reported $9.3 billion in revenue last quarter. There are 86,400 seconds in a day, and about 91 days per fiscal quarter. That means Facebook generates about $1,200 in revenue every second of every day.

Gruber’s right. $100,000 also isn’t a lot of money for a single major advertiser to spend — the Trump campaign spent 1,500 times as much. But it is a decent-sized lump of money for a single company that is ostensibly associated with a foreign government to spend on political ads — any money is a lot to spend by a government-connected company on ads for hot-button issues in another country.

See Also: Zeynep Tufekci on Twitter.

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Watch

Jenny Odell (PDF) contributed this piece to the Museum of Capitalism’s opening exhibition:

On July 2017, a visitor to the Museum of Capitalism contributed a watch (from here on referred to as “our watch”) to the museum’s artifact drive. In his form, he noted that Folsom & Co., a supposedly San Francisco-based company, used Instagram to offer the watch “free,” but with $7 shipping.

[…]

The page on the customer review site trustpilot.com that is supposed to be for Folsom & Co. instead contains reviews of a company called So coastal, which also sells “free” watches that are poorly reviewed. #So coastal shows up as a hashtag included in some of Folsom & Co.’s Instagram posts, alongside other misleading or nonsensical hashtags like #newyorkfashionweek (not during New York Fashion Week), or #foreverandeverdior. Looking further, So coastal turns out to be a near-identical website to Folsom & Co., except that it claims to be in the South of Fifth neighborhood of Miami Beach, with products inspired by Miami neighborhoods and phenomena, like “Art Basal (sic).” Our watch, called “The Jones” by Folsom & Co., is called “The Elite” by So coastal.

Literally the only difference between the sites is where they claim to be based. Folsom & Co. draws on the San Francisco hipster-barbershop aesthetic circa 2010, and names its watches after streets in San Francisco. So coastal, on the other hand, strives to seem more beachy, offering sunglasses in addition to watches. The header image of So coastal’s site is a royalty-free stock image of a surfer from Shutterstock. (Folsom and Co.’s header image, meanwhile, is ripped from an article about Simple Watch Company, an Australian brand.)

I absolutely love this piece.

Tangentially, you’ve got to wonder how many different industries have been radically overhauled by the rise of fast fashion. Half of the stores in your average mall and a bunch of the kiosks seem to be selling effectively the same products with different names on them. Go on Etsy these days and you can find dozens of copies of the exact same nautical-themed bracelet sold by different vendors. I’m not referring to similar-looking variants of the same item, but identical items sold under different brands.

As Odell notes in her piece, it isn’t any one factor — one-click DIY shopping websites, social media advertising, fast fashion, or increased access to fulfilment option — that has made this sort of thing possible. It’s all of those factors combined.

David Von Drehle’s Stupid Clickbait Article in the Washington Post

David Von Drehle, writing yesterday in the Washington Post:

Steve Jobs gave us President Trump

That is quite the headline. And you can probably see where it’s going already, can’t you?

Von Drehle compares Sen. Mitch McConnell to an abbott in a monastery, dutifully hand-writing and binding Bibles, then spends the next several paragraphs drawing the requisite comparison between the introduction of the iPhone to Gutenberg’s printing press, and how that helped fuel the Enlightenment and, by extension, the founding of the United States.

But one thing is clear after the election of 2016 — the first American election truly dominated by mobile communication and the social networking it sparks […]

Is it, though? Von Drehle’s use of the word “dominated” seems rather loose: the last U.S. Presidential election was huge on Twitter — if not at the same scale as this one, though I couldn’t find an equivalent official news release. The Atlantic specifically cited the effectiveness of Barack Obama’s social media strategy in their photo essay of the night, while one of the biggest stories of the night was Trump’s multi-tweet rant about the president losing the popular vote while winning the electoral college, despite that being false.

Von Drehle:

We saw last year that the power of the smartphone is vaporizing these [traditional functions of a political party]. Donald Trump captured the Republican ballot line even though he had no appreciable connection to the Republican Party. Nothing like it had ever happened to an American political party. Trump had his own access to television after decades as a public performer and provocateur. More important, though, was the way he leveraged his celebrity via smartphone. His millions of followers on Twitter and Facebook became a rapidly growing Party of Trump. His supporters felt a personal and authentic connection that left no room for mediation by GOP elites.

Considering this, it seems completely arbitrary to me cite Apple’s introduction of the iPhone under Steve Jobs as the single key thing that got Trump the presidency. Why not cite Heinrich Hertz for discovering electromagnetic waves, or Tim Berners-Lee for inventing the World Wide Web, or Jack Dorsey, et. al., for creating Twitter, or whoever was the project lead on the Samsung Galaxy S3, Trump’s personal phone?

It doesn’t need to be stated that the iPhone had an overwhelming impact on the industry. But its introduction did not make Trump president any more than it made Obama president. Citing Jobs as being a singlehanded force in either’s election is clickbait, and nothing more.

Von Drehle:

Moreover, it’s highly uncertain how much compromise is possible in this new age of direct connectivity. Any Democrat who votes for legislation that frees McConnell from a jam and gives the president an occasion to brag is likely to face a storm of Internet opposition.

In short, Pennsylvania Avenue is not the place to read the future of politics. Look instead toward Cupertino, Calif., where on Sept. 12 a new iPhone will remind us that change is the new normal.

Nice segue.

I like the Post; I’m even a subscriber. But this should never have moved past an editor, let alone be given the headline it ended up with. I would be fascinated to read an investigation of how direct connectivity enabled by social media gives the false impression of a celebrity like Trump being a relatable and personable guy. But slapping that headline on the article and devoting half of it to a meandering exploration of McConnell as an abbott turns this into empty clickbait more than a zeitgeist review.

Samsung’s Facial Recognition Feature Is Unreliable

Brian X. Chen, New York Times:

The iris scanner shines infrared light in your eyes to identify you and unlock the phone. That sounds futuristic, but when you set up the feature, it is laden with disclaimers from Samsung. The caveats include: Iris scanning might not work well if you are wearing glasses or contact lenses; it might not work in direct sunlight; it might not work if there is dirt on the sensor.

I don’t wear glasses or contact lenses and could only get the iris scanner to scan my eyes properly one out of five times I tried it.

When you set up the face scanner, Samsung displays another disclaimer, including a warning that your phone could be unlocked by “someone or something” that looks like you. (Hopefully you don’t have a doppelgänger in the primate kingdom.) In addition, face recognition is less secure than using a passcode. So why would you even use it?

Underscoring that last feature, Edoardo Maggio writes for Business Insider:

Web developer and user experience designer Mel Tajon ran a test with the Note 8, and found its facial recognition feature can be tricked with a photograph.

[…]

What’s worse is that even relatively low-quality pictures such as those uploaded on Facebook and Instagram can seemingly do the trick. “Confirmed: I’m also able to unlock the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 with people’s Facebook profile pics and Instagram selfies from my iPhone,” said Tajon.

Facial recognition may be hard, but if it doesn’t really work to reliably authenticate a specific user, why ship it at all?

Update: It has been pointed out to me that Tajon’s experience was with a Galaxy Note 8 in “kiosk” mode, which may not perfectly match the shipping device. I think that’s fair, but I also think it’s fair to consider that there’s a Touch ID demo on iPhones in Apple Stores, and it’s just as reliable as the shipping product. Also, as Chen notes, there is a disclaimer that appears when activating Samsung’s facial recognition feature, noting that similar-looking people could unlock the device. Do you think an iPhone with facial recognition would have a similar warning? I don’t.

The Persistence of Facebook

John Lanchester, in a lengthy essay for the London Review of Books, reviews three books published in the past year about Facebook and Silicon Valley’s dominance of the web generally:

What, though, if none of the above happens? What if advertisers don’t rebel, governments don’t act, users don’t quit, and the good ship Zuckerberg and all who sail in her continues blithely on? We should look again at that figure of two billion monthly active users. The total number of people who have any access to the internet – as broadly defined as possible, to include the slowest dial-up speeds and creakiest developing-world mobile service, as well as people who have access but don’t use it – is three and a half billion. Of those, about 750 million are in China and Iran, which block Facebook. Russians, about a hundred million of whom are on the net, tend not to use Facebook because they prefer their native copycat site VKontakte. So put the potential audience for the site at 2.6 billion. In developed countries where Facebook has been present for years, use of the site peaks at about 75 per cent of the population (that’s in the US). That would imply a total potential audience for Facebook of 1.95 billion. At two billion monthly active users, Facebook has already gone past that number, and is running out of connected humans. Martínez compares Zuckerberg to Alexander the Great, weeping because he has no more worlds to conquer. Perhaps this is one reason for the early signals Zuck has sent about running for president – the fifty-state pretending-to-give-a-shit tour, the thoughtful-listening pose he’s photographed in while sharing milkshakes in (Presidential Ambitions klaxon!) an Iowa diner.

Whatever comes next will take us back to those two pillars of the company, growth and monetisation. Growth can only come from connecting new areas of the planet. An early experiment came in the form of Free Basics, a program offering internet connectivity to remote villages in India, with the proviso that the range of sites on offer should be controlled by Facebook. ‘Who could possibly be against this?’ Zuckerberg wrote in the Times of India. The answer: lots and lots of angry Indians. The government ruled that Facebook shouldn’t be able to ‘shape users’ internet experience’ by restricting access to the broader internet. A Facebook board member tweeted that ‘anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?’ As Taplin points out, that remark ‘unwittingly revealed a previously unspoken truth: Facebook and Google are the new colonial powers.’

Much of this essay is stuff that you’ve read before, especially if you frequent this website. But to see it all in a single place and to pair it with observations about the depth and breadth of control that Facebook — and Google, and Amazon — has over the web is compelling. I regret reading this only now, and not before the long weekend, when many of you would have had more time to spend with it.

International Limitations on Apple Services

Andrew Marinov:

It’s been years since I’ve started filing radars and hoping that Apple would add my native Bulgarian language to iOS and with each new release, the release notes are the first thing I pour through, looking for any new language editions.

Unfortunately, though, not only is Apple seriously behind on language support, with each year new features come that are geolocked and exclusive.

With each release more and more functionality is being showcased in keynotes that’s out of the reach of a big part of the world.

In this post I’ll go through a couple of major features and see how iOS compares to Android in regard to localization.

I sort of understand why Siri doesn’t support as many languages or features internationally — the complexity of different syntaxes combined with international availability of other services makes it difficult, or even impossible, to achieve total feature consistency worldwide.

But the continued restriction of apps like News to just the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia baffles me. These three countries are officially English-only, but I don’t see how that affects an app that basically aggregates articles from local and international news sources. The recommendation engine is the only hangup that I can see, but even that is ostensibly powered by Siri, which is available in far more countries.

See Also: The international availability of Apple’s entertainment services from MacStories, last updated in 2014.

Questions About the Reliability of Scheduled Tasks in MacOS Sierra

Howard Oakley (via Michael Tsai):

Some time after 2011, it appears that Apple started moving its own scheduled and background services, like Time Machine backup, to use a novel dispatching system involving two services, Duet Activity Scheduler (DAS) and Centralised Task Scheduling (CTS), the latter being intimately related or a part of the lightweight communication and dispatching system XPC. No one outside Apple seems to know when this happened, as DAS and CTS are almost completely undocumented.

In Sierra, the DAS and CTS dispatching system now manages more than seventy activities at most times, one of which is Time Machine’s scheduled backups. However, in Sierra at least, this system has a bug which results in its breakdown: backups suddenly become irregular or stop altogether, and the other activities also become unreliable.

My MacBook Air is nearly always connected to power and my Thunderbolt Display which, in turn, is connected to an external hard drive. This drive is partitioned down the middle, with half being used for Time Machine and the other half holding my iTunes library.1 When I’m at my desk, I’m almost always listening to music, which means that this drive is almost always mounted. I would notice if this drive were unplugged.

And, yet, I received a notification last night that my Mac had not been backed up in thirteen days. Thirteen days is a long time for a computer to not be backed-up; I would have expected a notification sooner than that.2 A reboot of my Mac fixed this for me, but two things: requiring a restart to work around a bug like this seems a bit Windows-y, and a bug that prevents Time Machine from working consistently is a very serious bug indeed. I don’t know for absolute certain whether I ran into this specific bug, but I have used Time Machine since Leopard was released and I have never had anything like this happen to me before.

In fact, the only reason I restarted in the first place is because I remembered reading this on Tsai’s blog during the day yesterday — ironically, for a bug in MacOS’ scheduling system, the combination of Tsai’s post and encountering the bug was timed absolutely perfectly.


  1. Each partition is also cloned regularly via Super Duper. I recognize that this is not a backup system of the highest integrity. I’d like to go offsite, but I have serious reservations about Backblaze’s fiddling with file metadata. Update: More from Michael Tsai on Backblaze (scroll to the bottom of the post). ↩︎

  2. It’s definitely possible that I did get notified earlier but I missed it, for some reason. ↩︎

The Time When Google Got Forbes to Pull a Published Story

Kashmir Hill writes for Gizmodo about the time when she worked for Forbes and published an article about the influence of Google Plus sharing buttons — remember Google Plus? — on search rankings:

Google promptly flipped out. This was in 2011, around the same time that a congressional antitrust committee was looking into whether the company was abusing its powers.

Google never challenged the accuracy of the reporting. Instead, a Google spokesperson told me that I needed to unpublish the story because the meeting had been confidential, and the information discussed there had been subject to a non-disclosure agreement between Google and Forbes. (I had signed no such agreement, hadn’t been told the meeting was confidential, and had identified myself as a journalist.)

It escalated quickly from there. I was told by my higher-ups at Forbes that Google representatives called them saying that the article was problematic and had to come down. The implication was that it might have consequences for Forbes, a troubling possibility given how much traffic came through Google searches and Google News.

Hill includes an email at the end of this post from a Google vice president reiterating their understanding that what was said during that meeting was protected by a non-disclosure agreement, and that there was a miscommunication between Hill and the Forbes staff about that.

Even so, Google’s heavy influence on the continued financial viability of many online publishers allows them to exert a soft but definitive influence. It doesn’t really matter whether that power was communicated by Google or was simply a fear of Forbes’ management — the fear itself of losing traffic from Google properties or having advertising income withheld is enough to cause worry.

Behind the Scenes of AMP at Condé Nast

Oscar Perez of Condé Nast explains why they’ve switched on AMP pages across their publishing brands:

As a publisher, implementing AMP was a no-brainer. AMP delivers many benefits in terms of performance, consistency, and experience for our mobile users.

No, not that. This:

AMP increases the visibility and discoverability of our content by allowing it to be included in Google’s Top News Carousel, as well as improving the experience of regular Google search results.

That’s all it is: Google is the world’s most-used search engine and they’ve restricted one of their most prominent features to sites that use AMP, their own fork of HTML.1 And it works, obviously:

We went live with Google AMP on Vanity Fair a little over a year ago. Post-launch, the traffic and search rank results were very positive: click through rate from Google search went from 5.9% (Regular) to 10.3% (AMP), and average search position went from 5.9 (Regular) to 1.7 (AMP). Since then, we have deployed AMP across fifteen of our brands and we have been very pleased with the results. Today, AMP accounts for 79% of our mobile search traffic and 36% of our total mobile visits.

AMP allows website owners a quick and relatively easy way to juice their search rankings. That’s all this is. There are certainly other ways to create a beautiful and fast website, but none of them get a website into the very prominent news carousel at the top of Google search result pages and Google News.

Of course, AMP is not simply a web markup language — it mirrors pages on Google’s own CDN. But that’s a tradeoff publishers seem increasingly happy to make, largely because of Google’s power over their revenue streams. If a publisher generates a lot of their revenue from Google search, Google’s prioritization of AMP effectively requires that publishers adopt it or restructure their business model. In an era where media companies are struggling to cover their costs, that’s an easy choice for many of them to make.


  1. I got a little bit of pushback on Hacker News and Twitter last time I wrote this. Just to be clear: AMP’s specifications require that pages link to this script: https://cdn.ampproject.org/v0.js. For a page to be valid AMP HTML, it must include that JavaScript file, which is hosted by Google. ↩︎

A Serf on Google’s Farm

Josh Marshall, editor of Talking Points Memo, in a must-read piece about Google’s dominance of the web:

What all of this comes down to is that we at TPM – and some version of this is the case for the vast majority of publishers – are connected to Google at almost every turn. (I’ve only mentioned the big ones.) Running TPM absent Google’s various services is almost unthinkable. Like I literally would need to give it a lot of thought how we’d do without all of them. Some of them are critical and I wouldn’t know where to start for replacing them. In many cases, alternatives don’t exist because no business can get a footing with a product Google let’s people use for free.

But here’s where the rubber really meets the road. The publishers use DoubleClick. The big advertisers use DoubleClick. The big global advertising holding companies use Doubleclick. Everybody at every point in the industry is wired into DoubleClick. Here’s how they all play together. The adserving (Doubleclick) is like the road. (Adexchange) is the biggest car on the road. But only AdExchange gets full visibility into what’s availability. (There’s lot of details here and argument about just what Google does and doesn’t know. But trust me on this. They keep the key information to themselves. This isn’t a suspicion. It’s the model.) So Google owns the road and gets first look at what’s on the road. So not only does Google own the road and makes the rules for the road, it has special privileges on the road. One of the ways it has special privileges is that it has all the data it gets from search, Google Analytics and Gmail. There’s more I’ll get to in a moment but the interplay between DoubleClick and Adexchange is so vastly important to the entirety of the web, digital publishing and the entire ad industry that it is almost impossible to overstate. Again. They own the road. They make the rules for the road. And they get special privileges on the road with every new iteration of rules.

I could quote nearly every paragraph of this piece. Much of it you’ve probably heard before, but Marshall walks through Google’s total monopolization of the online media industry from a perspective rarely told.

On the Intercept, Conflicts of Interest, and Journalistic Independence

David Dayen of the Intercept published a piece today criticizing the New York Times for failing to indicate in their coverage of new Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi that Khosrowshahi is on the Times’ board of directors:

As long as Khosrowshahi stays in place, questions will inevitably be raised about the paper’s deeper enterprise reporting into Uber’s business practices. The Times has generally done a credible job in covering Uber. It has broken unflattering news, such as venture capital firm Benchmark suing Kalanick and the use of a secret program called “Greyball” to deceive legal authorities who banned the service in certain locations. It has reported on a woman in India who was raped by an Uber driver and the company’s efforts to cover it up. A large interactive spread on Uber’s “psychological tricks” to boost ridership ran in April.

But none of those pieces were published while Uber had a presence on the Times Company’s board. And it will be difficult to gauge the organization’s transparency going forward without being privy to internal deliberations among the editorial staff.

The independence of journalistic organizations and the extent to which their funding and governance impacts their coverage has long been a pet favourite topic of media critics. It’s not unwarranted — management at the Las Vegas Review-Journal were accused of manipulating articles related to the paper’s sale to Sheldon Adelson, and Buzzfeed spiked stories concerning certain advertisers.

But this is a bit of a funny story coming from the Intercept, given what co-founding editor Glenn Greenwald wrote three years ago concerning an apparent scandal:

This morning, I see that some people are quite abuzz about a new Pando article “revealing” that the foundation of Pierre Omidyar, the publisher of First Look Media which publishes The Intercept, gave several hundred thousand dollars to a Ukraininan “pro-democracy” organization opposed to the ruling regime. This, apparently, is some sort of scandal that must be immediately addressed not only by Omidyar, but also by every journalist who works at First Look. That several whole hours elapsed since the article was published on late Friday afternoon without my commenting is, for some, indicative of disturbing stonewalling.

Greenwald’s defences against Pando’s report — which implies a lack of editorial independence for the Intercept owing to Omidyar’s foundation’s donations1 — amounts to the following:

  • This isn’t a real scandal.

  • This isn’t a problem because Omidyar’s donations were publicized. By that same criteria, Khosrowshahi’s new job also isn’t a problem because the Times’ board of directors is public knowledge and Uber made a public announcement.

  • This isn’t a problem because the Intercept is journalistically independent from Omidyar’s personal beliefs and politics. By that same criteria, this isn’t a problem for the Times because their editorial staff is independent from their directors’ beliefs and politics.

    Greenwald is only too happy to share links to stories that prove the Intercept’s independence. Similarly, Dayen’s article about the appointment of Uber’s new CEO — as quoted above — links to several articles that show the Times’ indifference to how Uber or Khosrowshahi might feel about their coverage. Mike Isaac’s coverage of Khosrowshahi’s new job is highly critical of Uber. The Times’ board of directors also include former executives from Pandora, Verizon, Facebook, and other companies the Times has reported on, with seemingly no effect on their journalistic integrity.

Greenwald:

That funding [for quality journalism], by definition, is going to come from people rich enough to provide it. And such people are almost certainly going to have views and activities that you find objectionable. If you want to take the position that this should never be done, that’s fine: just be sure to apply it consistently to the media outlets and groups you really like.

Good point: consistency is important. For example, while Dayen knocks the Times for failing to indicate in their article that Khosrowshahi is a board member, prior articles on the Intercept that mention eBay — including one written by Dayen himself — do not state that funder Pierre Omidyar’s fortune comes primarily from eBay, which he founded.

Greenwald:

Journalists should be judged by the journalism they produce, not by those who fund the outlets where they do it. The real issue is whether they demand and obtain editorial freedom. We have. But ultimately, the only thing that matters is the journalism we or any other media outlets produce.

I couldn’t agree more, which is why I find Dayen’s article so baffling in its suspicion of the Times ability to maintain the quality of its coverage without executive meddling. Dayen even mentions that there’s “no indication the Times suppresses stories because of its board relationships”.

Media criticism is important. But generating a false controversy or creating an environment of mistrust is not the same thing, and — I think — muddies the message Dayen was trying to get across: when there may be even the impression of a conflict of interest, point it out. That goes for the Times; it also goes for the Intercept.


  1. Mark Ames, Pando:

    What all this adds up to is a journalistic conflict-of-interest of the worst kind: Omidyar working hand-in-glove with US foreign policy agencies to interfere in foreign governments, co-financing regime change with well-known arms of the American empire — while at the same time hiring a growing team of soi-disant “independent journalists” which vows to investigate the behavior of the US government at home and overseas, and boasts of its uniquely “adversarial” relationship towards these government institutions.

    ↩︎

The FCC’s Website Was Accepting Uploads of Virtually Any File Type

You might have already seen this amazing PDF that appeared earlier tonight on fcc.gov:

Dear American citizenry,

We’re sorry Ajit Pai is such a filthy spineless cuck.

Sincerely,

The FCC

That’s it. That’s the whole statement, with the exception of some FCC-like letterhead. It’s looks pretty much like an authentic FCC document, and it’s hosted on fcc.gov, so why would you doubt its authenticity? Aside from, you know, how obviously ridiculous it is.

Guise Bule explains:

Somewhat incredibly I am the first tech writer on the planet to break this story, but even more incredibly the FCC lets you upload any file to their website and make that file publicly accessible using the FCC.gov domain.

[…]

People seem to be experimenting uploading different filetypes, so far they have managed pdf/gif/ELF/exe/mp4 files up to 25MB in size, which means that you could easily host malware on the FCC.gov website right now and use it in phishing campaigns that link to malware on a .gov website.

For years, we’ve been helping our family members navigate dangers on the web by pointing out things like the HTTPS icon in a browser, so they can be more certain that what they’re downloading or interacting with is legitimate. And what could be more legitimate than a .gov domain with an SSL certificate?

Garbage Report Funded by ISPs Claims That Net Neutrality Comments on the FCC’s Website Are Worthless

Adam Clark Estes, Gizmodo:

The report in question comes from Emprata LLC, a DC-based data research company, and was paid for by Broadband for America, a big telecom lobbying group. That second detail is important, since the report ultimately claims that a larger proportion of the comments from verifiable addresses were in favor of repealing the open internet rules. On the flip side, Emprata found the vast majority of comments both for and against repealing the FCC’s open internet rules consisted of form letters, with many coming from “seemingly ‘fake’ email addresses.” These findings suggest that the protest against repeal is driven by bots and that more actual humans want the open internet rules repealed. Which certainly sounds like a conclusion that big telecom lobbyists would love. We’ve also seen evidence of the opposite being true.

It would be convenient for net neutrality advocates if the story was as simple as that. But as even the study itself admits, it’s “very difficult to draw any definitive conclusions from the comments found in the docket.” And it’s the FCC’s fault.

The vast majority of those who commented on the FCC’s proposal favour preservation of Title II classification for ISPs, but because many of them were submitted by people who either failed to provide complete contact information or used obviously phony email addresses, Emprata has managed to produce the conclusion that real people really want to repeal Title II classification. Never mind that thousands of those apparently real people were automated submissions.

Mind you, millions of real Americans supporting the preservation of net neutrality regulations is unlikely to have any effect on this hopeless FCC administration.

Essential Accidentally Starts a Mass Thread of Identification Requests

Dieter Bohn, the Verge:

Last night, some customers who had preordered an Essential phone received an email asking for a copy of their driver’s license, ostensibly to verify their address in an attempt to prevent fraud.

Dozens of customers replied with their personal information, but those emails didn’t just go to Essential; they went out to everybody who had received the original email. That means that an unknown number of Essential customers are now in possession of each other’s drivers license, birth date, and address information.

The incident is being reported as phishing by many outlets, because it looks and smells quite a lot like a phishing attempt: a weird request for personal information. After examining the email headers, it doesn’t look like this was an actual phishing attempt. It seems much more likely that this was a colossal screw up, the result of a misconfigured customer support email list.

It’s one thing to be late to ship preordered phones; it’s another to be late and uncommunicative. But this is almost cartoonishly sloppy.

Even if everything were correctly configured and this didn’t send replies to everyone in the thread, Essential should still have not requested users reply to an email with extremely personal information, like a copy of their driving license. Because it looks like a phishing attempt, recipients either won’t comply or are required to lower their defences. A better approach would be to request users send their driving license separately via a form or similar on the official Essential website in a way that would be accessible from a menu. That way, it makes it far clearer that this is an official and more secure request.

Spotify Won’t Enable Two-Factor Authentication

In 2015, Spotify user ThomasVH suggested that the company should enable two-factor authentication for user accounts. By then, two-factor authentication methods had become commonplace, especially after Mat Honan’s 2012 Wired article and loud calls for its adoption across the web in 2013.

Well, after two years of no activity, ThomasVH’s suggestion received an answer from Meredith at Spotify:

Hey @ThomasVH we’ve revisited this idea with the teams behind logging into Spotify. We’ve decided not to move forward with two-factor authentication at this time.

Last year, Sarah Perez of Techcrunch rightfully pointed out that a combination of password re-use and a lack of two-factor authentication lead to hundreds of Spotify accounts being compromised. User names and passwords for Spotify Premium show up all the time on illegitimate message boards. Password re-use is a problem, of course, but Spotify’s lack of willingness to implement a reasonable — if imperfect — precaution to protect accounts exacerbates the issue. They need to do better.

Tim Cook on Apple’s Moral Responsibilities

Andrew Ross Sorkin, New York Times:

And now Mr. Cook is one of the many business leaders in the country who appear to be filling the void, using his platform at Apple to wade into larger social issues that typically fell beyond the mandate of executives in past generations.

He said he had never set out to do so, but he feels he has been thrust into the role as virtually every large American company has had to stake out a domestic policy.

He was vocal, for example, in criticizing Mr. Trump after Charlottesville in a memo to his staff: “I disagree with the president and others who believe that there is a moral equivalence between white supremacists and Nazis, and those who oppose them by standing up for human rights. Equating the two runs counter to our ideals as Americans.”

Watching Mr. Cook over the years, I’ve been fascinated to see how he has become as animated when talking about big issues like education and climate change as he is when talking about Apple.

Though many of Apple’s environmental and ethical initiatives have roots during the Steve Jobs renaissance, these efforts have accelerated dramatically under Tim Cook. I applauded Cook’s response to a shareholder who questioned the company’s social commitments.

Even so, I feel as though Apple’s international tax avoidance strategies somewhat compromise their moral high ground. I think it’s great that Apple is stepping up to get diverse groups of community college students into programming, but perhaps they should simply pay taxes at a rate closer to what the tax code says it ought to be.

Revisiting the Touch Bar

Chuq Von Rospach got an iMac, which means that he’s spending less time with his Touch Bar-equipped MacBook Pro. And he hasn’t missed it all that much:

It seems to me Apple fell in love with the technology of the Touch Bar system, which if you dig into it a bit is a stunning piece of engineering, and expected all of us to fall in love with it as well. The problem is: Apple rarely sells things to us based on neat technology, it sells us based on the stories of how that technology will solve problems for us, and right now, the problems a Touch Bar solves for us that we care about being solved are few and far between.

Can Apple find the “killer app” (god, I hate that term) for the Touch Bar? It sure needs it. I’m not sure what that would be, though, but I want to give them another release cycle of MacOS for them to figure it out.

Von Rospach followed up on this today with a largely-speculative post centred around the idea that Touch ID is a transitional technology on the way to fast and accurate facial recognition that may find its way across Apple’s product line. What he doesn’t speculate on, however, is how the Touch Bar may be improved, especially if Touch ID — arguably the most useful aspect of Touch Bar-equipped Macs — goes away.

That’s fair; as Von Rospach says, I think Apple might be taking a bit of a wait-and-see approach while prototyping future versions of the Touch Bar. My hunch is that it needs some form of tactile feedback. The Taptic Engine is a good start, but I think it needs to be more precise so that the haptics feel like they’re coming from a specific point across the width of the bar, not a generalized click.

But I also wonder if the very concept of the Touch Bar is far better suited towards some industries than others. I can see film and audio editors potentially using it to navigate long timelines efficiently, but it’s probably not solving any problems for programmers. I’m almost certainly writing more based on what I want rather than what is logical, but I’d love to the Touch Bar become a simple configuration option for any MacBook Pro. Users who don’t need or want it don’t have to equip it, and could have all the performance they need with a traditional keyboard.

AMP Spec Advises Platforms to Share Canonical Link When Possible

Federico Viticci on Twitter last week:

Very nice: when sharing AMP pages to iMessage or Reading List, iOS 11 Safari automatically removes AMP’s crap from the URL. Go Apple

Malte Ubl, the creator and tech lead of AMP, responded on Hacker News:

Just wanted to clarify that we specifically requested Apple (and other browser vendors) to do this. AMP’s policy states that platforms should share the canonical URL of an article whenever technically possible. This browser change makes it technically possible in Safari. We cannot wait for other vendors to implement.

A simpler solution is to not implement AMP in the first place. That way, users and browsers alike don’t have to worry about which link to share — it’s always the right link.

Also, if the AMP Project’s advice is to share canonical links, not AMP links, then what’s the point of AMP pages? I don’t think browsers should redirect to an AMP version if the user is on a mobile device, and I sincerely doubt any browser vendor but Google would build in such capability. So if AMP’s own spec doesn’t see AMP links being used for general referrals, social network referrals, or direct links, then their only function seems to be links from Google searches. That seems silly.

WiFi Location Privacy

Adam Grossman of the Dark Sky weather app:

It helps tremendously that Dark Sky is a for-pay app. The old trope of “when you don’t pay for the product, you are the product” gets trotted out often, usually with regards to in-app advertising. But it takes on much more ominous overtones in the context of location privacy. And as long as it’s possible to secretly share location data, some app makers will do so.

Because of this, we also believe that Apple and Google should do more to prevent this sort of behavior. They should set — and aggressively enforce — clear App Store rules forbidding the sharing of location data for any purposes not directly relevant to the app’s core functionality. If an app is caught breaking this rule, it should be removed from the store. This won’t stop all abuse, but it would, at the very least, put many of these data monetization companies out of the business of tracking where you go.

Here’s the thing, though: Grossman’s suggested response has been in place for years. Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines:

Use Location services in your app only when it is directly relevant to the features and services provided by the app.

And, from the Apple Developer Program Information (PDF):

You agree not to use any network data or information from end-users to bypass or override any end-user settings, e.g., You may not track an end-user’s WiFi network usage to determine their location if they have disabled location services for Your Application […]

All Apple had to do in this case was enforce their own rules.1 I understand that something will occasionally slip through the cracks and it will sometimes be with a high-profile app, but this is really the sort of thing that should have been caught. I think it’s great that App Review times are much faster now than they used to be, but I hope a flub like this isn’t repeated.


  1. I didn’t find anything explicitly similar in Google’s developer policies. For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s malicious, but I do think that it’s indicative of Google’s more lax stance when it comes to user privacy. That is, if they truly cared about user privacy, they would be more likely to catch its omission from drafts of these policies. ↩︎

Martin Shkreli Continues His Quest to Be an Irredeemable Asshole for Fun and Sport

Maxwell Tani, writing at Business Insider in March:

Former pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli is trolling journalists who have written about him by purchasing the internet domains associated with their names.

A recent look at the domains bought by Shkreli noted that he bought domain names for at least 10 people in the past several months, 5 of whom work in media and have written and tweeted about the former Turing Pharmaceuticals founder.

Tani followed up on that story earlier this week:

After sitting on the domain names for months, Shkreli appears to be customizing the sites, explicitly mocking reporters who have tweeted about him.

A website named after Maya Kosoff, a tech reporter at Vanity Fair, welcomes the visitor and adds, “Here we honor one of the most vibrant Social Justice advocates today,” alluding to “social justice warriors,” a derisive slur associated with advocacy for liberal causes.

Shkreli wrote a similar message on a website he bought associated with Caroline Moss, an editor at CNBC. A site associated with her name welcomes visitors and says it has “everything you need to know about this CNBC safe spacer,” a reference to colleges’ so-called safe spaces, which are often mocked by the right.

Cyrus Farivar, Ars Technica:

Shkreli has been offering to sell at least one of the domain names back to the reporters for thousands of dollars. In a public Facebook post, Shkreli has offered to sell the EmilySaul.com domain for $12,000. Saul, a reporter for New York Post, declined to comment further on the incident.

“Unfortunately, due to company policy, I’m unable to answer any questions and must decline comment,” she e-mailed Ars. “Best of luck with your story.”

Shkreli responded to Farivar’s request for comment by asking “what is an ars technica?” [sic].

Louise Matsakis of Vice checked and it appears that Shkreli might be breaking the law by abusing domain names like this. And, while there’s absolutely no excuse for what Shkreli is doing here, it’s a good reminder to always own your name as a domain name whenever possible.

Alex McLevy of A.V. Club came up with a good idea, though:

Therefore, in the spirit of cooperation with Shkreli’s trolling desires (#trollgoals), The A.V. Club would like to offer him a tremendous deal, really super, no one else will get Shkreli a deal like this. I’d like to offer him the chance to use my domain, alexmclevy.com, for one month, to do with as he pleases, all for the low, low price of $44,185.50 — otherwise known as the exact monthly cost of a lifesaving twice-a-day prescription for Daraprim, the drug for treating infections in people with HIV, after Shkreli bumped the price up 5,455 percent from $13.50 to $736.43 a pill.

I’d say that’s fairly generous. I don’t work for the A.V. Club, but I’d also be happy to turn over the FTP details to nickheer.com for a month, in exchange for a $44,185.50 donation to amfAR.

Shkreli should also be aware that the domain martinshkreli.sucks appears to be available for the very reasonable price of $330.

AccuWeather Removes Reveal Mobile From Their iOS App

AccuWeather:

AccuWeather’s app employed a Software Development Kit (SDK) from a third party vendor (Reveal Mobile) that inadvertently allowed Wi-Fi router data to be transmitted to this third-party vendor. Once we became aware of this situation we took immediate action to verify the operation and quickly disabled the SDK from the IOS app. Our next step was to update the IOS app and remove Reveal Mobile completely. At no time was this data accessed or used by AccuWeather and we have received assurances from the vendor that the same is true for them. AccuWeather takes our customers’ privacy seriously and is committed to maintaining the highest level of compliance and protection.

If AccuWeather took their users’ privacy seriously, they wouldn’t have sold their location data to Reveal Mobile. Even if you believe that Reveal Mobile never used collected base station IDs for tracking purposes — and I don’t, because collecting and using available location data is their business model — why would you believe that AccuWeather wouldn’t try the same trick again?

Update: Will Strafach:

latest AccuWeather: no connections to Reveal now…but I do see my precise GPS long/lat/alt going to “nexage.com” (ad company).

See what I mean?

The Problems With Abandoned Apps

Marc Zeedar, writing in TidBits last month:

The looming threat that I see is abandoned apps. They have always been cluttering the edges of the App Store to an extent, but the number of abandoned apps has grown lately for three reasons:

  • The age of the App Store is such that even many wildly popular and successful apps have reached their natural end of life. It’s rare even in the desktop world for an app to exist for more than decade — technology just changes too much for many programs to stay relevant. Mobile apps live fast and die young.

  • Apple recently began deleting apps that developers haven’t updated in years, under the assumption that they aren’t being supported.

  • While Apple has required that apps be compiled for 64-bit for over a year, old 32-bit apps won’t even launch in iOS 11 (see “Apple to Deprecate 32-bit iOS Apps,” 15 May 2017).

Individually, none of these factors would be cause for undue alarm. But bringing all three together could result in a catastrophic tsunami for smaller developers.

In Zeedar’s case, nearly one in four apps he has on his iPhone and iPad are unsupported in iOS 11 because they’re 32-bit only. My hunch is that his case is an outlier; I have just two apps in 209 on my iPhone that are unsupported and a similar number on my iPad.

But even if you only have a couple of abandoned apps on your iPhone, you might still find the upgrade to iOS 11 somewhat jarring. One of the unsupported apps on my phone is Birdhouse. I forgot to export draft tweets from it prior to upgrading, so I’m pretty sure they’re gone for good, unless I feel like monkeying around in the file system. That’s not catastrophic data loss by any measure — it’s not even data loss, really — but it still sucks.

No, I haven’t used Birdhouse in a long time. Yes, I was warned upon trying to open it in iOS 10 that it was a 32-bit app and would be unsupported at some point in the future. No, I did not take action because it wasn’t a priority for me at the time. Yes, I understand that’s pretty short-sighted.

If this was MacOS, I could simply root around in the file system or find another app to open the same files. But that obviously isn’t always the case on iOS. Because it’s a sandboxed, tightly-controlled system, there aren’t shared data stores for apps. That’s great for security, privacy, and every other advantage that has ever been brought up during any debate about it — if I were in charge of iOS, I’m not sure I’d change that model. However, it is a model that exacerbates the effects of an abandoned app.

The solution is to use apps that support Dropbox or iCloud storage options. That doesn’t exactly fix apps which are abandoned today, though, does it?

The Ruinous Sameness of Kinja and Medium Websites

Earlier this year, Univision announced that the Onion, A.V. Club, and Clickhole would be moving to the Kinja CMS that they acquired along with Gizmodo Media Group. The Root also migrated to Kinja, as was Fusion, rebranded as Splinter. Today, the A.V. Club launched their new Kinja site.

This reminds me a little of the mass migration to Medium of a few notable publications last year. Kinja and Medium each have such uniquely-branded platforms that it makes it very difficult for me to remember which website I saw an article on — Gizmodo or Jezebel, Monday Note or any old Medium account. They all just sort of blur together on their respective platforms. That’s not to say the websites are ugly, per se, but they are generic, drab, and unidentifiable.

Change is afoot on the Medium side of things. Earlier this year, Film School Rejects and Pacific Standard moved away from the platform; this month, the Awl announced that they went back to WordPress with their old custom theme. The Ringer and Backchannel also left Medium. Once again, I can tell those sites apart from each other.

All of this is to say that I hope Clickhole and the Onion don’t look like Deadspin when they launch on Kinja. They’re very different websites, and their design should articulate that. I think the Onion would be markedly less funny if it didn’t look like a hard news website, and giving it the generic Kinja treatment would be a bleak milestone for one of the most consistently brilliant places on the web.

The Village Voice’s Print Edition Bites the Dust

Benjamin Mullin, Poynter:

The Village Voice, a storied progressive alt-weekly that has watchdogged New York’s political and business classes for more than half a century, is ending its print edition, its owner announced Tuesday afternoon.

The announcement is a symbolic blow for alternative weeklies across the United States, which have endured successive cuts and closures in recent years as print advertising revenue has dried up. The Village Voice, founded in 1955, is regarded as one of the first alt-weeklies and counts among its alumni crusading journalists and literary authors such as Wayne Barrett and Norman Mailer.

The New York Times carried today an editorial from ex-employee Tom Robbins:

It was a paper so famously cantankerous that Norman Mailer, a co-founder, quit writing for it out of rage over a copy-editing error; a paper where writers like Jack Newfield and Alexander Cockburn took up chunks of the letters page with pointed barbs against each other’s politics; where the poet and columnist joel oppenheimer wrote only in lower case; where the often feverish sentences of the dance critic Jill Johnston became an adventure in themselves; where the critic Ellen Willis properly called out the largely white male staff on their feminist failures.

It was a paper whose tabloid layout lent itself to Jules Feiffer’s wistful Village characters, and the often bizarre antics of the street people depicted by his fellow cartoonists Stan Mack and Mark Alan Stamaty. Its pages carried a constant stream of photographs by The Voice’s Fred McDarrah, who managed to capture everyone from the Village political boss Carmine DeSapio to Andy Warhol hard at work in the Factory.

There’s something about the shutting down of a print edition that makes any news publication feel somewhat lesser. Only so many newspapers and magazines can afford to layout and publish physical copies; on the web, the Voice is, on some level, just another website. Maybe it’s just nostalgia or some other illogical vibe, but that’s heartbreaking.

The good news is that the Voice still publishes quality work, like Fahmida Rashid’s piece on the vagarities of an education in cybersecurity.

Verizon Will Soon Limit Their Unlimited Plans

Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica:

Verizon Wireless will start throttling video streams to resolutions as low as 480p on smartphones this week. Most data plans will get 720p video on smartphones, but customers won’t have any option to completely un-throttle video.

1080p will be the highest resolution provided on tablets, effectively ruling out 4K video on Verizon’s mobile network. Anything identified as a video will not be given more than 10Mbps worth of bandwidth. This limit will affect mobile hotspot usage as well.

Verizon started selling unlimited smartphone data plans in February of this year, and the carrier said at the time that it would deliver video to customers at the same resolution used by streaming video companies. “We deliver whatever the content provider gives us. We don’t manipulate the data,” Verizon told Ars in February.

A brief aside: regular readers will be aware of how much I adore the strenuous euphemisms and clear contradictions that PR departments use for announcements like these. Verizon’s press release is actually titled “Verizon Unlimited”, the word “unlimited” is used twenty-two times, and the release contains a reference to business customers using jet packs without worrying about data costs — last I checked, jet packs are actually fairly bandwidth-friendly.

I think this is silly. Video is data just like anything else. Yes, it requires a much more robust network, but that’s something Verizon should have arguably been building out anyway. At the very least, this should not be billed as “unlimited”, when that’s clearly untrue.

CrashPlan Discontinues Their Consumer Remote Backup Service

Joe Kissell, TidBits:

I’ve been using CrashPlan since 2007, shortly after its initial release, and I was so impressed by it from day one that I’ve been evangelizing it ever since. I wrote a book about it; I recommended it in numerous other books, including “Backing Up Your Mac: A Joe On Tech Guide”; and it was (until today) my top pick in a Wirecutter round-up of online backup services. In short, I have had a significant personal and professional investment in CrashPlan, based on countless hours of research and testing — I’ve evaluated more than 100 backup apps! — and now, with a mixture of anger and disappointment, I have to tell you that it’s time to find something else.

This is a complete nightmare for customers; Kissell is one, of course, and Michael Tsai is another:

They’re keeping the small business plan, which at $10/month is twice the cost of the individual version (which itself had gone up quite a lot in recent years). This is the only transition option that will preserve your years of backup history. If you switch to another provider and later find out that you need to restore a version of a file from 2016, you’re out of luck. Plus, depending on your data set and connection speed — my mother has less than 100 GB of data but only a DSL connection — it may take months just to upload the current versions of your files to another provider.

Code42, the developers of CrashPlan, are working with ex-competitor Carbonite to offer a transition deal for CrashPlan Home users, but Kissell is wary of their service:

Unfortunately, while Carbonite is not bad on Windows, I would not recommend it to Mac users, because the Mac version offers neither versioning nor the option to use a personal encryption key. Plus, Carbonite artificially restricts upstream bandwidth, making it significantly slower than many competitors.

Meanwhile, oft-recommended Backblaze doesn’t create a byte-for-byte perfect backup, omitting app files and metadata the company deems unnecessary.

I’ve written recently about the risks of having the tech industry too consolidated behind a handful of largely-American companies. But, in the case of backups, I think I’d like an offering from a company that feels more robust. I’d love to see Apple come out with an iCloud-compatible Time Machine, for instance. While Apple, iCloud, and Time Machine aren’t perfect, I think I’d feel a lot more comfortable if they held onto my backups, rather than a smaller company that could get distracted at any time by a different industry — as Code42 did today.

Sebastian Sztabzyb on Building Phil & Sebastian

If you love your coffee and you’ve never heard of Phil & Sebastian, I think you’re really missing out. They roast some of the finest coffees on the planet, and they do an exceptional job every single time I visit one of their cafés or brew a cup with their beans at home. Co-founder Sebastian Sztabzyb appeared last week on the WorkNotWork podcast to explain how they evolved the company from a small stand at a farmer’s market into the vertically-integrated multi-location business of today. They have a very Apple-y, obsessive approach to coffee — both co-founders are ex-engineers, too — and you can clearly hear that in this interview.

AccuWeather’s iOS App Is Sending Location Information to a Data Monetization Firm

You’ll find AccuWeather near the top of the App Store charts for weather apps constantly, which raises the stakes of this advisory from Will Strafach:

The AccuWeather application for iOS requests location access under the premise of providing users localized severe weather alerts, critical updates, and faster launch time. Granting access to location information will also cause the application to send the following bits of information off to “revealmobile.com”:

  • Your precise GPS coordinates, including current speed and altitude.

  • The name and “BSSID” of the Wi-Fi router you are currently connected to, which can be used for geolocation through various online services.

  • Whether your device has bluetooth turned on or off.

Strafach also noticed that if you deny AccuWeather access to your location, Reveal Mobile will still get the WiFi router information, which can be used to derive your location.

Zack Whittaker, ZDNet:

For its part, Reveal Mobile executives said on a call last week with ZDNet that though company does collect Wi-Fi data and MAC address information, it “does not use it” for location data.

“Everything is anonymized,” said Brian Handley, the company’s chief executive. “We’re not ever tracking an individual device,” but described a situation where his company can point advertising to customers inside a Starbucks location, for example.

Just a few weeks ago, I linked to a piece in the Guardian by Alex Hern which showed that ostensibly anonymous web browsing data can be associated with individuals’ identity. I see no reason why that would be much different when collecting base station names at someone’s office, during their commute, and at home.

Whittaker again:

According to one AccuWeather executive, Reveal Mobile’s technology “has not been in our application long enough to be usable yet.”

“In the future, AccuWeather plans to use data through Reveal Mobile for audience segmentation and analysis, to build a greater audience understanding and create more contextually relevant and helpful experiences for users and for advertisers,” said David Mitchell, AccuWeather’s executive vice president of emerging platforms, on the call.

Even though it’s usually possible to get information about a product’s audience, it’s not always right to do so. In fact, if an explicit opt-in would make most users wince, I’d say that collecting deep analytics about them is ethically wrong.

To their credit, Reveal Mobile announced today that they are issuing an updated API that doesn’t collect any information that could be used to derive a user’s location — with the exception of IP addresses — if the user doesn’t allow the app to use location services.

Apple Releases Videos Showcasing iOS 11 on the iPad

I’ll have more to say on these in about a month, if past years’ timing is any guidance and I write this review a lot faster than I currently am. The short version is that iOS is, to my eyes, gaining complexity at an increasing pace but without sacrificing much ease-of-use. These how-to videos will get new and longtime users alike discovering these somewhat hidden new features, no matter whether they choose to use them.

I wonder if these videos will be included with the shipping version of iOS 11, in a somewhat similar fashion to the way trackpad features are shown in System Preferences on the Mac. For what it’s worth, I think they should be in the system: releasing them now is good for publicity and good for getting people excited about what they will soon be able to do with their iPads, but it would be even better if users were exposed to the new multitasking features shortly after they install the update.

Android Oreo

This is the second version of Android to be named after a trademarked candy brand — the first being 2013’s KitKat. My question: who benefits more from these co-branded arrangements?

App Developer Estimates That iMessage Is One of the Most Popular Social Networks for U.S. Teens

Giuseppe Stuto:

Another thing that is far too often over looked is what iMessage actually is to teens. Given the trend over the past several years with the rise of various messaging apps, e.g. WhatsApp, Messenger, Snapchat, Kik, most people now glance over traditional SMS as being much of a social experience, and understandably so. The only problem is many people consciously / subconsciously view iMessage as synonymous to traditional SMS. I can see why this is the case — after all, iMessage is a pre-installed platform on every single iPhone so obviously it will naturally have a ton of engagement. But it being pre-installed should not be a reason to discount it, especially when taking into account the level of saturation within the Gen-Z demographic and its dynamic user experience to date (relative to traditional SMS). Of course this is more of a subjective premise, however, after first hand observing how teens use iMessage over the past few years it is clear that they treat it as much more than a basic text message delivery service. It’s the center of their mobile social life, whether they themselves realize that or not.

This article is built around estimates and derivations, but its arguments are well-considered: amongst American teens, iMessage is insanely popular. Last year, when rumours of iMessage on Android began to bubble up, I was skeptical of their likelihood for reasons along these lines; today, I continue to be convinced that Apple sees iMessage stickiness on their most popular and profitable product line to be a key and very unique selling point.

I wonder how much of this is an exclusively American phenomenon, and what part that plays in Apple’s strategy. Gut instinct tells me that similar usage patterns would be seen in other wealthy countries, like Canada, Australia, and Britain, for instance. But Apple has prioritized China and India as their markets to crack, and both countries are heavily in Android territory. How much does that impact their likelihood of potentially making iMessage a cross-platform product? I bet that Apple would rather continue to sell lower-cost phones — think iPhone 5C or SE, not a discount iPhone per se — than see iMessage on any other company’s platforms.

See Also: Jean-Louis Gassée’s reflection on the state of Apple’s services business.

The Time Britons Spend on the World Wide Web

John Carr, a member of the UK Council on Child Internet Safety:

Amazing statistics emerged last week courtesy of a body called WARC which presents itself as Your global authority on advertising and media effectiveness.

WARC was publicising a study carried out by Verto Analytics according to which, between them, Google and Facebook account for 25% of all of the time spent online by adult UK internet users. One might imagine the proportion in respect of children was likely to be higher but there is no information on that point.

In this context Google was represented by search, Gmail and YouTube. They took one in six (17%) of every UK minute. This amounted to the equivalent of 42.7 million days per month.

I haven’t found Verto’s study so I’m not sure what methodology they used to measure time spent on different websites. Even so, these are staggering numbers. I imagine the proportion of time spent on Google and Facebook properties would be similar in Canada, for example, and I suspect the proportion of internet traffic that travels — in some way — through infrastructure controlled by American companies would be far higher. The images on bbc.com, for example, are served from the ichef.bbci.co.uk domain, which is pointed to an Akamai server — Akamai is based in Massachusetts. Even the British government’s website isn’t immune: it serves images from assets.publishing.service.gov.uk, which is pointed to Fastly, based in San Francisco.

As I wrote yesterday, I see an inherent danger in having so much of our web in the hands of relatively few, very large American firms, for two main reasons: first, the lack of competition gives these companies outsized and largely-unaccountable power; and, second, they’re governed by American laws. There’s nothing inherently wrong with laws being American, of course, but the 2013 revelations of NSA spying, fears about what a Donald Trump presidency would mean for technology companies, freedom of speech questions with regard to neo-Nazis, and a failure to meaningfully regulate mega-mergers are all warnings about what it means to put the ostensibly World Wide Web in largely American hands — or, indeed, in the hands of any one country.

Privately Public

Cloudflare made an exception to their policy of neutrality yesterday and terminated any relationship they had with the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi news website. RationalWiki has a good primer but, as you’d expect, even the selected excerpts they’ve cited are vile — discretion is advised.

Matthew Prince, Cloudflare CEO:

Our terms of service reserve the right for us to terminate users of our network at our sole discretion. The tipping point for us making this decision was that the team behind Daily Stormer made the claim that we were secretly supporters of their ideology.

Our team has been thorough and have had thoughtful discussions for years about what the right policy was on censoring. Like a lot of people, we’ve felt angry at these hateful people for a long time but we have followed the law and remained content neutral as a network. We could not remain neutral after these claims of secret support by Cloudflare.

Now, having made that decision, let me explain why it’s so dangerous.

Prince argues that any of the companies that help provide web services, like Cloudflare, set a precedent if they begin regulating what they host or transmit. He doesn’t like being able to wield that kind of power, and remains convinced that Cloudflare should have a neutral stance with what it is used for.

I firmly disagree — regardless of the Daily Stormer’s phony claims of affiliation with Cloudflare, I think Prince should have discontinued their relationship with them long ago.1 The Daily Stormer has previously been involved in the intimidation of a British politician with Holocaust-related messages, even going so far as to provide instructions to readers. Their users engaged in targeted harassment of a Jewish Congressional candidate from California. This isn’t politics — it’s abuse. Prince and Cloudflare clearly disagree with what the site was publishing, but that stance was undermined when they provided business services to these neo-Nazi assholes.2

K-Sue Park in the New York Times, in an op-ed about the ACLU’s legal support of the right for neo-Nazis to demonstrate in Charlottesville:

I volunteered with the A.C.L.U. as a law student in 2011, and I respect much of its work. But it should rethink how it understands free speech. By insisting on a narrow reading of the First Amendment, the organization provides free legal support to hate-based causes. More troubling, the legal gains on which the A.C.L.U. rests its colorblind logic have never secured real freedom or even safety for all.

For marginalized communities, the power of expression is impoverished for reasons that have little to do with the First Amendment. Numerous other factors in the public sphere chill their voices but amplify others.

Most obviously, the power of speech remains proportional to wealth in this country, despite the growth of social media. When the Supreme Court did consider the impact of money on speech in Citizens United, it enabled corporations to translate wealth into direct political power. The A.C.L.U. wrongly supported this devastating ruling on First Amendment grounds.

Prince is right about one thing, in particular:

Due Process requires that decisions be public and not arbitrary. It’s why we’ve always said that our policy is to follow the guidance of the law in the jurisdictions in which we operate. Law enforcement, legislators, and courts have the political legitimacy and predictability to make decisions on what content should be restricted. Companies should not.

Of the many serious flaws in the infrastructure of the internet is that most of it is powered by private corporations, many of which are based in the United States. Due to network effects, we have consolidated much of the web around just a handful of them: Amazon is the largest cloud infrastructure provider by far, Google dominates in many fields, over a quarter of the world’s population uses Facebook monthly, and Prince says that Cloudflare handles 10% of internet requests. As he says, they have very little accountability about what is and what is not allowed on their platforms. We have replaced many of the rights afforded to us in our own jurisdictions with the rights given to American companies.

Zeynep Tufekci in 2010:

I argue that this is too limited a view. We have to stop looking at the “Facebook – lone individual” transaction and look at what’s going on at the systemic level. This isn’t just about Facebook, either. This is about the fact that increasing portions of our sociality are now conducted in privately-owned spaces. The implications of this are still playing out.

The latest developments appear to be the next stage to the historical trend of privatization of our publics. Examples of those include the dominance of corporate-owned media over the civic public sphere, outsourcing of many government functions to less-accountable contractors including some aspects of war, increasing reduction of our public spaces to malls and privately-owned town-squares, such as downtown Silver Spring, MD where first-amendment does not apply, etc.

What is currently happening is the privatization of our privates, not just our publics. And this is not a mere question of legality but a lack of legal protections being carried over to a new medium. In some sense, this parallels the lack of carrying of wiretap protections on the phone to the Internet – the social relations did not change but the medium changed allowing for a gap in legal protections.

This is deeply concerning to me — likely because I am not American, and therefore have different expectations as to the rights and roles of private companies, and the kinds of speech that ought to be permissible. So long as we entrust the vast majority of the internet’s infrastructure to private companies, questions like those about Cloudflare’s role in providing services to the Daily Stormer will persist. While we are communicating, publishing, reading, broadcasting, posting, commenting, and living our lives online in the hands of a small group of large, lightly-regulated American companies, we will continue to have a debate over what role they ought to play in regulating whatever they host or transmit.

Update: When comparing the dominance of different large providers, an earlier version of this article stated that WordPress holds a 28% market share. That’s true, but it’s a combination of the WordPress.com hosted service and the WordPress.org software package. Thank you to reader Giacomo for reminding me of this. I have replaced that figure with a reminder of how dominant Amazon’s cloud infrastructure is.


  1. Prince should also discontinue his company’s business relationships with pro-ISIS websites, too. ↩︎

  2. I think his emphasis on Cloudflare’s role as a way to protect against vigilante hackers or DDoSes is a red herring. Of course I don’t think vigilantism is a good response, but knowingly providing any support to websites preaching hatred and destruction is completely unethical. Yeah, it’s just business, but I haven’t ever heard a good argument for freeing business of ethical responsibility. ↩︎

History Explains Tech’s Diversity Problem

Sarah Jeong and Rachel Becker, the Verge:

“Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers,” writes Yonatan Zunger, formerly of Google. “If someone told you that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to. Solitary work is something that only happens at the most junior levels, and even then it’s only possible because someone senior to you — most likely your manager — has been putting in long hours to build up the social structures in your group that let you focus on code.”

Let’s set that aside for just a moment, however, and assume that doing “tech” means you don’t have to deal with people or feelings. Is Damore arguing that men should form a massive underclass of drone-like, thing-oriented engineers managed by a superior overclass of emotionally intelligent women? Of course not. That would be absurd.

But it’s only absurd because it’s not the way things actually are. The memo isn’t reaching for a higher truth — it is instead the expression of a reactionary instinct to preserve the status quo. Deflection: now, with graphs!

That’s the money quote in this fantastic, well-researched piece: Damore’s memo isn’t documenting a discovery, it’s a feeble attempt to defend his existing biases.

Apple’s Planned Original Programming Efforts Rumoured to Have a $1 Billion Budget

Tripp Mickle, Wall Street Journal:

Apple Inc. has set a budget of roughly $1 billion to procure and produce original content over the next year, according to people familiar with the matter, as the iPhone maker shows how serious it is about making a splash in Hollywood.

Combined with the company’s marketing clout and global reach, the step immediately makes Apple a considerable competitor in a crowded market where both new and traditional media players are vying to acquire original shows. Apple’s budget is about half what Time Warner Inc.’s HBO spent on content last year and on par with estimates of what Amazon.com Inc. spent in 2013, the year after it announced its move into original programming.

Recode’s Peter Kafka points out that Apple recently hired two Sony TV executives, and today Joe Otterson of Variety reported that ex-president of WGN Matt Cherniss will be working for the ex-Sony executives to run this division.

I sincerely hope these shows are of a far higher calibre than their poor attempts so far, but I think that requires a different kind of thinking from Apple. Autocorrect and Siri refuse to fix profanity, for example, and the rules of the App Store famously prohibit most kinds of adult-oriented apps. I don’t object to those limitations, but if similar brand-preserving restrictions were to be imposed on their television efforts, I wonder how many directors and writers would be drawn to Apple rather than, say, Netflix.

I also hope these shows are not run, like “Planet of the Apps”, through the Music app — they have a TV app. I’m not sure why, but this really bothers me.

Some Content About Content

Evan Williams, McSweeney’s:

Content was invented in 2007 by Steven Ross, a principal at a boutique communications agency. Ross, who now works as a freelance visionpreneur, often became confused when he had to discuss the many different kinds of work — articles, videos, photos — he would commission for clients. But one day, while taking a bath, he had a thought that would change the world.

Why not just call it all content?

There’s very little so degrading to someone who produces largely-creative works as is calling whatever they make “content”. I’ll tell you what, though: it’s going to be pretty rewarding in ten years’ time to browse the innovative content collected at New York’s Museum of Modern Content.

Bulk

This is a short story of when loose language runs rampant and we start, as usual, with an analyst’s report, as cited by Todd Haselton of CNBC:

Google is paying Apple billions of dollars to remain the default search engine on iPhones and iPads, Bernstein said in a note to investors on Monday.

The firm believes that Google will pay Apple about $3 billion this year, up from $1 billion just three years ago, and that Google’s licensing fees make up a large bulk of Apple’s services business.

Setting aside the accuracy of this estimate, the phrase “a large bulk” became even more substantial when Abner Li of 9to5Mac linked to the report (emphasis mine):

A new report from Bernstein today estimates that the deal is worth $3 billion in 2017. This agreement is equally lucrative for Apple and makes up the bulk of their growing services division, according to the analysis. Additionally, the payment is described as “nearly all profit for Apple,” with Google possibly accounting for 5% of Apple’s total operating profit this year.

This disparity was noticed by Dr. Drang:

The article is entitled “Google pays $3 billion for default search on iOS, estimated to be bulk of Apple services business,” which is not so much a title as a topic sentence. Given that Apple released its latest quarterly financial report just a couple of weeks ago, the combination of “$3 billion” and “bulk of Apple services business” should have raised a red flag. Apple reported over $7 billion in services revenue in the last quarter alone. There’s simply no way $3 billion from Google (regardless of whether that speculative figure is right or wrong) could make up the bulk of Apple’s yearly services revenue.

There’s something else, too, that I think bears questioning in the report:

“Court documents indicate that Google paid Apple $1B in 2014, and we estimate that total Google payments to Apple in FY 17 may approach $3B,” Bernstein analyst A.M. Sacconaghi Jr. said. “Given that Google payments are nearly all profit for Apple, Google alone may account for 5% of Apple’s total operating profits this year, and may account for 25% of total company OP growth over the last two years.”

Except what isn’t reflected in the CNBC article or its published excerpts from Sacconaghi Jr.’s investor note is that Apple’s fiscal year 2016 profits didn’t grow year-over-year — they shrank, to the tune of $7.7 billion compared to 2015. Fiscal year 2017 isn’t complete yet, but Apple has reported $37.64 billion in profit so far, compared to $36.7 billion for the first three quarters of 2016.

I’m not going to do the math on this, but the omission of any indication in the report that Apple’s 2016 was a shrinking year severely impacts the interpretation of the data.

Ming-Chi Kuo Echoes LTE Apple Watch Rumours

Zac Hall, 9to5Mac:

Reliable analyst Ming-Chi Kuo of KGI Securities has released a new forecast on the next generation Apple Watch. According to Kuo, the Apple Watch 3 will ship later this year with both LTE and non-LTE models offered. Kuo also expects the next Apple Watch will retain the same general design and not feature an obvious new form factor.

Kuo specifies that the Apple Watch will continue to ship in two size configurations: 38mm and 42mm cases.

The LTE rumours are similar to what Bloomberg reported last week, but the lack of form factor changes notably contrasts with what John Gruber wrote:

No mention in Businessweek’s report, though, of the all-new form factor that I’ve heard is coming for this year’s new watches. That tidbit came from an unconfirmed little birdie, though, so I wouldn’t bet the house on it.

The second sentence in that quote was added a short time after the preceding sentence was published, so it sounds like Gruber might not be confident that the form factor change would be launched this year. On the other hand, perhaps it is technically “all-new”, but still looks rather similar — maybe it could be like the current models except noticeably thinner, for example. I wouldn’t bet on that, though: the component with the greatest volume in today’s Apple Watch is the battery, and the Watch doesn’t exactly have loads of surplus power.

Welcome to Macintosh Season 3 Coming Next Week

John Voorhees, MacStories:

Today, [Mark Bramhill] announced Season 3 of Welcome to Macintosh, which will be published every other Friday beginning August 18th. Season 3 is the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised $17,000 to cover travel and other production costs. Backers of the project will receive behind-the-scenes videos and a special podcast feed available alongside the new Season 3 episodes, all of which are accessible from a special Members page on Macintosh.fm.

The first two seasons of Bramhill’s podcast were solid gold; I can’t wait for the third season to begin next week. Concise, well-edited, well-told stories are a rarity amongst tech podcasts, but Bramhill knows what he’s doing — even the promo sounds like its own little story.

This Idiotic Anti-Diversity Manifesto Thing Refuses to Go Away

Kara Swisher reports for Recode that an all-hands meeting at Google was cancelled:

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has canceled the company’s much-anticipated meeting to talk about gender issues today. The move came after some of its employees expressed concern over online harassment they had begun to receive after their questions and names have been published outside the company on a variety of largely alt-right sites.

[…]

Wired reported earlier that conservative pundit Milo Yiannopoulos “posted on his Facebook page the Twitter biographies of eight Google employees who criticized Damore’s post.”

Don’t kid yourself: the people and publishers knew fully well that targeted harassment could occur when they posted the names and identifiable features of Google employees who expressed disagreement with the manifesto. That’s indefensible, as is the harassment itself.

Cynthia Lee, for Vox, explains why the manifesto is so toxic:

To be a woman in tech is to know the thrill of participating in one of the most transformative revolutions humankind has known, to experience the crystalline satisfaction of finding an elegant solution to an algorithmic challenge, to want to throw the monitor out the window in frustration with a bug and, later, to do a happy dance in a chair while finally fixing it. To be a woman in tech is also to always and forever be faced with skepticism that I do and feel all those things authentically enough to truly belong. There is always a jury, and it’s always still out.

When men in tech listen to the experiences of women in tech, they can come to understand how this manifesto was throwing a match into dry brush in fire season.

The only thing in Lee’s article that I would contest is this, in regards to the faux academic tone of the manifesto:

I cannot judge what the author’s motives might be in adopting this rhetorical strategy: It could be cynical and strategic, or, as I suspect, the author may simply be very, very naïve.

I find that assumption very charitable. T.C. Sottek of the Verge:

Former Google engineer James Damore, who was fired for distributing a memo suggesting women are not biologically suited for certain types of work, is now branding himself as a brave truth teller. In what appears to be his new Twitter account, Damore can be seen wearing a shirt with the word “Goolag,” a play on “Google” that means to suggest the Silicon Valley search company is something like the infamous Soviet camps where prisoners were worked and starved to death as part of one of the 20th century’s worst genocides.

Outside Google’s Venice office, bus stops have been defaced with professionally-printed signs featuring the same idiotic statement. That show of support plus internal Google polls that suggest that Damore is far from an outlier in his views is a truly worrying proposition — worrying, that is, but not surprising.

See Also: Suzanne Sadedin’s response.

Benchmark Capital Sues Travis Kalanick for Fraud

Dan Primack broke the story at Axios:

The battle between Benchmark Capital and Travis Kalanick just went nuclear, with the venture capital firm suing the former Uber CEO for fraud, breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty. The complaint was filed earlier today in Delaware Chancery Court.

Key graph, per the suit: “Kalanick, the former CEO of Uber, to entrench himself on Uber’s Board of Directors and increase his power over Uber for his own selfish ends. Kalanick’s overarching objective is to pack Uber’s Board with loyal allies in an effort to insulate his prior conduct from scrutiny and clear the path for his eventual return as CEO—all to the detriment of Uber’s stockholders, employees, driver-partners, and customers.”

Recode’s Kara Swisher, two weeks ago:

To add to the drama: Some directors worry that its former CEO Travis Kalanick — who was ousted — is trying to game the outcome in his favor, after he told several people that he was “Steve Jobs-ing it.” It is a reference to the late leader of Apple, who was fired from the company, only to later return in triumph.

Compare and contrast the shocked and dismayed employee reactions after Kalanick stepped down as CEO — a move Benchmark also helped engineer — with the moves of investors and the company since he left: there clearly remains a modicum of confidence in Kalanick within Uber; there’s no confidence in him from outside parties.

Update: Of course, investors not having confidence in Kalanick doesn’t mean that investors have confidence in each other. A group of shareholders now wants Benchmark off the board for this lawsuit.

The Generational Effect of Smartphone Use

Jean M. Twenge, in a very popular article for the Atlantic:

The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of “screen time.” But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.

To those of us who fondly recall a more analog adolescence, this may seem foreign and troubling. The aim of generational study, however, is not to succumb to nostalgia for the way things used to be; it’s to understand how they are now. Some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both. More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.

Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen [Twenge’s name for those born between 1995 and 2012] as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.

With a premise that smartphones might be “destroying a generation”, it’s no wonder that this article was so widely-shared and linked-to. Only one problem: it isn’t accurate.

Sarah Rose Cavanagh, in Psychology Today:

Nowhere is Twenge’s bias more obvious to me than in some research that she actually does review but then casts aside as seemingly irrelevant to her thesis – namely, the vast counter-evidence to the “destroyed generation” thesis contained in her headline. In the introduction to the piece she notes that this generation has sharply lower rates of alcohol use, teen pregnancies, unprotected sex, smoking, and car accidents than previous generations. This is what a destroyed generation looks like?

It’s easy, I think, to make the argument that Twenge made, if only because it’s something many of us feel. But there simply isn’t the evidence to show that smartphone use is clearly and directly tied to concerning psychological conditions.

Understanding Apple’s Services

Tim Cook, as transcribed by iMore’s Micah Sargent, during Apple’s most recent earnings report:

Services revenue hit an all-time quarterly record of $7.3 billion, representing 22% growth over last year. We continue to see great performance all around the world, with double-digit growth in each of our geographic segments. Over the last 12 months, our services business has become the size of a Fortune 100 company — a milestone we’ve reached even sooner than we had expected.

The idea of Apple’s services branch being a Fortune 100 company is a statement that a few publications took far too literally, ignoring the context for its success and growth.

Jean-Louis Gassée in Monday Note:

But the biggest misunderstanding isn’t the theoretical placement in the Fortune 100 list, or the comparisons to Facebook. It’s the consideration of Apple Services as a self-standing business. Remove “Apple” from “Apple Services”…would this stand-alone “Services” company enjoy the same success were it to service Android phones or Windows PCs?

Apple Services is an important member of the supporting cast that pushes the volume and margins for the main act: Apple Personal Computers. These come in three sizes, small (iPhone), medium (iPad), and large (Mac). If rumors of the addition of a cellular modem are true, we may even see the Watch, today an iPhone accessory, added to the cast as the newest and smallest performer.

Everything else that Apple offers has one raison d’être: Fueling the company’s main hardware act without which Apple is nothing.

A counterargument that I could see for Gassée’s article is the availability of Apple Music for Android devices. Perhaps it serves a similar role as the iPod used to — a halo product to get people interested in the Apple ecosystem — but I think it’s more of a way to bolster the success of Apple Music due to the network effects of streaming services.

Either way, Apple Music is not a very strong counterargument because it’s not really the same kind of product as Apple’s other services. iCloud, for example, is available on Windows PCs and on the web, but you’d never consider using it on either platform without also having one of Apple’s devices as well — it’s just too clunky. Apple Music, on the other hand, works the same regardless of where it’s used; the advantages gained by using it on Apple’s platforms are mainly through its integration with Siri.

The Touch Bar After Ten Months

Josh Centers, TidBits:

Alas, closing in on a year later, I’ve found that I don’t use the Touch Bar much. I was forced to confront this unhappy fact when Adam suggested that I write an article about interesting uses of the Touch Bar. After some research, we agreed that there wasn’t enough there to warrant an article. Although there was a flurry of fascinating developer projects after launch, nothing significant ever shipped.

I’m not saying the Touch Bar is useless, because that isn’t true. At least in theory, it’s more capable and more flexible than a row of physical keys. And Touch ID is fantastic for logging into my MacBook Pro and authenticating 1Password. But if you were to ask me today if you should spend the $300–$400 extra on a MacBook Pro with a Touch Bar, I would say no for two reasons.

It’s revealing that many reviews I’ve read of Apple’s latest generation of MacBook Pros point to Touch ID alone as the most significant feature of owning a Touch Bar-equipped model. Perhaps the Touch Bar is primarily designed to be something that allows consumers to access lesser-known application features and shortcuts. If that’s the case, though, why did it ship in the MacBook Pro first, to the chagrin of that product’s core user base?

Facebook and Google’s Ad ‘Duopoly’ Seems to Be Going Nowhere

Alex Kantrowitz, Buzzfeed:

The brand safety episode illustrates just how hard it is to stop the Google and Facebook freight train. Google and Facebook attained duopoly power specifically because of a super-compelling value proposition: Both platforms stand out by providing advertisers access to enormous amounts of people, and enabling them to slice and dice audiences with unparalleled precision and accuracy. Spending money with them can be formulaic for advertisers: X dollars in gets Y dollars out. Nothing else online even comes close. “There was a lot of saber rattling, a lot of alternatives, alternatives, alternatives,” Racic said. “In the digital realm, there is no other alternative.”

Google and Facebook have truly set themselves up to be indispensable. Many of our favourite websites are directly tied to the success of Google and Facebook; their success is, in turn, related to how many ads they can sell, which is — in part — dependent on how accurately-targeted their advertising products are. And that, of course, is driven by how much we use their ostensibly free services. Nobody else has a network of data generation and ad distribution comparable to either Facebook or Google.

It doesn’t have to be like this, of course. There are alternatives — direct ad sales, “native” advertising, and affiliate shopping links, for example — but those solutions tend to work a lot better for bigger publishers than smaller ones. There are smaller ad networks that handle the difficult business of selling and maintaining ad inventory, but they come with some of the same problems as any network of advertising not controlled by the publisher: the majority of sidebar ads here, for example, are for products and services I don’t use; a few might be for things I’d actively recommend against. But that’s the nature of advertising aimed at generalized readership demographics rather than specific targeting. So far, though, the trend is towards more targeting and more data collection — an ongoing amplification of the power held by Google and Facebook.

The Flaws With ‘I Think, Therefore I Am Entitled to My Opinion’

Maximillian Alvarez, writing in the Baffler:

At the collective level, the implications of this linking of opinion to selfhood are obvious — we’re living through them. Dangerous and stupid opinions are “normalized” and given an equal footing with others that have substantiated themselves through some agreed-upon criteria of legitimacy. Fringe groups with violent goals feel emboldened by their growing acceptance in the mainstream. People all over become more and more alien to one another as we all harden into stubborn, fixed kernels, retreating ever farther into our skull-shaped cages of self.

I thought this was an appropriately-timed essay — though coincidentally so — especially in the aftermath of that shitty Google memo, the terrible arguments it contains, and the toxic justifications posted after its leak.

Disney to End Agreement With Netflix, Will Offer Own-Brand Competitor

Todd Spangler, Variety:

Disney is ending its distribution agreement with Netflix for new movie releases, while it’s also buying majority ownership of BAMTech — the streaming-video division founded by Major League Baseball — in a $1.58 billion deal.

The moves set a firm course for the media giant to launch direct-to-consumer internet services from ESPN and Disney. Disney said will end its distribution agreement with Netflix for subscription streaming of new movie releases, beginning with the 2019 theatrical slate.

This attempt at self-distribution might actually work out for Disney — though that’s a big “might”, given how entrenched Netflix is in many of our lives. Despite struggling recently, ESPN is still the highest-valued channel amongst cable providers, according to a Beta Research survey from earlier this year. Paying separately for ESPN is not as ideal as a single subscription, of course, but baseball fans already pay $3 per month for MLB at Bat.

Disney itself remains one of the most well-known names in film and television. I’m not sure how many people would pay $10 every month for access to Disney films and television shows exclusively, but I’m sure there’s an audience there, given the size and scope of their influence. Remember: Disney also owns Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Marvel Studios, and they have large shares in lots of other media companies, like A&E and Vice. Even if their streaming service only has movies and TV shows from companies owned by Disney, that still represents some of the biggest annual releases.

As usual for gigantic companies, this argument doesn’t seem completely unreasonable for Disney because of what’s in their holdings portfolio. Self-distribution is also something that can work out alright for very small producers who have an emotionally-attached audience. I doubt that anything like this would work for companies in the middle, however.

But that leads down the same kind of slippery slope as the presumed end game of the revocation of net neutrality rules. That’s because Disney’s competitors are not Universal Studios, DreamWorks, or Warner Brothers directly, but larger media conglomerates like Comcast, Verizon, and — soon — AT&T. Is Disney interested in becoming an ISP, too?

Update: I’ve updated the title of this post to be a little more accurate. They are pulling their films, just not yet. Sorry, it’s a dumb mistake.

Property Managers, Not Private Residents, Allegedly Largest Airbnb Beneficiaries

Andrea Bellemare, CBC News:

A small number of commercial property managers generate a majority of Airbnb’s overall revenue, eating up available housing stock and driving up rent in Canada’s three biggest cities, a new study from Montreal’s McGill University concludes.

“Just 10 per cent of hosts account for a majority of the revenue and the nights booked on Airbnb consistently in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal,” said the study’s lead author, David Wachsmuth, a McGill professor of urban planning, in an interview on CBC Montreal’s Daybreak.

Airbnb is already a mixed bag. I know of a couple of units in the building where I live that are more-or-less permanently available on Airbnb. That suggests that the signed tenants probably don’t live in those units, and are subletting them for a hotel-esque nightly fee. It’s not allowed, but it happens — and the Airbnb units are preventing me from upgrading my apartment.

But property managers doing the same is even worse. The incentives are aligned to do so: they might make as much money every nine or ten days from Airbnb as they would every month from a tenant. That makes it harder for people to find places to live in the city, and — according to Wachsmuth’s findings — likely makes it more expensive for them once they do.

The market for Airbnb and similar services — in fact, all “gig economy” services — is there. The question is whether they’re a true positive, especially from an ethical perspective.

An Anti-Diversity Manifesto Is Circulating Within Google

Kate Conger, Gizmodo:

A software engineer’s 10-page screed against Google’s diversity initiatives is going viral inside the company, being shared on an internal meme network and Google+. The document’s existence was first reported by Motherboard, and Gizmodo has obtained it in full.

In the memo, which is the personal opinion of a male Google employee and is titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” the author argues that women are underrepresented in tech not because they face bias and discrimination in the workplace, but because of inherent psychological differences between men and women. “We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism,” he writes, going on to argue that Google’s educational programs for young women may be misguided.

Amongst the fallout from this manifesto, the most abhorrent replies are those praising the author for his bravery in raising these issues — as though it’s a simple matter of opinion, like whether blackberry or raspberry jam is better in a peanut butter sandwich. These responses serve to legitimize bullshit, and that would be a farcical take on the current information climate in which we live if it were not so objectionable.

Former Google engineer Yonatan Zunger, in a section of a Medium post addressed directly to the author of the manifesto:

You talked about a need for discussion about ideas; you need to learn the difference between “I think we should adopt Go as our primary language” and “I think one-third of my colleagues are either biologically unsuited to do their jobs, or if not are exceptions and should be suspected of such until they can prove otherwise to each and every person’s satisfaction.” Not all ideas are the same, and not all conversations about ideas even have basic legitimacy.

Some opinions and arguments are simply and plainly wrong. We need to stop pretending that there is validity to every opinion. What this Googler wrote is wrong, and those defending him for writing it are complicit in spreading a falsely-equivalent argument.

HomePod Firmware Reveals Scene Detection Features

Juli Clover, MacRumors:

The HomePod firmware Apple released early continues to offer up insight into future software and hardware capabilities for the HomePod, iPhone 8, and other devices, with the newest discovery coming today developer from Guilherme Rambo.

[…]

The firmware suggests the camera app will be able to detect different types of scenes, photo conditions, and photography subjects like pets and children. Several scenes are referenced, including Fireworks, Foliage, Pet, BrightStage, Sport, Sky, Snow, and Sunset/Sunrise, indicating the iPhone’s camera may be able to detect a scene and then set the ideal exposure, shutter speed, and other factors to take the best photograph.

I return to one of the questions that I asked earlier this week: how could something like this be exposed by the HomePod firmware? The HomePod doesn’t have a camera; in fact, the firmware suggests that these features are specifically for an as-yet unannounced iPhone to be released this year.1 Even though I understand that the HomePod is still being developed and that the firmware is a nowhere-near-final fork of iOS, I don’t necessarily see why code for completely unrelated features — especially features that seem to be specific to a different product — would be in there.

Also of note: this firmware leak is right up there with the lost or stolen iPhone 4 in terms of what it is revealing well ahead of when Apple intended. However, it’s fascinating to me that it has received little mainstream press coverage. The iPhone 4 leak was in major newspapers and on television; this leak seems like it is basically confined to the tech press. Maybe it’s because there’s no physical hardware to show or because leaks like this aren’t as interesting as stories about an iPhone being left in a bar, but I’m surprised by the relative lack of coverage outside of the tech sphere.


  1. The “Pearl” codename that was discovered in the firmware was rumoured to refer to the new face-based unlocking feature. However, there are references to Pearl with regard to the back camera in the firmware as well — a context which makes no sense to me for unlocking a device. My bet is that “Pearl” refers to new object and scene recognition features generally, of which facial unlocking is one part. While I’m aimlessly speculating, I’d also like to point out that “Iris Engine” was trademarked by Apple last year. At the time, I thought this might refer to some new camera tech for the iPhone 7; now, I think it might be the marketing name for Pearl features. But, hey, I’m just throwing stuff at the proverbial wall. ↩︎

The Notch

Max Rudberg has been playing around with different ideas on how an iPhone with a “notched” screen and virtual home button might work in practice. They’re intriguing mockups — you should check them out and, for what it’s worth, I’m partial to his third option — and they give me an opportunity to pose a question I’ve been thinking about for months: will third-party apps be able to customize what gets displayed in the home button area and in the display segments on either side of the notch? My hunch is that apps will be able to select whether they run in full screen — hiding the onscreen home button — or normal mode, but nothing beyond that.

The Matter of High-End iPad Growth

Nigel Warren (via Michael Tsai):

The iPad’s average selling price can be seen as an indication of whether the iPad has the potential to continue evolving into a more capable tool. If sales of the Pro line are weak, it’s a sign that Apple hasn’t succeeded in creating useful functionality that takes advantage of improved hardware. And if users don’t need improved hardware, Apple’s business model can’t justify continued iPad software development long term.

It has been remarkable over the past several years to watch the iPad’s skyrocketing performance potential, but it has been infuriating to see a lack of comparable software improvements. iOS 11 will help turn that corner, but I feel a lot of work remains to make the power of the iPad feel like it’s being put to use.

Decrypting Amber Rudd

Aran Balkan (via Toob Design):

What Amber Rudd wants will not make you safer. It will not protect you from terrorists. What it will do is make it easier for governments to spy on activists and on minority groups. What it will do is make all of less safe and lead to chilling effects that will destroy what little democracy we have left. It will result in a surveillance state and a global panopticon the likes of which humanity has never seen.

As for the companies that are part of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism – Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube (Google/Alphabet, Inc.) – only a fool would trust a single word that comes out of their mouths about end-to-end encryption on their platforms or about the privacy features of their apps. Given what Rudd has said, consider that any end-to-end encryption they say they have today may be disabled and compromised, without your knowledge, during any app update at any time in the future.

I doubt many people really trust what Facebook and Google say about privacy anyway, but their participation in these confidential talks is not confidence-inspiring. Of note, Snap and Justpaste.it are now participants in the Global Internet Forum as well.

The iPad’s Comeback Tour

Dr. Drang points to two key figures in Apple’s latest earnings, with regard to the iPad: its 15% increase in unit sales, and its 2% growth in revenue,1 both compared to last year’s third quarter:

A real, live, honest-to-goodness, actual rise of 15% in year-over-year unit sales led to an upturn in the four-quarter moving average, the first since the end of 2013. No one needs to root for Apple to make more money, but this is the kind of news that might encourage developers to support the iPad and make it a better product for all of us.

More new iPads being sold combined with this autumn’s iOS update — which, unlike last year, actually has features for the iPad — should mean a healthier ecosystem. But the 2% revenue growth implies that the vast majority of growth in the iPads sold this quarter occurred because of the new entry-level model, which doesn’t have the power, features, or price of the recently-updated Pro models. Drang says that this might indicate that developers of higher-end apps might not find this price-conscious shopping very encouraging, but I think there might be a longer-term halo effect created by the entry-level model. It doesn’t have the performance or features of the Pro models, but I think its refinement together with the features in iOS 11 might drive people to exploring higher-end options.


  1. For comparison (PDF), the iPhone grew 2% in units but 3% in revenue compared to this time last year, and the Mac grew just 1% in units, but 7% in revenue. ↩︎

Amber Rudd’s Ruddy Dumb Case Against Encryption

The Telegraph on Monday published an op-ed by Amber Rudd, the U.K.’s present Home Secretary, making the case for a way for investigators to be able to see encrypted data without somehow breaking the fundamental principles of encrypted data. It’s behind a paywall, but I’ll quote the salient paragraphs. And, after setting the stage with a couple-hundred words about terrorism, we get to the titular topic:

Encryption plays a fundamental role in protecting us all online. It is key to growing the digital economy, and delivering public services online. But, like many powerful technologies, encrypted services are used and abused by a small minority of people. The particular challenge is around so called “end-to-end” encryption, where even the service provider cannot see the content of a communication.

Rudd admits that it’s a very small minority who lean upon encryption to mask their criminal deeds. But that’s the case for lots of different technologies: a small minority of people use a telephone to plan a crime and, even though GCHQ was able to record all phone traffic, their overbearing surveillance was found to be illegal. A small minority of people burn physical evidence of a crime, but fire isn’t outlawed.

To be very clear – Government supports strong encryption and has no intention of banning end-to-end encryption.

That isn’t what Rudd has been threatening for months.

But the inability to gain access to encrypted data in specific and targeted instances – even with a warrant signed by a Secretary of State and a senior judge – is right now severely limiting our agencies’ ability to stop terrorist attacks and bring criminals to justice.

Again, there have always been ways for enterprising criminals to get around the interception of their communications: they can meet in person, or use coded phrases.

I know some will argue that it’s impossible to have both – that if a system is end-to-end encrypted then it’s impossible ever to access the communication. That might be true in theory.

No, that’s true in fact.

This is where things really start to break down for Rudd. She’s arguing here that providers of encrypted communications software can, somehow, intercept communications in a human-readable way without compromising the security of the system overall. Quite simply, that’s completely bunk.

But the reality is different. Real people often prefer ease of use and a multitude of features to perfect, unbreakable security.

Why not have both? User experience and platform security are completely different fields and, generally, do not compete, so much as work together.

So this is not about asking the companies to break encryption or create so called “back doors”.

Yes it is. That’s exactly what Rudd is asking for — a way for authorized users to eavesdrop on encrypted communications without creating a security vulnerability:

So, there are options. But they rely on mature conversations between the tech companies and Government 
– and they must be confidential. The key point is that this is not about compromising wider security. It is about working together so we can find a way for our intelligence services, in very specific circumstances, to get more information on what serious criminals and terrorists are doing online.

Rudd, like so many others in similar positions, is going up against math and physics with hopes and dreams of back doors in encryption. It isn’t going to happen.

The responsibility for tackling this threat at every level lies with both governments and with industry. And we have a shared interest: we want to protect our citizens and we don’t want platforms being used to plan ways to do them harm.

But Rudd is okay with introducing vulnerabilities in different software packages used by billions of people around the world, including users in authoritarian regimes with leaders who are more interested in controlling the citizens they rule instead of protecting them. Creating a still-mythical way for a government to peer into a WhatsApp or iMessage conversation is inviting harm upon billions of people who rely upon reliably secured and encrypted communications — including Britons.

Ostensibly Anonymous Browsing Data Can Be Easily Exposed

Alex Hern, the Guardian (via Dave Pell):

“What would you think,” asked Svea Eckert, “if somebody showed up at your door saying: ‘Hey, I have your complete browsing history – every day, every hour, every minute, every click you did on the web for the last month’? How would you think we got it: some shady hacker? No. It was much easier: you can just buy it.”

Eckert, a journalist, paired up with data scientist Andreas Dewes to acquire personal user data and see what they could glean from it.

Presenting their findings at the Def Con hacking conference in Las Vegas, the pair revealed how they secured a database containing 3bn URLs from three million German users, spread over 9m different sites. Some were sparse users, with just a couple of dozen of sites visited in the 30-day period they examined, while others had tens of thousands of data points: the full record of their online lives.

While many have been worried about intrusive government surveillance — and rightfully so — private companies have also been sweeping up and sharing browsing data and purchasing history, with little practical oversight. The scale of the so-called “marketing technology landscape” has quietly but dramatically grown over the past seven years; I worry about how little most people outside the tech bubble seem to know about its growing tracking capabilities, and how hard it is to opt out of it.

Fact Checking Snopes on Its Own Claims of Being ‘Held Hostage’ by ‘A Vendor’

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

Last week, I (like probably many of you) saw the news that the famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) fact checking website “Snopes” was crowdfunding on GoFundMe, saying that it needed to raise money as soon as possible, because “a vendor” refused to recognize that Snopes had terminated a contract and was holding the site “hostage.”

We had previously contracted with an outside vendor to provide certain services for Snopes.com. That contractual relationship ended earlier this year, but the vendor will not acknowledge the change in contractual status and continues to essentially hold the Snopes.com web site hostage. Although we maintain editorial control (for now), the vendor will not relinquish the site’s hosting to our control, so we cannot modify the site, develop it, or — most crucially — place advertising on it. The vendor continues to insert their own ads and has been withholding the advertising revenue from us.

[…]

The reality is that the story is hellishly complicated. Like, really, really complicated and messy. The paragraph above that Snopes used to describe the situation leaves out an awful lot of details necessary to understand what’s actually happening.

This is a fascinating and well-researched document of what, exactly, is going on with Snopes. One day, this saga will make for a terrific made-for-Netflix B-movie.

Apple in China

Bloomberg, last month:

Apple Inc. will establish its first data center in China to speed up services such as iCloud for local users and abide by laws that require global companies to store information within the country.

The new facility, which will be entirely driven by renewable energy, will be built and run in partnership with Guizhou on the Cloud Big Data, Apple said in a messaged statement. Apple aims to migrate Chinese users’ information, now stored elsewhere, to the new facility in coming months. The data center is part of a $1 billion investment by the iPhone maker in the province.

The data center was partly driven by new measures that bolster control over the collection and movement of Chinese users’ data, and can also grant the government unprecedented access to foreign companies’ technology. Forcing companies to store information within the country has already led some to tap cloud computing providers with more local server capacity.

Paul Mozur, New York Times:

China appears to have received help on Saturday from an unlikely source in its fight against tools that help users evade its Great Firewall of internet censorship: Apple.

Software made by foreign companies to help users skirt the country’s system of internet filters has vanished from Apple’s app store on the mainland.

For what it’s worth, VPN software assists users in maintaining security and privacy for all kinds of reasons, not just evade the Great Firewall. But, yes, VPNs do that as well and, for the purposes of this article, that’s a fair description.

In a statement, Apple noted that the Chinese government announced this year that all developers offering VPNs needed to obtain a government license. “We have been required to remove some VPN apps in China that do not meet the new regulations,” the company said. “These apps remain available in all other markets where they do business.”

John Gruber:

If Apple tugged on the “We refuse to remove these VPN apps from the App Store” thread, it would inextricably lead to their leaving the entire Chinese market. It’s easy to say “Apple shouldn’t have removed these apps.” It’s not so easy to say “Apple should pull out of China.” This is of course further complicated, politically, by the fact that the vast majority of Apple’s supply chain is in China.

Adam Jourdan and Pei Li, Reuters:

Some said the recent moves jarred with Apple’s stance in the United States last year, when it opposed an FBI court order to break into an iPhone of a gunman who fatally shot 14 people in San Bernardino in December 2015, with Cook saying it would be “bad for America”.

The U.S. firm’s gamble here is clear: making moves to appease Chinese censors may prompt criticism outside China, but the firm will hope that local consumers are rather less fazed.

Again, in the parlance of general news reporting, this is a fair summary. But the actual circumstances of the San Bernardino case were far more complex, with the FBI demanding Apple build and load onto that iPhone a version of iOS that would allow unlimited passcode guesses to facilitate decrypting the device. Doing so would set a precedent that Apple could write software on command to reduce users’ security, and create the possibility that the insecure software could be leaked.

Of course, that’s in the United States. In China, with a far more oppressive government to placate, Apple ought to have the same principled stance. By putting their infrastructure in China for Chinese users and acknowledging local legislation — however antithetical to their values it may be — Apple sets an impression that is positive towards the government there.

But where is Apple’s line? If China were to require all messaging services to be unencrypted,1 or prevent cloud data services from being encrypted, or implement an even stricter version of their already-aggressive cyber “sovereignty” law — would any of these situations encourage Apple begin to fight back? I would hope so, as all are damaging to users’ privacy, and run afoul of Apple’s principles. At some level of regulatory zeal, the security value of an iOS device must deteriorate to the point for Apple to see that users simply aren’t as protected as they ought to be. I hope that’s something that can be caught before it happens.


  1. WhatsApp, which encrypts all messages, was blocked last month, but the unencrypted WeChat app continues to function while being monitored. ↩︎

Tech Company Executives Won’t Commit to a Congressional Testimony for Net Neutrality

Tony Romm, Recode:

Amazon, Facebook, Google and Netflix — along with their telecom industry foes — have not committed to sending their chief executives to testify before the U.S. Congress in September on the future of net neutrality.

Not a single one of those companies told the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is convening the hearing, that they would dispatch their leaders to Washington, D.C., in the coming weeks, even at a time when the Trump administration is preparing to kill the open internet rules currently on the government’s books.

The panel initially asked those four tech giants, as well as AT&T, Charter, Comcast and Verizon, to indicate their plans for the hearing by July 31. For now, though, the committee told Recode on Monday it isn’t giving up and would extend its deadline, as it continues its quest to engage the country’s tech and telecom business leaders on net neutrality.

If someone is running a multibillion-dollar company that is at all affected by the survival or elimination of net neutrality regulations — that is, if someone is running a multibillion-dollar company at all — the very least they can do is show up to defend their position. Their tepid response belies the seriousness of what they’re being asked to do. Step up.

Update: Representatives from these same companies have now been asked for input by August 7. Oddly enough, Apple has not been invited to participate.

FTC Complaint Filed Over Google’s Store Sales Measurement Technology

Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg, Washington Post:

A prominent privacy rights watchdog is asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate a new Google advertising program that ties consumers’ online behavior to their purchases in brick-and-mortar stores.

The legal complaint from the Electronic Privacy Information Center, to be filed with the FTC on Monday, alleges that Google is newly gaining access to a trove of highly sensitive information — the credit and debit card purchase records of the majority of U.S. consumers — without revealing how they got the information or giving consumers meaningful ways to opt out. Moreover, the group claims that the search giant is relying on a secretive technical method to protect the data — a method that should be audited by outsiders and is likely vulnerable to hacks or other data breaches.

While Google may be one of the most well-known companies to broker and use data that would normally be considered private, they’re certainly not the only ones from which it is difficult or impossible to opt-out.

Spoiler Alert

Apple nearly did it. After a last year’s internal secrecy missteps, including too-early ads for the iPhone 7 and a framework in a MacOS update that showed the new MacBook Pro design before it launched, they pledged internally to tighten up even more and prevent leaks from within the company.

And then, on Friday, a firmware file for the to-be-released HomePod was pushed to public servers — presumably an accident when sending an over-the-air update to those privileged to be using a HomePod today. Along with details about the HomePod itself,1 the firmware file also contains information about a next-generation iPhone.

I’d love to know how so much could be made public with a leak like this. Why could a firmware file for an unreleased product accidentally be pushed to public servers at all? Why aren’t there greater controls in place to prevent something like that from happening? Why would seemingly-finished illustrations of a next-generation iPhone — an unannounced product, and Apple’s biggest annual release — be included in that firmware instead of placeholder graphics?


  1. It has a screen in the same way that a scoreboard is technically a “screen”, but the reported resolution is the same as the 38mm Apple Watch — strange for a device with an ostensibly circular display. ↩︎

The Video Pivot

Felix Salmon, in a Twitter thread yesterday:

This video from @WIRED, which [sic] is basically a 7-minute long video advertorial for Tesla

It’s got over a million views already, so on that level it’s a success! But it doesn’t have @WIRED’s normal journalistic rigor

If you follow @businessinsider on Twitter or FB you’ve seen many similar pieces, generally very fluffy and positive about #brands

All of this is a function of the simple fact that video is expensive!

A similar point was made by Jack Marshall today in the Wall Street Journal:

Some suggest the repackaging and reposting of ads highlights the “pivot to video” mentality many publishers now demonstrate. The push to churn out video content to feed platforms and to attract potentially lucrative video advertising is increasingly viewed as a potential solution to an increasingly challenging business model problem.

For publishers, repackaging a commercial is often a simple process that can take an experienced video editor relatively little time, and the result is a win-win situation for all parties. The publisher gets some quick and easy video content it can post to social media and potentially sell advertising against, the platforms get to brag about the millions of videos being uploaded to their services, and the company that originally produced the video gets more exposure.

This will only get worse as Facebook and other large referral sources emphasize video, and as long as videos generate more ad revenue than other kinds of media.

“Our audience on Facebook loves this content. It’s what works in the news feed where people scroll quickly with the sound off,” said Cheddar Chief Executive Jon Steinberg, adding that videos about “gadgets and cool visual tech or gizmos” perform particularly well.

No kidding people like these videos: they’re ads. Ads are designed to be eye-catching. News isn’t — not that it can’t be visually compelling, but that isn’t and should not be its objective.

P&G Cut Over $100 Million in Digital Ad Spending With No Effect on Business

Alexandra Bruell and Sharon Terlep, Wall Street Journal:

Procter & Gamble Co. said that its move to cut more than $100 million in digital marketing spend in the June quarter had little impact on its business, proving that those digital ads were largely ineffective.

Almost all of the consumer product giant’s advertising cuts in the period came from digital, finance chief Jon Moeller said on its earnings call Thursday. The company targeted ads that could wind up on sites with fake traffic from software known as “bots,” or those with objectionable content.

Keep in mind that this is against an estimated total U.S. ad spend of $2.5 billion last year, or about $620 million per quarter. This shows that about one-sixth of their quarterly spend was completely wasted. I don’t understand the appeal of automated placements in gigantic ad networks.

Automatic Lens Correction for RAW Files in Photos

Kirk McElhearn:

If you shoot RAW files, many apps that process these files can also apply lens correction, using metadata stored with the files, to create better images. In some cases, this can even be using a huge database of information about lenses and cameras.

It’s interesting to know that Apple’s Photos app also applies lens correction, yet doesn’t tell you anything about it. This lens correction is not only applied in the Photos app, but also within macOS; if you have a RAW file and view it using Quick Look (select the file and press the space bar), lens correction is applied.

For what it’s worth, I’ve found that the automatic preprocessing done in Photos is less visually pleasing than that in Lightroom. Chromatic aberration correction in Lightroom, in particular, seems a little better — not necessarily more accurate but better. This might vary by camera, though.

FCC Chairman Won’t Change His Mind on Net Neutrality

Jon Brodkin of Ars Technica reports on Tuesday’s House testimony by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai:

The FCC has received more than 12 million comments on its proposed net neutrality rollback, but not all comments count the same. Pai has previously said that the “raw number” of comments supporting or opposing net neutrality rules “is not as important as the substantive comments that are in the record.”

[U.S. Representative Michael Doyle] asked Pai, “what kind of comment would cause you to change your mind?” Pai responded, “economic analysis that shows credibly that there’s infrastructure investment that has increased dramatically” since the net neutrality rules went into effect. Pai said he also would take evidence seriously if it shows that the overall economy would suffer from a net neutrality rollback or that startups and consumers can’t thrive without the existing rules.

Advocacy group Free Press has presented analysis that it says shows a 5-percent increase in ISP investment during the two-year period after the net neutrality vote and capital increases at 16 of 24 publicly traded ISPs. But Pai has expressed disdain for Free Press, calling it “a spectacularly misnamed Beltway lobbying group” that demands government control over the Internet. Meanwhile, different studies that showed investment declines have been cited favorably by Pai.

Pai heavily references noted anti-net neutrality advocate Hal Singer in the so-called “Restoring Internet Freedom” proposal (PDF) in regard to ISP capital expenditures in footnote 116:

See, e.g., Free Press, Internet Service Providers’ Capital Expenditures (Feb. 28, 2017), https://www.freepress.net/… (noting a decrease in investment from 2015 to 2016, but claiming an increase in investment in the 2-year period of 2015–16 compared to 2013–14). We observe, however, that these figures showing increased investment do not incorporate the generally accepted accounting practice of maintaining consistency over time, as they include AT&T’s foreign capital expenditures in Mexico as well as expenditures related to DirectTV, see Hal Singer, Tracing AT&T’s Capital Expenditures Over Time, https://haljsinger.wordpress.com/…, and do not adjust for Sprint’s changed accounting treatment of leased handset devices from an operating expense to a capital expense. See Hal Singer, 2016 Broadband Capex Survey: Tracking Investment in the Title II Era, https://haljsinger.wordpress.com/….

I think Pai’s rejection of Free Press’ ’13–’14/’15–’16 comparison is disingenuous.1 Both incorporate full years, and allow for the broadest possible context for comparison — given how long Title II classification has been implemented. Singer’s 2016 article on ISP capital expenditures compares the 2014, 2015, and 2016 calendar years, and it appears to be a very selective scale. The broadband industry’s own trade organization shows that 2014 was a year of outsized expenditures — higher than any year since 2001. Singer, Pai, and others may argue that 2014 was larger by only a relatively small amount — $2 billion greater than the preceding year, and $1 billion greater than the succeeding year, against $70-odd billion total — but that means that a supposed drop in expenditures is only by a slight amount, too.

Pai is pretty dead-set that he’s going to destroy net neutrality — logic, reasoning, and facts be damned. That’s what blind ideology looks like.


  1. Also, his slight against Free Press as a “spectacularly misnamed Beltway lobbying group” is ridiculous. They say that they’re independently funded and don’t take money from businesses. Meanwhile, Singer has previously provided services for AT&T and Verizon. ↩︎

Apple Discontinues the iPod Shuffle and iPod Nano

Valentina Palladino, Ars Technica:

You’ll see no mention of the iPod Nano or iPod Shuffle on Apple’s website anymore. Today, the company removed the two media players from its website, and reports suggest the company is discontinuing both devices. A report from Business Insider includes a statement from an Apple spokesperson citing the “simplifying” of the iPod lineup.

“Today, we are simplifying our iPod lineup with two models of iPod Touch now with double the capacity starting at just $199 and we are discontinuing the iPod shuffle and iPod nano,” reads the statement from an Apple spokesperson.

This effectively marks the end of the music player class of iPods — the iPod Classic was discontinued in 2014, and only the historical artifact that is the iPod Touch remains in 32 GB and 128 GB capacities.

But this was only discovered after the product pages were dropped from the website and, while it’s typical of Apple that the products weren’t given a cinematic sendoff or anything like that, I’m a little surprised that there wasn’t even an announcement. The iPod was the product that made Apple capable of doing the iPhone and everything that has followed, and the iPod Nano was a big part of that success story. I know I still have an emotional attachment to my fifth-generation iPod, even though I no longer use it.

By the way, how amazing is it that the iPod Shuffle lasted twelve and a half years as basically the same device? There’s little indication of how many of them were actually sold over the past few years — I’d wager very few — but its longevity is a testament to the power of its simplicity. What a run.

A Conversation With Trent Reznor

Trent Reznor — of Nine Inch Nails, How to Destroy Angels, and Apple — speaking to David Marchese in a wide-ranging interview:

We did a record with Saul Williams. I probably spent 18 months working on it with him — a real labor of love. We thought he was going to be signed to Interscope, but that didn’t work out. So I said, “Let me use your record as an experiment. I’ll cover the losses if it doesn’t work out.” I wanted to test out a simple scenario. It went something like this: To my database of people, we sent out a message saying, “Here’s a collaborative album I’ve worked on for X amount of time with Saul. Click on this box if you want the full album, not copy-protected, free. I know you can steal it anywhere you want anyway. All I want in return is your email address. Or, click on the box next to it: five dollars; it goes directly to Saul. You can have it for free or you can pay. I’m calling your bluff. Are you going to do the right thing?”

Maybe 30,000 downloads occurred in the next week and less than 20 percent were paid for. I thought that second number would be higher. At the time, I felt I was making a genuine offer, worded simply and confrontationally, for something I thought had genuine value. So I was bummed out by the result. It took the wind out of my sails as far as thinking of direct-to-customer as a sustainable business for a musician. In a way, that experience gave me a preemptive look at music today. You’re not making money from albums; instead they’re a vessel for making people aware of you. That’s what led me to thinking that a singular subscription service clearly is the only way this problem is going to be solved. If we can convert as many music fans as possible to the value of that, in a post-ownership world, it would be the best way to go.

I see this part of the interview as related to the handful of pieces I’ve linked to recently about different pricing models within an indie app developer context. It’s worth reading the whole thing, even if you’re not a fan, but Reznor’s thoughts on music as an art form as well as a business are eye-opening.

By the way, the Saul Williams album Reznor references here is available on iTunes and Amazon, and it’s really good. You can see the first two songs from Nine Inch Nails’ first performance in three years — in Bakersfield, where this interview was conducted — from the stage on YouTube.

The Evolution of Trust

Nicky Case recently released a very impressive HTML5-based demonstration of how trust works between different parties, with references. I’d recommend carving out at least twenty minutes of your day to play around with some of these experiment; it’s totally worth it.

WSJ Magazine Visits Apple Park

Christina Passariello and Mikael Jansson (photographer) of the Wall Street Journal got an inside glimpse at progress on Apple Park, and a wonderful profile of Jony Ive in the process. Most of this story is one you’ll already know, to some extent or another, but there are some interesting details. For instance, the new offices:

The thousands of employees at Apple Park will need to bend slightly to Ive’s vision of the workplace. Many will be seated in open space, not the small offices they’re used to. Coders and programmers are concerned that their work surroundings will be too noisy and distracting. […]

I work in an open office — anyone who has knows that noise and distractions are absolutely a concern. However, a modicum of reassurance comes several paragraphs earlier in the piece:

[…] The team quickly discovered that early versions of the small offices on each side of the central area were noisy — sound bounced off the flat wood walls. Foster’s architects suggested perforating the walls with millions of tiny holes and lining them with an absorbent material. In the completed section of workspace, Ive snaps his fingers to demonstrate the warm sound it creates.

Sound-absorbing holes in the walls won’t reduce visual distractions, of course, but this attention to detail indicates that Apple and Foster and Partners are at least aware of how open offices are perceived and how they may be distracting to their employees.

No matter how many of these photo essays get published — Wired got their tour in May, and I suspect there will be at least one or two more as employees begin to move in — I can’t wait until I see some photos of what it looks like when these offices are filled with people. After all, that’s what this building is all about, isn’t it?