Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Telegram’s Latest Beta Is the First Major Third-Party App to Support Announce Messages With Siri

Taha Broach, the 8-Bit (via Charlotte Henry of the Mac Observer):

Telegram’s latest beta now supports AirPods’ Announce Messages with Siri feature, letting users listen and reply to incoming messages without having to access an iPhone or iPad.

[…]

Up until now, only Apple’s own apps like Messages and the Home app supported this feature. Apple even offered its Siri API to developers for implementing the Announce Messages with Siri feature. But no apps had implemented it so far until Telegram did recently. Although it isn’t available for everyone as of now, we can expect it to arrive sometime soon as an official update via the App Store.

Apple has allowed developers to build this into their apps since iOS 13.2’s release over a year ago. It surprises me that it has taken this long for a third-party app to support it. It seems to be a polarizing feature, but I love that Siri reads my messages automatically when I am exercising or washing dishes. I only rarely use Telegram, and wish the handful of other messaging apps I use would support this feature.

Extended Dynamic Range in Metal

Stu Maschwitz on Twitter:

After noticing that my iPhone 12 Pro Max and my Pro Display XDR happily display HDR values in an SDR context, I have since discovered that the same thing happens on my iMac Pro and 16″ MBP, neither of which claims to have an HDR display. How is no one talking about this?

This is the exact same demo as in the previous tweet in the thread, but on my iMac from 2017. Apple has quietly added HDR display capabilities to devices that long predate the Pro Display XDR, and I cannot find a single bit of information about this.

I shot a short HDR video on my iPhone and transferred it to my 2017 iMac, and was able to replicate Maschwitz’s findings: I saw an higher dynamic range than the display is allegedly capable of. When the HDR video was selected in Finder and I started a screenshot, the white lines of the screenshot crop area were clearly visible against the apparently white Finder background and a white webpage. Those crop lines were a brighter shade of white, if you will. When I selected a text file in Finder and tried the same screenshot test, the white crop lines of the screenshot tool became invisible against the Finder background and the webpage.

This is all on a 2017 5K iMac — not even the Pro model — running Big Sur. According to Apple, my iMac does not support HDR video, but I see the same effect as Maschwitz all the same.

Apple calls this capability Extended Dynamic Range, which is different from High Dynamic Range and Extreme Dynamic Range. Unlike those more hardware-based features, EDR appears to be a software-oriented implementation added in a recent version of Metal. Apple has been rewriting its graphic layers in Metal for years; High Sierra featured a rewritten WindowServer which affects every application in MacOS. This is an intriguing discovery that seems scarcely documented. Kudos to Maschwitz for finding this.

Salesforce Buys Slack

Salesforce broke the news yesterday in a press release:

Salesforce, the global leader in CRM, and Slack Technologies, Inc., the most innovative enterprise communications platform, have entered into a definitive agreement under which Salesforce will acquire Slack. Under the terms of the agreement, Slack shareholders will receive $26.79 in cash and 0.0776 shares of Salesforce common stock for each Slack share, representing an enterprise value of approximately $27.7 billion based on the closing price of Salesforce’s common stock on November 30, 2020.

Combining Slack with Salesforce Customer 360 will be transformative for customers and the industry. The combination will create the operating system for the new way to work, uniquely enabling companies to grow and succeed in the all-digital world.

I’ve been thinking about this acquisition since it was rumoured last week. I love Slack. It has become a better social network for me than anything else: a comfortable place for asking dumb questions that turn into brilliant discussions, a space among friends for cracking wise or venting frustration. I know that it is a serious business tool for serious business people, but I am sure that its simplicity is a key reason for its success, and the reason it has inspired so many clones.

Slack is a service that can be described in a single sentence. By contrast, Salesforce is a company that does not seem to be explainable by anyone.

Rob Walker, Marker:

Yes, yes, but what is it? What does it do? Even reports on the Slack acquisition seem to be dodging the question. In the New York Times story about the deal, it’s not until the 18th paragraph, after a thorough discussion of deal particulars and of Slack’s business, that we are told the acquirer is a company that “provides marketing and sales software, among other products.” Others labeled the firm a maker of “technology that helps companies sell products” or simply a “software giant.”

Salesforce appears to be a centralized database for organizations that allows near-infinite customizability. A company can build their email marketing on top of it, run data analysis, build websites, or share data amongst a host of first- and third-party apps and add-ons. Everything is very vague, everything looks the same, and everything has an opaque name. Customer 360 appears to be Salesforce’s customer relationship management core, but I could have that completely wrong.

In any case, my only wish is that Salesforce does not try to enterprise the soul out of Slack. Dropbox, for example, began as a lightweight file syncing app; last year, it pivoted to enterprise with more expensive plans and a ridiculous Electron-based app. I still have some use for Dropbox, though not in the way the company would presumably prefer, so the app is now effectively a near half-gigabyte wrapper around curl and put.

On a conceptual level, Slack has managed to remain both very light and very deep. It is easy to grasp, but has limitless uses and flexibility. I can only hope Salesforce understands that and doesn’t fuck it up.

Following Tradition, Ajit Pai Will Leave the FCC on January 20

Sara Morrison, Recode:

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair Ajit Pai has announced that he will leave the agency on January 20, when Joe Biden is sworn in as president. This gives Biden at least one commissioner slot to fill on his first day in office and, should that choice be confirmed, a Democrat majority to fulfill his vision of what the FCC should be and do for the next four years.

You know what pairs well with novelty-sized coffee mugs? Tiny violins.

Karl Bode, Techdirt:

Pai’s tenure wasn’t entirely devoid of value. The agency boss did oversee massive and noncontroversial wireless spectrum auction efforts that will deliver troves of valuable spectrum to market, and spearheaded the creation of the nation’s first suicide prevention hotline (988).

But by and large Pai’s tenure was comprised of a parade of industry-cozy policies, bad data, hubris, and in many instances, outright lies.

I have no doubt Pai will be able to find a cushy job beginning January 21 in the industry he was supposed to regulate. After all, that’s the very job he had before he joined the FCC.

AirPlay Frustrations

AirPlay is a truly wonderful technology. A majority of the time, my Apple TV serves as a music playback device through my receiver and decent stereo speakers. Because the Apple TV’s Music app is pretty terrible, I usually play music on my iPhone or MacBook through AirPlay; playback is virtually flawless.

But getting to the point of playback is often a difficult and cumbersome experience. Manuel Grabowski captures many of the awkward UI moments in this piece, but I will add just a couple more:

  1. My Apple TV was named “Space Portal” for a while, and one of my neighbours has named theirs “Living Room”. There is a delay between when my Apple TV displays in the playback list and when my neighbour’s does, and the list sorts alphabetically, so it was not uncommon for “Space Portal” to shift down one cell in the time between me moving my thumb towards the screen and it actually making contact.

    After a while, I changed my Apple TV’s name to “Apple TV” — just in time for the AirPlay menu to be redesigned in iOS 14.2 to load from the bottom up instead of the top down. So now, sometimes, I will go to tap “Apple TV” and find that its cell has shifted up and the cell has been replaced my neighbour’s.

    This seems to be an unwinnable game.

  2. I don’t know what the timeout is for AirPlay if you pause music playback on your iPhone, but it does not appear to be very long. It is even shorter for third-party apps like Overcast. So, very frequently, I will pause my iPhone’s music playback to, say, watch some YouTube clip with audio on my laptop; by the time the clip has finished and I wish to resume playback, I must turn AirPlay back on. (See above.)

    For whatever reason, AirPlay does not resume at the same volume on the same device. I know it’s just one extra slider that I must change, but it interrupts the magical experience. Instead of being able to simply pick my Apple TV — the only thing I have ever AirPlayed to — and have music playing in an instant, I must manually select the Apple TV I was just using before briefly pausing playback, then turn the volume back to the way it was just moments before.

These are admittedly minor complaints, but it makes something so simple feel more complex and difficult and unfinished than it needs to be. AirPlay, as a technology, is great. But AirPlay, as an action, is bumbling and confused.

The Penguin Random House–Simon & Schuster Merger Is About Amazon

Sarah Whitten, CNBC:

ViacomCBS announced Wednesday that it would sell publishing company Simon & Schuster to Penguin Random House, a subsidiary of Bertelsmann, in a deal worth nearly $2.18 billion

The transaction is expected to close in 2021.

Franklin Foer, the Atlantic:

But this merger is not the gravest danger to the publishing business. The deal is transpiring in a larger context — and that context is Amazon. The rise of Amazon accelerated the demise of Borders and the diminishment of Barnes & Noble. If it’s correct to worry about a merged company that publishes perhaps 33 percent of new books, then surely it’s correct to worry more about the fact that Amazon now sells 49 percent of them.

In the face of Amazon’s dominance, book publishers have huddled together in search of safety. Amazon’s size gives it terrifying leverage over the industry. Amazon, with its heavily visited home page, its emails to consumers, and its control of the search box on its site, has the power to make or break a title. To counter Amazon, publishers have sought to increase their bargaining power. They believe that they can match Amazon’s size only by growing their own.

When the government intervenes in a market, its actions are never neutral. One of the greatest mistakes of the Obama administration was the 2012 suit it brought against book publishers for working in concert to cut an e-book deal with Apple. The issue is not that the publishers were acting virtuously: They behaved like a cartel, which is illegal. It’s that the publishers were hardly the worst offenders. The government flogged the publishers for a technical violation of antitrust laws rather than constraining the most egregious monopolist, in spirit if not in letter.

Many of the American mergers and acquisitions completed under the Obama administration rank among the largest in history: Dow Chemical bought DuPont, Charter bought Time Warner Cable, Pfizer bought Wyteth, Verizon bought Vodafone, Heinz bought Kraft, and Comcast bought NBCUniversal. The scarcity of intervention in all of these mergers remains a stain on that administration’s legacy, as does its failure to act on Amazon’s control over the e-book market.

Several years and many more mammoth acquisitions in all market sectors later, the outgoing Trump administration and incoming Biden one have the opportunity to intercede in this clearly monopolistic play, as well as taking another look at Amazon’s business. I hope they do. The U.S. remains by far the world’s largest market for books and, so, has the unique responsibility of ensuring that the rest of the world is not subjected to its inaction.

Adam Banks, Former Editor and Creative Director of MacUser Magazine, Has Died

Craig Grannell:

I heard last night that my friend and sometimes colleague Adam Banks had passed away. Maybe a week ago, I swapped some silly tweets with him about PETSCII art. (He and I were both C64 kids.) I last talked with him… I don’t know, but it was too long ago. Time is weird: you seem to have so much of it, and then you have none at all.

Don’t miss a short story about a clever September 1997 cover design, as relayed by Ian Betteridge.

Report: U.S. Broadband Performance Nearly Doubled in 2020 Compared to 2019

Fair Internet Report:

American internet users have had a very good 2020: according to research performed by FairInternetReport, median US internet speeds in 2020 doubled to 33.16mbps, up from 17.34mbps in 2019. Covering the five years of 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020, this is the largest speed increase seen in the US, with speeds staying essentially the same in 2016 and 2017 (8.91mbps and 9.08mbps respectively), and 2018 recording a median speed of 12.83mbps.

The US stills lags behind many European and developed nations worldwide, and its major cities also often lag behind their European equivalents. That said, there is cause for celebration in Dallas, Seattle and Austin, after our analysis has shown that these cities are performing extremely well relative to most European capital cities.

I have seen a handful of people arguing that this report singlehandedly disproves the need for net neutrality legislation, so let’s talk about that.

It is an unfortunately common myth that the primary issue of net neutrality is internet speed in pure terms. That has been widely promoted — Twitter still has a #NetNeutrality hashflag marked by a buffering indicator — but it lacks key context. The actual concern is that internet service providers are in a position to influence winners and losers by acting less like the utility providers they are and more like an intermediate market gatekeeper.

But let us pretend that pure measurements of internet speed are what net neutrality protects. This report shows a massive spike in average internet speed — a bigger jump than any previous year. Is that because providers have invested in infrastructure? Capital expenditures were the primary reason Ajit Pai cited for eradicating net neutrality regulations enacted by the previous Tom Wheeler-led FCC. Well, no.

Karl Bode, writing for Techdirt on Friday:

This week, S&P Global took a closer look at U.S. network investment numbers and found, once again, that claims that repealing network neutrality boosted investment to be bullshit. In fact, the firm found that annual investment in fixed U.S. broadband networks is poised to have dropped 7 percent since 2016.

So why would average U.S. internet speeds see such a spike in 2020? Well, many people have been working and learning from home, and that many simultaneous connections are sure to drive many people to upgrade to a faster internet plan. That seems to be supported by recent quarterly earnings reports from major American ISPs. For example, here’s Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg:

In the total Fios, we added 144,000 new Internet net addition. That’s a 5-year high, which is just great work of our Fios with the Mix & Match as well as their offering and the quality we have on Fios. Of course, there were some pent-up demand. But all in all, it also showed the support from our customers for our Fios offering.

Here’s Comcast’s CEO Brian Roberts (PDF):

For example, this quarter, we added a record number of new customer relationships and high-speed internet subscribers, […]

I bet they did. Again, the point of net neutrality regulations is not about blanket average internet speeds, but about manipulation by service providers. Speaking of which, I seem to have truncated the quote above. Let’s try that again:

For example, this quarter, we added a record number of new customer relationships and high-speed internet subscribers, and sign-ups for Peacock have grown to nearly 22 million as of today. It is clear that Peacock’s results are enhanced by the placement and distribution it gets through our broadband service, and adding Peacock to broadband is resulting in significant improvement in both churn and gross adds as Peacock is continuously cited as a differentiating factor at the point of sale for Xfinity broadband products.

Comcast has used this position to its advantage by pulling shows from competing streaming services and offers Peacock for free to existing Xfinity subscribers. In a similar move, AT&T owns HBO and does not count data used by HBO Max against users’ limits.

This report does not prove that net neutrality regulations were a waste of time, or that getting rid of them is somehow beneficial. It only shows is that people bought faster internet service when they needed it. Other sources show that the reason for gutting net neutrality in the United States was bunk, and this action produced predictable anticompetitive effects.

‘Your Move, iPad’

Becky Hansmeyer:

[…] So if raw power isn’t enough, and new display tech isn’t enough, where does the iPad go from here? Will it be abandoned once more, lagging behind the Mac in terms of innovation, or will Apple continue to debut its latest tech in this form factor? Is it headed toward functional parity with the Mac or will it always be hamstrung by Apple’s strict App Store policies and seemingly inconsistent investment in iPadOS?

It’s clear that Apple wants the iPad Pro to be a device that a wide variety of professionals can use to get work done. And since so many people use web apps for their work, the introduction of “desktop” Safari for iPad was an important step toward that goal. The Magic Keyboard and trackpad was another step.

Here are ten more steps I believe Apple could and should take to help nudge the iPad into this exciting next era of computing.

Many of the frustrations of Mac users with the iPad — and I count myself among those frustrated users — have nothing to do with power, display quality, battery life, size, or portability. The iPad has trounced the Mac in nearly all of those categories since it was launched, with power and display improvements coming more recently.

The iPad has long been hampered, from the perspective of a frustrated Mac user, by its software model. If you try using an iPad like a Mac, you will have a rough time. On my Mac, for example, I have universal keyboard shortcuts to convert the selected text to a few different capitalization options, all of which rely on scripts running in the background and interaction between apps. On my iPad, I use the wonderful Text Case app that offers an even wider range of text conversion options. But there is no way for me to set a universal keyboard shortcut and, as far as I know, there is no way for the developer to be able to replace text in place. To make a title cased headline, I must select the headline text, tap the Share button, tap the Text Case button, tap the Title Case option to copy it to my clipboard and dismiss Text Case, tap the selected text again to pull up the clipboard menu,1 and then tap Paste to replace the original string with the title cased version. This is only slightly less frustrating if I have a hardware keyboard connected.

So, while I generally agree with Hansmeyer’s suggestions for changes, I have to wonder if these limitations are somehow deliberate, rather than something Apple has yet to change. The touchscreen-oriented interaction model of the iPad necessarily limits its software in some ways, but that does not excuse users’ more egregious workarounds. I find myself reading about the way Federico Viticci makes his iPad work for him, or the way that Jack Wellborn assembled a shortcut for rating songs in Music, and I wonder why these methods must be so convoluted. They are undoubtedly clever, but they also often feel like they are working around outdated limitations to multitasking. So, I have to wonder: is this a way of clearly separating the iPad and the Mac, so users do not attempt to treat one as the other? If so, what is Apple’s long-term strategy?


  1. Or triple-finger tap, a gesture that is somehow even more cumbersome and less discoverable than any of the existing clipboard and undo methods. ↩︎

NYT: After the U.S. Election, Facebook Adjusted Its News Feed to Show News Instead of Hyperpartisan Pablum

Kevin Roose, Mike Isaac, and Sheera Frenkel, New York Times:

In response [to widespread conspiracy myths], the employees proposed an emergency change to the site’s news feed algorithm, which helps determine what more than two billion people see every day. It involved emphasizing the importance of what Facebook calls “news ecosystem quality” scores, or N.E.Q., a secret internal ranking it assigns to news publishers based on signals about the quality of their journalism.

Typically, N.E.Q. scores play a minor role in determining what appears on users’ feeds. But several days after the election, Mr. Zuckerberg agreed to increase the weight that Facebook’s algorithm gave to N.E.Q. scores to make sure authoritative news appeared more prominently, said three people with knowledge of the decision, who were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations.

The change was part of the “break glass” plans Facebook had spent months developing for the aftermath of a contested election. It resulted in a spike in visibility for big, mainstream publishers like CNN, The New York Times and NPR, while posts from highly engaged hyperpartisan pages, such as Breitbart and Occupy Democrats, became less visible, the employees said.

I guess my first question is why the hell the quality of the news source is not a primary ranking signal but is instead a minor one. Is it a cynical reason — something to do with more time spent on Facebook arguing with duelling links from the Federalist and Woke Sloth? Is it because, should those rankings become public, it will lead to yet another round of claims that tech companies are uniquely biased against American conservatives, even though anyone can tell Red State is a trash heap without remotely considering its political leanings?

Whatever the case, I’m not sure it was particularly successful. Roose operates a Twitter account with every day’s ten best-performing link posts from U.S. Facebook pages. Here’s the list posted November 2, covering links published two days before the U.S. election:

  1. Fox News

  2. Donald J. Trump

  3. Fox News

  4. The Dodo

  5. Dan Bongino

  6. Franklin Graham

  7. Mark Levin

  8. Robert Reich

  9. Fox & Friends

  10. Donald J. Trump

There is something righteous about a post from the Dodo sitting in amongst this mess. Anyway, here’s the list posted yesterday, covering link posts primarily from Sunday:

  1. Dan Bongino

  2. Occupy Democrats

  3. Daniel D.

  4. Fox News

  5. CNN

  6. CNN

  7. Heather Cox Richardson

  8. Dan Bongino

  9. Franklin Graham

  10. Donald J. Trump

This is not cherry-picking; this list is fairly representative of the last week or so. What I found most notable, in the wake of this Times report, is that Occupy Democrats is sitting just below Dan Bongino on the November 23 list. Wasn’t this move by Facebook designed to reduce the visibility of pages like both of those examples? I see a greater mix of sources in recent lists posted to that account, but I still see plenty of inflammatory bullshit ranking highly.

It seems to me that increasing the power of that quality score might go a long way towards improving the news value of Facebook users’ feeds. Even in its half-baked state, it is too bad that this is apparently a temporary change.

Apple and the Prevention of Forced Uyghur Labour

Reed Albergotti, Washington Post:

Apple lobbyists are trying to weaken a bill aimed at preventing forced labor in China, according to two congressional staffers familiar with the matter, highlighting the clash between its business imperatives and its official stance on human rights.

[…]

The staffers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks with the company took place in private meetings, said Apple was one of many U.S. companies that oppose the bill as it’s written. They declined to disclose details on the specific provisions Apple was trying to knock down or change because they feared providing that knowledge would identify them to Apple. But they both characterized Apple’s effort as an attempt to water down the bill.

When I read this story on Friday, I decided to sit on it because I wanted to choose my words very carefully. It became more complicated when, over the weekend, Axios’ China reporter Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian posted a series of tweets that raised doubts about the accuracy of Albergotti’s story:

According to sources I have spoken to with knowledge of the matter, this Washington Post story does not accurately characterize Apple’s position on the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.

It is not accurate to say that Apple’s aim is to water down key provisions of the bill, and it is not accurate to characterize Apple as lobbying against the bill.

In replies to another user, Allen-Ebrahimian added a little more context:

The sources I spoke to are not afraid of legal ramifications and do not have Apple’s best interests at heart. The story is simply not accurate.

[…]

It is correct that representatives from Apple have been speaking to lawmakers.

Allen-Ebrahimian has not elaborated, either on Twitter or Axios. This is a murky subject compounded by the secrecy of supply chains in general and China’s dishonest portrayal of its reprehensible treatment of Uyghurs.

Earlier this year, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute published a brutal report spotlighting the use of forced Uyghur labour by suppliers to dozens of companies that are household names. From that report:

China has attracted international condemnation for its network of extrajudicial ‘re-education camps’ in Xinjiang. This report exposes a new phase in China’s social re-engineering campaign targeting minority citizens, revealing new evidence that some factories across China are using forced Uyghur labour under a state-sponsored labour transfer scheme that is tainting the global supply chain.

[…]

In December 2017, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook visited one of the company’s contractors — O-Film Technology Co. Ltd (欧菲光科技股份有限公司) — and posted a picture of himself at the company’s Guangzhou factory on the Chinese social media platform Weibo.

O-Film manufactured the ‘selfie cameras’ for the iPhone 8 and iPhone X. The company also claims on its website to manufacture camera modules and touchscreen components for a number of other well-known companies including Huawei, Lenovo and Samsung.

Prior to Cook’s visit, between 28 April and 1 May 2017, 700 Uyghurs were reportedly transferred from Lop county, Hotan Prefecture, in Xinjiang to work at a separate O-Film factory in Nanchang, Jiangxi province.

At the time, Apple said that its supply chain audits had not revealed any use of forced labour by imprisoned Uyghurs, and the United States banned the use of parts from O-Film and ten other companies. Apple confirmed that they had audited O-Film three times earlier this year and “found no evidence of any forced labor on Apple production lines”.

I sincerely hope that Allen-Ebrahimian’s sources are right. Forced labour — in general, but especially by those imprisoned for their religious beliefs — is not a public relations problem. It is a crime against human rights. Whatever products we buy, we should have the expectation that the people involved in making it were treated respectfully, compensated fairly, had adequate protection against hazards, and were not employed under duress — at the very least. There is no good excuse to expect anything less.

And, so, I hope that any objections Apple — or any other company or person — has to this bill are because it does not go far enough or that it will not be effective as written. Regulations like these should be in place so that we do not have to research every product’s manufacturer’s supplier’s supplier’s supplier’s suppliers to figure out if it meets a baseline of ethics. We are not that well informed, nor can we be, and we must have rules so that we can never choose to support human rights violations.

Update: For clarity, this stance applies equally to domestic prison labour.

Albertan Government Refuses to Allow Federal Exposure Notification App to Operate in the Province

Carrie Tait, the Globe and Mail:

Alberta’s contact tracing app has been used to track down people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus just 19 times since it launched this spring, revealing another weakness in the province’s strategy to thwart the infection.

Premier Jason Kenney has rejected calls to adopt the federal exposure notification app, insisting the province’s tool is superior because it is folded into Alberta’s contact tracing network. But Alberta’s virus investigators are so overwhelmed by the explosion of COVID-19 that they have stopped contact tracing, save for high-priority cases.

This article was published November 16. In the past week, we have broken our own record for the number of new cases nearly every day. Still, the provincial government has generally refused to implement tighter restrictions on gatherings, mandate mask use, or come up with supports for businesses and their employees so they can temporarily close. Teachers are in classrooms with more students than they could handle if there was not a pandemic, and are not being adequately equipped or supported for the additional measures required. Many businesses and organizations are requiring that employees return to in-person work, albeit while wearing masks in common areas, even for jobs that can be done from home.1

This, despite its claim that this is “our last chance to avoid more restrictive measures”, is where we are at in Alberta. Our premiere won’t allow the federal exposure notification app to function in this province, even though it uses the joint iOS and Android framework, and has stood by its own unreliable tracing app. Instead, as of today, it continues to portray this as a problem that can be helped by washing doorknobs and pet leashes more frequently. I am frustrated — I feel powerless to do anything to help, other than the measures I have already taken — but I am also deeply ashamed to be living in this province. The federal and provincial apps can be run concurrently, too. There is no good reason for this harmful refusal to allow the federal app to work in Alberta, at the very very least.


  1. As with everything I write, these views are my own and do not reflect my employer. I feel extremely lucky to work for an organization with leadership that is sensible and excellent. ↩︎

Finding Small Delights

Monty Hayter, like me, was upgrading from an iPhone X this year and struggled a bit with which model to choose, for pretty much the same reasons. Yes, the 12 Pro Max has a much better camera system, but it is large. The Mini is a little more special because its size is so unique. The ones in the middle are compromises. What to choose?

Oddly enough, it was all the excitement about the M1-based Macs that gave me clarity: I was having a hard time because unlike every other time, what I wanted and was excited about was neither the most practical option nor the top of the line model.

So I’m going with my emotional choice and getting an iPhone 12 mini. It is not the most sensible choice. I will find the size awkward when the time comes to log in to a server and make some urgently needed change. There will be times where I regret not having the 2x lens, or Night Mode portraits.

Sometimes, you just have to go with your gut.

The best products will drive you mad a very small amount of the time, but you put up with it because they are so wonderful elsewise. My camera has a truly terrible lens cap that makes a very loud metallic clang every time it falls off, which is a lot. In a rejection of Fitts’ law, the rotating power switch has the single shooting mode — which is probably the one you want to use most of the time — in the middle between off and continuous. If you cycle through viewfinder display options, you can somehow bring the camera into video mode, a feature I have never willingly used. Its processor sometimes cannot keep up with displaying the correct image, so it will jump from, say, the hundredth shot on the card to the second. But I love it all the same. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

It is odd to talk about electronics this way, isn’t it? The iPhone is a mass-produced object, but it is built with the same attention to detail as something hand-crafted, if not higher. It feels durable, personal, and special. Hayter captures it well: these things may just be objects but, however silly it may seem, they can be truly delightful.

YouTube Ratchets Up Its Ad Display Again

This is at least the second time this year that YouTube has increased its ad density. Over the past couple of years especially, the experience of using Google’s products overall has tanked as it squeezes users’ tolerance for advertising. It is able to do this because there are few true alternatives to Google’s core products.

You can pay Google ten bucks a month for YouTube Premium and get rid of ads, but that is really the only way to comfortably enjoy videos on the world’s most popular video platform. There are virtually no alternatives to YouTube — at least, none with such a huge library of original video.

The App Store ‘Small Business Program’

Apple Developer:

We believe that small businesses are the backbone of our global economy and the beating heart of innovation and opportunity in communities around the world. Launching January 1, 2021, the industry-leading new App Store Small Business Program is designed to accelerate innovation and help propel your small business forward. The program has a reduced commission rate of 15% on paid apps and in-app purchases, so you can invest more resources into your business and continue building the kind of quality apps your customers love.

The reduced rate applies to developers earning less than $1 million per calendar year.

This seems like an obvious and easy win for Apple and developers. According to Sensor Tower’s maybe-somewhat-accurate figures, almost all developers will benefit from this new fee structure yet it will have very little impact on App Store revenue. There are very few things I think of as a finally moment, but it is a mystery to me why it took this long.

Michael Tsai:

I wish it worked more like tax brackets, so that everyone paid 15% on the first $1M. That would help mid-sized developers.

This is the part that is perhaps most confusing. It seems simpler to have a marginal fee structure that resets every January 1. I imagine it would eat into Apple’s earnings more, since the small percentage of companies that generate the vast majority of App Store revenue would also enjoy a 15% rate for their first million dollars in sales every year, but it seems like a more straightforward and fair option overall.

Still, this is a positive change. There have been some fiascos this year — the Hey rejection just before WWDC and last week’s confusion over MacOS app certificates — but it really feels like Apple is firing on all cylinders. The seeds sown over the past decade seem to be bearing much fruit for users and developers alike. That is impressive in any year, and especially so in 2020.

Twitter Has Its Snapchat Stories Clone Because Elliott Management Group Wanted It

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch:

According to Twitter Director of Design Joshua Harris, the company’s delay to launch Stories was because Twitter was being “methodical in exploring how the format works for people on Twitter.”

That’s not exactly true. Twitter wasn’t years late because it was being careful about Fleets’ development. The reality was that Twitter had prioritized work on its core product over new features.

That’s been changing in recent months, thanks in part to activist investor Elliott Management Group, which took a sizable stake in Twitter earlier this year. It did so with a plan to push the company for more innovation and new executive leadership. (The company later struck a deal to spare Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s ousting, however.)

At the time of Elliott’s campaign, Twitter’s lack of Stories had been referenced as an area where the company had fallen behind social media rivals in terms of innovation.

Why haven’t you duplicated this feature from half a dozen other platforms, already? is a very strange definition of innovation, but it aligns with Elliott’s miserable reputation (via John Siracusa). Regardless of how you feel about Twitter’s take on the stories idea, I am starting to think the name “Fleet” was chosen very deliberately for the definition that can be found on Urban Dictionary.

Why Isn’t Susan Wojcicki Getting Grilled by Congress?

Evelyn Douek, Wired:

There are many important questions that could be asked at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with tech CEOs today regarding their handling of the US 2020 election. Foremost among them should be “Where is Susan Wojcicki, YouTube’s CEO?” The election was billed as a major test for social media platforms, but it’s one that YouTube failed weeks before election day. The platform is playing host to, and is an important vector for, spreading false claims of election victory and attempts to delegitimize Biden’s win. YouTube had to have seen it all coming, and it shrugged. That’s YouTube’s fault — but it’s also a result of the success of its broader strategy to keep its head down and let other platforms be the face of the content moderation wars. In general, the media, researchers, and lawmakers have let this strategy work.

Forget misinformation and extremism for a moment — which is a wild sentence, I know. Think how strange it is that Wojcicki has escaped virtually all antitrust scrutiny.

It is impossible to recognize today’s internet without YouTube. It is the video hosting site on the web, to the extent that the company has made it suck to use with no consequences. Five hundred hours of video are uploaded to the site every minute. Just about everyone who has an acceptable connection uses YouTube. Yet, despite the huge footprint and power held by YouTube, Wojcicki has never been called before the U.S. Congress on antitrust issues.1

Is that solely because it is owned by Google, and Sundar Pichai has testified? It must be. But if it is an objective to find the best person to testify about these things, it should be the CEO. YouTube is a separate company owned by Google, and Wojcicki is its CEO. She ought to testify.

I also think this, from Douek’s article, is well-put:

This is not a call for a swath of new policies banning any and all false political content (whatever that would mean). In general, I favor intermediate measures like aggressive labelling, de-amplification, and increased friction for users sharing it further. But most of all, I favor platforms taking responsibility for the role they play in our information ecosystem, thinking ahead, being transparent, explaining their content moderation choices, and showing how they have been enforced. Clear policies, announced in advance, are an important part of platform governance: Content moderation must not only be done, but it must be seen to be legitimate and understood.

This is a very good editorial.


  1. YouTube’s power primarily affects Creators — those who earn ad revenue from video views — and advertisers, and that, in turn, affects users. I have always wondered how it is possible that YouTube is the only major general video hosting platform ↩︎

John Gruber’s M1 Mac Review

John Gruber:

Conversely, when niceness hits — or, as in the case of these M1 Macs, exceeds — its mark, there’s no quantifiable number to prove it. You just know it when you see, feel, and hear it. (Or in the case of the M1 Macs’ cooling systems, don’t hear it.) Apple knows this. The most telling moment during the M1 keynote was in Craig Federighi’s segment, about 14 minutes in — the bit that launched a thousand memes. Talking about the fact that MacOS 11 Big Sur is Apple’s first version of MacOS ever designed hand-in-hand to run on hardware designed from the ground up by Apple, Federighi’s example was … how fast M1 Macs wake up.

Not compiling code. Not encoding video. Not executing complex ML models.

Waking from sleep.

It’s not like “my Mac wakes up too slow” is a common complaint. This isn’t fixing a problem — it’s making something that has long already been nice on Macs even nicer. This is the Apple way. The Macintosh way.

Gruber writes skilfully on a variety of topics, but he is at his best writing about the Mac in detail. There are few others who are able to capture the unique qualities of a product’s niceness so well. This piece is already a classic.

Reviewers See Simultaneous Gains in Performance and Battery Life With Apple’s First M1 Macs

Matthew Panzarino, TechCrunch:

Right up top I’m going to start off with the real ‘oh shit’ chart of this piece. I checked WebKit out from GitHub and ran a build on all of the machines with no parameters. This is the one deviation from the specs I mentioned above as my 13” had issues that I couldn’t figure out so I had some Internet friends help me. Also thanks to Paul Haddad of Tapbots for guidance here.

As you can see, the M1 performs admirably well across all models, with the MacBook and Mac Mini edging out the MacBook Air. This is a pretty straightforward way to visualize the difference in performance that can result in heavy tasks that last over 20 minutes, where the MacBook Air’s lack of active fan cooling throttles back the M1 a bit. Even with that throttling, the MacBook Air still beats everything here except for the very beefy Mac Pro.

But, the big deal here is really this second chart. After a single build of WebKit, the M1 MacBook Pro had a massive 91% of its battery left. I tried multiple tests here and I could have easily run a full build of WebKit 8-9 times on one charge of the M1 MacBook’s battery. In comparison, I could have gotten through about 3 on the 16” and the 13” 2020 model only had one go in it.

After the first benchmarks hit Geekbench last week, you may have been prepared for big leaps in performance. And, knowing how efficient Apple’s A-series is, you probably assumed these M1 MacBook models would have better battery life than their Intel predecessors, too. What I did not expect — and maybe I am a dummy — is the extent to which both of those things would happen simultaneously. I’m just going rewrite what Panzarino found because I think it is worth underscoring: Apple’s entry-level MacBook Pro model will build WebKit within seconds of the same amount of time as a twelve-core Mac Pro, and that will consume just nine percent of its battery.

This is not an outlier result. John Voorhees of MacStories rounded up a bunch of the reviews that dropped today and everyone is seeing the same thing. These Macs perform better than almost any other Mac you can buy while getting multiple days of battery life during typical use — and they are Apple’s entry-level models.

This is one of those silly things that makes me giddy; none of this seems possible. It kind of reminds me of the introductions of the Power Mac G5 or the 2010 MacBook Air. These are groundbreaking leaps forward. Speaking of which, it is going to be wild to see what processors end up in the higher-end MacBook Pro models next year, not to mention the iMac and the Mac Pro.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The 16GB RAM limit for these models bummed some people out, but it seems that these Macs have no trouble keeping up.1 I agree with Panzarino: it is very possible that Apple will stop advertising RAM amounts in all but its highest-end products, and it will be completely fine. Also, if you are haunted by memories of Photoshop running over Rosetta fifteen years ago, it sounds like you can relax because Rosetta 2 is, apparently, great.

Two other items of consensus among reviewers are that running iOS apps on a Mac is a poor experience and that the webcam still sucks.

Other than that, reviewers seem totally enamoured. I’m writing this on an eight year old MacBook Air that, as my couch laptop, is still chugging along fine. I bought it with the same advice I’ve used for just about every computer I’ve owned: I buy the absolute best I can save for and afford. This laptop has the highest-specced processor and RAM that were offered at the time. But when it comes time to replace it, I think I might be completely satisfied with the cheapest MacBook Air Apple offers. Why would I bother upgrading something that outperforms just about everything else in the current lineup? Either Apple has uncharacteristically failed to think this through or, more likely, whatever is in the pipe is going to be so desirable for more demanding users that we will happily pony up the premium for the fastest Macs ever. After all, they really only have these entry-level models to beat.


  1. This makes me even more bummed that iPadOS still manages memory like an iPhone-derived operating system. ↩︎

Parler, an Ostensibly Libertarian Twitter-Like Website, Is Funded by Rebekah Mercer

Jeff Horwitz and Keach Hagey, Wall Street Journal:

As Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. have taken a more assertive role in curbing content on their platforms, prominent conservatives on both platforms have responded with a frequent retort: Follow me on Parler.

Launched in 2018, the libertarian-leaning social network was the most downloaded app on both Android and Apple devices for most of last week, according to data from Google and analytics firm App Annie. Its leaders envision it as a free-speech-focused alternative to the giants of Silicon Valley.

The platform also has some deep-pocketed investors. Rebekah Mercer, daughter of hedge-fund investor Robert Mercer, is among the company’s financial backers, according to people familiar with the matter. The Mercers have previously financed a number of conservative causes.

Mercer and Parler co-founder John Matze confirmed Mercer’s involvement. The Mercer family are mega-donors to Republican causes, though they often describe themselves as “libertarian”, according to a 2017 profile by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker. According to Mercer, Rebekah’s father, Robert, made his money running a hedge fund, and has used those earnings to fund Breitbart, effectively invented the Islamophobic “Ground Zero Mosque” myth, and thinks the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a “major mistake”.

They are not good people, is all I am saying.

Let’s get back to Parler, a website that Horwitz and Hagey describe in charitable terms. For example, they compare it to Twitter and Facebook’s personalized timelines based on user activity (emphasis mine):

Parler doesn’t do that. The platform doesn’t use content-recommendation algorithms, collects almost no data about its users and, for privacy reasons, hasn’t provided the tools to let users easily cross-post from other platforms. Parler simply shows users all the posts from everyone they follow, in reverse chronological order.

I tried registering for new accounts on Twitter and Parler. On Twitter, you can choose whether to use an email address or a phone number; when you register for Parler, you must provide both. If this is an anti-spam measure, it hasn’t worked. Parler suggests several popular hashtags to look at; one is #parler, naturally, and every post is currently either a sketchy ad for nude photos on Blogspot, or promoting pills that are “better than cocaine”.

Verification on Parler is open to everyone, but you need to submit a scan of either your driver’s license or your passport. You can also give them your Social Security Number. And, yes, Parler extensively tracks your use of its website and app. While it may not track you across the web like Facebook, it is not accurate to claim that it “collects almost no [user] data”.

Or how about this?

While Parler’s terms of service allow the app to tailor content for its users in the future, executives said they were committed to their libertarian principles.

“We’re choosing to be a neutral platform,” said Jeffrey Wernick, the company’s chief operating officer.

When this ostensibly neutral platform had its first wave of popularity in June, it rapidly banned dozens of users who apparently did not align with Parler’s definition of “free speech”, including Ed Bott for posting only “let’s see how long it takes the shitheels running this toilet to kick me out”. It took less than one day. It also banned Devin Nunes’ Cow.

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

As we said, they’ve sort of speed-run the content moderation learning curve that every website goes through when they claim to support free speech. They insist they’ll allow anything. Then they start banning spammers. Then trolls. And, that’s the same damn thing Twitter does, and even here they’re admitting that they’re banning “leftist trolls.” In fact, over the past week or so we keep having people showing up on our article from the summer about Parler banning users it doesn’t like and screaming at us about how it’s okay because they’re just banning trolls. But, that’s the point. That’s what Twitter is doing too. Except that Twitter isn’t complaining about ideological trolls.

It’s only Parler that seems to be staking out an ideological claim, trying to ban “leftist” trolls after being cofounded by one of the most extreme partisans around, who laughably claims that Parler will be neutral.

Platforms have wide freedoms to pick and choose what users and posts they permit or deny. That is fine; community management and moderation are necessary attributes of any platform. But only Parler is pretending that it is a bastion of free expression and user privacy, and the Journal ate it up.

GitHub Reinstates youtube-dl After RIAA Demanded Its Removal

Abby Vollmer of GitHub:

As we explained, the key claim in the youtube-dl takedown is circumvention. Although we did initially take the project down, we understand that just because code can be used to access copyrighted works doesn’t mean it can’t also be used to access works in non-infringing ways. We also understood that this project’s code has many legitimate purposes, including changing playback speeds for accessibility, preserving evidence in the fight for human rights, aiding journalists in fact-checking, and downloading Creative Commons-licensed or public domain videos. When we see it is possible to modify a project to remove allegedly infringing content, we give the owners a chance to fix problems before we take content down. If not, they can always respond to the notification disabling the repository and offer to make changes, or file a counter notice.

That’s what happened in this case. First, we were able to reinstate a fork of youtube-dl after one of the fork owners applied a patch with changes in response to the notice.

Then, after we received new information that showed the youtube-dl project does not in fact violate the DMCA‘s anticircumvention prohibitions, we concluded that the allegations did not establish a violation of the law. In addition, the maintainer submitted a patch to the project addressing the allegations of infringement based on unit tests referencing copyrighted videos. Based on all of this, we reinstated the youtube-dl project and will be providing options for reinstatement to all of its forks.

The additional information was a letter sent to GitHub by Mitchell Stolz, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that showed youtube-dl does not “circumvent” anything on YouTube:

We presume that this “signature” code is what RIAA refers to as a “rolling cipher,” although YouTube’s JavaScript code does not contain this phrase. Regardless of what this mechanism is called, youtube-dl does not “circumvent” it as that term is defined in Section 1201(a) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, because YouTube provides the means of accessing these video streams to anyone who requests them. As federal appeals court recently ruled, one does not “circumvent” an access control by using a publicly available password. Digital Drilling Data Systems, L.L.C. v. Petrolink Services, 965 F.3d 365, 372 (5th Cir. 2020). Circumvention is limited to actions that “descramble, decrypt, avoid, bypass, remove, deactivate or impair a technological measure,” without the authority of the copyright owner. “What is missing from this statutory definition is any reference to ‘use’ of a technological measure without the authority of the copyright owner.” Egilman v. Keller & Heckman, LLP., 401 F. Supp. 2d 105, 113 (D.D.C. 2005). Because youtube-dl simply uses the “signature” code provided by YouTube in the same manner as any browser, rather than bypassing or avoiding it, it does not circumvent, and any alleged lack of authorization from YouTube or the RIAA is irrelevant.

GitHub has also committed one million dollars to a fund for defending developers from bogus claims of circumventing intellectual property protections.

Application Trust Is Hard, but Apple Does It Well

I promise just one more link about this overblown Apple certificate mess, but it is a good one. Phil Vachon’s piece is comprehensive, and I thought this was a thoughtful counterpoint:

One might argue Apple has catered to the lowest common denominator in this case. There’s some truth to this — you don’t want to start a war against your users and assume they’re stupid. But if people who are “information security professionals” can’t even tell you what the implications of various controls truly are (due to the vast complexity of these systems), how could your average user make these decisions?

Finally, there’s the open source argument — if I have the code, build the code, nothing can hide in the code. This is a fallacy that people buy in to thanks to effective marketing by the open source community. Software systems are so complex today that subtle issues lurk in even the most carefully curated code bases. Would a Chrome build that you built yourself and are running be inherently more secure or less likely to be compromised than one you downloaded from Google that was co-signed by Apple? Definitely not (I’d argue the other direction, in fact, but that is not germane to this conversation), but the Chrome build co-signed by Apple could be revoked if there turns out to be some malware embedded in the package. This is an interesting control that benefits users massively.

If you are absolutely furious with the way certificates are handled on MacOS, Apple is working on a solution for you. For what it is worth, I am keeping these protections switched on unless I hear a terrific reason for disabling them. I am fairly confident in my ability to avoid malware and other nefarious processes, but I am not so conceited as to think that I could not use a second set of eyes, as it were. This is especially true now that I have been working from my home computer for eight months.

In a Support Article, Apple Clarifies MacOS App Privacy Concerns

In an update to the obliquely-titled “safely open apps on your Mac” support article,1 Apple has added a new privacy-related section clarifying some of this week’s concerns about certificate validity checking:

These security checks have never included the user’s Apple ID or the identity of their device. To further protect privacy, we have stopped logging IP addresses associated with Developer ID certificate checks, and we will ensure that any collected IP addresses are removed from logs.

In addition, over the the next year we will introduce several changes to our security checks:

  • A new encrypted protocol for Developer ID certificate revocation checks

  • Strong protections against server failure

  • A new preference for users to opt out of these security protections

The last item on this list is perhaps the most tantalizing. Does this mean the Gatekeeper system will have an off switch, as some more technically-literate users have been requesting? We will find out soon enough, I expect, but it is relieving to hear that changes are being made to prevent server problems from slowing down MacOS app launches.

This seems like another instance where Apple has failed to fully communicate changes — at all, or in a way most people can understand. When iOS 14 was released earlier this year with support for home screen widgets and compromised password notifications, among other features, some users conflated the two features and insinuated that popular customization apps were effectively keyloggers. Meanwhile, Apple’s developer documentation is, as Casey Liss put it this week, “piss poor”, and examples of miscommunication from its App Review team about rule changes or noncompliance are well-known.


  1. The prior version is available on the Internet Archive↩︎

MacOS App Security Histrionics

For a few hours on Big Sur’s launch day, Apple’s overwhelmed servers prevented a MacOS process called trustd from quickly verifying signatures using the Online Certificate Status Protocol, or OCSP. This affected many versions of MacOS and manifested as applications taking forever to launch, and some general slowness.

This problem sucked, but it was resolved quickly. I hope a future MacOS update has a patch for whatever bug created this misbehaviour. But, this being the internet, it somehow snowballed into a crisis — MacOS is apparently spying on users, it’s worse in Big Sur, and that means Apple’s new M1 products that run nothing but Big Sur are evil surveillance devices that should not be bought by anyone. Or, at least, that’s what you would think if you read Jeffrey Paul’s article that hit the top of Techmeme and Hacker News:

On modern versions of macOS, you simply can’t power on your computer, launch a text editor or eBook reader, and write or read, without a log of your activity being transmitted and stored.

It turns out that in the current version of the macOS, the OS sends to Apple a hash (unique identifier) of each and every program you run, when you run it. Lots of people didn’t realize this, because it’s silent and invisible and it fails instantly and gracefully when you’re offline, but today the server got really slow and it didn’t hit the fail-fast code path, and everyone’s apps failed to open if they were connected to the internet.

[…]

This means that Apple knows when you’re at home. When you’re at work. What apps you open there, and how often. They know when you open Premiere over at a friend’s house on their Wi-Fi, and they know when you open Tor Browser in a hotel on a trip to another city.

If you read this and thought hey, this doesn’t seem right, you’re not alone. I wanted to know the answers to at least these questions:

  1. Does a request to Apple’s OCSP server include a signature specific to an application?

  2. Does it report this to Apple on every launch?

  3. Why are these requests made over HTTP and not HTTPS?

  4. Are these requests logged remotely and, if so, for how long?

  5. Is this documented anywhere?

Over the past couple of days, I have read dozens of articles about OCSP, monitored trustd’s network activity for myself, poked around local certificate databases, and generally got a bit obsessive. I cannot recommend this. But the feeling I had last night is that either my research skills are terrible, or Paul fundamentally misunderstands OCSP and what MacOS is doing. To be clear, I am not confident I have a full handle on this topic, either, but I think the most alarming aspects of Paul’s post are incorrect.

The answer to the third question I had — why these requests were made over plain HTTP, instead of HTTPS — materialized quickly. OCSP is a certificate verification protocol. It needs to check the validity of certificates, so if it was signing those requests with an HTTPS certificate, how could it verify that its own request was valid? It is a recursive problem. It is, as best as I can tell, extremely common to make a request like this over plain HTTP.

But that still left me with my questions about the behaviour of MacOS. Apple loudly trumpets its privacy bonafides over its competitors’ practices, so the accusations levelled by Paul would deeply undermine trust and confidence in those statements.

A gut check came today in the form of a fantastic technical explanation from Jacopo Jannone, via John Gruber. This is exactly the kind of article I was looking for:

Capturing a OCSP request is as easy as setting up an HTTP proxy or starting Wireshark. No HTTPS means no encryption, no certificate pinning, no problems whatsoever. I captured the following request while opening Firefox.

I should also add that after closing Firefox and opening it again, no requests were made. This is reasonable, and indicates that certificate checking isn’t performed at each launch but only after it hasn’t been performed for a certain period of time.

[…]

It is clear that the trustd service on macOS doesn’t send out a hash of the apps you launch. Instead, it just sends information about some certificate — as we would certainly expect after understanding what OCSP is in the first place.

I cannot recommend Jannone’s article highly enough. It is as clear-headed and as easy-to-follow an explanation as you could hope for, given the technical subject matter. It answers my first two questions, both of which are among the more egregious accusations Paul levelled against MacOS’ behaviour.

But Jannone’s research did not appear until two days after Paul’s post, so the bad information in the latter has showed up everywhere. Purism piggybacked on it to sell its “Libre”-branded smartphones and laptops.

Jeff Benson of Decrypt wrote a very long article summarizing Paul’s findings, but until the second-to-last paragraph did not explain that it is an industry standard:

Hardeman implied that Apple is more or less using an industry standard protocol as it’s meant to be used—and that most people benefit from it. However, he called on Apple to fix the bugs that “resulted in all the screaming yesterday.”

I found a post from 2011 on Sophos’ blog chastising Apple for, at the time, leaving OCSP as an option that users were required to switch on.

However, I still do not have answers to questions four and five on my list. I think this is something Apple should be documenting in a format as clear as Jannone’s post. Paul’s article is incendiary but, as it turns out, largely untrue, at least in its most serious accusations.1 The headlines and summaries of this saga make it seem like Apple is practically running a keylogger on every Mac. The sober reality is that MacOS sometimes checks the validity of certificates of all types, something which it has done for years. All these histrionics for something really boring and not, actually, a tool for spying, not even accidentally.


  1. He also relies upon Glenn Greenwald’s mischaracterizing explanation of how the NSA’s PRISM program functions, calling Apple a “partner”, and claims in the original that there is no way to block OCSP requests, something that is easily disproved by the dozens of people who simply added it to their /etc/hosts file. That’s probably not a good idea, but it is possible.

    Oh, and in his previous post criticizing Twitter’s moderation practices, a couple of his arguments would make @BadSec230Takes proud.

    I just think it would have been helpful for all of the outlets that feverishly republished his wild claims to have verified them first, but that’s just me. ↩︎

Server Issues During Big Sur’s Launch Goobered Up Other MacOS Versions Due to Certificate Checks

Samuel Axon and Lee Hutchinson, Ars Technica:

Mac users today began experiencing unexpected issues that included apps taking minutes to launch, stuttering and non-responsiveness throughout macOS, and other problems. The issues seemed to begin close to the time when Apple began rolling out the new version of macOS, Big Sur—but it affected users of other versions of macOS, like Catalina and Mojave.

[…]

It didn’t take long for some Mac users to note that trustd — a macOS process responsible for checking with Apple’s servers to confirm that an app is notarized — was attempting to contact a host named oscp.apple.com but failing repeatedly. This resulted in systemwide slowdowns as apps attempted to launch, among other things.

This was happening for me right around the time I was updating Nova and I could not figure out why it had suddenly become the slowest app in the universe. Its icon just bounced away in the Dock for half a minute and launched at a crawl.

Jeff Johnson, who was among the first to tweet the cause of these slowdowns:

Don’t confuse Developer ID certificate status (/usr/libexec/trustd to ocsp.apple.com) with notarization (/usr/libexec/syspolicyd to api.apple-cloudkit.com).

Notarization check only occurs on first launch. Online Certificate Status Protocol can occur on any launch.

I hope this is quickly rectified. There is no reason a local Mac app ought to have difficulty launching because it cannot check in with Apple first.

Foxconn Still Thinks People Are Buying Its Wisconsin Pipe Dream

Yimou Lee and Ben Blanchard, Reuters:

Foxconn said on Thursday its investment plan did not depend on who the U.S. president was. It was, however, exploring the option of building a new production line there.

“We continue to push forward in Wisconsin as planned, but the product has to be in line with the market demand … there could be a change in what product we make there,” Chairman Liu Young-way said at an investor conference.

Possible new products include those related to servers, telecommunications and artificial intelligence, he later told reporters.

Like some sort of AI 8K+5G combination, perhaps? I am dying to know what, precisely, Foxconn believes that is.

Assorted MacOS Big Sur Design-Related Observations

Ten years from now, Big Sur will be remembered for many big changes it ushered in: it is the very first release of MacOS 11 and, therefore, truly closes the book on Mac OS X; it is the first version of a Macintosh operating system that runs on Apple’s own silicon; and it is the first time one of Apple’s operating systems can natively run software from an entirely different platform. But it is also the biggest redesign of the Mac operating system since Mac OS X debuted twenty years ago.

I have some thoughts on overarching themes and trends in Apple’s operating systems that I want to more carefully consider. But I wanted to share some brief observations on Big Sur’s design direction that, I think, feel suited to a bulleted list. I have been using betas of Big Sur since they were released in June, and have used the final release candidate since yesterday. If you have yet to install the update, I think Andrew Cunningham’s review at Ars Technica and Stephen Hackett’s screenshot library are excellent resources if you would like to follow along.

So, some observations:

  • This design direction feels like it takes greater advantage of bigger and higher-resolution displays. Almost everything appears to be the same size, but Big Sur’s unified title bars and toolbars have allowed for bigger, bolder window and document titles, with a little more space around them. Similarly, the larger radius of rounded window corners is something that looks best on high-density displays with less-noticeable aliasing.

  • Folders in Finder have more readable icons than the styles Apple has been using since Leopard.

  • Windows use much brighter, whiter textures when using the “light” appearance, which I always use.

  • Combine all of these bullet points and you might think it points to a welcome higher-contrast trend. Alas, the vast majority of UI elements in Big Sur have far poorer contrast than Catalina. Many toolbar elements have either entirely no background or a very subtle one.

  • While buttons, menu bar items, toolbars, window control widgets, and many other parts of Big Sur have more padding, notifications and tabbed window controls appear to have less. It is an odd choice that makes these features — particularly notifications — look unfinished.

  • Big Sur is a victim of Apple’s current preoccupation with hiding things that only become visible when hovering. Notifications are a good example: any buttons that were present on the right-hand side of that notification — say, the “close” and snooze buttons on a Calendar notification — are now buried in a chintzy-looking “Options” button that only reveals itself when you hover over the notification.

    Most glaring is the way Big Sur hides the proxy icon in any window with a unified toolbar. It will show up a beat after you hover over the window title. You can do proxy icon things before it is visible, but hiding it is unnecessary and the slight delay before it becomes visible makes the system feel slow. I hope there will soon be a universal preference to make it visible at all times. Make it a command line-only preference for all I care, but it should be possible.

  • Big Sur introduces an iOS-like rounded square standard icon shape. I miss the carefully jumbled look of my pre-Big Sur Dock less than I thought I would. Apps that have not been updated to the new standard shape stand out.

    That said, as with iOS, many system icons are simply a glyph on a white or black background, and there are very few circumstances where I think that is an appealing design choice. The icon for System Information is particularly weak. That is not the case for all utility icons — Grapher, for example, looks like it was designed with great care and love.

  • I love how the new Dock looks like it is floating. But do not fear — MacOS continues to respect Fitts’ law by extending the click target all the way to the edge of the display.

  • Highlighted elements — like a menu item that you’re hovering overtop, or a selected email in Mail’s message list — now have rounded corners. I am surprised this has not happened before because it feels so Mac-like.

  • The full-height sidebars that have been hinted at in Catalina apps like Music and Podcasts are now mostly systemwide, and I think they work well. If you want to nitpick, they create a visual separation between window control widgets and the window itself, but I don’t think anyone will be confused. This is a nice way to clean up the multiple layers of toolbar and sidebar. It also means that the toolbar is no longer a primary anchoring element for the entire window, and I will miss that clarity.

  • Dialog boxes and sheets remain my least-favourite changes in Big Sur. I tried to get used to them — I really did — but I think both are weak replacements.

    Sheets used to be attached to the window’s title bar; they were among the most clever and wonderful elements in MacOS. They now sit atop an insipid dimmed window, and look semi-detached — not quite anchored in the way sheets used to be to the title bar, but not quite independent either.

    Dialog boxes build upon these flaws by inexplicably centring their contents and stacking action buttons at the bottom. Sometimes, those buttons appear side-by-side; I think this is only the case if there are exactly two actions. In any case, these dialogs are often very tall with small and hard to read text, but the buttons are unnecessarily large. At the very least, it is a truly strange use of space on displays of all sizes. In most cases, I think they are an unforced regression.

Overall, I have found Big Sur’s new design direction to be a welcome refresh that successfully bridges the Mac OS X world of past with Apple’s iOS and iPadOS motifs. I am annoyed by its poor contrast, but there are a couple of Accessibility preferences that correct its most egregious qualities.

If there is anything I wish Apple had scrapped, it the new approach to sheets and dialog boxes. I find the changes to those to be not a problem of taste, but a serious detriment to usability and clarity. I have quibbles with a few aspects, and am largely pleased by most of the new changes — or, at least, the direction they suggest. But those new sheets and dialogs have got to go.

In an Interview With the Independent, Craig Federighi Tempers Speculation of Touch Screen Macs

Following Tuesday’s Apple event, Andrew Griffin, of the Independent, interviewed Greg Joswiak, Craig Federighi, and John Ternus about the products announced. Griffin also asked about the company’s plans for future products, which it was characteristically reticent about, but Federighi did want to tamp down expectations of touch screen Macs:

But it’s still the case that fans repeatedly speculated that Apple was going to do something more profound to the Mac: turn it into something like the iPad, for instance, or use the transition to radically alter how its laptops work. Apple has repeatedly insisted that it thinks the laptop form factor is valuable and distinct from touchscreens like the iPad, but people haven’t always believed them.

This has led to ideas including the theory that Apple had redesigned its new macOS to make way for touch screen Macs. The Big Sur aesthetic borrows from the iPhone and iPad — buttons are bigger, with more space, which numerous commentators pointed out would make them perfect for manipulating with your fingers — but not because of some secret plan to change the way the Mac works, Federighi says.

“I gotta tell you when we released Big Sur, and these articles started coming out saying, ‘Oh my God, look, Apple is preparing for touch’. I was thinking like, ‘Whoa, why?’

“We had designed and evolved the look for macOS in a way that felt most comfortable and natural to us, not remotely considering something about touch.

Big Sur offers a little more space around some elements, but not by much, so I think this speculation is quickly snuffed out if you use Big Sur for more than a couple of minutes. Most of the menus, buttons, and window controls are still tiny and clearly designed for a cursor and decidedly not a finger. It is still very much on the desktop side of the continuum.

First M1 Benchmarks

Yesterday, in my summary of Apple’s first own-designed Mac processors, I wrote:

Despite the M1 being an apparently entry-level configuration, Apple is promoting big performance gains. Graphics on the MacBook Air, it says, are up to five times faster than the highest-specced Intel model; on the MacBook Pro page, it says that machine learning performance is eleven times faster. Those are big leaps for complex tasks, but we’ve been down this road before. The Intel iMac was said to be two to three times faster than the PowerPC model it replaced, while the first MacBook Pro was apparently four to five times faster. Those tests were conducted using benchmarking tools, while the comparisons this year are being made using real-world tasks. All of this is to say that we can’t know just yet how fast these new Macs are. Even though they are not Apple’s most performative products, could they perhaps out-perform their Intel-based cousins? Or are they modest updates that help guide users and first- and third-party developers onto a new platform?

It appears that, today, we have an answer.

Juli Clover, MacRumors (emphasis in the original and very appropriate):

The M1 chip, which belongs to a MacBook Air with 8GB RAM, features a single-core score of 1687 and a multi-core score of 7433. According to the benchmark, the M1 has a 3.2GHz base frequency.

[…]

In comparison to Macs, the single-core performance is better than any other available Mac, and the multi-core performance beats out all of the 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro models, including the 10th-generation high-end 2.4GHz Intel Core i9 model. That high-end 16-inch MacBook Pro earned a single-core score of 1096 and a multi-core score of 6870.

Benchmarks for the two other M1 models have also appeared on Geekbench and show similar performance. Again, I will stress that testing does not necessarily translate directly to real-world performance, but it certainly seems like the ostensibly lowest-end Macs you can buy are outperformed only by the highest-end desktop Mac configurations and only in multicore tasks.

And, apparently, the two notebooks also get about one-and-a-half to two times the battery life of their Intel-based predecessors. Oh, and the MacBook Air doesn’t have a fan.

I was prepared for big gains, but I am stunned by these results.

Apple’s November 2020 Event by the Numbers

John Voorhees, MacStories:

Apple sprinkled facts, figures, and statistics throughout its presentation today about the new Macs it announced. Here are highlights of some of those stats from the event, which was held online from the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino, California.

Apple’s executives threw a lot of numbers at viewers of its November event, but I think the one figure that surprised me most is one that Voorhees — and, indeed, most wrap-up articles — did not cite. But Kyt Dotson of Silicon Angle caught it:

Following up recently introduced new iPhones and iPads, the company turned its attention to its computer line. “We love the Mac. It’s in our DNA,” said Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook. “The Mac business grew over 30% last quarter, and the Mac is having its best year ever, and the Mac continues to attract new users. Today, over 50% of buyers are new to the Mac.”

Cook might as well have tossed the word “still” into that last sentence; Apple has been saying that about half of buyers are new to the Mac for years. At its 2018 Mac-related event, Cook said the same, and it was the case in spring 2016, too. Fourteen years ago, shortly after Apple released its first Intel Macs, half of Mac buyers were new to the platform. I am sure it has not been a perfectly steady chart for fourteen years, but it is noteworthy that Apple still keeps finding millions of new buyers every quarter, even as its business seems increasingly dominated by iPhone, iPad, and services sales.

Spotify, Learning From Google’s Domination of Every Part of the Data and Advertising Pipeline, Acquires Megaphone

Ashley Carman, the Verge:

Yesterday, the company announced it spent $235 million to acquire Megaphone, a podcast hosting company that also inserts and sells dynamic ads for podcasts. The acquisition, though large, isn’t as flashy as some of the company’s other deals, but it sets Spotify up to become a force in podcast ad sales. With Megaphone, Spotify wants to dominate podcast advertising and become the main ad seller for shows both inside and outside its network. This could have repercussions, not just for where and how advertisers and podcast networks spend money, but also for how much Spotify knows about listener behavior both inside and outside its platform.

One reason Google was able to grow to dominate web advertising is because it acquired companies at every stage of the online advertising pipe. Spotify is echoing that for podcasts. This is going to get a lot worse for privacy and listener choice before it has any hope of getting better.

Understanding 5G

Glenn Fleishman, TidBits:

However, 5G won’t be transformative for most people or purposes. Its advantages primarily accrue to cellular carriers, even more so than 3G or 4G, which offered significant boosts in throughput and allowed higher rates over broader areas. 5G will let carriers charge more for service in some cases, handle more customers simultaneously, break into new markets that require higher throughput or low latency, and equip more kinds of devices with ubiquitous high-speed cellular data connections.

For users, it will gradually feel like we have broadband no matter where we might be, which is not terribly exciting except when you want to stream a 4K movie in the backseat of a car on a highway or download a 5 GB file in a minute in a coffee shop. The level of excitement should be more akin to finding out your city has (silently) dug up the streets while you were sleeping, replaced 10-inch water mains with 20-inch ones, and then cleaned it all up without you knowing. 5G is better network plumbing that your “Internet utility” had to install to deal with the amount of data and new data connections it wants to move around a city.

This is the best primer I’ve read about 5G. Fleishman manages to bring all of its different narrative strands into a coherent and easy-to-read article.

Beginning in June, Google Docs Will Count Against Users’ Storage Limits

Jose Pastor and Shimrit Ben-Yair of Google:

Also starting June 1, any new Docs, Sheets, Slides, Drawings, Forms or Jamboard file will begin counting toward your free 15 GB of allotted storage or any additional storage provided through Google One. Existing files within these products will not count toward storage, unless they’re modified on or after June 1. You can learn more in our Help Center.

David Smith:

How does Google even regulate the *size* of such documents? As an entirely internal format, we just have to take their word for it.

Google Drive currently does not display file sizes for any documents created using Google’s productivity suite; it just says they are zero bytes, since they currently are not counted against storage limits. A text document surely is not many megabytes large, but the storage and use of these files exists entirely within Google’s parameters.

These changes to storage policies also apply to Workspace and G-Suite users, including in education and enterprise. That means businesses that committed themselves to Google’s ecosystem will now have to either buy much more storage from the company at indeterminate cost — since they cannot estimate the amount of space they currently use — or have to source, test, and implement a competitor, all while many businesses are dependent on remote access.

It Is Time for Google’s Now-Annual Curtailing of Impressive but Unsustainable Services

Alison DeNisco Rayome, CNet:

Google Photos is ending its unlimited free storage policy for photos and videos, the company said in a Wednesday blog post. After June 1, 2021, any new photos and videos you upload will count toward the free 15GB of storage that comes with every Google Account. But don’t worry: Any photos or videos you’ve uploaded before that day won’t be part of the cap.

The move is meant to encourage people to sign up for Google’s storage subscription service, Google One. Google One plans start at $2 a month in the US for 100GB of storage and other features, like Google Store discounts.

Casey Newton:

Also seems notable that free Google photo storage helped to drive tons of startups out of this market — Everpix, Loom, Ever, Picturelife. Now that they’re gone, and Google is tired of losing money on Photos, the revenue switch flips.

Notably, photos taken with Pixel phones will remain exempt from storage limits, albeit in “high quality” mode. Around the same time last year, Google ended unlimited full-quality photo backups.

Mac ‘Greatness’ Ad

My first thought when I saw this ad during today’s Apple event was that it was a nice — albeit familiar, very familiar — modern riff on the “Think Different” campaign.

My second thought was that it would be great to once again get a backlit Apple logo on a MacBook.

TikTok Says the Trump Administration Has Forgotten About Trying to Ban It, Would Like to Know What’s Up

Hey, remember how, about six weeks ago, there was no concern more pressing for the now-outgoing Trump administration — in the middle of a pandemic — than selling TikTok to an American company, kind of? You remember, I remember, TikTok remembers — but the U.S. government apparently forgot to finish clearing the sale with the Chinese government, and the deadline is Thursday.

Sam Byford, the Verge:

TikTok has filed a petition in a US Court of Appeals calling for a review of actions by the Trump administration’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). The reason, according to the company, is that it hasn’t heard from the committee in weeks about an imminent deadline for parent company ByteDance to sell off US assets over national security concerns.

Catherine Shu, TechCrunch:

In a statement emailed to TechCrunch, a TikTok spokesperson said it has been working with the CFIUS for a year to address its national security concerns “even as we disagree with its assessment.”

“Facing continual new requests and no clarity on whether our proposed solutions would be accepted, we requested the 30-day extension that is expressly permitted in the August 14 order,” the statement continued.

“Today, with the November 12 CFIUS deadline imminent and without an extension in hand, we have no choice but to file a petition in court to defend our rights and those of our more than 1,500 employees in the US.”

I know there’s a lot going on for this administration right now — there’s a pandemic to ignore, a transfer of power to throw a faux-legal tantrum over, a defence department to gut — but I was under the impression that TikTok was a pressing security nightmare that demanded immediate action.

Big Sursday

Playing second fiddle during today’s big Mac hardware event was the software that many of us will be using shortly — very shortly. Big Sur is coming out this Thursday, November 12.

I am looking forward to the new version of Messages, better Catalyst apps, and using it with the “Reduce Transparency” preference switched very on.

M Powered

Next Friday, the first Macs powered by processors of Apple’s own design will go on sale. That is a pretty big deal. But what isn’t — at least, not from a user’s perspective — is the transition from one architecture to another. Apple last did this about fifteen years ago when it moved from PowerPC to Intel processors, and it is effectively copying its own playbook from that time. There are even sequels of the same transitional technologies: Rosetta 2 and Universal 2.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the Macs announced today use enclosures that are either identical or nearly so to the Intel model equivalents, and at similar prices. The perception of a smooth transition would be marred if there were a clear line between Intel Macs and Apple Silicon Macs, so it is best to keep everything pretty samey.

One way that this transition differs from the last go-around is the order in which Apple is turning over its lineup. The first Intel models Apple released in 2006 were the iMac and the MacBook Pro — its consumer desktop and its professional notebook. But the first Apple Silicon models are entirely on the lower end of the performance spectrum. The Intel MacBook Air has been entirely replaced by ARM models, as have the two-port 13-inch MacBook Pro models. The ARM Mac Mini is kind of a new line at the lower-end of Intel models. In the case of the 13-inch MacBook Pro, the four-port models updated earlier this year remain available only with Intel processors, as does a higher-end Mac Mini configuration.

As expected, Apple Silicon now has a proper marketing name: all of the Macs announced today run on the M1 system-on-a-chip.1 Aside from one fewer GPU core in the lowest-end MacBook Air configurations, any performance differences between these computers can likely be ascribed to their different thermal envelopes. The MacBook Air doesn’t have a fan, and the MacBook Pro remains pretty thin. Otherwise, the SoCs appear to be pretty much identical; or, if they are different, Apple is not describing them as such: they have the same transistor count, same core counts, and the same RAM options, as memory is now packaged with the SoC instead of being soldered to the board separately. And because so much of this transition is about efficiency, these MacBook models promise remarkable battery life.

Despite the M1 being an apparently entry-level configuration, Apple is promoting big performance gains. Graphics on the MacBook Air, it says, are up to five times faster than the highest-specced Intel model; on the MacBook Pro page, it says that machine learning performance is eleven times faster. Those are big leaps for complex tasks, but we’ve been down this road before. The Intel iMac was said to be two to three times faster than the PowerPC model it replaced, while the first MacBook Pro was apparently four to five times faster. Those tests were conducted using benchmarking tools, while the comparisons this year are being made using real-world tasks. All of this is to say that we can’t know just yet how fast these new Macs are. Even though they are not Apple’s most performative products, could they perhaps out-perform their Intel-based cousins? Or are they modest updates that help guide users and first- and third-party developers onto a new platform?

At this time, only Apple’s engineers know for sure. But I think these products are a great warm-up act for M-branded processors to sweep across the entire line. The M1 appears to be a bigger, badder version of the A14, so it makes sense that it would be placed in these more entry-level products. From a performance perspective, this is only a clue about what Apple’s full capabilities are. Remember, it has committed to switching every Mac to chips of its own design, including its highest-end products. If today’s event felt underwhelming from a “professional” Mac perspective, it will make up for in volume — these are among Apple’s most popular Macs. Today’s announcements are just as much about getting the future of the Mac in front of a huge number of typical users.

It is also only the start of seeing the hardware and software integration that custom-designed SoCs may allow. I was not expecting Face ID today, but I am certain that it is coming in the not-too-distant future. You can imagine for yourself what products might be enabled by own-brand processors focused on, in Craig Federighi’s words, “quiet performance”: a truly miniaturized Mac Mini, perhaps, or a less chunky iMac. A new Cube — why not? But, again, I am not surprised that nothing like that was announced today. This is an internal revolution disguised as a transition, and there is no reason to upset that illusion just yet.

So much of today’s short keynote felt like a love letter to the Mac. I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it, but there were familiar faces throughout — right to the end. The first half of the past decade, for whatever reason, felt like Apple wasn’t too sure what it wanted to do with the Mac. But recent years have indicated that the company is still strongly behind this unique family of products and truly does care about it just as much as the rest of us, even if it does not always feel like it. This is the most excited I have felt about the Mac in a long time. I am not in the market for a new computer but, when I am, I do not feel worried that I have reason to switch platforms. The Mac still feels like home.

Here’s to — for so many reasons — 2021.


  1. This branding is recycled from the motion coprocessors. Apple still refers to the “M12 coprocessor” on its iPad Pro and iPad Mini tech specs pages. ↩︎

Slingbox Is Shutting Down

You’re going to think that I am taking these questions out of context on Slingbox’s FAQ but I promise you that I am not (via the Verge’s Sean Hollister):

Q: Why is Slingbox being discontinued?

A: We’ve had to make room for new innovative products so that we can continue to serve our customers in the best way possible.

Q: Will Slingbox be releasing any new products?

A: No.

The company is also discontinuing its apps and its servers will be shut off in two years. But this duo of questions and answers will, I feel, live on for eternity. Someone ought to etch this into stone.

Sketch’s Mac App Manifesto

Like a lot of people, I adored this treatise on the value of a native Mac app from the good people at Sketch:

Best of all, native Mac apps like ours are designed to fit with the rest of the operating system. It’s hard to quantify, but if you use Apple’s built-in apps you immediately get a ‘feel’ for how things should work in native apps. When an app ‘fits in’ with the rest of the OS, it doesn’t just look and feel more at home on your Mac — it lowers the learning curve when you first open it. That’s why we (and plenty of other great macOS developers) work hard to follow the conventions set out in Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines, so that our Mac app has that same, familiar feel. And you can start using it instantly, from the first click.

[…]

Ultimately, the choice is in your hands. We want to give you the best of all worlds. The latest features in a native Mac app, with all the functional benefits that brings. The ability to choose how and where you work. The option to share your work and handoff to others in Cloud. And soon, the ability to collaborate in real-time.

We simply couldn’t do this without being a native Mac app. macOS is an amazing platform to work on, and we’re grateful to the community of designers like you that use Macs every day to create amazing work. Thank you for supporting us, and all the other native apps that help make the Mac the platform it is today. And thank you, Apple, for giving us a place to call home.

You may see this as a shot across the bow of Figma, but it speaks just as readily to clumsy cross-platform apps like the Adobe suite. I see it as a firm commitment to the values of detail and quality.

The hardware that is being announced at tomorrow’s big Apple event is certainly exciting, but third-party apps are why I continue my investment in the Mac ecosystem. This piece speaks to my deep appreciation for really great Mac apps — from Sketch to Nova; NetNewsWire to MarsEdit; Keyboard Maestro to Things. I live in apps like these, and they are why I use a Mac.

Reviews of the iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max

The embargo dropped for reviews of Apple’s outlier phones that — on paper — are an easier sell than its two 6.1-inch models. Let’s start with the 12 Mini, which is simplest to describe: it’s a regular iPhone 12, but smaller, so you get easier handling but also shorter battery life. That seems to be consistent among reviewers, many of whom loved it despite the compromises of the smaller body.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max, though, is a mixed bag. Again, on paper, its tradeoffs are supposed to be straightforward: you have to deal with a phone so large that it becomes dangerous to operate after taking some medications, but that is the price — along with over one thousand dollars — you pay for getting a noticeably better camera system. But that does not necessarily materialize in the real world.

Among those who have posted reviews so far, Marques Brownlee and Raymond Wong of Input — which uses the most irritating format for this review that I can imagine — did not notice any significant difference between the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, even in the dark. But Nilay Patel of the Verge and Julian Chokkattu of Wired found the Max to be a huge improvement, while Austin Mann saw differences in some types of image but not others. As some Apple representatives said in an interview with PetaPixel today, the iPhone photography pipeline has more to do with the total combination of sensor, lens, processor, and software than it does any one part. Perhaps it is inevitable that the improvements are there, but not so groundbreaking; perhaps the camera system is more about using the technology stack for more faithful reproduction than it is about blowing your mind with detail captured in the distance at night.

I am most excited about seeing the full potential of RAW images from these sensors combined with computational photography in the new ProRAW format, coming in a software update. I think that has the potential to reveal some of the biggest differences in noise, colour accuracy, and overall quality, without as much post-processing getting in the way.

MagSafe Duo Charger Reviewed

Matthew Panzarino of TechCrunch does not seem to be impressed with Apple’s new MagSafe Duo Charger:

For context, you have to understand that this thing is $129 but feels like it should be $70. When you realize that it is a charger that doesn’t come with a power adapter, I would not be shocked if you mentally downgraded it to $40. The charger does come with a Lighting to USB-C cable in the box. That cable assumes, which I don’t think is at all universally true yet, that you have a USB-C power brick. But the Lightning port on the charger itself does ensure that you can use this with any existing Lightning charging cables.

I still think — perhaps irrationally — that it is totally fine to remove the power adapter and headphones from iPhone boxes this year. You can still use your existing Lightning cables and, if you have a recent Mac, it will work with the cable in the box.

But I do not understand why this product, regardless of price, does not include an adapter. Someone buying this is almost certainly going to either throw it in their maybe I can travel again bag or set it up on their night stand. Either way, they are going to need a thing to get electricity out of the wall and into the wire. And, sure, you can use any old Lightning cable and adapter you have kicking around, but it’s going to charge slowly, which rather spoils the point.

Also, per Panzarino’s review, the press molded rubber looks pretty bad at the edges even out of the box, and it shows creases strongly in the middle. Because the MagSafe connector is so strongly magnetic, Panzarino says that the Duo sometimes lifts when you try to take the phone off. Perhaps most baffling is that the embargo dropped on this product but it still isn’t available and there is no forecasted date for when it will be. I am not sure I understand this product at all which, in Canada and paired with a 20W adapter, comes to just shy of $200.

Biden–Harris

The anxiety of living in a country one-tenth the size of its louder, more boisterous, more outspoken neighbour was perhaps best expressed by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1969:

“Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt,” said the late Pierre Trudeau.

I have thought a lot about this expression over the past four years, through every international micro-crisis caused by an off-the-cuff remark in a speech or an early-morning barrage of tweets.

This surely does not compare to the lived experience of every American who was worried that their relatives would be unable to visit because of an executive order targeting their religious beliefs. It cannot compare to the experiences of every American who was worried that their marriage would be invalidated, or those who found themselves on the receiving end of epithets and discrimination by assholes who had newfound public champions for their hateful views. I cannot imagine the pain of living under an administration that celebrates cruelty and wilful stupidity — especially not this year, when those views have caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands and have altered the lives of million.

I know that this era does not turn on a dime; that the problems of yesterday remain the problems of today. But this was not a symmetric decision of two slightly differing views. There will be countless benefits to leaving this administration behind, even as there will undoubtably be plenty of reasons to criticize the new one. But as a next door neighbour, it will be reassuring that, come January, I will not be worried that an errant tweet will trigger catastrophe.

Apple Music’s ‘New Music Mix’ Is Confusing Today for Some People

My listening habits on Apple Music this week have largely been a blend of shoegaze, post rock, folk, and punk — much like last week; maybe this is a zeitgeist thing — so you can imagine my surprise as I opened my New Music Mix this morning to find the following:

  • a beat poem by Soundwalk Collective,

  • a collaboration between the Black Eyed Peas and an Israeli dance pop duo,

  • an Indian pop song,

  • and then twenty-two psy-trance tracks in a row.

I am used to a solid New Music Mix and the occasional oddball selection, but this is so far off from what I listen to that it seems some machine learning variable used the wrong operation and gave me the least-relevant playlist possible.

This is not something only I am seeing. There are a few discussions on Reddit and the MacRumors forums with complaints of inexplicable music choices. I asked on Twitter and in Slack and a few others reported the same thing.

I would wager that this is not happening to most people. There is clearly self-selection bias, too. But there seem to be some patterns in what some people are seeing in their New Music Mix this week: lots of classical music, lots of dance music, and some Indian and Spanish pop songs.

As a writer of a tech-focused website, I would love to know how something like this happens from a machine learning standpoint.1 But, as a user, I just want a button stronger than “dislike” — some option that lets me mark a generated playlist as entirely backwards and wrong for me.


  1. Maybe it has something to do with ampersands↩︎

New Restrictions on CNAME Cloaking Practices in Safari and Brave

Last year, Romain Cointepas of NextDNS explained a new technique used by web tracking providers to work around increased privacy protections in browsers:

A suitable name for this method would be CNAME Cloaking, and it is used to disguise a third-party tracker as first-party tracker. In this case, they are also purposely obfuscating this behind a random subdomain, with a CNAME to a generic and unbranded domain.

Some tracking companies, like AT Internet (formerly XiTi), are even going to great lengths to completely distance themselves from the domain used as CNAME destination. Try figuring out which company at-o.net belongs to (hidden WHOIS information and AWS IPs). This is live right now on lemonde.fr, one of the top news websites in the world, and on many other websites.

Using obfuscated identifiers seems to be the latest hotness in tracking, advertising, and ad block blockers. When Admiral, a popular anti-ad blocking service, is implemented on a website, it randomly chooses one of over a thousand domains to load its script. It is also a side effect of some website generators, like plugins for Facebook’s React framework, that create apparently random strings for classes and IDs which may be different whenever a page or site is rebuilt.

CNAME cloaking is a similar practice of masking the origin of third-party cookies through domain records and obfuscated URLs.

Cory Underwood today:

Browsers are mobilizing to combat the use of DNS CNAME records to bypass anti-tracking tech they have built in to their browsers. November is looking to be a triple whammy of developments in this area.

[…]

From the business point of view, any service using CNAMEs for cookie setting will either see that traffic disappear entirely (Brave) or have sizable reductions in lookback windows (iOS/iPadOS/Safari Big Sur).

This includes (but is not limited to) 7 days of lookback window for campaign measurement, possible increase in new users, possible loss of retention identification, and possible resegmentation of A/B testing cell assignments in scenarios where CNAME was used to set cookies.

Underwood points out that Apple itself uses CNAME cloaking on its website for Adobe Analytics. Perhaps it is unfair, but it does not look great for Apple’s technology side to ship a browser that encourages its analytics provider to find workarounds for tracking prevention at the same time its marketing side is using those same workarounds. At least Apple does not appear to be any cross-site tracking mechanisms.

Update: I corrected the description of how React and other generators work in the paragraph below the first excerpt. Thanks Ben.

Apple Releases iOS 14.2, Patching Vulnerabilities Being Actively Exploited in ‘Targeted’ Circumstances

Juli Clover, MacRumors:

Apple today released iOS 14.2 and iPadOS 14.2, the second major updates to the iOS and iPadOS 14 operating system updates that were released in September. iOS 14.2 and iPadOS 14.2 come two weeks after the launch of iOS 14.1.

[…]

Apple traditionally updates iOS with new emojis each fall, and iOS 14.2 is the emoji update. iOS and iPadOS 14.2 include new Emoji 13 characters with options that include smiling face with tear, ninja, pinched fingers, anatomical heart, black cat, mammoth, polar bear, dodo, fly, bell pepper, tamale, bubble tea, potted plant, piñata, plunger, wand, feather, hut, and more, with a full list available here.

[…]

There’s a redesigned Now Playing widget in the Control Center that lists recently played albums that you might want to listen to when no music is playing. There’s also a redesigned interface for AirPlay, which makes it easier to play music across multiple AirPlay 2-compatible devices at the same time.

This redesigned Now Playing widget is fantastic if you use the default Music app: you can just put your headphones in your ears and the lock screen widget will suggest a handful of recently-listened albums. I do not know if this works with Spotify — if you know, please get in touch — but, in my use, it has often meant that something I want to listen to is right there waiting for me when I need it.

iOS 14.2 also includes a bunch of new wallpapers that, sadly, push out the classic blue marble image and the selection of flowers with bright gradients. Speaking of wallpapers, I have a correction to make: when I noted the new wallpapers in this update a couple of weeks ago, I wrote that “Apple has not added new Live and Dynamic wallpapers in years”. That is not true. Every new iPhone model has a device-specific Live wallpaper, all of which you can find in a massive wallpaper archive. It is true that Apple has not added a new Dynamic wallpaper in years, but because the same Live wallpaper library is not available to all devices, I missed the device-specific ones.

Dan Goodin, Ars Technica:

Apple has patched iOS against three zero-day vulnerabilities that attackers were actively exploiting in the wild. The attacks were discovered by Google’s Project Zero vulnerability research group, which over the past few weeks has detected four other zero-day exploits—three against Chrome and a third against Windows.

The security flaws affect iPhone 6s and later, seventh-generation iPod touches, iPad Air 2s and later, and iPad mini 4s and later. […]

[Shane Huntley][sh] of Google’s Project Zero team:

Targeted exploitation in the wild similar to the other recently reported 0days. Not related to any election targeting.

These vulnerabilities were patched in iOS 12.4.9, also released today for older devices, and in OS updates across Apple’s entire product line. If you were running the iOS 14.2 beta, you should know that today’s public version has a slightly newer build number than the release candidate version, so you should update.

No word yet on the specific target or suspected threat actor — in infosec parlance — but using fonts as a vector seems relatively uncommon, though it is not new. NIST’s search engine returns less than 700 CVE results for “font”, compared to around 3,000 for each “WordPress” and “JavaScript, and nearly 5,000 for “PDF”.

Hands-On With the iPhone 12 Mini and Pro Max

With orders for the iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max beginning early tomorrow morning, Pacific time, journalists were invited to Apple’s Manhattan penthouse today to get a hands-on impression of the new phones. Since the review embargo doesn’t drop until early next week, none of the pieces released today have much more information than you can find on Apple’s marketing webpages.

But what is new in these videos and articles is the clearer impression of just how small the Mini is compared to everything else in the lineup. It is still bigger than the 5-series hardware, but appears to be noticeably smaller than the 4.7-inch form factor that was introduced with the iPhone 6. That seems to be pretty close to a sweet spot.

If the iPhone 12 Mini sells especially well, I have to wonder if Apple would consider making a more compact Pro variant in the future.1 Of the people buying the Mini, how many are buying it because it is the lowest-cost iPhone, and how many are buying it because it is the smallest? And, of the latter, how many are compromising their desire for Pro-level features because the size is so desirable to them?

This year, the differences between the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro — excluding the Max — are so subtle that I think the two middle-sized models are for niche buyers and, in a way, the extreme ends of the model spectrum might actually be the easiest sell. On paper, if you just want an iPhone, you should just buy the Mini and get a little more storage. If you really care about camera features, you should probably buy the Pro Max, even though it is the size of an aircraft carrier. The 6.1-inch models seem to only be for people who wanted to get an iPhone 12 earlier, want a little more battery life than the Mini, or really care about the telephoto lens. Again, this is all on paper; we will find out early next week how this year’s deceptively simple lineup works in day-to-day use.

Update: Dan Ackerman of CNet also has a good size comparison video featuring a few shots of accessories announced earlier this year without a release date, namely the leather sleeve case and MagSafe Duo charger. While Apple’s leather case will be available tomorrow, there is no word yet on when those other accessories will be available. Also, I wanted to use this opportunity to point out that the MagSafe wallet is exactly as wide as the iPhone 12 Mini and follows the same corner radius.


  1. I suppose it is also worth speculating about a non-Pro version of the Max, but I think that is less likely. If you’re going to get the big phone, why not get all of the extra features its form factor allows? Also, it must be said, it encourages buyers committed to the bigger screen to spend at least $1,099 instead of the presumed $929 it might cost for a hypothetical iPhone 12 Max, and I am sure Apple is not unhappy about that. ↩︎

Privacy Labels Required for App Store Apps No Later Than December 8

Apple Developer:

Later this year, the App Store will help users understand an app’s privacy practices before they download the app on any Apple platform. On each app’s product page, users can learn about some of the data types the app may collect, and whether that data is linked to them or used to track them. You can now enter your app’s privacy information in App Store Connect. This information will be required to submit new apps and app updates to the App Store starting December 8, 2020.

Apple says that, in most cases, disclosure is mandatory, with a narrow window for when it is optional. There is a broad list of data types that are considered possible vectors for tracking, and it is ideally a good move to require that developers explain their use of this personal information in more explicit terms.

I suppose the biggest questions are around whether Apple will be diligent in how it monitors the accuracy and completeness of these disclosures. That is:

  1. Can these privacy labels be trusted?

  2. Will developers face new difficulties with app review?

I hope this initiative is successful because people do not know what information apps collect and use. I worry that inconsistent oversight will make it troublesome and unreliable.

An Oral History of ‘Marge vs. the Monorail’

Sean Cole of Vice interviewed a handful of people responsible for bringing to life one of my all-time favourite pieces of media, but one voice is missing: Conan O’Brien’s. O’Brien wrote the episode and, according to Cole’s reporting, no adjustments to his draft of the monorail song were made. It was that good. And, apparently, it “haunts [O’Brien] to this day”.

There are worse things to be haunted by than one of the single greatest episodes of American television.

Ride Sharing and Delivery Drivers in California Will Not Be Classified as Employees

Michelle Cheng, Quartz:

California voters on Nov. 3 approved Proposition 22, a statewide ballot initiative attempting to redefine the employment status of gig workers in the app-based economy.

The yes vote on Prop 22, the costliest ballot initiative in California history, means that app-based ride-hailing and delivery companies won’t need to classify workers as employees instead of contractors, or pay into benefits like workers compensation and health insurance in California.

Uber has long campaigned for a “third way” of classifying workers, with drivers receiving limited benefits while still being classified as contractors. Prop 22 guarantees gig workers new, limited healthcare subsidies and accident insurance, some reimbursement to account for gas and other vehicle costs, and a “minimum earnings guarantee” equal to 120% of the minimum wage applied to the drivers’ “engaged” time (defined as the time between accepting a ride request and completing the trip).

Those concessions were offered in exchange for an exemption from a new state labor law, known as AB5, which makes more difficult for businesses to classify California workers as contractors.

Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and other companies exploit independent contractor classification as a core component of their business model, and AB-5 was explicitly painted as a remedy. But gig economy companies spent over two hundred million dollars to pass an initiative that exempts them from these terms, so now AB-5 only applies to a handful of freelancers who are still feeling the effects of the poorly-defined legislation. It was and remains, in principle, a worthwhile effort to protect independent contractor classification from abuse through legislation. But AB-5 failed to achieve those goals and has punished people who clearly ought to be considered freelancers.

In Praise of Copying

Matthew Ström:

Some people have been frustrated by copying, refused to accept it, and struggled with every ounce of their strength against it. Other people have used copying to their advantage, whether to improve themselves, build a community, or subvert authority.

I’ve only been able to have a career in design because I copied.

I hope that by the time you’ve finished reading, you’ll see how important copying is. Right or wrong, virtue or vice, copying is the way design works.

This essay — Ström refers to it as a “short book” — struck me as thoughtful and perhaps an attempt at being provocative. However, it makes many of the same arguments as many other works about the value of copying and the restrictive qualities of intellectual property protection. As I worked my way through it, I landed on this paragraph that crystallizes the essay’s argument and what I find misleading about it:

I don’t fancy myself to be the van Gogh of design, to be anywhere on the level of Stallman or Carmack in my approach to copying, possessing even one-one-hundredth of Steve Jobs’ ability to steal artfully, or to be in any way comparable to Charles or Ray Eames. But I can certainly copy all of their work. I can copy their mindset, their process, and their designs.

I fully buy the argument that copying prior art is a fundamental step in learning a craft. But I do not think copying a finished work inherently results in duplicating the process or mindset of creating the original. That requires thoughtful copying — a more deliberate action than simply re-creating something made by someone else.

I wish that is what this essay explored in more detail, because it feels like Ström got so close and then stopped writing. There are several paragraphs before the one I quoted above and only a few more after, and none of them truly explore copying and critical thinking together.

iPhone 12 Camera Module Replacement Now Requires a Proprietary Configuration Tool

Kevin Purdy of iFixit:

We scored the iPhone 12 a 6 out of 10 for repairability when we tore it down last week. Like most iPhones, it is a device designed, generally, to be opened and serviced, even if Apple prefers that only its technicians do so. Most parts can be replaced, the design prioritizes screws instead of glue, and critical components like the display and battery are some of the easiest repairs.

But after seeing some extremely odd results in our standard camera repair tests — spurred further by YouTuber Hugh Jeffreys, whose results matched our own — we felt compelled to dig deeper. The iPhone 12 camera, when transferred to another iPhone 12, appears to work on launch, but fails miserably in actual use. It refuses to switch to the ultrawide camera, responds only to certain camera modes, and occasionally hangs and becomes completely unresponsive.

Until this point, cameras have generally been easy to swap between iPhones of the same model. Even our iPhone 12 Pro tests had no issues: every function worked fine.

If Apple were nefariously attempting to prevent independent smartphone repair, it seems to me it would have made sure to lock down both the iPhone 12 and the 12 Pro. I do not think that is the case. Like the other problems with part swaps cited by iFixit, I think it is more likely that Apple simply does not consider independent shops when figuring out how to repair the devices it makes. It has its own repair program and I bet it believes that is sufficient. I do not think iFixit’s usual cynical assumptions are meaningful.

I do, however, agree that common part replacements should not require proprietary tools or technology. It would be very stupid if you were required to bring your car into a dealership for an oil change or to put your snow tires on. I am not entirely convinced by every right to repair argument. But, as I think more about the knock-on effects of increasingly proprietary repairs, it seems unwise to trust device and equipment makers to do the right thing. The camera module is clearly more product specific than something like engine oil for a car, but surely it should be possible to swap parts from the same model.

As an editorial aside, I think iFixit’s articles would be more persuasive if they focused more on the reality of what is actually happening and less on a cause that is somehow pure evil and highly speculative.

Canada’s News Media Lobby Is Promoting Its Ill-Advised Digital Link Licensing Plan on Facebook

Michael Geist:

Last week, News Media Canada, the lobby group representing the major Canadian news media publishers, released a report calling for the creation of a government digital media regulatory agency that would have the power to establish mandated payments for linking to news articles on social media site, establish what content is prioritized on those sites, and potentially issue fines in the hundreds of millions of dollars. As I noted in my review of the report, it inaccurately describes the proposed Australian approach upon which it is modelled, avoids acknowledging that payments would be for links, and would open the door to hundreds of millions on tariff retaliation by the US under the USMCA.

Like the linking schemes in Australia and France, this appears to be terribly ill-advised. I might understand rules structured for special formats like AMP, or perhaps compensation for answers scraped by features like Google’s snippets. But just linking — the practice of encouraging someone to visit the source? Ridiculous.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Is Buying Cellphone Geolocation Data to Track People

Hamed Aleaziz and Caroline Haskins, Buzzfeed News:

In an internal memo obtained by BuzzFeed News, the DHS’s top attorney, Chad Mizelle, outlined how ICE officials can look up locations and track cellphone data activity to make decisions on enforcement.

[…]

The document says that ICE and CBP purchased people’s mobile data from a data broker, although the document does not identify which one. All of the data is stored in an indexed, searchable database accessible through a “web portal.”

ICE and CBP buy advertising identifier data, or “AdID,” which typically includes information about where a person is located, what device they’re using, what language they use, which websites they’re visiting, and which websites they buy things from. All of this information isn’t linked to a person’s name, but to a randomly generated string of characters.

[…]

The document states that the DHS purchased AdID data that is anonymized and only shows “timestamped signal location(s) within a specific time period” — or where one device has been, and when. This in and of itself doesn’t tell ICE and CBP who a person is. But the document notes that it’s possible to “combine” the data “with other information and analysis to identify an individual user.”

The idea that bulk data collection can be anonymized is a lie, as is the notion that it is complex to de-anonymize it. This has long been known in industries able to exploit it, to everyone’s detriment. Now, it is powering a vast public-private partnership of surveillance by an organization that claims jurisdiction over a generous amount of U.S. territory with increasingly invasive capabilities and little accountability.

Apple Will Replace AirPods Pro Models With Crackling or Unexpected Noise

Kif Leswing, CNBC:

Apple said on Friday that it’s replacing AirPods Pro headphones that have sound problems.

These problems include a static or crackling sound that increases in loud environments and issues with active noise cancellation.

Apple said AirPods Pro made after October 2020 don’t have the problems.

As usual, Apple says that the affected units are only a “small percentage” of all AirPods Pro sets sold. However, I know people who are on their second, third, and even fourth set of replacements and who are experiencing the same issue. This service program is being introduced one year to the day after the release of AirPods Pro, and covers all affected units manufactured before this month — which means nearly all units sold are eligible if they have this issue. Kudos to Apple for replacing them for free and, hopefully, this issue will finally be put to bed. However, since these headphones are sealed objects, this problem will cause an awful amount of environmental waste.

Privacy Commissioners Rule Cadillac Fairview’s Use of Facial Recognition Was a Breach of Customers’ Consent

A couple of years ago, I linked to two articles about the use of facial recognition by retailers without explicit consent. One was a CBC News report by Anis Heydari:

The Canadian real estate company behind some of the country’s most popular shopping centres says it is suspending the use of cameras embedded in its mall directories while provincial and federal privacy commissioners investigate their usage.

Cadillac Fairview says they’ve been using facial recognition software in their mall directories since June to track shoppers’ ages and genders without telling them.

Investigators have now finished their work. Catharine Tunney, CBC News:

According to the report, the technology Cadillac Fairview used — known as “anonymous video analytics” or AVA — took temporary digital images of the faces of individuals within the field of view of the camera in the directory.

[…]

The report said the company also kept about 16 hours of video recordings, including some audio, which it had captured during a testing phase at two malls.

Cadillac Fairview said it used AVA technology to assess foot traffic and track shoppers’ ages and genders — but not to identify individuals.

The company also argued shoppers were made aware of the activity through decals it placed on shopping mall entry doors that warned cameras were being used for “safety and security” and included the web address for Cadillac Fairview’s privacy policy.

But the commissioners said that wasn’t good enough and did not meet the standard for meaningful consent.

In context-free terms, that oversimplified disclaimer amounts to an advisory, sure. In the real world, I think we need to establish a clear boundary between surveillance for crime deterrence and image collection for analysis. Intentions matter just as much from a privacy perspective, especially since retailers’ incentives seem to be aligned with collecting far more data if it is to be used for analysis — if the practices of the behavioural advertising industry are anything to go by.

Regarding That FT Report About Apple’s Search Engine Ambitions

Yesterday, Tim Bradshaw and Patrick McGee of the Financial Times reported that Apple is ostensibly building a rival to Google’s search engine. You can find a syndicated copy of the article at Ars Technica. It left me scratching my head because it undermines its premise on two fronts: it seems to claim that Apple is surely building a true rival to Google’s search engine, and that Apple does not already have a search engine. The first claim does not seem to be substantiated, and the second seems to be contradicted by the article’s own reporting.

Let’s start with the headline:

Apple Develops Alternative to Google Search

“Develops” is a curious and ambiguous choice of word. It leaves the impression that Apple is either currently working on a true Google Search competitor, or that it has already built one. I am not sure which is the case; let’s find out. Here’s the lede:

Apple is stepping up efforts to develop its own search technology as US antitrust authorities threaten multibillion-dollar payments that Google makes to secure prime placement of its engine on the iPhone.

That indicates, to me, that this search engine is something new or more directly opposing Google’s efforts. But it is followed by this paragraph:

In a little-noticed change to the latest version of the iPhone operating system, iOS 14, Apple has begun to show its own search results and link directly to websites when users type queries from its home screen.

This seems to refer to Siri web suggestions that used to only display within the Safari address bar but are now in Spotlight. As far as I can tell, these are exactly the same suggestions but surfaced in a different place.

There are also keyword search suggestions in Spotlight. But tapping on any of those will boot you into the search engine of your choice — whichever you set in Safari preferences.

Both certainly point to Apple shipping a search engine today. It may not be a website with a list of links based on a query, but Google’s search engine is increasingly unlike that, too. So I am left with the impression that this is a service that currently exists, but then the article posits that it is merely a warm-up act:

That web search capability marks an important advance in Apple’s in-house development and could form the foundation of a fuller attack on Google, according to several people in the industry.

Here is where things become more speculative. Bradshaw and McGee make no reference to having any sources at Apple, only quotes from a handful of people in adjacent businesses. Maybe they have background information from people who are familiar with Apple’s efforts, but nothing is cited in this article. The claim that Apple is, perhaps, working on a direct competitor to Google’s web search engine appears to be nothing more than speculation about what Apple could do from people who believe that it is something Apple is doing. That position seems to be predicated on regulatory pressures and recent hires:

Two and a half years ago, Apple poached Google’s head of search, John Giannandrea. The hire was ostensibly to boost its artificial intelligence capabilities and its Siri virtual assistant, but also brought eight years of experience running the world’s most popular search engine.

[…]

“They [Apple] have a credible team that I think has the experience and the depth, if they wanted to, to build a more general search engine,” said Bill Coughran, Google’s former engineering chief, who is now a partner at Silicon Valley investor Sequoia Capital.

Apple’s interest in a search engine seems to be a regular rumour, but now that its contract with Google is attracting attention in the United States and United Kingdom, perhaps there is more substance this time around than in previous years. That raises more questions for me from an antitrust perspective: for example, would regulators who questioned the prominence of Siri on Apple’s devices find it equally dubious for the company to have its own search engine presumably set as the default?

Whatever the case, I am not sure this Financial Times piece sheds light on Apple’s path forward. The only substantive fact in this article is that Apple has expanded Safari’s Siri suggestions to Spotlight. Everything else appears to be speculative.

Today’s U.S. Senate Hearing Was a Waste of Everyone’s Time

Gilad Edelman, Wired:

As with many congressional hearings, the point of this one wasn’t really to get answers, but sound bites. No one was readier to add to their sizzle reel than Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who has done as much as anyone to promote anti-conservative bias as a political issue worthy of debate in Washington. Cruz, appearing remotely, lit into Dorsey for what he considers Twitter’s “egregious” conduct. “Mr. Dorsey,” he snarled, “who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear, and why do you persist in behaving as a Democratic Super PAC silencing views to the contrary of your political beliefs?”

The most notable thing about Cruz’s broadside was not its vituperative tone but the fact that it was directed at Dorsey and not the other two CEOs called to testify, Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai. Indeed, over the course of the hearing, Dorsey fielded more questions from Republicans than those two combined, according to a New York Times tally. And yet Facebook and Google are far more embedded in American life, and play a far greater gatekeeping role, than Twitter could ever dream of. Around 70 percent of American adults use Facebook and YouTube regularly, and Google accounts for some 90 percent of the general search market. Given their dramatically larger user bases, Facebook and Google are far more significant drivers of traffic to media sites. Almost all of my WIRED stories get most of their traffic from one of the two — most often Google, whose monopoly on search makes it the first place readers go to look up a given topic. Banning my stuff from Twitter would be rough, but banning it from Google would be close to wiping it out of existence.

There is a good-faith discussion to be had about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, but this was not it. It did not come close. For a brief moment, there was some discussion of Section 230 itself; however, Edelman’s description above nails the tone and substance of today’s hearing: nasty and almost none. Republicans were furious that Twitter made it slightly more difficult to find a discredited tabloid story and, I guess, they believe they have the power to intervene. Or maybe they are just generally angry about technology and wanted an outlet.

Whatever the case, it amounted to hours of hand-wringing over profound misinterpretations of the Communications Decency Act, and complaints about the number of times the President’s lies were labelled misleading on Twitter — which they argue somehow amounts to censorship of, I repeat, the President, someone who it is impossible to ignore for more than a couple of days.

Again, all of these complaints were about Twitter, which is a fraction of the size and influence of Facebook, Google, Rupert Murdoch’s publishing and broadcast empire, or internet service providers. The latter have been using a lack of competition or regulation to exploit those working from home, but their CEOs aren’t testifying before Congress.

The award for honesty today went to Brian Schatz, who correctly stated that the hearing was a “sham” and “nonsense”, and refused to participate. It was otherwise a massive waste of everyone’s time, and Americans should demand better.

Privacy and Security Risks in Link Previews

Talal Haj Bakry and Tommy Mysk, who you may remember from their work on pasteboard snooping, have a new report describing various ways generated link previews in chat apps can compromise privacy and security:

Link previews in chat apps can cause serious privacy problems if not done properly. We found several cases of apps with vulnerabilities such as: leaking IP addresses, exposing links sent in end-to-end encrypted chats, and unnecessarily downloading gigabytes of data quietly in the background.

Apparently, Facebook Messenger and Instagram will download link previews no matter the file size server-side — and, get this, Facebook says that this feature is working as intended. So, if a person wanted to be kind of an asshole to someone, they could just send a direct link to a massive image or video file over Instagram, and this is apparently something Facebook has no intention of fixing.

Also, there appear to be a handful of services redacted from this report. Stay tuned, I guess.

Update: I misread this report and I regret the error.

Lightroom’s New Colour Grading Tools

I was playing around with a few test photos shot on my new iPhone in Lightroom and this recently-introduced feature stood out to me: precise colour adjustments for shadows, midtones, and highlights. It is a replacement for the split toning tool and I think its interface is wonderful. It is less effective to explain than for you to just try it — I believe it is part of the free tool set in Lightroom for iOS.

iPhone 12 Pro First Impressions

Unlike Stephen Hackett, linked here, I do not plan on writing a full iPhone 12 Pro review. But, as I am upgrading from an iPhone X, you’ll forgive me for sharing a few first impressions since there are many new things.

Like Hackett, I also chose the “silver” model. A few people have suggested that its white back and bright metal frame look somewhat “cheap” compared to other colour options. I get where that idea comes from, but I disagree: the satin back glass looks and, more importantly, feels premium, while the pure stainless edges make it look like a wristwatch. Also, outside of the U.S., there isn’t a plastic mmWave window interrupting the metal.

That said, I bet the metal band would look fantastic if it were bead-blasted, somewhat like the iPhone 4. I hope someone with money to burn will give that a shot.

The size and weight differences are minor on paper compared to the iPhone X, but they are noticeable in the hand. I vastly prefer the flat metal sides in principle but, combined with the wider and taller body, I find one-handed use even harder than the already-difficult X. Perhaps it is just muscle memory but I know that I would prefer the size of the Mini model hands down. I am, unfortunately, a sucker for many lens options.

According to my kitchen scale, the 12 Pro is only fourteen grams heavier, but it is weightier in the hand. All of these factors make me grip this phone just a little tighter than the X. Again, perhaps it is unfamiliarity combined with New Product Dropophobia, but I feel more secure with smaller and lighter devices.

This was the first time I was able to use the device-to-device upgrade method and it seemed to fine, though both phones became very warm for the two-plus hours it took to move my packrat gigabytes. But I am not entirely sure what it migrated. Apple’s documentation offers few clues other than “all your data”, but that didn’t appear to be the case. Not all of my music was moved over and some of my playlist artwork was replaced by the cover artwork of Ariana Grande’s “Dangerous Woman”. My photo thumbnails appeared to be intact, but I see that my phone is currently one percent of the way towards reconciling iCloud Photos. Most app settings seem to have migrated, but the apps themselves needed to be downloaded — and, because I use several apps through TestFlight, the latter app needed to be installed first before any of those, so my home screen layout wasn’t exactly true to form. Best I can tell, it copied (most) app settings, all system settings, and my wallpaper. I’m not sure why that took over two hours, but it did not seem much faster than last time I restored from an iCloud backup.

I have not had an opportunity to test much of the new stuff. Coming from an iPhone X, the camera stuff is obviously the biggest leap: Night Mode, the ultra-wide camera, SF Camera typesetting, and better quality all around. I can already tell that the ultra-wide camera is going to be an oft-used addition to my creative palette. However, I was a bit saddened that RAW capture still is not enabled for the ultra-wide camera. When Apple previewed ProRAW, it said that the format would be available on all cameras, so I had baselessly hoped that plain RAW capture might be opened up to the ultra-wide. That does not appear to be the case. I am looking forward to ProRAW, as most of my creative iPhone photography workflow is RAW based.

The iPhone 12 Pro has double the RAM of my iPhone X, so a pleasing new feature is that using the Camera app — or even Halide in RAW capture mode — no longer kicks every other app out of memory.

I tried a couple of augmented reality things that take advantage of the LiDAR sensor. They seemed to track far better and with more accuracy than the pan-and-scan image mapping method. The phone still gets very warm to the touch, so I am sure this is the reason LiDAR is not used for focusing or Portrait mode in anything except low light conditions.

My provider does not offer 5G.1 I did not buy a case yet, nor any of the MagSafe accessories, because I already have a Lightning cable on my nightstand and it is fine. I know which way the winds are blowing but I am not looking forward to the day where MagSafe is a must but not included in the box and I have to sync a hundred-odd gigabytes of music from iTunes over WiFi. I am an edge case but, like many edge cases, it is important to me that I continue to do things in this outdated way.

It is a good phone. I am glad I upgraded, especially since my partner’s 6S expired recently without reasonable possibility of repair. But if I could create my dream iPhone, it would be the size and weight of the Mini with the camera system and RAM of the Pro — or, probably, the Pro Max. The battery life would probably be crap. This is one reason why I am not in charge of such matters.


  1. Over LTE, in the most densely-populated area of Calgary — a little greater population density than the Castro in San Francisco, or the sixteenth arrondissement of Paris — my iPhone X peaked at 88 Mbps, while my iPhone 12 Pro peaked at 156 Mbps. ↩︎

The ’Songs of Innocence‘ Debacle Will Never End

You would think that, six years after its release, Apple would have patched up that whole “Songs of Innocence” debacle. But the tool that was created specifically for removing it from users’ accounts does not exist any more so it is still, apparently, an issue for some people. Ludicrous.

Of Apple and U2, you have got to wonder which party most regrets the way this album was forced into the public consciousness.

A Seamless Whole

I don’t know if you noticed, but the visual design language that Apple introduced with iOS 7 has been around for longer on the iPhone than its Mac OS X-like predecessor. MacOS has twice been redesigned from top to bottom in the post-iOS 7 era, and Apple has introduced a few more operating systems in that timeframe. I am not sure there will be another wholesale redo of the iOS look-and-feel for years to come. But that does not mean there have not been subtle adjustments in that time. I want to focus on a tiny change in how Apple treats the edges of the screen because I think it is indicative of a slight evolution in how it treats the interaction of hardware and software on the iPhone.

iOS 7 was introduced in 2013. At that time, the Android market was making the shift from LCD displays to AMOLED. In fact, if you look at 2013 smartphone roundups, you’ll find an almost even split between models with LCDs and those with some flavour of OLED. But those early OLED displays weren’t great for wide viewing angles or colour accuracy, so every model in Apple’s iPhone and iPad lineup had an LCD display. Those differences materialized in radically different approaches to visual interface design.

In the preceding years, Google gradually shifted Android to darker design elements, culminating in the 2011 release of Android 4.0 with its “Holo” theme. While there were still some lighter elements, the vast majority of interface elements were rendered in white or electric blue on a black field. Since OLED displays control brightness at the pixel level, this created a high-contrast look while preserving battery life. This was important as Android device makers shipped phones with wildly different hardware specifications, often using more power-hungry processors, so Google had to create a design language that would work with configurations it hadn’t even dreamed about.

Apple, meanwhile, has always exercised more control over its hardware and software package. Because every iPhone had a calibrated LCD display with an always-on backlight, Apple’s design language went in the complete opposite direction of Google’s. iOS 7 made liberal use of bright white rectangles and a palette of accent colours. When iOS 7 was released, I wrote that “if Apple used AMOLED displays […] the interface would be much darker”. Indeed, when Apple released the Apple Watch, its first OLED display product, it featured a visual interface language that is (and remains) dark.

After Apple began shipping iPhones with OLED displays, it introduced a systemwide dark mode in iOS. Dark mode is not limited to OLED display devices; non-OLED iPhones and iPads can toggle dark mode, but it doesn’t look as good. You will note that the Apple Watch does not have a light mode and, even today, there are only a handful of watch faces and app screens that allow the edges of the screen to be clearly defined.

The Apple Watch also marked a turning point in hardware design. The screen’s curved cover glass or sapphire blended seamlessly into the metal body. And, because of the true black of an OLED panel, it became difficult to tell where the edges of the screen lay and the black bezel began, creating a sort of infinity pool effect. Apple’s design guidelines explicitly said to treat them as a unified whole:

Apple Watch was designed to blur the boundaries between device and software. For example, wearers use Force Touch and the Digital Crown to interact seamlessly with onscreen content. Your app should enhance the wearer’s perception that hardware and software are indistinguishable.

When Ian Parker of the New Yorker interviewed Jony Ive around the time of the introduction of the Apple Watch, Ive expanded upon this philosophy:

The Apple Watch is designed to remain dark until a wearer raises his or her arm. In the prototypes worn around the Cupertino campus at the end of last year, this feature was still glitchy. For Marc Newson, it took three attempts — an escalation of acting styles, from naturalism to melodrama — before his screen came to life. Under normal circumstances, the screen will then show one of nine watch faces, each customizable. One will show the time alongside a brightly lit flower, butterfly, or jellyfish; these will be in motion, against a black background. This imagery had dominated the launch, and Ive now explained his enthusiasm for it. 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.”

Alan Dye later described to me the “pivotal moment” when he and Ive decided “to avoid the edge of the screen as much as possible.” This was part of an overarching ambition to blur boundaries between software and hardware. (It’s no coincidence, Dye noted, that the “rounded squareness” of the watch’s custom typeface mirrors the watch’s body.) The studio stopped short of banishing screen edges altogether, Dye said, “when we discovered we loved looking at photos on the watch, and you can’t not show the edge of a photo.” He laughed. “Don’t get me wrong, we tried! I could list a number of terrible ideas.” They attempted to blur edges, and squeeze images into circles. There was “a lot of vignetting”—the darkening of a photograph’s corners. “In the end, it was maybe putting ourselves first,” he said.

This philosophy has continued through to the present day WatchOS 7. Consider the app launcher, too: as you drag your finger around, the icon bubbles toward the edges of the device shrink in a way that almost makes it seem like you are rolling your finger around a sphere instead of moving dots laterally.

The same design language was present on the iPhone 6, albeit to a lesser degree of curviness. It may not have been equipped with an OLED panel, but Apple kept developing screen coatings that made blacks blacker and increased contrast. More noticeably, the edge of the glass curved to blend into the rounded edges of the body, establishing the hardware design language for iPhones up until this year.

The original iPhone had a chrome bezel to hide the unresolved connection between the display glass and the aluminum and plastic chassis. Ever since the iPhone 4 and 5, in particular, the physical seams have slowly disappeared. On my iPhone X, there is only a thin black plastic gasket between the face and the stainless steel body, and it is part of a constant curve. My thumb feels only the slightest groove when moving from glass to metal and back again.

iOS’ design language evolved at a similar time as the hardware. The iPhone 6 was introduced in 2014, a year after iOS 7 debuted, but that language felt much more at home on its bigger and curved displays. Notably, the iOS 7 design language incorporated edge-to-edge elements throughout — in notifications, table views, and so on — that seemed to bleed into the bodywork, as did the new gesture for swiping from the left edge of the display to go back.

But iOS has slowly pulled back on the design elements that tried to create an illusion of a continuous product with little separation of hardware and software. Several years ago, notifications, widgets, and Siri results were redesigned as glass bubbles rather than full-width blocks. iOS 13 marked the return of the grouped table view. Even iOS 14’s “full width” widgets are narrower — their size matches the margins of home screen icons, but it also fits a pattern of increasing space around onscreen elements.

Perhaps that is also related to its hardware design language. The bezels of iPhones keep shrinking, so there is a smaller hardware border around the display. This is compensated for in software by increasing the amount of space between onscreen elements and the edge of the display. Otherwise, software elements would appear too wide and overwhelm the physical size of the product — particularly with the larger Max models. It strikes me that these changes mark an evolution of that thinking: the hardware is, effectively, seamless, but it is not edge-less. From a visual design perspective, at least on the iPhone, Apple seems more comfortable delineating the edge of the software and the hardware instead of letting them bleed together to the same extent.

Apple often emphasizes that it develops hardware and software in sync, with the goal of building more unified products. I think we see that in these subtler interface details.

Tesla Begins Rolling Out a Software Product Called ‘Full Self-Driving’ That Does Not Fully Self-Drive the Car

Andrew J. Hawkins, the Verge:

Tesla sent out the first “Full Self-Driving” beta software update to a select group of customers this week, CEO Elon Musk tweeted Tuesday. On an earnings call Wednesday, Musk said more Tesla owners would get the update as the weeks progress, with the goal of a “wide release” by the end of the year.

Only those customers in Tesla’s Early Access Program will receive the software update, that will enable drivers to access Autopilot’s partially automated driver assist system on city streets. The early access program is used as a testing platform to help iron out software bugs.

I saw this article when it was posted to the Verge’s homepage a couple of days ago. It was in the small bottom row of that large grid they have at the top of the page, and I remember thinking “that is pretty subtle placement for a story about how autonomous transportation is now real”. Well, this being Tesla, it isn’t that at all.

Jason Torchinsky, Jalopnik:

Yes, it does plenty of things and is extremely technically impressive, but it’s still a Level 2 system, a very advanced driver-assist system, not by any means fully autonomous. There’s a lot of confusion about this, confusion that Tesla themselves are causing, and it could be dangerous.

[…]

It doesn’t fundamentally matter if it can change lanes, go around objects, follow forks in the road, or whatever. Those are all extremely impressive technical achievements, but the system requires the driver to remain vigilant and ready to take over at any second should the system become confused or fail.

That’s by definition not “full self-driving,” and Tesla’s continued use of that descriptor is dangerous.

Maybe this makes me curmudgeonly, but I feel like it is not fair to the general public for Tesla to beta test on public roads software with a name so misleading it might cause some drivers to believe their cars now drive themselves.

The ‘Proxy War’ Between YouTube and Stream Rippers

Ernesto Van der Sar, TorrentFreak:

It’s no secret that the music industry sees stream-ripping as today’s single biggest piracy threat.

[…]

Last summer, [YouTube] started taking active and aggressive countermeasures to block IP-addresses that are frequently used by stream-ripping services to download content. Our source describes these blocks as ‘purges’.

[…]

In addition to these purges, Google also removes URLs from search results when they are reported by copyright holders, as we alluded to earlier. This is a frustrating experience for bigger site operators, who have to switch to fresh URLs frequently.

In a world where Google did not own YouTube — and would, therefore, not have legal accountability for the misuse of licensed materials — would it be so keen to comply with copyright-based requests to remove stream rippers from search listings? I wonder.

In related news, the RIAA today demanded that GitHub remove the repository and forks of youtube-dl, a popular command line tool for downloading videos from YouTube and other sources.

Apple Removes ‘TV Remote’ App in Favour of Control Centre Feature

Filipe Espósito, 9to5Mac:

Apple today silently removed its “Apple TV Remote” app from the App Store, which lets users control the Apple TV from an iPhone or iPad simulating a real Remote. The app is no longer available for download from the App Store and Apple has likely discontinued it, which means that it will no longer get any updates.

That doesn’t come as a surprise since Apple has added the Remote feature built into the Control Center in iOS 12, so Apple TV users can have access to all the controls on Siri Remote without having to download any app.

This is kind of a bummer because the Apple TV Remote app has actual buttons for previous and next. The Control Centre feature is a more faithful onscreen replication of the Siri Remote, which does not have those buttons.

I often use my Apple TV to play music, through my receiver, with the television switched off. There is no way to navigate songs unless the Now Playing controls are in the foreground. And, given that my Apple TV prompts me to configure the volume control every time I wake it even though the volume control is already configured, the playback controls are never actually in the foreground and it is impossible to skip a song with the Control Centre remote feature.

The moral of this story is that buttons are often good.

Update: Via Jason Robinson, you can control an Apple TV through an iPhone’s AirPlay controls even if you are not AirPlaying from that iPhone, and it includes typical playback controls.

Live Music for a Time Without Stages

It has been over six months since the last live music performance with singing in Calgary. I understand the necessity of restrictions and, given that I have kept my job and have not lost a loved one to covid-19, I do not wish to complain.

But if there is one single thing I cannot wait for the return of, it is live music. I want to stand right up against the barrier next to the stage getting crushed on all sides by other people and the mosh pit behind. I want my favourite musicians to dive off the stage and onto the adoring crowd singing along with them. I miss music made visceral.

Matthew Perpetua has put together a playlist of twenty hours of live music from hundreds of different artists, available on Apple Music and Spotify. Whatever you’re into, I am sure you will find something in this list that you will love. But it starts with MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams” and I see no reason to skip that.

To replicate the experience of every live show I’ve ever attended, spill some cheap beer on your bathroom floor, put this playlist on pretty loud, turn off the lights, and violently shove your chest into the towel rack.

Foxconn’s Empty Buildings, Empty Factories, and Empty Promises in Wisconsin

Josh Dzieza of the Verge has an update on Foxconn’s fake LCD factory in Wisconsin:

In many ways, the Foxconn debacle in Wisconsin is the physical manifestation of the alternate reality that has defined the Trump administration. Trump promised to bring back manufacturing, found a billionaire eager to play along, and now for three years the people of Wisconsin have been told to expect an LCD factory that plainly is not there. Into the gap between appearance and reality fell people’s jobs, homes, and livelihoods.

The buildings Foxconn has erected are largely empty. The sphere has no clear purpose. The innovation centers are still vacant. The heart of the project, the million-square-foot “Fab,” is just a shell. In what an employee says was a final cost-cutting measure, only the portion that was to host the Trump visit was ever finished. Recent documents show the “Fab,” once intended for use as manufacturing, has been reclassified as a massive storage facility.

WEDC, as part of its audit of the company’s 2019 subsidy application, had Foxconn survey its employees about what they were working on. Not a single respondent mentioned LCDs because no one is working on LCDs, and they never were.

Every time I think about this story, I remember the episode of “Reply All” from a couple of years ago about the town relationships fractured by the fight over this factory. Its construction is a profoundly selfish and cynical landmark, and it is heartbreaking to think about all of the people who were forced out of their homes to construct it.

That podcast episode spends a fair bit of time covering Dave DeGroot, village president of Mount Pleasant, as he secretly fights to land the Foxconn factory. Dzieza’s article doesn’t mention DeGroot, but I found an article from last month in the Racine Journal Times by Eric Johnson claiming that local officials were “pleased” with Foxconn’s efforts:

“It continues to roll along at its own pace,” Mount Pleasant Village President David DeGroot said of the Foxconn development. “It’s been an interesting ride. Their focus changed somewhat along the way, but I’m thrilled and filled with anticipation at the breadth and depth of the product that they’re going to be producing in Mount Pleasant. We’ve come a long ways from the initial focus on just large screen video monitors. They’ve got their fingers in every market segment that’s out there and we’ll see the fruits of that as time goes on.”

[…]

“It (Foxconn) will continue to have a ripple effect, not only in Mount Pleasant, but really throughout southeastern Wisconsin,” [DeGroot] said. “We are going to become known as a technology hub.”

This article mentions that part of the factory was apparently retooled to make masks and other pandemic-related goods, something which Dzieza’s piece does not mention. However, though DeGroot is putting an optimistic spin on the situation his village is now in, it is difficult to reconcile that pride with Foxconn’s 90% shortfall in capital investment compared to its targets.

First the Cloud Giveth

Cabel Sasser:

Small gripe town: WordPress is replacing Adobe TypeKit fonts with Google Fonts. Plus,

  • This e-mail’s subject was “Improvements to WordPress Custom Fonts”

  • It doesn’t at all explain WHY

  • Please don’t tell a designer “these fonts are very similar to the ones you have”

This seems like a pretty quiet change for something that may have a big impact on some websites, but it seems like it was a pretty quiet feature in the first place. Apparently, it has been available for about ten years on Premium plans and up, but I went back through the last few years of WordPress.com’s pricing page and it doesn’t once mention Typekit or Adobe Fonts support. If you search the support site for references to either, you’ll find only two cached snippets that confirm Typekit fonts were available on Premium plans. Now, the only way to specify non-Google custom fonts is to use a much pricier Business plan.

Eric Peacock, in reply to Sasser’s tweet, linked to a piece by Mike Rankin in Creative Pro about an adjacent issue of type families in Adobe Fonts becoming, euphemistically, “retired”:

On June 15, 2020 a number of fonts will be retired from Adobe’s Creative Cloud. In total, about 50 families/700 fonts from the foundries Font Bureau and Carter & Cone will no longer be available to sync. You can find more details in this post on the Adobe Support Community site.

It’s not the first time Adobe Fonts have gone away. Back in March, House Industries fonts were retired after 3 years of being offered in Typekit/Adobe Fonts. Here’s the official FAQ from Adobe on font retirement.

Adobe Fonts can be a fantastic resource for use with the company’s Creative Cloud apps, as it means designers do not have to justify hundreds or thousands of dollars in typography-related billing, which can be especially painful in smaller organizations. It can often be difficult to explain to clients why a particular typeface is warranted instead of a lower-cost or free option, and Adobe Fonts offers a reasonable solution.

According to Adobe, fonts that it has pulled from its catalogue will continue to function for published web projects. That is pretty terrific. But organizations should be careful that their identities do not depend on Adobe’s ability to negotiate licenses with type houses.

Matthew Butterick:

A couple weeks ago, a customer reported that my fonts didn’t work in Microsoft Office. I looked up his order. He had bought the fonts in 2015. I asked: have they not worked for five years? Oh no, he said, they were working fine until September 28.

So what happened on September 28?

[…]

[…] I theorized that there was probably a buggy Microsoft Office update that went out to his computer that day. (True.) And that rolling back to the previous version would cure the problem. (Also true.)

The cloud-connected computing era is a real mixed bag of compromises. We are now able to use software for predictable monthly costs that we can disable at any time, and we get regular and frequent updates. Much of this software is either browser-based or cross-platform, so the effects of lock-in are reduced. We have access to massive libraries of fonts, music, movies, and television shows entirely on demand. It costs us nothing extra to experiment with so much choice.

It also means that our computers must be either constantly or regularly connected to the internet. There are often non-optional software updates that we must install before being able to do anything else. Those updates often introduce new bugs that may or may not be corrected in a later update, and frequently contain redesigns or different layouts that require us to re-learn something. If we stop paying for software, we lose access to it and, sometimes, files created in its proprietary formats. Our access to a specific piece of media is dependent on whatever licensing agreement a multinational company has been able to strike with another. Despite having near limitless choice, we still watch the same shows.

Quibi Is Shutting Down

Benjamin Mullin and Joe Flint, Wall Street Journal:

Quibi Holdings LLC is shutting itself down, according to people familiar with the matter, a crash landing for a once-highflying entertainment startup that raised $1.75 billion in capital.

[…]

One of Quibi’s big selling points was its library of shows that could only be watched on users’ mobile phones. That feature proved to be a liability when the pandemic struck, sending viewers into their homes to watch shows on TV. Quibi eventually allowed subscribers to watch its shows on their TVs.

Today, is the end of that sentence. Literally today is the date when Quibi added television apps.

Quibi was founded in August 2018 and launched on April 6 of this year. Not even two hundred days later, the Journal is reporting that it is shutting down. Even if you count from the company’s founding, that has got to be some sort of record for burning through nearly two billion dollars and having nothing to show for it.

Quibi Launches Apps for Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Google TV

Todd Spangler, Variety:

Quibi’s quick-bite originals are now streaming on three connected-TV device platforms — Apple TV, Amazon’s Fire TV and Google TV/Android TV. But there might be nothing that can save Jeffrey Katzenberg’s struggling mobile subscription-video startup at this point.

Boy, that sure sounds ominous. At least you can now watch Quibi’s short shows on your television.

On a personal note, this is the first thing I have written about Quibi since it launched in April, so I guess I had better start a “Quibi” tag to keep track of all my posts on the company.

Fourth Beta of iOS 14.2 Includes New Wallpapers

Writing the last post left me feeling like I needed a lighter counterpoint. So, here it is: the latest betas of iOS 14.2 and iPadOS 14.2 have a few new wallpapers. Some of them are mountain landscapes, the others are illustrated. All of them come in day and night variations for light and dark modes, respectively.

The reason why I bring this up — other than because some of these new images are very nice — is that it is a reminder that Apple has not added new Live and Dynamic wallpapers in years. Maybe the former has something to do with the removal of 3D Touch, which would be fair, but I am surprised by how long the Dynamic wallpapers have sat. They are basically the same as the ones included in iOS 7, and they are all pretty dull.

I know a lot of people use their own photo as a wallpaper, but I see many people using one of Apple’s. Updating its collections of motion wallpaper seems like such an easy way to give users a new-feeling device and inject a bit of whimsy into the system.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Case Against Google

One of the overarching themes about the many terrible things the current U.S. administration is responsible for is how trust in government has fractured. You can say that to some degree about any democracy at just about any time, but few have created and then exploited such deep cracks, particularly along ideological lines. Not only does this administration have no interest in reaching across the aisle, it actively promotes seeing policy as competition and Americans who are not deferential to it as enemies.

That is what makes the antitrust complaint against Google, filed today by the U.S. Department of Justice and eleven state Attorneys General, so uncomfortable. The current U.S. Attorney General is William Barr, who has a long history of covering up possible government crimes, is partly responsible for the tear gassing of Americans for a photo op, and has demonstrated total loyalty to the current President instead of the office or his country. Before being sworn in as Attorney General in February 2019, Barr was a longtime in-house counsel for Verizon and served on the board of directors of Time Warner. Meanwhile, all of the state Attorneys General who are backing Barr’s suit against Google are Republicans.

This is important because the DOJ has brought only one other antitrust case in the last decade of the Obama and Trump administrations. This is true despite high-profile mergers and acquisitions happening at a blistering pace, particularly in the telecom space. The bar must be pretty high for what the DOJ considers a criminal violation of antitrust laws.

You can read the suit (PDF) if you’d like — it’s not very long and it contains some startling claims. In short, it argues that Google maintains dominance in search partly as the result of allegedly illegal agreements with browser and device makers, and that it abuses its monopoly in its advertising business. Perhpas the most shocking claim in the suit is this:

Apple has not developed and does not offer its own general search engine. Under the current agreement between Apple and Google, which has a multi-year term, Apple must make Google’s search engine the default for Safari, and use Google for Siri and Spotlight in response to general search queries. In exchange for this privileged access to Apple’s massive consumer base, Google pays Apple billions of dollars in advertising revenue each year, with public estimates ranging around $8–12 billion. The revenues Google shares with Apple make up approximately 15–20 percent of Apple’s worldwide net income.

[…]

Apple’s RSA incentivizes Apple to push more and more search traffic to Google and accommodate Google’s strategy of denying scale to rivals. For example, in 2018, Apple’s and Google’s CEOs met to discuss how the companies could work together to drive search revenue growth. After the 2018 meeting, a senior Apple employee wrote to a Google counterpart: “Our vision is that we work as if we are one company.”

The current version of the Google–Apple agreement substantially forecloses Google’s search rivals from an important distribution channel for a significant, multi-year term. This agreement covers roughly 36 percent of all general search queries in the United States, including mobile devices and computers. Google estimates that, in 2019, almost 50 percent of its search traffic originated on Apple devices.

Previous agreements between tech companies to work closely have fared poorly before.

There seem to be some well-founded complaints in this case, though Google sees it merely as consumers picking its stuff over the competition. But even its strongest accusations are deeply undercut by the weaponizing of antitrust law for political reasons by Barr and his Republican Party colleagues.

Karl Bode, Techdirt:

Mindless rubber stamping of megamergers and flimsy antitrust enforcement is what the United States does. It’s our biggest pastime outside of baseball. The one Trump example usually trotted out to claim otherwise, AT&T’s lawsuit to stop the AT&T Time Warner merger, was more about pissing off CNN for Trump and helping Rupert Murdoch than any serious concern about media consolidation. Rupert wanted the deal blocked after Time Warner first rebuffed his merger affections in 2014, and AT&T rejected his offer to buy CNN twice in 2017. It’s extremely likely he’s the motivating force in this effort as well.

So despite what folks like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz would have you believe, there’s no evidence that monopoly power has ever been a genuine concern for the modern Trump GOP (simply look at its treatment of telecom, airlines, banks, and countless other heavily consolidated and monopolized sectors that routinely churn out a steady stream of consumer and competitor nightmares). And yet folks who’ve built entire careers on the backs of not giving a flying shit about corporate power, consolidation, and monopolization will now get to spend two weeks before an election pretending otherwise.

I understand those of you tut-tutting me for diving into politics on this post and being frustrated by the lack of escape from the endless election-related articles. I am sorry about that.

But you should be aware that this case is not being brought because of genuine concern for the effect of Google’s market power on the general public and small businesses. I cannot assess the viability of these claims because I am not a lawyer. I have seen some coverage that suggests this is a hack job, and some that sees it as a thoughtful suit. Maybe this really is the best the Department of Justice can do and it will prevail in court. But this administration’s exploitation of cracks in public trust means it is impossible to see the suit absent of the subtext that it is a political cudgel.

iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro Reviews Are Live

The embargo lifted today on reviews of the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro, and the consensus seems pretty clear: the hype over 5G is unwarranted so far, the industrial design is pretty much the best, the modestly improved cameras are great, the slightly bigger screen sizes are offset by smaller bezels and a thinner chassis, and the “regular” iPhone 12 has so much in common with its same-size Pro sibling that many people will not find the upgrade worth the extra money.

That last point is worth emphasizing. Like the release of the iPhone 8 and X, and the XR and XS, the new iPhone lineup has two different availability dates. The Mini and the Max will be released in a couple of weeks; the iPhones available this Friday are the middle models of identical size and, therefore, are the most easily muddled. If you want a smaller screen, you buy the Mini. If you want the biggest screen and, on paper at least, the best camera, you buy the Max. But it is harder, I think, to choose between the identically-sized and similarly-specced middle models. So it is notable that Apple seeded reviewers with both of them and, in many cases, that leant itself to direct head-to-head comparisons.

I read only a few reviews today but I figured something out about myself: the telephoto camera alone makes the cost of the Pro worth it for me, but that also kind of makes me a sucker. The non-Pro iPhone 12 seems to be just as capable, just as fast, and comes in bolder colours.

Joanna Stern, Wall Street Journal:

Most people won’t be on superfast 5G, and will find the battery life on these phones to be solid. They lasted a full day of fairly heavy use—though fell a bit shorter than the iPhone 11, which consistently leaves me with at least 15% before bed time.

This complaint about slightly shorter battery life for both models seems to be consistent among the reviews as well. It reminded me of comments that “‘Daring Fireball’ blog creator” John Gruber made on CNBC before Apple’s announcement event:

I think one of the biggest problems people have [with their existing phones] is battery life. I think it always has been and will be for the foreseeable future. […] I think, if you said “this phone gets faster cellular networking and this other phone gets twice the battery life” everyone would jump on the one with battery life.

And then, I think, another factor is photographic quality. Everybody wants their pictures and videos to look better. Those are, to me, the two simple and obvious things.

I am not arguing that none of the improvements in this iPhone lineup are worth it, and I understand there are limitations of battery chemistry and physical space. Compromises will be made. But, yeah, if this year’s new iPhones could eke out a couple of hours more battery life instead of adding 5G, I would be happy to make that trade-off.

Update: The Tom’s Guide battery life test found that the iPhone 12 Pro got longer battery life over 4G than the 11 Pro, but the 12 got shorter battery life than the 11. The latter makes sense, as it is a smaller-bodied phone that, presumably, has a smaller battery. The former is not matching with the results of many other testers but it is encouraging.

Aundre Larrow’s Portrait Photography on the iPhone 12 Pro

This collection of photos by Aundre Larrow is wildly impressive — mostly because of Larrow’s skillful portraiture, but also due to the technical quality of these images. Even at a large size, there is very little evidence of the pointillist effect common to iPhone models since, I think, the 6S.

One strange thing about the 12 Pro is that it apparently does not use its LiDAR sensor to create Portrait images unless the environment is sufficiently dark. Why would it not use the most precise depth data to create a more realistic simulation of depth of field? I am sure there is a good reason — maybe power consumption — but I am very curious why the LiDAR sensor’s potential doesn’t seem to be fully explored even in default software.

Charging Bricks and Headphones Now Sold Separately

Jon Porter, the Verge:

Apple’s new iPhone 12 lineup will ship without wall chargers or Lightning EarPods in the box to reduce the phone’s environmental impact, the company announced today. Instead, they’ll come with just a USB-C to Lightning cable. As well as the new phones, Apple is also removing the accessories from its existing iPhone models going forward.

Apple says it’s not including a charger or earbuds with the iPhone 12 series on environmental grounds; similarly, it didn’t include a charging brick with this year’s Apple Watch models. The company says the move means it has to consume fewer raw materials for each iPhone sold. It also allows for a smaller retail box, which means 70 percent more units can fit on a single shipping pallet and reduce carbon emissions. Overall, Apple estimates the changes will cut over 2 million metric tons of carbon emissions annually, the equivalent of removing 450,000 cars from the road each year.

When Lisa Jackson showed these numbers during last week’s Apple Event, they illustrated to me the scale of Apple’s decisions — even the smallest ones. Simply not including chargers and headphones in a box where they may sit unused is, truly, a large environmental benefit. But not everyone who buys an iPhone from now on can be assumed to have their own wall adapter or headphones.

Julian Chokkattu, Wired:

Sara Behdad, a sustainability researcher at the University of Florida, agrees. “Apple’s analysis is based on this impression that some users really don’t need chargers and EarPods, because they already have them. Some users don’t. Then they have to purchase them, and that requires packaging and extra transportation.”

The relationship between a charger and an iPhone isn’t necessarily one-to-one, either. Behdad says she’s used more chargers than the number of phones she’s owned. While this is anecdotal, and Behdad says there need to be surveys and more research to make any conclusive statements, it’s quite possible people will buy more than one charger from Apple or other accessory makers.

This is all true, but it is unclear how many more sets of EarPods and wall adapters will actually be sold. I do not think every person who will buy a new iPhone will also buy both accessories; but, I am also sure that some of the people who buy a new iPhone will buy one of the accessories. It is not clear if that factored into Apple’s calculations, but it also does not make sense to assume that all or even most customers will buy replacement accessories.

And, if we’re speaking anecdotally, my ratio between box-included items and devices is far in favour of Apple’s change. I just checked my iPhone X box and its wall adapter and Lightning cable are both sitting neatly as they were when it left the factory. I gave the headphones away.

Matt Birchler:

[…] I’ve talked to a few “normal people” about the new iPhones and in my small sample size, no one is buying the environmental argument. I think Apple genuinely wants to do better with the environment, and this move likely comes from a good place, but I don’t think they went far enough to convince folks that the reason is anything more than penny pinching.

[…]

When someone buys an iPhone from Apple (in-person or online), they should be prompted to get a free USB-C charging brick as well. Not the same $19 it is after the fact, and not a reduced price of $9 or something, free. This is an essential step in making it not look like a cash grab.

I do not mean to single out Birchler here. I have seen lots of people make the same suggestion but I think Birchler articulates this entire issue very well in his article.

The problem I see with this is that many people will add one to their order “just in case”. It is like when a fast food place puts a napkin dispenser out in the open and people take a whole stack back to their table. If, however, the napkins are provided from behind the counter, people often take less. Yes, it sometimes means that you will have to ask for more, but it is better than wasting many.

I think people understand the urgency with which the Earth’s environment needs protecting, but are unwilling to make significant changes to make that happen. Again, I am not directing this at Birchler at all. This is something Apple desperately wants to believe, and quotes Jackson on its environment marketing page:

To protect the planet, we must show others that impossible can be business as usual.

The message here is basically you don’t have to change your habits and expectations to reduce humanity’s impact on the planet, and I think that sets the wrong tone. If you need a charging brick now, you’ll have to spend some money, and that might cause you to think twice about whether you actually need that brick.

It’s more complicated for the headphones. You’ll think about spending your money on a pair of EarPods, but then you might start thinking about buying a set of AirPods instead. AirPods have a more-or-less fixed lifespan dependent on how the battery holds up, and they cannot be repaired. But, now, the question is whether you would have bought that set of AirPods without being prompted by the lack of headphones in the box — if you would have, then including headphones would have created environmental waste, too.

The takeaway here is the same as every environmental story: you should buy only what you really need; in a distant second place, you should reuse what you already have; and in third place, very far behind, you should recycle what you must get rid of. But we only really achieve gains when we reduce consumption and — not one of the three r’s, but it ought to be — regulate environmental impact to a more stringent degree.

Apple Begins Taking Pre-Orders for the New iPad Air

I thought it was a little odd that the new iPad Air wasn’t mentioned at all during Apple’s event earlier this week despite the company promising a month ago that it would ship in October. As rumoured, it is now available for pre-order. It’s a tempting product — truly a great midrange offering if you are not desperate for iPad Pro features.

Speaking of the event this week, we can now see the wide range of colours Apple is working with. Once upon a time, it tried to match many its product colours across lineups — the gold MacBook was pretty much the same colour as the gold Apple Watch and the gold iPhone of the time. That is not the case these days. iPhones and aluminum Apple Watches have rich colours reminiscent of iPods, while Macs and iPads have more muted hues. I don’t really have a point here, other than it is something I noticed. You are welcome.

The 2020 Gadget Boom

While I’m linking to the New York Times, here’s a poignant essay from John Herrman:

The pandemic gadget boom is a story of both new needs fulfilled and old desires restored. Buying noise canceling headphones is, of course, a consumerist treat, setting aside the new circumstances that made them feel necessary — the construction downstairs, the baby 20 feet away, the spouse simultaneously trapped in a video meeting. You can feel the faintest muscle memory activate when you comparison shop for a gadget of a type you’ve never purchased before, even if that gadget is — judging by back orders and top listings on Amazon as the winter creeps closer — a S.A.D. lamp or an outdoor radiator.

This gadget boom will end like every other — with a bunch of little-used and rapidly obsolete junk stowed away in closets and landfills around the globe — but it won’t inspire much nostalgia. This isn’t spontaneous mass hobbyism or a slide into decadence. It’s a cornered populace spending what they can in hopes that some novel invention will stave off disaster, or even just gloom.

With writing this good, how does one not read the whole thing?

Free Speech in an Age of Disinformation

Emily Bazelon, in a comprehensive piece for the New York Times Magazine:

The conspiracy theories, the lies, the distortions, the overwhelming amount of information, the anger encoded in it — these all serve to create chaos and confusion and make people, even nonpartisans, exhausted, skeptical and cynical about politics. The spewing of falsehoods isn’t meant to win any battle of ideas. Its goal is to prevent the actual battle from being fought, by causing us to simply give up. And the problem isn’t just the internet. A working paper from the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard released early this month found that effective disinformation campaigns are often an “elite-driven, mass-media led process” in which “social media played only a secondary and supportive role.” Trump’s election put him in the position to operate directly through Fox News and other conservative media outlets, like Rush Limbaugh’s talk-radio show, which have come to function “in effect as a party press,” the Harvard researchers found.

It’s an article of faith in the United States that more speech is better and that the government should regulate it as little as possible. But increasingly, scholars of constitutional law, as well as social scientists, are beginning to question the way we have come to think about the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. They think our formulations are simplistic — and especially inadequate for our era. Censorship of external critics by the government remains a serious threat under authoritarian regimes. But in the United States and other democracies, there is a different kind of threat, which may be doing more damage to the discourse about politics, news and science. It encompasses the mass distortion of truth and overwhelming waves of speech from extremists that smear and distract.

This concern spans the ideological spectrum. Along with disinformation campaigns, there is the separate problem of “troll armies” — a flood of commenters, often propelled by bots — that “aim to discredit or to destroy the reputation of disfavored speakers and to discourage them from speaking again,” Jack Goldsmith, a conservative law professor at Harvard, writes in an essay in “The Perilous Public Square,” a book edited by David E. Pozen that was published this year. This tactic, too, may be directed by those in power. Either way, it’s often grimly effective at muting critical voices. And yet as Tim Wu, a progressive law professor at Columbia, points out in the same book, the “use of speech as a tool to suppress speech is, by its nature, something very challenging for the First Amendment to deal with.”

These scholars argue something that may seem unsettling to Americans: that perhaps our way of thinking about free speech is not the best way. At the very least, we should understand that it isn’t the only way. Other democracies, in Europe and elsewhere, have taken a different approach. Despite more regulations on speech, these countries remain democratic; in fact, they have created better conditions for their citizenry to sort what’s true from what’s not and to make informed decisions about what they want their societies to be. Here in the United States, meanwhile, we’re drowning in lies.

This story is not a response to Facebook and Twitter’s decision to restrict the reach of a tabloid article. It was published the day before all of that unfolded. But, I would argue, the myriad issues it raises are more worrying than the singular concern of heavy-handed moderation by social media companies. And because most of the platforms most of us use most of the time are based in the United States and are subject to the country’s laws and regulations — or lack thereof — these are topics worthy of international attention.

When You Browse Instagram and Find Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s Passport Number

I saved this to Pinboard a few weeks ago when it was being shared pretty widely, but did not have a chance to read it until last night. I don’t want to spoil it for you if you also have not read it yet, so you should know that there is a section of this post titled “And then Tony Abbott just… calls me on the phone?” and if that doesn’t get your attention I am not sure what will. This is one of my favourite things that I have read all year.

FCC Chair Ajit Pai Engages in Some Meaningless CDA Section 230 Bootlicking

Bear with me because this gets into the weeds a bit before you’ll get to the headline topic. Skip to the block quotes if you are already caught up on your Fox News shibboleths.

Yesterday, the New York Post published an extremely suspect story about alleged impropriety by Joe Biden and his son Hunter while the latter was working for Burisma, a Ukrainian oil company — something all parties deny. This is something the Republican Party has been desperate to create a scandal from despite their own investigation finding no misconduct by either Biden. The Post sourced its claims, via Rudy Giuliani, from emails and photos ostensibly taken from a laptop Hunter had taken in for service. Then, several hours after the Post published its story, Facebook decided to limit its spread, while Twitter opted to block links to it. And now it has become a whole thing.

There are many interesting questions that we can probe in the meta-story around this article. For example, the New York Times reported that U.S. intelligence agencies had concerns that hacked emails from Burisma would be combined with forged or edited ones — a tactic Russian intelligence has used before. The Washington Post reports that Giuliani was a target for spreading false information. There is evidence that the Post’s story is based on false information designed to sway the U.S. election in a manner reminiscent of other Russian disinformation campaigns. In fact, this whole saga is awfully familiar: leaked emails, Russian hacking. Didn’t we already do this? I want to bash my head into my desk.

The difference this time around is that Facebook and Twitter are intervening to slow the story’s spread. Is that right? If this is, indeed, an attempt at interference in the election, you may argue that this is a good thing — or is, at least, understandable. It is an unusually strong stance from Facebook and Twitter on a specific story. That has made it a rough day or two from a public relations perspective, as some people see it as censorship or tilting the scales. But one thing is for sure: it is completely legal. And members of the Republican party desperately want to change that.

Siobhan Hughes, Wall Street Journal:

The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to issue a subpoena on Tuesday to Twitter Inc. Chief Executive Jack Dorsey after the social-media company blocked a pair of New York Post articles that made new allegations about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, which his campaign has denied.

Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica:

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai is backing President Donald Trump’s proposal to limit legal protections for social media websites that block or modify content posted by users. Pai’s views on the matter were unknown until today when he issued a statement saying that he will open a rule-making process to clarify that the First Amendment does not give social media companies “special immunity.”

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

For years, FCC Chair Ajit Pai has insisted that the thing that was most important to him was to have a “light touch” regulatory regime regarding the internet. He insisted that net neutrality (which put in place a few limited rules to make sure internet access was fair) was clearly a bridge too far, and had to be wiped out or it would destroy investment into internet infrastructure (he was wrong about that). But now that Section 230 is under attack, he’s apparently done a complete reversal. He is now happy to open a proceeding to reinterpret Section 230 to place a regulatory burden on the internet. This is because Ajit Pai is a hypocrite with no backbone, and no willingness to stand up to a grandstanding President.

[…]

Pai is wrong in almost everything he says above. The FCC has no jurisdiction over internet websites. Previous lawsuits have already held that. Furthermore, the FCC has no jurisdiction over Section 230, which was explicitly written to deny the FCC any authority over websites. The FCC has no power to reinterpret the law.

If you think Facebook or Twitter ought not to have moderated the New York Post story, that is a fair point of view. If, however, you believe their moderation decision should be illegal, the problem you have is not with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, it is with the First Amendment.

Years of U.S. case law have upheld that businesses are free to deny service to whomever they choose, with exceptions made for cases of discrimination. Twitter has no obligation to host links to that Post story any more than it has an obligation to host spam or your account.

Perhaps your dispute with this action is that heavy-handed moderation by large social media companies is effectively a tool of silencing and censorship. But I would strongly disagree with that: the Post is widely circulated, there are many other venues online, and it is still possible to discuss it on Facebook and Twitter without linking to it. But even if that were true, your problem would be with the scale of both companies, not with Section 230 as written or interpreted.

Nothing about these moderation decisions have anything to do with CDA Section 230. Promises to investigate Facebook and Twitter because they made it harder to spread a link are a gigantic waste of time. It is perhaps worth discussing ways in which Section 230 can be clarified or reworked, but it is not something Pai or the FCC has any control over, nor is it relevant to anything these ostensibly light-regulation “small government” conservatives want to achieve.

This is all so very stupid.

Point Person

Allow me to gratuitously self-quote:

Yet, one of the drawbacks of a golden era Steve Jobs keynote — from, say, 2005 through 2008 or so — is that it maximized Jobs’ presence at the expense of the thousands of people involved in creating a product or service. Sure, you would occasionally hear from Phil Schiller, Jony Ive, Scott Forstall, and others, but there was a gravity around Jobs that made it hard for others to get as much attention.

I thought this, from Riccardo Mori, was a good counterpoint:

This is possibly the first Apple event and product introduction where I truly felt the absence of Jonathan Ive. Sure, there’s a lot of him in the new iPhones, in the sense that they’re patchworks of a few of Ive’s ideas and designs. What I mean by feeling his absence is that, while I know there are hard-working teams of expert people who are capable of putting a new iPhone together, now I ask myself, Who designed this? Who’s the designer responsible for this concept and execution?

My criticism of having only a few executives presenting the work of thousands of people is, I think, still fair, but so is its flip side: a greater number of presenters makes it harder to get an impression of who is directing these products. That is particularly true of product design. I like the new iPhones — I will have to wait until one is in my hands, but I think they might edge out the iPhone 5 and 5S as my favourite iteration of the product’s industrial design. But I do not have any sense of a single person who guided the line’s development. I don’t know that it is necessary to know the people behind the products to get an impression of whether they have been skilfully designed — I could not name anyone who worked on my camera or my watches, any of which I consider excellent examples of design and quality — but it does feel a little less complete.

Update: The head of Apple’s industrial design team is Evans Hankey, which makes her the point person on this project. I stupidly forgot about this year-old change to the design teams. It is, however, odd to me that neither Hankey nor Alan Dye, who heads software design, have bios on Apple’s leadership page. For a company that prides itself on its design and quality, it seems like they should be more identifiable.

5G Is Still Mostly Made of Unwarranted Hype

Dieter Bohn, the Verge:

Except I’m not baffled, not really. The last few years have seen the growth of the 5G Hype Industrial Complex. US carriers, Qualcomm, and phone manufacturers have all collaborated (one might say colluded) to drive a huge cycle of hype for 5G. They’ve promised streaming games, telemedicine, self-driving cars, and rural broadband for all. Some of those promises will come to pass, but the plain truth is that the networks aren’t anywhere close to ready, and these 5G phones are the clearest evidence of the gap between hype and reality.

We always give the same advice when reviewing a phone: don’t buy something today in the hopes of future updates making it better. Usually this advice applies to software, because so many promises that bugs will be truly addressed come to nothing.

For 5G, that advice still holds — but there is some nuance to it. I don’t think you should buy a phone because it has 5G, but if the phone you already were looking at has 5G, go for it.

The things from yesterday’s Apple event that have left a bad taste in my mouth have everything to do with its buy-in to carriers’ marketing and hype machine. That includes stuff like the misleading minimum pricing in the United States of iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Mini models over a gimmicky “instant discount” of just thirty dollars. It includes the arduous time given to Verizon’s CEO. And, yes, it includes the long segments devoted to promises of life-changing advancements enabled by 5G networks.

For readers of websites like this one, it is probably not news to you that the hype around 5G is largely unwarranted — so far, at least. But Apple events have become general audience infomercials, and I would not be surprised if many people fully and unfairly bought into 5G’s marketing after watching this week’s presentation.

Discourse Moves From a Paid Email Newsletter to a ‘Web Site’

Here’s a story that pairs nicely with that New York Times trend piece from a few weeks back about the rise of paid email newsletters. Discourse — which was started after the private equity geniuses that own Gizmodo Media Group decided, one year before the coming U.S. presidential election, to shut down Splinter, the organization’s news and politics vertical — has moved off Substack and onto something called a “web site”.

Jack Mirkinson and Aleksander Chan:

We weren’t contemplating this kind of move. Substack was a good home for us. We were growing steadily. We simply didn’t think that creating our own custom website was on the cards anytime soon. It felt so… big.

But when the folks at Lede, including Alley and Pico, said they wanted to develop a new site with us, it was easy to say yes. Here was a chance to truly bet on ourselves — to throw caution to the wind and run towards our dream of a long-term, independent, worker-owned outlet. Even more importantly, it was a chance to bring you the kind of website that you deserve — one that is more editorially ambitious, visually interesting, technologically sophisticated, and community-focused than anything we could have done in our previous incarnations.

This happens to be the same technology stack used by Defector, the recently-launched home for castaways of Deadspin, Gizmodo Media Group’s sports vertical that the same private equity geniuses decided to meddle with despite its popularity and profitability. Like the previous newsletter-based format, the new website is primarily a paid subscription offering, but some posts will be made available for free, as will a weekly email newsletter.

Subprime Day

Brian Feldman:

Many would, understandably, see Prime Day as some sort of Black Friday-esque sales bonanza. A chance to get steals and deals on top-quality products. This is wrong. Or at least, it has not held true for the last three or four Prime Days. The vast majority of Prime Day inventory is absolute shit. Granted, I haven’t scanned all of the deals, but I did check some of the categories I’m interested in, such as “Electronics” and “Video Games” and it’s all chintzy third-party accessories. How many different types of light-up keyboard do you think exist in the world? Amazon has at least twice as many as the number you came up with. Which of the 800 different $19 dish racks should I settle on? Need a pair of terrible earbuds that will crap out in two or three months? Amazon has you covered.

Amazon’s ethical failures, especially this year, are worrying enough that I imagine many people will have thought twice about buying anything from the company yesterday or today. But, should you need another reason, consider the bargain bin trash that Amazon is desperate to unload. One wonders about the environmental cost of producing, shipping, and warehousing these kinds of products.

New iPhone Day 2020

This year’s iPhone announcements were special for me because it is the first time since 2017 that I know I will be buying a new phone. My partner’s 6S has some sort of circuit fault that discharges batteries extremely quickly, so she will be getting my iPhone X — and I will be getting, well, something announced today. But it is not easy because, more than ever, it feels like there is some compromise at every level. That is not a criticism, only an observation based on my priorities.

But we will get to that.

The Event Itself

I do not wish to make light of this harrowing pandemic, but the more I see Apple’s new presentation format, the more I like it. The nostalgic soul in me pines for the Stevenote era because he was one of the best public speakers in modern corporate history. Yet, one of the drawbacks of a golden era Steve Jobs keynote — from, say, 2005 through 2008 or so — is that it maximized Jobs’ presence at the expense of the thousands of people involved in creating a product or service. Sure, you would occasionally hear from Phil Schiller, Jony Ive, Scott Forstall, and others, but there was a gravity around Jobs that made it hard for others to get as much attention.

The Tim Cook era Apple has distributed presentations amongst greater numbers of executives, managers, and marketing types, but I do not think it has ever been as effective as it is in the videos they have been forced to create as a result of this pandemic. We get to hear from even more people who were involved in creating these products — and likely more than a live theatrical production could handle. There are logistical reasons for not handing off the presenter role every few minutes in a live setting, and there are also many people who simply are not comfortable in a live broadcast setting with an audience.

As many observers have pointed out, it is also a far more diverse group of presenters. Apple really does pick presenters who are intimately familiar with a technology because they worked on it. I am enjoying hearing more from these voices in addition to the usual suspects on the executive team.

Today’s presentation did have its lulls. The iPhone 12 lineup supports 5G — more on that in a minute — so not only did Apple explain at multiple points how revolutionary 5G is supposed to be, an executive from Verizon appeared to help explain how revolutionary 5G is supposed to be with the help of Verizon. There was also a demo of a new iPhone version of “League of Legends”, so we really hit the Apple keynote jackpot today.

I wonder what Verizon did to deserve such prominent placement during today’s keynote. It has been a very long time since Apple has donated several minutes of valuable iPhone-adjacent air space to a carrier, or a technical partner of any kind. But, like the September keynote, this stream clocked in at a few minutes over one hour long, so it isn’t like those moments pushed live audiences to some kind of bladder breaking point.

5G

As I have written for years now, the way 5G is being sold to the public is wildly disproportionate to the actual day-to-day impact it will have on most of us most of the time. At the moment, 5G is largely a useful buzzword for when you want billions of dollars in tax breaks, a shortcut for newspapers to seem more technologically advanced, and a way to eat up phone batteries at speeds slower than LTE.

But that surely does not have to be the case. One reason speeds are so slow right now is because faster 5G waves require users to be in closer proximity to cell towers and, so far, the infrastructure coverage is weaker than for LTE in the United States. But what if a company starts shipping a whole bunch of the most popular smartphone model in that country? That may spur a wave of adoption that effectively requires cell carriers to build out infrastructure more quickly. Outside of the U.S. and with many different 5G frequencies used worldwide, the situation surely differs. I am interested to know what it is like in Calgary, for example. When Apple gets behind a technology, though, it tends to push the industry as a whole.

5G radios also require more power, but Apple is being clever there as well. The iPhone 12 models are usually using LTE but will ramp up to 5G when it is necessary. That seems like an adept way to balance speed and battery life.

But, oh boy, did Apple sell 5G hard during today’s presentation, to points where I think they overstepped.

For example, before either iPhone was unveiled, Tim Cook spoke generally about 5G. One of the things that caught my ear was his claim that it “helps protect your privacy and security” because it is so fast that you are less likely to connect to insecure public Wi-Fi hotspots. There is some truth to that statement, but it sounds an awful lot like spin. Public Wi-Fi, at least where I am, is often slower than LTE, so it isn’t a compromise of privacy for speed. A Wi-Fi hotspot is appealing because carriers in many countries have monthly data allowances on their plans, so connecting to Wi-Fi avoids expensive overage charges.1

Then, during the introduction of the iPhone 12 Pro, Greg Joswiak said that doctors will be able to download scans faster, and implied that 5G could make the difference between life and death. This is probably true in some circumstances, but it is a wild claim to drop during an iPhone keynote. There are many cases where having faster network speeds is simply a nicer and better experience for most customers, and I found the dive into a possible life-saving realm of 5G to be more distracting than convincing.

The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro Lineups

The thing that is hard about this year’s iPhone lineup is that they are hard to choose between for both the ways that they overlap and the ways that they differ.

The best news this year, from a basic hardware standpoint, is that Apple has resurrected the iPhone 5-like flat sided form factor and mixed it with the glass sandwich of the iPhone 4 and recent iPhone models. That hardware design language has always been my favourite for its in-hand stability and precision, and I am glad to see it brought back and modernized. It is basically the same design across the lineup, with the iPhone 12 getting an aluminum chassis and the Pro models sporting stainless steel.

The processor is also the pitched as being the same on all models — though benchmarking experts will tell us the extent to which they are equivalent. They all have the same Ceramic Shield cover glass, which, Apple says improves the likelihood it will survive a drop by four times, they all have OLED displays, they all have MagSafe — another blast from the past — and they all support 5G. These phones are, in many ways, the same.

As I wrote above, I am upgrading from an iPhone X, so there is a lot that will be new to me and I am not a great resource for year-over-year comparisons. But I do know what I like and use on this phone. I prefer a smaller form factor, so the iPhone 12 Mini caught my attention in a big way. But, though I am excited by the prospects of a wide angle lens, I use the telephoto lens on my current iPhone to know that I do not want to be without it. The telephoto is only available on the Pro models, so I will naturally be guided to them.

But there’s a big catch here, which is that the cameras in the iPhone 12 Pro Max are no longer consistent with those in the smaller Pro model. Across the lineup, most of the camera changes this year seem to be in software rather than lenses or sensors. The situation is not so simple with the Pro Max, as Sebastiaan de With explains:

In addition to a better lens, the 12 Pro Max has the room to pack a new, 47% larger sensor. That means bigger pixels, and bigger pixels that capture more light simply means better photos. More detail in the day, more light at night. That combines with the lens to result in almost twice as much light captured: Apple claims an 87% improvement in light capture from the 11 Pro. That’s huge.

But that’s not its only trick: the 12 Pro Max’s Wide system also gets a new sensor-shift OIS system. OIS, or Optical Image Stabilization, lets your iPhone move the camera around a bit to compensate for your decidedly unsteady human trembly hands. That results in smoother video captures and sharp shots at night, when the iPhone has to take in light over a longer amount of time.

These appear to be big improvements to the camera and they are, frustratingly, only on the biggest iPhone model. That makes complete sense from an engineering perspective and I do not think Apple should restrict the camera of the bigger model because it no longer has parity with its smaller sibling.

But, damn, that makes this a pretty difficult choice. If I want the best camera on an iPhone this year, I have to live with a size I find harder to use day-to-day; if I want to get the size that works best for me, I have to sacrifice a camera mode I use most. But, as choices go, I could just stick with the middle-ground option.2 That seems like a sensible compromise all around, but I do hope that sensor-based stabilization system comes to smaller iPhones by the time I am ready to buy another.


  1. American carriers are not immune to this. Verizon, a company that received a generous amount of prime keynote time, has several “unlimited” plans for you to choose from. One immediately wonders why a range of choices is needed for plans that are “unlimited”, and it is because there are several limitations on those plans. I, too, wish for words to have agreed-upon definitions. ↩︎

  2. When I was in college, I used to work at a coffee shop that offered only small and large sizes. Most of the time, when someone ordered coffee and I had to ask which size they wanted, they would answer “medium”. I guess, in a good, better, best situation, people generally choose “better”. ↩︎

University of Michigan Study Indicates Effect of Stay-At-Home Orders on Noise Exposure

The University of Michigan:

Researchers at U-M’s School of Public Health and Apple Inc. looked at noise exposure data from volunteer Apple Watch users in Florida, New York, California and Texas. The analysis, one of the largest to date, included more than a half million daily noise levels measured before and during the pandemic.

Daily average sound levels dropped approximately 3 decibels during the time that local governments made announcements about social distancing and issued stay-at-home orders in March and April, compared to January and February.

“That is a huge reduction in terms of exposure and it could have a great effect on people’s overall health outcomes over time,” said Rick Neitzel, associate professor of environmental health sciences at U-M’s School of Public Health. “The analysis demonstrates the utility of everyday use of digital devices in evaluating daily behaviors and exposures.”

Via Om Malik:

Humans aren’t the only one who are impacted by noise and resulting stress. “Birds sing louder in noisy environments, and research has shown the resulting stress can speed aging and disrupt their metabolisms,” reports Science Mag. “Noise can also keep them from hearing their own chicks—or the warnings of fellow birds; it may even be driving down bird diversity in many cities.” The pandemic saw bird songs become softer and fewer fights breaking out among males.

But back to humans. Not surprisingly, California and New York had drastic reductions quite fast. Florida and Texas, not as much.

One problem with the study is that it required that participants spoke English, had an iPhone 6s or later, and an Apple Watch Series 4 or later. That demographic profile skews towards a more affluent, white-collar worker who has the luxury of being at home and is less exposed to noise on the roads. It was clear during the early parts of the pandemic, and the impact was uneven. A large swathe of minority and lower-income populations in the US suffered inordinately during the pandemic. Many, if not most, didn’t have the luxury of working from home.

In local news, Calgary Police say they received more noise complaints than usual this year for loud vehicles. I live near many arterial roads and this summer felt noisier than usual as far as cars and motorcycles go, but I don’t know whether that’s because cars are getting louder, everything else was quieter, or there were more assholes on the road.

Seven Countries Jointly Issue Statement Calling for Encryption Back Doors

The heads of law enforcement agencies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States have once again jointly issued a statement calling for back doors in encryption. India and Japan also signed it, but not the Ministry of Home Affairs in India or the National Public Safety Commission in Japan — just “India” and “Japan”. I’m linking to the one posted on the Canadian government’s website because it is my patriotic duty, or whatever, but all of them say the same thing. For example, they all open with the same lie:

We, the undersigned, support strong encryption, which plays a crucial role in protecting personal data, privacy, intellectual property, trade secrets and cyber security. It also serves a vital purpose in repressive states to protect journalists, human rights defenders and other vulnerable people, as stated in the 2017 resolution of the UN Human Rights Council. Encryption is an existential anchor of trust in the digital world and we do not support counter-productive and dangerous approaches that would materially weaken or limit security systems.

“We … support strong encryption” is about to become a nonsense phrase, as you read on to discover that, yes, of course they want a way to decrypt otherwise strong encryption at their demand and whim:

We urge industry to address our serious concerns where encryption is applied in a way that wholly precludes any legal access to content. We call on technology companies to work with governments to take the following steps, focused on reasonable, technically feasible solutions:

[…]

  • Enable law enforcement access to content in a readable and usable format where an authorisation is lawfully issued, is necessary and proportionate, and is subject to strong safeguards and oversight; […]

It will not surprise you to learn that there are no proposals for how strong encryption is supposed to be implemented in such a way that would allow law enforcement access to its data in unencrypted form while keeping out unlawful requests, authoritarian regimes, or criminals. Nor is it clear whether these governments believe it should be illegal to produce or distribute encryption mechanisms that do not have an official back door.

This statement understandably cites the exploitation of children as a rationale for law enforcement access. However, it is worth pointing out that many abusers have been arrested and charged even while using strong encryption. The CBC produced a podcast called “Hunting Warhead” about one such case. Attempting to hide illegal activity using encryption is not solely reserved for child abusers — just last week, several terrorists were arrested in the United States for plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan. They used several encrypted messaging clients, but the FBI had informants that were in those group chats.

If you are reading this website, it is safe to say that you are more technically literate than the average person and probably know a lot of this stuff already. What I am trying to get at is that it is not sufficient for seven countries’ governments — or seventy, or a hundred and seventy — to say that they demand access to encrypted data under lawful order while ensuring its safety at all other times. They must produce a proposal for how that can be done. Otherwise, this is nothing more than a public relations campaign intended to sway mass opinion in opposition to encryption.

Back when Apple was opposing the creation of a back door for the iPhone used by one of the attackers in San Bernardino, I distinctly remember an acquaintance demanding that Apple put a special law enforcement-only key in all iPhones. Not wanting to be the subject of an xkcd strip, I did not comment. But I think it is necessary for those who understand the technical impossibility of these demands to explain them in simple terms so that more people see why this is not feasible without undermining encryption overall.

Apple Shares More Details About Its A14 Processor

In this piece published on the eve of the introduction of a slew of new iPhones, Chris Velazco of Engadget discussed the new A14 processor with Apple’s Tim Millet and Tom Boger:

“We saw the opportunity to do things that would have been impossible to do with a conventional CPU instruction set,” Millet said. “You could in theory do many of the things the Neural Engine does on a GPU, but you can’t do it inside of a tight, thermally constrained enclosure.”

And that’s a nice segue to the other half of the answer, which is that Apple had to balance sheer horsepower with efficiency. After all, there’s no point in making sure the horses run fast if they tire out too soon.

“We try to focus on energy efficiency, because that applies to every product that we build,” said Millet. By making that a fundamental focus of its chip designs, Apple doesn’t have to worry about a situation in which it “focused on energy efficiency for the phone [in a way] that’s not going to work in an iPad Air. Of course it’s going to work.”

The A14 is, so far, exclusive to the iPad Air, though Velazco states as a fact that it is coming to the new iPhones and that they will be introduced tomorrow. We all sort of assumed that, but it is notable that Apple seemingly confirmed it. It is also interesting that the embargo on this piece lifted twenty four hours before those phones are to be announced.

There are a handful of new details that Millet and Boger share, but the quotes above stood out to me. Neither would confirm any specifics about Apple’s plans for Macs built on its own chips, but the above teases some tantalizing prospects for balancing energy efficiency and performance. The iPad has long supported some incredibly performative apps; just imagine what is possible when you allow for the possibility of a fan and the full depth of MacOS.

Four Million Canadians Have Installed the National COVID Alert App

The app works in seven Canadian provinces and is close to launching in Nova Scotia. But in British Columbia and Alberta, where I live, there is no projected timeframe for launch. Digital tracing tools are just one of many ways to understand and, hopefully, control the spread of this novel coronavirus strain, but they are a tool. It is truly absurd that Alberta and B.C. continue to promote cobbled-together apps that require location services to be enabled and for iOS users to stop their phones from sleeping.

The New York Times Reviews ‘The Tangled Web We Weave’

Margaret O’Mara, New York Times:

Fast-forward five decades, and Big Tech is eating the world. During this year of pandemic and protest, the combined value of the American tech sector has topped that of the entire European stock market, and the products of its five biggest companies — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft — become ever more inescapable features of life and work. Severe market consolidation has prompted increasingly vigorous bipartisan calls to rein in the excesses of the companies built on the internet. Regulation is essential, lawmakers argue, both to restore fairness to the online economy and to protect democracy itself.

Without letting Silicon Valley giants off the hook, James Ball argues that the fix is not so simple. The problem isn’t just the business practices of a few companies, he explains in his nimble and persuasive new book, “The Tangled Web We Weave.” It is the entire system.

This is a short review — the book appears pretty concise anyhow — but this is another addition to my reading list.

Wired Reviews ‘Subprime Attention Crisis’

Before he was a research fellow at Georgetown University, Tim Hwang used to work on machine learning technologies at Google. His first book, “Subprime Attention Crisis”, will be out tomorrow, and Gilad Edelman of Wired reviewed it:

If the financial market of the aughts was dangerously opaque, so, too, is modern internet advertising. In the early days of online ads, a brand would strike a deal with a website owner to host a paid banner. The onscreen space for that image, known as the ad inventory, would be sold by the publisher directly. (The magazine you’re reading right now made the first such transaction, back in 1994.) Today, the process has grown far more complicated, and humans are barely involved. “As they do in modern-day capital markets, machines dominate the modern-day ecosystem of advertising on the web,” Hwang writes. Now, whenever you load a website, scroll on social media, or hit Enter on a Google search, hundreds or thousands of companies compete in a cascade of auctions to show you their ad. The process, known as “programmatic” advertising, occurs in milliseconds, tens of billions of times each day. Only automated software can manage it.

Similar conditions were in place when mortgage-backed securities flooded the market in the early 2000s. These financial instruments traded at prices far above their true value, because the average trader had no idea they were backed by toxic assets. Once the truth came out, the bubble burst.

Hwang thinks online ads are heading in the same direction, since no one really grasps their worthlessness. There are piles of research papers in support of this idea, showing that companies’ returns on investment in digital marketing are generally anemic and often negative. One recent study found that ad tech middlemen take as much as a 50 percent cut of all online ad spending. Brands pay that premium for the promise of automated microtargeting, but a study by Nico Neumann, Catherine E. Tucker, and Timothy Whitfield found that the accuracy of that targeting is often extremely poor. In one experiment, they used six different advertising platforms in an effort to reach Australian men between the ages of 25 and 44. Their targeting performed slightly worse than random guessing. Such research indicates that, despite the extent of surveillance tech, a lot of the data that fuels ad targeting is garbage.

I am intrigued by the premise that automated advertising is comparable to subprime mortgages and CDOs. It is an argument that squares with my belief that, similar to the 2008 financial crisis, the laissez-faire regulatory environment and industry domination of the United States is bound to have catastrophic worldwide consequences. This book is going on my reading list.

Podcasts Are a New Resource for Ad Tech Firms to Strip-Mine

Adrianne Jeffries, the Markup:

In 2014, the podcast “Serial” debuted, introducing the medium to mainstream listeners. (As of September 2018, “Serial” had more than 340 million downloads across its first two seasons.)

That same year, Acast, a podcasting company based in Sweden, announced “dynamic ad insertion.” Previously, ads were “baked in” to a recording, but now podcasters could mark their files with ad breaks, enabling a hosting company to switch in a different ad based on the time or location the podcast was downloaded. It also paved the way for ads to be sold programmatically, based on a bidding system that automatically matches buyers and sellers without the need for salespeople. Much of the advertising on the web, including Google Ads, is bought and sold this way. Programmatic buying requires consumer data in order for advertisers to rapidly experiment with different ways to target users and optimize ads for the best results.

“That’s probably when I certainly saw things start to change,” said [Andrew] Kuklewicz, the CTO of PRX. “Once you can actually dynamically inject ads, then that data that I’d be able to get from requests becomes actionable. And once that’s possible, then we start to look a lot like the rest of ad tech right now.”

Ashley Carman, of the Verge, in August:

The latest update to Overcast, a popular iOS podcast app, is bringing new transparency to podcast ads. Listeners who are in the beta can now view the services their favorite podcasts use to serve ads and track listeners. This means listeners will be able to tell when a podcast is using dynamic advertising, which allows networks to swap and target ads based on the specific person listening. For most people, this likely won’t change the shows they enjoy, but for the audience that cares or wants more information about how a podcast serves them ads, it’s a notable transparency feature that isn’t yet available in any of the other major podcasting apps.

This version of Overcast was released in September, and it is not the only the app prioritizes user privacy. Marco Arment has been pointing out for years the dangers of big money coming to podcasts:

Big Money isn’t going to sell nicely designed, hand-crafted, RSS-backed podcast players for $2.99 or ask you to pay what you want to support them, because that doesn’t make Big Money.

They’re coming with shitty apps and fantastic business deals to dominate the market, lock down this open medium into proprietary “technology”, and build empires of middlemen to control distribution and take a cut of everyone’s revenue.

This is entirely right.

Given the dearth of regulation in ad tech-adjacent industries, podcasts — like websites — can be as respectful of privacy as creators want them to be. Educating users is a good step toward levelling the field, but more controls are needed at higher levels. It cannot be up to individual users to figure out how much privacy they are willing to sacrifice with the default being all.

Ahead of U.S. Presidential Election, Twitter Introduces Features Designed to Slow the Spread of Misinformation

Kate Conger, New York Times:

Twitter took steps on Friday to slow the way information flows on its network, even changing some of its most basic features, as alarm grows that lies and calls for violence will sweep through social media in the weeks surrounding the presidential election.

The changes will temporarily alter the look and feel of Twitter. The company will essentially give users a timeout, for example, before they can hit the button to retweet a post from another account. And if users try to share content that Twitter has flagged as false, a notice will warn them that they are about to share inaccurate information.

Twitter also said it would add a label to claims about who won the election until it has been called by authoritative sources.

Suggested posts will also be disabled in users’ timelines, but Trending Topics will not be disabled. That kind of sucks. Trending Topics are a notorious dumpster fire of bad information, hashtags juiced by 4chan trolls, and out-of-context nonsense.

Twitter says that most of the pre-election changes are temporary, but I hope they keep the added friction for retweets. It certainly will not eliminate false tweets and links from spreading, but seems like a simple way to get people to think just a little harder about what they are amplifying.

It is telling that the campaign for the current White House occupant is furious about these modest changes.

Microsoft Told Employees It Plans to Bring Xbox Game Pass to iOS Through the Web

Ashley Stewart, Business Insider:

Microsoft’s gaming boss Phil Spencer told employees at an all-hands meeting on Wednesday the company is planning to bring Game Pass to Apple’s iPhone and iPad, targeting 2021 for the potential release of a “direct browser-based solution,” Business Insider has learned.

[…]

A hint as to what that might look like comes from Amazon, which says that it’s able to bring its forthcoming cloud gaming service Luna to iPhone by offering it as a web app. In an interview with Engadget, Luna engineering and technology head George Tsipolitis said that Amazon worked with Apple to make that functionality possible. Google, meanwhile, makes its similar Stadia service available on PCs and Macs via its Chrome web browser, though it too is not available on iPhone or iPad.

That interview with Tsipolitis leaves me with more questions than it answered. Jessica Conditt, Engadget:

“We worked with the Safari team to ensure that some of the things that weren’t there are there, and that allowed us to kind of get to where we are today,” Luna head of engineering and technology George Tsipolitis said.

It’s unclear if Luna will remain a PWA after its stint in early access, or if it will eventually join the app stores under the standard 30 percent fee.

“We’ll continue working with Apple,” Whitten said. “We’d love to do a native experience. They’re evaluating what their policies are there, they keep talking about them. And when we can come up with a good experience there, we’ll ship that one, too.”

I have no idea how good a web app implementation of game streaming can be, but these parallel announcements seem to water down this part of the House antitrust report (PDF, page 96):

Web sites and web apps are not competitively significant alternatives to the dominant app stores on iOS and Android devices for distributing software to mobile devices. Apps provide a deeper, richer user experience and can provide additional functionality by accessing features within the mobile device’s hardware and operating system, such as camera or location services. […] Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines differentiates apps from websites, explaining that apps submitted to the App Store “should include features, content and [user interface] that elevate [the app] beyond a repackaged website.”

The report also quotes Phillip Shoemaker — former senior director of App Store Review — as saying Apple’s new game streaming rules are “completely arbitrary”, and cites a piece by Owen Williams claiming that Apple “push[es] developers toward building native apps on iOS rather than using web technologies” by “ignor[ing] popular parts of the open web specification that other browsers implement, to its own benefit”.

I don’t know what changes have been made to Safari in the last couple of versions to make game streaming services work there, and it remains to be seen how good these implementations are. I think native apps will always beat web apps and I have not used anything I would consider a good counterargument. But the possibility that both Amazon and Microsoft see the web as a plausible alternative makes Williams’ piece look even more hysterical than when I first linked to it.

Assorted Thoughts on the Big Antitrust Report

I have now read the antitrust report about one-and-a-half times and I can confidently say that you, reader, are better served by the analysis of others. I do not think a long piece from me, a non-lawyer, trying to interpret its various nooks and crannies is helpful. So, what I can do is point you to a few smart people who wrote about it, and also add a few idle observations of my own.

I think Wednesday’s episode of Dithering offers a great high-level take. I was stunned by the million-plus documents Google produced which, as John Gruber and Ben Thompson point out, appears to be an attempt at overwhelming investigators instead of being helpful.

But I take issue with both hosts’ interpretation of the CEO’s questioning in July and the resulting lack of surprise in this report. They portray this as begging the question in the classic rhetorical sense of deriving a question from a presumed answer or position. What I saw were representatives testing a thesis: the CEOs they were questioning represent tech companies that have become very powerful, potentially through illegal means.

If you have a Dithering subscription and haven’t listened to Wednesday’s episode yet, it’s worth your while.

Kate Cox, Ars Technica:

Facebook outright “has monopoly power in the market for social networking,” the report concludes, and that power is “firmly entrenched and unlikely to be eroded by competitive pressure” from anyone at all due to “high entry barriers—including strong network effects, high switching costs, and Facebook’s significant data advantage—that discourage direct competition by other firms to offer new products and services.”

[…]

But regulators did not block Facebook’s blockbuster acquisitions of either Instagram or WhatsApp, and they didn’t stop 60 other Facebook acquisitions. This led to what one former employee described to the committee as collusion between the platforms, “but with an internal monopoly.” The employee added: “If you own two social media utilities, they should not be allowed to shore each other up. It’s unclear to me why this should not be illegal. You can collude by acquiring competitors and forbidding competition.”

The report attempts to distinguish between social media platforms and social networks. TikTok, it points out, is often cited as a knee-jerk counterpoint to the argument that it is hard to succeed against Facebook’s acquisition strategy. But, it says, TikTok is more like YouTube than Facebook or Instagram.

One thing that struck me as I read the report is how many acquisitions were involved in making all four companies as dominant as they have become. Acquisitions are a clear focus of the investigation; the last forty-odd pages of the report is simply a list of every significant acquisition made by Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Some of these companies would likely have disappeared and taken their technologies with them had they not been acquired, but others may have competed against tech giants or offered complementary products while remaining independent. It is impossible to know for sure. But acquisition-driven strategies have arguably created a market where it is increasingly difficult for anyone to even try. Success seems less determined by how well-used a product or service is, and more by which company will acquire it and for what price.

Cox:

Google’s position as the dominant search engine is well-cemented. But over the past 20 years, the company has shifted its behavior “to rank search results based on what is best for Google, rather than what is best for search users,” the report concludes, “be it preferencing its own vertical sites or allocating more space for ads.”

I am encouraged to see the report portray AMP as a technology hostile to competition and the web as a whole.

The report also raises concerns with all four companies about user privacy. Apple’s marketing focus on privacy was also questioned with regard to its ability to limit competition ostensibly on those grounds. I think the report was generally fair in its worry about the implications of having a few companies stewards by default of so much sensitive data. But though there are many recommendations in favour of limiting market dominance, I saw none for regulating the collection and use of private user data. Of course, this was a report about antitrust and anti-competitive practices; but, it seems like the committee only told half the story without recommending strong rules on user privacy.

Casey Newton, writing for his brand new newsletter Platformer:

On the other hand, even these recommendations aren’t likely to become law any time soon. America’s divided Congress has been defined by inaction this year; it is currently failing to provide basic economic relief to tens of millions of Americans during a historic pandemic. And we expect these lawmakers to pass a thoughtful collection of reforms and get the president to sign it?

In fairness, the committee has been clear that nothing will pass this year. For anything to pass at all, Democrats may have to take back the presidency and the Senate, and make it through what promises to be a chaotic and even dangerous transfer of power. Until and unless that happens, the status quo seems likely to endure.

This report is comprehensive. Returning to the Dithering episode, it is true that I found few surprises when I read it. Yet, it is worthwhile to compile all of these questionable practices into a single document. It drops like an anvil — both because of its volume and the impact of seeing these practices laid bare in such clarity. I hope it does more than gather dust. These companies are wildly powerful. Whether you believe that power should be cut down or simply be subject to greater responsibility and oversight, you will find sensible arguments in this report.

But I am not a lawyer.

Fear and Loathing of App Review

Sean Hollister, the Verge:

We’ve known for months that WordPress and Hey weren’t alone in being strong-armed by the most valuable company in the world, ever since Stratechery’s Ben Thompson reported that 21 different app developers quietly told him they’d been pushed to retroactively add IAP in the wake of those two controversies. But until now, we hadn’t heard of many devs willing to publicly admit it. They were scared.

And they’re still scared, says [Proton CEO Andy Yen]. Even though Apple changed its rules on September 11th to exempt “free apps acting as a stand-alone companion to a paid web based tool” from the IAP requirement — Apple explicitly said email apps are exempt — ProtonMail still hasn’t removed its own in-app purchases because it fears retaliation from Apple, he says.

He claims other developers feel the same way: “There’s a lot of fear in the space right now; people are completely petrified to say anything.”

Of all the problems the App Store has had since it launched, the one absolute thing that should never have become an issue is developers’ fear of reviewers. Opinions may differ on whether the degree of fear is appropriate, but the fact that it persists for many developers is a huge reputational red flag.

Enthusiast

Speaking of new podcasts, “Enthusiast!” is one that I am looking forward to. It’s from Mark Bramhill — you might be familiar with the excellent “Welcome to Macintosh” series and, if you are not, I cannot recommend it enough. “Enthusiast!” is described as a series of short vignettes of people talking about stuff that they are delighted by. The first episode comes out next week on October 14 and, based on the trailer, it sounds terrific.