Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Tech Companies Should Stop Hiding Behind Shady Privacy Policies

Karissa Bell, Mashable:

[…] the problem is not that Unroll.me was scraping data from users’ inboxes and selling it (in anonymized form) to third parties, but the lack of transparency that this was happening. The company’s entire business model is predicated on data collection but nowhere on the company’s app, website, sign-up page, or anywhere else was that made clear. (Hedaya has said he plans to address this.)

Even if you took the time to read their privacy policy — and, let’s be real, no one does — it doesn’t explicitly spell this out. “We may collect and use your commercial transactional messages and associated data to build anonymous market research products and services with trusted business partners,” it says. But in no way does it make clear that Unroll.me is literally in the business of selling data.

Think about the laws and common-sense ethics that are skirted when it comes to data sharing. Practically every web service stretches what they can get away with, requires opting out of practices that users may find objectionable, and only requires opting into something when it’s required by law. Just look at the super grossDark Patterns” that try to trick users into allowing their information to be shared and sold widely, with little oversight.

I can’t think of anyone who would think that this is a good idea. I can think of lots of people who see this trickery as profitable, but who actually believes that these now-commonplace anti-privacy practices are ethical, or something that they would like to be subjected to as a user?

The Circle Is Our Boring Dystopia

For Gizmodo, Christina Warren reviewed James Ponsoldt’s film adaptation of Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel:

This is a film that had the opportunity to be timely and relevant. If anything, the film didn’t go far enough, because everything seems so plausible. That plausibility — the fact that we’re already living in a world the film is trying to portray as a scary future — hurts the film. Whatever it’s trying to say, it never really lands.

While flawed, Eggers’ novel was a decent argument of our near-future dystopia. Based on Warren’s review, it seems that the amount of time between the book’s release and the film seems to have blunted much of its criticism; or, at least, what was once merely realistic has become reality. What a shame.

Twitterrific Update Rejected for Alternative User-Selectable Icons

The Iconfactory’s Sean Heber on Twitter:

Try to do something fun and get an App Store rejection for it.

[…]

We could change the app icon on each update but letting the user choose between those same icons at will is TOTALLY AGAINST THE RULES.

We could have a light or a dark icon because we have light and dark themes. And that’s it. Any other choices are right out!

To be clear, it appears that Twitterrific was rejected for using the new icon changing API to allow users to change the app‘s icon. Apparently, this is because the alternative icons are too different from the standard app icon or, in some way, are not reflective of the app’s branding.

First off, I’ve seen the alternative icons Heber is referring to here. They’re not that far off from the default — certainly not enough to cause you to confuse Twitterrific for another app. They add a nice smidgen of customizability.

Second, multiple users pointed out the inconsistency between the App Review team’s rejection of Twitterrific after approving two sports apps that allow users to change the app icon to the logo of their favourite team.

Third, I don’t see anything in the App Review guidelines that indicates parameters for what constitutes acceptable — or unacceptable — alternative icons. Apple’s guidelines might be relatively straightforward and agreeable, but without publishing them, it looks like they’re favouring gigantic enterprises over independent developers or using a different rulebook.

Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria

A fascinating pair of articles came out earlier this month on the ambition and lacklustre reality of Google Books. I’ve read them both and I’ve very little to add other than my recommendation that you read them both.

James Somers, for the Atlantic, focuses his story mainly on the lawsuit and failed settlement between the copyright holders, authors, librarians, and Google:

It was the first project that Google ever called a “moonshot.” Before the self-driving car and Project Loon—their effort to deliver Internet to Africa via high-altitude balloons—it was the idea of digitizing books that struck the outside world as a wide-eyed dream. Even some Googlers themselves thought of the project as a boondoggle. “There were certainly lots of folks at Google that while we were doing Google Book Search were like, Why are we spending all this money on this project?,” Clancy said to me. “Once Google started being a little more conscious about how it was spending money, it was like, wait, you have $40 million a year, $50 million a year on the cost of scanning? It’s gonna cost us $300 to $400 million before we’re done? What are you thinking? But Larry and Sergey were big supporters.”

In August 2010, Google put out a blog post announcing that there were 129,864,880 books in the world. The company said they were going to scan them all.

Of course, it didn’t quite turn out that way. This particular moonshot fell about a hundred-million books short of the moon. What happened was complicated but how it started was simple: Google did that thing where you ask for forgiveness rather than permission, and forgiveness was not forthcoming. Upon hearing that Google was taking millions of books out of libraries, scanning them, and returning them as if nothing had happened, authors and publishers filed suit against the company, alleging, as the authors put it simply in their initial complaint, “massive copyright infringement.”

Scott Rosenberg’s story for Backchannel is shorter than Somers’, but it’s a good overview at the myriad complications of scanning and indexing tens of millions of books, including concerns about a private tech company having so much control over information:

When Google partnered with university libraries to scan their collections, it had agreed to give them each a copy of the scanning data, and in 2008 the HathiTrust began organizing and sharing those files. (It had to fend off the Authors Guild in court, too.) HathiTrust has 125 member organizations and institutions who “believe that we can better steward research and cultural heritage by working together than alone or by leaving it to an organization like Google,” says Mike Furlough, the trust’s director. And of course there’s the Library of Congress itself, whose new leader, Carla Hayden, has committed to opening up public access to its collections through digitization.

In a sense each of these outfits is a competitor to Google Books. But in reality, Google is so far ahead that none of them is likely to catch up. The consensus among observers is that it cost Google several hundred million dollars to build Google Books, and nobody else is going to spend that kind of money to perform the feat a second time.

Tangentially, yesterday was World Intellectual Property Day, which serves as a reminder that much of the world’s information is kept in private hands for an increasingly-indefinite period of time.

FCC Chair Ajit Pai to Propose Sweeping Changes to Net Neutrality Rules

Well, you knew this was coming, and here it is. Cecilia Kang of the New York Times:

The chairman, Ajit Pai, said high-speed internet service should no longer be treated like a public utility with strict rules, as it is now. Instead, he said, the industry should largely be left to police itself.

The plan is Mr. Pai’s most forceful action in his race to roll back rules that govern telecommunications, cable and broadcasting companies, which he says are harmful to business. But he is certain to face a contentious battle with the consumers and tech companies that rallied around the existing rules, which are meant to prevent broadband providers like AT&T and Comcast from giving special treatment to any streaming videos, news sites and other content.

“Two years ago, I warned that we were making a serious mistake,” Mr. Pai said at the Newseum in Washington, where he laid out the plan in a speech. “It’s basic economics. The more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you’re likely to get.”

For once, I agree with Pai: yes, the more heavily you regulate the ways in which internet service providers can create a private rigged market that they control, the less of that you’re likely to get. For some reason, he sees that as a bad thing.

When I wrote yesterday about the creativity some startups might need to explore due to constraints in a more cautious investment climate, I was reminded by Dean Young of how important regulatory policy can be for the same reason. Strongly regulating ISPs can ultimately be a very good thing for consumers, as they’ll have to compete more aggressively on service quality, speed, and price, rather than distracting subscribers with a few zero-rated services like Spotify or Hulu. It’s telling that the only defence ISPs can muster against common carrier classification is that the law is old.

Rollin Bishop, the Outline:

It just depends on which part of the government picks up the fight, if any. If Pai and the FCC fail to scrub the 2015 order, Congress could attempt legislation to give the FCC clear rules on how to proceed, and if both the FCC and Congress fail, it’s possible that the trade associations that had litigated previously would do so again.

And that’s why, even with the odds stacked against them, advocates are optimistic. It’s a continuing fight, and there’s opportunity to influence policy at every step. Comment on the FCC public docket. Call representatives. Just participating in the fight at all is one of the biggest steps any one person can do. Public opposition is part of what killed the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in 2012 with grassroots organizations as well as companies like Google and Facebook opposing such a broad expansion of online copyright infringement policies.

I know there’s a lot going on in the United States, between attempts at undoing all sorts of protections and rules introduced by the previous administration, and new laws targeted at immigrants and women. I know many of you have been encouraged to call your representatives regularly. But, please, keep doing so. A phone call to your representative’s office will remind them that they should be listening to you.

Update: Karl Bode, Techdirt:

The problem Pai faces now is two-fold. One, net neutrality has broad, incredible bi-partisan support, and those consumers are certain to give him an earful during the public comment period that will begin after the May 18 vote. If Pai isn’t familiar with the concept of backlash and overreach, he may want to bone up on some history. Pai will also need to show to the courts that the market has changed dramatically enough since the FCC’s June 2016 win over ISPs to justify a massive reversal of the rules. If he can’t, his entire effort will be struck down.

As a lawyer Pai knows this, which is why I still think Pai’s playing a game of good cop, bad cop. Under this plan, Pai saber rattles for a few months about his intent to kill net neutrality, at which point the GOP shows up with some “compromise” legislation (likely this summer) that claims to codify net neutrality into law, but is worded in such a way (by the ISP lawyers that will inevitably write it) so the loophole-riddled “solution” is worse than no rules at all. If I were to guess, the legislation will come from Senator John Thune, who attempted to derail the 2015 net neutrality rules using a similar strategy.

Watch this space.

The Value of Twitter

Kia Kokalitcheva of Axios covers Twitter’s latest earnings report:

The company now has 328 million monthly active users, up by 9 million since the previous quarter, and growing its daily active users by 14% since the year-ago quarter.

Though it beat analyst estimates, Twitter’s quarterly revenue dropped to $548 million, down from $717 million the previous quarter, and an 8% year-over-year decrease. However, the company managed to shrink its quarterly net loss to $62 million, its lowest in the past year.

Bob Lefsetz:

So celebrate the company that is driving the zeitgeist, where all stories get started, where those addicted to news live. Newspapers come second. TV is a comparative joke. And everybody worth their salt in either medium is right there on Twitter, whether it be Rachel Maddow or Margaret Sullivan.

[…]

We want people to make us think. We want to know where it’s all going and what it all means.

And there’s no better place to do this than on Twitter.

If you’re an information junkie, there really is no better place to be today than on Twitter. In the ten years that I’ve been a member, I’ve had my constantly-updating feed always open on my desktop. It’s nothing like any other platform — including, by the way, in the amount of harassment experienced by its members.

Steven Levy of Backchannel interviewed Jack Dorsey on a wide range of topics including Twitter’s harassment problem:

We recognized that the very nature of the product was giving unfair advantage to people who wanted to harass. So we needed to change the product experience. We made it a priority last year, but to be very frank and honest, we only shipped one meaningful thing all year. So our progress is not something that we are proud of.

Why was that? Why did you fall short?

A variety of reasons. We recognized that at the end of the year, in December, and we just took on a completely different mindset. We had people drop what they were doing and really focus on this as an issue. And in the past three months we’ve been shipping every single day against this, and I think have made meaningful progress, [even though] it’s not felt as much. We also, in the previous year, put a lot of burden on the victim instead of taking the burden upon ourselves So we learned a bunch in that past year around how slow we were, and we just completely shifted our mindset.

December? December? Who would have thought that filling leadership and technical roles primarily with white men would make Twitter really bad at prioritizing and executing anti-harassment policies and features?

Amazon Echo Look

Jonathan Sawyer, High Snobiety:

First off, Echo Look takes photos and/or videos via voice command, with built-in lighting and a depth-sensing camera that allows you to blur the background of your image, further highlighting your outfit. These clean, full-length photos can then easily be shared with friends.

Style Check in turn combines the best in machine learning with advice from fashion specialists. You can compare/contrast two particular outfits, as Style Check will then give you a recommendation on what to wear, based on current trends and what looks best on you.

Jason Koebler, Vice:

Amazon store images and videos taken by Echo Look indefinitely, the company told us. Audio recorded by the original Echo has already been sought out in a murder case; to its credit, Amazon fought a search warrant in that case.

“All photos and video captured with your Echo Look are securely stored in the AWS cloud and locally in the Echo Look app until a customer deletes them,” a spokesperson for the company said. “You can delete the photos or videos associated with your account anytime in the Echo Look App.”

Motherboard also asked if Echo Look photos, videos, and the data gleaned from them would be sold to third parties; the company did not address that question.

Amazon is introducing this product two weeks after that one Burger King ad that triggered Google Home. I don’t think it’s paranoia to suggest that having a constantly-connected hands-free camera sitting where you usually get dressed is a gigantic red flag for privacy.

Silicon Valley Investors Are Getting Pickier

Eliot Brown, Wall Street Journal (bypass the paywall using Twitter):

In 2014 and 2015, mutual funds, hedge funds and other investors pumped billions into companies that they now see as overvalued, and unlikely to pull off an initial public offering. As venture capitalists became more discerning, investment in U.S. tech startups plummeted by 30% in dollar terms last year from a year earlier.

[…]

Venture-capital firms remain flush with cash: They raised $44 billion last year, the most since the dot-com boom.

But investors are staying away from scores of initially well-funded startups that once looked like relatively safe bets, forcing these companies to fight for survival as they burn through their stockpiles of cash and scramble for new money or buyers.

On a related note, everyone’s favourite story of the past month just keeps on giving with Ben Einstein’s teardown of a Juicero:

Our usual advice to hardware founders is to focus on getting a product to market to test the core assumptions on actual target customers, and then iterate. Instead, Juicero spent $120M over two years to build a complex supply chain and perfectly engineered product that is too expensive for their target demographic.

Imagine a world where Juicero raised only $10M and built a product subject to significant constraints. Maybe the Press wouldn’t be so perfectly engineered but it might have a fewer features and cost a fraction of the original $699. Or maybe with a more iterative approach, they would have quickly found that customers vary greatly in their juice consumption patterns, and would have chosen a per-pack pricing model rather than one-size-fits-all $35/week subscription. Suddenly Juicero is incredibly compelling as a product offering, at least to this consumer.

I’m not sure it’s always the case, but limitations tend to produce better solutions to complex problems. Perhaps venture capitalists’ newfound hesitance can translate into lower-cost better products that appeal to a wider customer base. Maybe there will be fewer startups trying to solve the irritations of the wealthy.

The Internet Archive and Robots.txt

Mark Graham of the Internet Archive:

Robots.txt files were invented 20+ years ago to help advise “robots,” mostly search engine web crawlers, which sections of a web site should be crawled and indexed for search.

Many sites use their robots.txt files to improve their SEO (search engine optimization) by excluding duplicate content like print versions of recipes, excluding search result pages, excluding large files from crawling to save on hosting costs, or “hiding” sensitive areas of the site like administrative pages. (Of course, over the years malicious actors have also used robots.txt files to identify those same sensitive areas!) Some crawlers, like Google, pay attention to robots.txt directives, while others do not.

Over time we have observed that the robots.txt files that are geared toward search engine crawlers do not necessarily serve our archival purposes. Internet Archive’s goal is to create complete “snapshots” of web pages, including the duplicate content and the large versions of files.

Ed Summers:

Up until now the Internet Archive have used the robots.txt in two ways:

  • their ia_archiver web crawler consults a publisher’s robots.txt to determine what parts of a website to archive and how often

  • the Wayback Machine (the view of the archive) consults the robots.txt to determine what to allow people to view from the archived content it has collected.

If the Internet Archive’s blog post is read at face value it seems like they are going to stop doing these things altogether, not just for government websites, but for the entire web. While conversation in Twitter makes it seem like this is a great idea whose time has come, I think this would be a step backwards for the web and for its most preeminent archive, and I hope they will reconsider or take this as an opportunity for a wider discussion.

I get where Graham is coming from here. The Internet Archive is supposed to be a snapshot of the web as it was at any given time, and if a robots.txt file prevents them from capturing a page or a section of a website that would normally be visible to a user, that impairs their mission.

But, much as I love the Internet Archive, I think Summers’ criticism is entirely valid: ignoring robots.txt files would violate website publishers’ wishes. It’s as simple as that. Even though I wish FFFFOUND didn’t block the Internet Archive from capturing the site, I think that request should be respected by the Archive. Robots.txt is a simple, straightforward format for publishers to designate which areas of their site are off-limits to scrapers and crawlers, and that should be respected.

Apple Cuts Affiliate Commissions on Apps and In-App Purchases

John Voorhees, MacStories:

Today, Apple announced that it is reducing the commissions it pays on apps and In-App Purchases from 7% to 2.5% effective May 1st. The iTunes Affiliate Program pays a commission from Apple’s portion of the sale of apps and other media when a purchase is made with a link that contains the affiliate credentials of a member of the program. Anyone can join, but the Affiliate Program is used heavily by websites that cover media sold by Apple and app developers.

In the four hours since I received Apple’s notice in my inbox earlier today, I’ve been completely puzzled by this move. Why drop the affiliate commission, but only for apps? Why now? Would this make more sense if we knew of any plans Apple might have for the App Store that they could unveil at WWDC?

While I’m part of the iTunes Affiliate Program, I rarely link to anything and I’ve made something like $70 in the entire time I’ve had the account. It doesn’t affect me directly, one way or another, but this sucks for any online publication with a revenue stream dependent on affiliate commission.

Unroll.me’s CEO Responds to Backlash

One more tasty nugget from Mike Isaac’s excellent profile of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has been making the rounds:

They spent much of their energy one-upping rivals like Lyft. Uber devoted teams to so-called competitive intelligence, purchasing data from an analytics service called Slice Intelligence. Using an email digest service it owns named Unroll.me, Slice collected its customers’ emailed Lyft receipts from their inboxes and sold the anonymized data to Uber. Uber used the data as a proxy for the health of Lyft’s business. (Lyft, too, operates a competitive intelligence team.)

Slice confirmed that it sells anonymized data (meaning that customers’ names are not attached) based on ride receipts from Uber and Lyft, but declined to disclose who buys the information.

Unroll.me bills itself as a way to “clean up your inbox” by bundling together bulk emails and newsletters into daily digests, which sounds just great. In order to do that, they need to be able to monitor your emails. And they’re a free service, so you can do the math on how they make their money.

Anyway, Unroll.me’s CEO Jojo Hedaya is shocked — shocked — that anyone would find this objectionable:

Our users are the heart of our company and service. So it was heartbreaking to see that some of our users were upset to learn about how we monetize our free service.

And while we try our best to be open about our business model, recent customer feedback tells me we weren’t explicit enough.

No shit. I suppose our parent company spies on your online purchases for marketing purposes is a less-agreeable tagline.

Sure we have a Terms of Service Agreement and a plain-English Privacy Policy that our users agree they have read and understand before they even sign up, but the reality is most of us – myself included – don’t take the time to thoroughly review them.

Hedaya certainly hasn’t read either of these agreements, as the Terms of Service specifically prohibits the links in his post — and, incidentally, in mine:

The Website must not be framed on any other site, nor may you create a link to any part of the Website other than the homepage.

Oops.

Hedaya again:

I can’t stress enough the importance of your privacy. We never, ever release personal data about you. All data is completely anonymous and related to purchases only.

If a company owned by one of the largest retailers in the world recorded every receipt you’d received via email, do you think that you’d be completely anonymous? That’s a false promise; much like most other “anonymous” big data sets, the combination of attributes can easily reveal individual users even without explicitly knowing their names.

A Profile of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick

Mike Isaac’s profile for the New York Times of Travis Kalanick includes some fascinating reporting, but little more is as shocking as the opener:

Travis Kalanick, the chief executive of Uber, visited Apple’s headquarters in early 2015 to meet with Timothy D. Cook, who runs the iPhone maker. It was a session that Mr. Kalanick was dreading.

For months, Mr. Kalanick had pulled a fast one on Apple by directing his employees to help camouflage the ride-hailing app from Apple’s engineers. The reason? So Apple would not find out that Uber had secretly been tracking iPhones even after its app had been deleted from the devices, violating Apple’s privacy guidelines.

But Apple was on to the deception, and when Mr. Kalanick arrived at the midafternoon meeting sporting his favorite pair of bright red sneakers and hot-pink socks, Mr. Cook was prepared. “So, I’ve heard you’ve been breaking some of our rules,” Mr. Cook said in his calm, Southern tone. Stop the trickery, Mr. Cook then demanded, or Uber’s app would be kicked out of Apple’s App Store.

Isaac explains later in the article what happened: Uber decided to fingerprint iPhones — contrary to App Store rules — to prevent a common scheme that exploited how drivers were compensated, then hid that code whenever the device was in Cupertino to prevent the App Review team from seeing it. That’s a deliberate deception. It’s a gross privacy violation of every Uber member that used an iPhone.

Yet Apple’s behaviour is also concerning. When AppGratis was found to be violating App Store rules, Apple gave them a heads-up on the Friday before the weekend during which their app would be removed. Based on Isaac’s reporting, Uber was provided with the opportunity to correct a more egregious violation of the App Store rules.

Even if you’re comfortable with the idea that big companies can have a different set of App Store rules and responses — and I’m not sure I am — I don’t think this should have remained a secret. It’s a flagrant and sneaky violation of users’ privacy. Ultimately, Uber is to blame, but Apple could have handled their discovery in a way that was more consistent with their commitment to privacy. Without Isaac’s report, this story likely would have remained secret.

My favourite sentence in this article is a parenthetical midway through:

Uber is grappling with the fallout. For the last few months, the company has been reeling from allegations of a machismo-fueled workplace where managers routinely overstepped verbally, physically and sometimes sexually with employees. Mr. Kalanick compounded that image by engaging in a shouting match with an Uber driver in February, an incident recorded by the driver and then leaked online. (Mr. Kalanick now has a private driver.)

Even the CEO of Uber doesn’t use Uber. Why should anyone else?

Update: Kate Conger, TechCrunch:

However, Uber told TechCrunch that it still uses a form of device fingerprinting in order to detect fraudulent behavior. If a device has been associated with fraud in the past, a new sign-up from that device should raise a red flag, an Uber spokesperson said. Uber suggested that the practice of fingerprinting was modified to comply with Apple’s rules rather than discontinued altogether.

If this uses the advertising identifier provided by Apple, I think that’s reasonable. If it’s fingerprinting devices through an alternative means that users cannot control, I see that as overstepping expected app behaviour.

Net Neutrality Is Alive and Well in Canada

Emily Jackson, Financial Post:

With its ruling that Internet providers can’t give free data to consumers who stream certain music or video content, Canada’s telecom regulator broke from its American counterpart by reiterating its position that carriers should simply act as pipes.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission reinforced its position on net neutrality rules Thursday with a decision that confirms Internet providers will be treated as common carriers that cannot pick favourites among the content that travels across their networks.

Michael Geist:

The impact is significant as the Commission notes that it can affect competition, innovation, consumer choice, access and affordability as well as privacy in a section of the decision that comprehensively makes the case for the harms associated with zero rating. For example, with respect to competition, the CRTC states:

The Commission considers that competition in the retail Internet access services sector is best served, and the telecommunications policy objectives set out in the Act are best achieved, when ISPs compete and differentiate their services based on their networks and the attributes of the services on those networks, such as price, speed, volume, coverage, and the quality of their networks.

The Commission also believes that differential pricing practices that favour particular services, technology, or content would generally negatively affect innovation.

This is terrific news on two fronts. First, while zero-rating sounds alluring, it creates a de facto private marketplace with little oversight or regulation. In effect, it allows ISPs to determine which companies should succeed and which should fail on their network. This decision ends that capability.

Second, Canadians pay some of the highest prices in the world for internet and smartphone service. I hope this decision will truly require ISPs to compete more effectively on price.

Sleep and the Quantified Self

Chris Matthews:

Recently, I got curious again: I was still tracking all the sleep data, but wasn’t doing anything with it. I’d gotten bored, complacent, and so the data piled up without much to say for itself. Today, in a fit of rainy day pliability, I tediously copied data into an excel sheet. This was my first gripe: Pebble doesn’t allow csv exports (but then again, hey, they don’t exist anymore). SleepNumber doesn’t allow data exports (they once did, but “retired” the feature because reasons), and their customer service reps are pretty tight lipped on why I can’t access my own data, yet their TOS says they’re allowed to sell it. Only SleepCycle lets you export and study your own data, so thumbs up to them.

SleepCycle and SleepNumber both track total sleep time, and assess a 1–100 score for the night, based on “who-knows-what-exactly”. Pebble only assesses total sleep time, no score. So I built a couple graphs using the past few months of data. The results were dreadful.

Matthews’ comparison is by no means scientific but, then again, neither are the numbers these apps and devices are spitting out: I have noticed no correlation between Sleep Cycle’s “sleep quality” value and how rested I feel when I wake up.

The Guardian Pulls Out of Facebook’s Instant Articles and Apple News

A quick followup on a story I covered last week on publishers’ growing resistance to Facebook’s Instant Articles format. I wrote:

Instant Articles was seen by many as the future of news distribution, much like Apple News and Google’s AMP Project. However, while more people have been using Apple News after its iOS 10 redesign — as the Verge noticed — and AMP has become popular thanks to Google’s promise to elevate the format in search rankings, Instant Articles doesn’t really have the same kind of draw.

It appears that not all publishers are seeing the same kind of boost from Apple News as the Verge has, as Jessica Davies explains for Digiday:

The publisher had gone all-in on Instant Articles, running every single Guardian article via the format for the last year. It was one of first U.K. media owners to adopt the Facebook format, alongside BBC News in the spring of 2015. The Guardian was also among the first publishers to join the Apple News app when it launched in the U.K. in October 2015. It ran all its articles in the app.

[…]

The publisher ceased running content through both Apple News and Instant Articles today. The move is a clear sign of displeasure in how these platform-publishing initiatives have treated the business needs of the Guardian. Many publishers have complained the money they make off visits to IA pages, for example, do not measure up to what they get on their own sites.

I’d wonder how pulling out of Instant Articles would affect the Guardian’s visibility on Facebook, but it seems like we might have an answer courtesy Kurt Gessler of the Chicago Tribune. Earlier this week, he posted some stats showing that while more people “liked” the Tribune’s Facebook page since last year, the reach of its posts has dropped:

In December of 2016, we had only 8 posts with 10,000 reach or less. In January of 2017, that had grown to 80. In February, 159. And in March, a ridiculous 242 posts were seen by fewer than 10,000 people. And while late 2016 saw record lows in that lowest quartile, that 242 is far above any prior month in our dataset. And we were seeing a steady decrease in that 25,001 to 50,000 quartile. That had gone from 248 in January 2016 to 141 in March 2017.

Facebook made major changes to Instant Articles beginning in December in an attempt to give the rather stagnant platform a nudge. This timeline seems to coincide with Gessler’s observations at the Tribune. I doubt Facebook will make any changes to increase the reach of non-promoted or non-IA posts.

As far as Apple News is concerned, I’d love to hear more from anyone who’s seeing unusual spikes or dips in subscribers or traffic. I still haven’t converted this site’s feed to the Apple News Format, so I have no reference points available.

WSJ: Google Plans Ad-Blocking Feature in Chrome

Jack Marshall, Wall Street Journal:

Unacceptable ad types would be those recently defined by the Coalition for Better Ads, an industry group that released a list of ad standards in March. According to those standards, ad formats such as pop-ups, auto-playing video ads with sound and “prestitial” ads with countdown timers are deemed to be “beneath a threshold of consumer acceptability.”

In one possible application Google is considering, it may choose to block all advertising that appears on sites with offending ads, instead of the individual offending ads themselves. In other words, site owners may be required to ensure all of their ads meet the standards, or could see all advertising across their sites blocked in Chrome.

Because they struggle with consistency, Google offers an interstitial ad unit, YouTube frequently serves up non-skippable “prestitial” ads, and there’s nothing in Google’s AdSense policies that explicitly prohibits the use of a modal overlay to display an ad. This seems a little bit like Marlboro also selling anti-smoking aids, doesn’t it?

Apple Plans to Make Devices Entirely From Recycled Materials

Arielle Duhaime-Ross, Vice:

Apple has one of the most aggressive sustainability and recycling programs in tech, but it still pulls plenty of metals and toxic rare-earth materials out of the ground to make iPhones, iPads, Macbooks and other products.

That’s about to change. The company is set to announce a new, unprecedented goal for the tech industry, “to stop mining the earth altogether.”

The announcement, part of Apple’s 2017 Environment Responsibility Report released Wednesday, will commit the company to making devices entirely from recycled materials such as aluminum, copper, tin, and tungsten. But there’s one hiccup: Apple doesn’t know exactly how it’s going to make that happen.

If they can do this, it’s going to be huge, but it’s a tall order. Jason Koebler’s reporting on Apple’s recycling practices suggests that their desire to one day quit mining raw materials will require a complete rethinking of their current disposal chain:

“Electronics recyclers are filled with heaps of broken iMacs and MacBooks, which due to economics and the requirements of certifications are most often scrapped rather than repaired or sold,” John Bumstead, a refurbisher who sells MacBooks that he salvages and frankensteins together from broken ones that he gets from recyclers that don’t work with Apple, told me.

A document submitted to North Carolina’s Department of Environment Quality in September 2016 shows that Apple’s must-shred policy hasn’t changed in recent years, even as it continues to position itself as a green company: “All of the equipment collected for recycling is manual and mechanically disassembled and shredded. The resulting fractions are sorted into plastics, metals, and glass and sold as stock feed in the manufacturing process.”

On its face, this might not seem so bad: At least these products are getting recycled, right? But in practice, the premature recycling of an iPhone or a MacBook is not ideal. Bumstead still sells computers from 2009 and 2010 for hundreds of dollars to people looking for entry-level laptops.

The saying is “reduce, reuse, and recycle”, and those words are in that order for a reason: recycling is better than creating new raw materials, but not as good as reusing what already exists. Neither of these options are as good as minimizing the consumption of new products altogether.

Obviously, Apple would prefer to sell more products, and many customers love having newer products than hanging onto the same device for five or six years. Improvements to their recycling program ought to have a significant impact on the resources required to create new devices and components. But it seems as though their desire to improve their products’ impact on the environment is contradicted somewhat by their stance against right-to-repair legislation, something Apple VP Lisa Jackson touches on in her interview with Vice:

Jackson also defended Apple’s history of making products that are hard to repair. Allowing customers to repair Apple products themselves “sounds like an easy thing to say,” she said. But “technology is really complex; it is sophisticated to make it work, to ensure that you have security and privacy, [and] that somebody isn’t giving you bad parts.”

Because of this, Apple won’t be taking a “right to repair” approach to meeting its environmental goals. “All those things mean that you want to have certified repairs,” Jackson said. “I think trying to pretend that we can sort of make it easy to repair the product, and that you get the product that you think you’re buying — that you want — isn’t the answer.”

I get the stance Apple is taking, but it seems like there could be a safe middle ground. Right-to-repair legislation might be too broad as it’s currently written, but Apple could allow authorized service centres to repair more components with certified parts instead of performing whole-device swaps. More refurbished devices could be made available to sectors where having the latest products isn’t a primary concern.

I’m optimistic that Apple’s recycling goals can be met in due time. I hope they take a more comprehensive approach to their environmental efforts, however. They’re already showing promising results: their lastest report indicates that each new product emits 97 kilograms of carbon in its lifespan, down from a recent high of 137 kilograms in 2011. But the same report indicates that 77% of the greenhouse gas emissions of a new product come from its manufacturing — something that could be cut more dramatically by reducing or reusing components and products than it can by recycling.

Update: Lisa Jackson appeared on this week’s episode of the Talk Show and dove deeper into Apple’s progress on the environment. It’s a really good episode that highlights the company’s use of sustainable forests, how they reduce and reuse materials on the production line, and Apple’s awesome Earth Day animated shorts.

Lawsuit Alleges Bose Headphone App Silently Provided Users’ Listening Habits to Advertisers

Jonathan Stempel, Reuters:

After paying $350 for his QuietComfort 35 headphones, [Kyle Zak] said he took Bose’s suggestion to “get the most out of your headphones” by downloading its app, and providing his name, email address and headphone serial number in the process.

But the Illinois resident said he was surprised to learn that Bose sent “all available media information” from his smartphone to third parties such as Segment.io, whose website promises to collect customer data and “send it anywhere.”

This doesn’t appear to be a simple case of Zak failing to read the app’s privacy policy in full. I downloaded the Bose Connect app and read its privacy policy and terms and conditions. While both explain that the app uses analytics software, nowhere in either document does it say that it will transmit listening habits.

This is alarming when you consider how unique someone’s music library and listening habits are. Ben Dodson found that apps in iOS had an unlimited ability to dump a user’s music library into a text file and upload it to the cloud. In iOS 10, Apple began requiring authentication when an app wants to access the music library.

What I don’t see in Stempel’s report is anything indicating whether the Bose app was merely using library data, or if it was sending information about the actual audio passing through the app. That makes a big difference — imagine if a Bose owner received a phone call through the headphones.

When You Think About It, a $400 Bag Squeezing Machine Is Kind of Silly, Really

Ellen Huet and Olivia Zaleski, Bloomberg:

Doug Evans, the company’s founder, would compare himself with Steve Jobs in his pursuit of juicing perfection. He declared that his juice press wields four tons of force — “enough to lift two Teslas,” he said. Google’s venture capital arm and other backers poured about $120 million into the startup. Juicero sells the machine for $400, plus the cost of individual juice packs delivered weekly. Tech blogs have dubbed it a “Keurig for juice.”

You could tell this thing was bullshit from day one — a juice making machine that only works with premixed, DRM-encumbered fruit and vegetable blends from the company that sold you the machine.

Ah, but we haven’t even gotten to what is perhaps my favourite sentence I’ve read all week:

But after the product hit the market, some investors were surprised to discover a much cheaper alternative: You can squeeze the Juicero bags with your bare hands.

Albert Burneko, Deadspin:

I like this one, too (emphasis mine):

One of the investors said they were frustrated with how the company didn’t deliver on the original pitch and that their venture firm wouldn’t have met with Evans if he were hawking bags of juice that didn’t require high-priced hardware.

When we signed up to pump money into this juice company, it was because we thought drinking the juice would be a lot harder and more expensive. That was the selling point, because Silicon Valley is a stupid libertarian dystopia where investor-class vampires are the consumers and a regular person’s money is what they go shopping for. Easily opened bags of juice do not give these awful nightmare trash parasites a good bargain on the disposable income of credulous wellness-fad suckers; therefore easily opened bags of juice are a worse investment than bags of juice that are harder to open.

As a rule of thumb, any single-purpose kitchen gadgets are a gigantic waste of money, with the possible exceptions of espresso machines, pasta rollers, corkscrews, and sushi mats. Despite this, investors spent $120 million financing a $400 — $700, before a recent price cut — WiFi-enabled bag squeezing machine.

Photographers Used iPhones to Shoot New Condé Nast Covers

Anthony Ha, TechCrunch:

Creative Director Alex Grossman said it made sense to finally put an iPhone pic out front with the May travel issue, particularly given the connection between photography and travel. The cover was shot on an iPhone 7 Plus, in the Tlacolula Market of Oaxaca, Mexico, and it combines people and food, with a woman showing off a strawberry Paleta.

You and I both know that these kinds of articles are a mix of well-placed PR and interesting news, but I’m linking to it because I really love the idea of using an iPhone to shoot a travel magazine. The context is just so appropriate. Magazine photos tend to look just a little too good to be true, especially when they’re shot with a professional DSLR or medium format rig, but a smartphone camera makes the same photos feel that much more grounded in reality.

Via email, I asked Peden and Munk — the photographers behind the Bon Appétit cover — about their shooting process, and it’s a lot simpler than I thought. They told me that they used Portrait mode with the phone on a tripod, triggered the shutter with a Bluetooth camera remote, and adjusted their selects in VSCO. Pretty remarkable.

Phishing With Unicode Domains

Xudong Zheng:

Punycode makes it possible to register domains with foreign characters. It works by converting individual domain label to an alternative format using only ASCII characters. For example, the domain “xn--s7y.co” is equivalent to “短.co”.

From a security perspective, Unicode domains can be problematic because many Unicode characters are difficult to distinguish from common ASCII characters. It is possible to register domains such as “xn--pple-43d.com”, which is equivalent to “аpple.com”. It may not be obvious at first glance, but “аpple.com” uses the Cyrillic “а” (U+0430) rather than the ASCII “a” (U+0041). This is known as a homograph attack.

Unlike Chrome and Firefox, Safari displays the punycode version of domains that use characters from the extended Unicode set — that is, instead of displaying “аррӏе.com”, it shows “xn--80ak6aa92e.com”. However, this is arguably problematic for domains that legitimately use homographic characters. The Cyrillic alphabet is full of characters that look identical to Latin letters.

The way this bug was fixed in Chromium is to see if the entire domain is a Latin lookalike and uses a TLD like .com, .net, or .org.

Update: My description above is inaccurate. Safari has a security check in place to prevent fraudulent non-Latin Unicode domains from displaying; punycode won’t display when the domain is valid and legitimate on a TLD belonging to a Cyrillic-lanaguage country. Thank you to a reader for the correction.

Today’s Next-Generation iPhone Clickbait Brought to You by Gizmodo

Alex Cranz of Gizmodo responded to Mark Gurman and Min Jeong Lee’s report about the next-generation iPhone:

The phone will be a nearly bezel-free slab of glass and stainless steel (or possibly aluminum), the home button will be dead, and a gorgeous OLED display will be the focal point.

If you’re having a sense of deja vu, that’s because the Galaxy S8 had the exact same series of redesigns from the previous iteration when Samsung announced it last month. While Apple has been popularly viewed as the big smartphone innovator, this year it’s undoubtedly chasing Samsung.

The headline for this article said it even more succinctly:

The 10th Anniversary iPhone Sounds Like a Samsung Clone

One of three things happened here. Maybe Apple has become so efficient with their design process that they went all the way back to May of last year to begin copying the Galaxy S8; or, perhaps, Samsung was aware of that rumour and rushed their version of the phone to market; or — most likely — this is a natural evolution of the smartphone form factor as every major manufacturer has been trying to reduce the bezels on their devices for years now.

The American Retail Shift

Derek Thompson, the Atlantic:

The number of malls in the U.S. grew more than twice as fast as the population between 1970 and 2015, according to Cowen Research. By one measure of consumerist plentitude — shopping center “gross leasable area” — the U.S. has 40 percent more shopping space per capita than Canada, five times more the the U.K., and 10 times more than Germany. So it’s no surprise that the Great Recession provided such a devastating blow: Mall visits declined 50 percent between 2010 and 2013, according to the real-estate research firm Cushman and Wakefield, and they’ve kept falling every year since.

Michael Corkery, New York Times:

E-commerce players, led by the industry giant Amazon, have made it so easy and fast for people to shop online that traditional retailers, shackled by fading real estate and a culture of selling in stores, are struggling to compete. This shift has been building gradually for years. But economists, retail workers and real estate investors say it appears that it has sped up in recent months.

The Times has a small photo gallery that helps illustrate the difference in scale between the operations of an online-focused warehouse-only retailer like Amazon and the space required for a mall, and it’s as dramatic as you might expect. Imagine what can be done with the space left by the hundreds of malls anticipated to close within the next ten years.

Corkery again:

Retailers have hoped that their traditional stores, by offering catchy displays and top-notice service, can lure shoppers away from their screens. Some of the best evidence that brick-and-mortar retail is still viable may be Amazon’s experimentation with operating physical stores of its own.

Something I was unable to find is a recent comparison of the retail environment in shopping malls compared to that of high streets. I do a considerable amount of my shopping online, but I still prefer visiting my local bookstores to browse what they have on the shelves. I still want to try clothes on, and see what an iPhone accessory is really like before I buy it. It looks like Amazon is counting on blending that experience with the kind of data that’s only available to one of the world’s biggest online retailers.

A Time Capsule for the Web

Tim Carmody in a guest post on Kottke:

More than ever, what the web serves up on its own is the very worst things that have just happened. It’s an active shooter livestreaming a snuff film on Facebook — or something not as bad, but not much better.

And hey, focusing on very recent, very bad news makes a lot of sense. If there are awful things happening right now, I want to know about them. If some overpaid someone wrote something stupid and everyone I know is slamming it on Twitter, I want to get in on it. We’re only human.

But sometimes, I wonder, with all the abundance and ephemerality of the web, whether we indulge the opposite impulse enough. I don’t mean sharing more new things that are funny, or heartwarming, or relatable. I mean going out and finding or rediscovering the things that are The Very Best We Have to Offer, gathering them together, and saving them, forever.

I love the idea of this project. It’s simple to participate — you just have to fill out a short questionnaire, and not every question needs an answer.

Something that Carmody hasn’t addressed, as far as I can see, is what how he’ll present the final product. I hope that the results show an earnest attempt at finding the best of the web, but I also foresee the potential for abuse. What does that editing process look like, and what is the result? I’m not being a pessimistic skeptic here; I’m intrigued.

Update: Carmody has shared a collection of the best tweets nominated by readers so far.

The Moderators

A truly heartbreaking film from Ciaran Cassidy and Adrian Chen:

In an office in India, a cadre of Internet moderators ensures that social media sites are not taken over by bots, scammers, and pornographers. The Moderators shows the humans behind content moderation, taking viewers into the training process that workers go through in order to become social media’s monitors.

This film is twenty minutes long, but it needs that kind of length to tell the story of the people who filter out the worst of the web. Many of us are so far removed from the sewage — both conceptually and physically — that we can forget how much of it has been cleaned for us from our feeds. Per one moderator in the film [sic]:

We have to maintain the speed of two thousand photos per hour, we have to moderate. 20% of that photo are vulgarity photos.

In a span of eight hours, a moderator will see over three thousand photos of various levels of offence, from using a middle finger in a profile photo, to child abuse and physical violence. And I doubt these moderators are limited to a standard forty-hour work week.

This film is, naturally, very difficult to watch. There are occasional not-safe-for-work moments throughout, and it gets particularly heavy at around 13:00. I totally get that some of you may not feel comfortable with it, but I imagine that even if you don’t see the film and just read what I’ve described here, you can empathize with how mentally-tasking a moderator’s job must be.

How to Make a Backup of a FFFFOUND Account

Andy Baio:

Next month, two seminal image-sharing communities, FFFFOUND! and MLKSHK, will close their doors within a week of each other.

[…]

These two communities shared a lot in common. Both were very creative, focused on curating imagery, but how they’re shutting down are very, very different — how it was communicated, the tools for saving your contributions, and the future of the community.

FFFFOUND provides no export or backup tools. A handful of user-created scraping scripts exist for those tech-savvy enough to use them, but in general, most users will be unable to preserve their contributions.

More upsetting is the fact that FFFFOUND only allows Google, Bing, and Yahoo to crawl their archives in their robots.txt file, which outlines which crawlers can access their site and how frequently.

I frequently used FFFFOUND between 2008 and 2013, bookmarking nearly two thousand images in that time. I somehow accumulated 703 followers on the site, and I loved its close-knit communal feeling. It was a really cool little service — like Pinterest without the commercial focus. I know a lot of photographers, designers, and other creative types who used it for collecting inspiration wherever they found it on the web. So you can imagine how much it stings not to have an export feature.

I was determined to create a backup of my collection tonight. I tried fiddling with wget first, but the site is built in such a way that scraping it is beyond my expertise — though, much to my amazement, it doesn’t appear to be against the site’s terms of service. I really didn’t want to manually create a webarchive file of every page in my profile.

Thankfully, Baio sent me links to a few scripts for saving FFFFOUND profiles. Because I’m a complete idiot when it comes to command-line software that requires a bunch of dependencies, I’ve been struggling with this all evening.

But, at last, I think I found a relatively straightforward way to archive the images in your FFFFOUND profile on MacOS:

  1. Open Safari and copy Aaron Hildebrandt’s excellent ffffind.py script.

  2. Open your favourite plain text editor and paste it into a new file. Save it as ffffind.py in the directory of your choice. I went with a new “ffffound” directory in my Pictures folder.

  3. Open a Terminal window. You’re going to download and install a copy of the Python virtualenv package by running the command sudo pip install virtualenv. You’ll need to type your administrator-level password to do this.

    I’ve found installing it at the system level is more reliable than it is at the user level, likely because of SIP in recent versions of MacOS. You can try installing it at the user level by omitting sudo, however.

  4. Once that’s installed, navigate to the folder you created earlier for this project. That’s cd ~/Pictures/ffffound for me.

  5. We’re going to set up a virtual environment. First, run virtualenv ffffind to get the basics set up. Next, type source ./ffffind/bin/activate and press return to enter the virtual environment. The command line should now begin with (ffffind) instead of $.

  6. Next, within this virtual environment, we’ll need to install the latest release of Beautiful Soup, an HTML scraper. To install it, just run pip install BeautifulSoup and wait until it confirms that it has been installed.

  7. Now, just run python ffffind.py USERNAME with your FFFFOUND user name. Sit back, because this is going to take a while.

There are, of course a few caveats with this script. First, while I don’t believe it violates FFFFOUND’s terms of service, please don’t get annoyed at me if that changes. Besides, they’re the ones who didn’t provide an export function.

Second, while this will give you a copy of every image you saved to FFFFOUND, it won’t preserve page numbers or creation dates. If the order in which you saved the images is important to you, you’ll have to try to get ffffexport to work for you. It only downloaded my most recent 32 images, and I’m not sure why.

Third, ffffind doesn’t work perfectly. I saved a few images from a museum’s search engine. Their URLs included a .exe in the string, and that made ffffind very confused, so it stopped working. The easiest way to resolve this is to open the FFFFOUND page it stalled on and save that image manually, then delete it from your FFFFOUND. Unfortunately, the ffffind script doesn’t have the provision to restart on a specific page, so you’ll have to run it again from the start.

I hope this guide is helpful if you’re a FFFFOUND member hoping to save your bookmarks from annihilation. Many, many thanks to Andy Baio and Aaron Hildebrandt.

Update: I tried to make a Workflow for this but couldn’t. Dean Young made one quickly, though, and it seems to work really well. It only scrapes the FFFFOUND-cached versions of the images, and you may wish to adjust the /post/ part of the URL to /found/ for a more complete archive, but if you don’t want to mess around with the Python nonsense above, it’s a terrific option.

iTunes Podcasts Directory Rebranded as Apple Podcasts

Jason Snell, Six Colors:

On its own this is a minor change, and one that makes sense: In its most popular context, Apple’s podcast directory is accessed from the Podcasts app on iOS. iTunes is not a brand that needs to be associated with that product at all—it was only there because more than a decade ago, Apple extended the iTunes Store infrastructure and added podcast support to iTunes on the desktop. It was a long time ago. (Podcasters can get new badges to reflect the change.)

Looking at the larger picture, though, I have to assume that this is one part of a long, inexorable de-branding of iTunes. It proved to be a brand that was capable of having all sorts of non-tune-related things stuffed inside of it, but it was always an awkward fit and at some point it needed to be addressed.

The death of “classic” iTunes has been in the cards for quite some time, especially after the introductions of Apple Music and iCloud Music Library. Many of the pieces are in place for Apple to pull the trigger on iTunes, create discrete Mac apps for music, podcasts, and video, and rely upon iCloud-based syncing for iOS devices.

I’m still not ready for that future.

Apple Music Adds New ‘House of Strombo’ Video Show

Brad Wheeler, Globe and Mail:

It was announced on Thursday by Apple Music that the CBC Radio 2 host will bring House of Strombo, a 10-episode concert series he hosts from his downtown Toronto home, to the U.S.-based subscription service. [George Stroumboulopoulos] will also provide exclusive playlists.

For Apple Music, the recruiting of Stroumboulopoulos gives the service a Canadian beachhead and a presence in Toronto, a musically thriving metropolis. For Stroumboulopoulos, the move provides the former MuchMusic VJ a measure of international exposure.

For the uninitiated, George Stroumboulopoulos was one of the best interviewers ever employed by the CBC. He spent ten years hosting a seemingly-straightfoward chat show on the network, always asking questions that provoked a depth of conversation that was unlike anything else you’d find on similar programs. His three-hour radio show consistently delivers a killer blend of music and talk.

Quite simply, this is one hell of a get for Apple Music.

“House of Strombo” premieres tonight with A Tribe Called Red. Trust me: it’s going to be good.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Numeric Ratings

Caroline O’Donovan wrote for Buzzfeed about how star-based ratings for Uber and Lyft drivers affects their livelihood:

In a San Francisco Lyft car, there’s a chart taped to the back of the front passenger seat: “The Rating System Explained.” It details — in exaggerated terms — what Lyft’s one- to five-star rating scale really means to drivers.

[…]

Though tongue-in-cheek, this rating system explainer touches on an essential truth of the gig economy: When companies like Lyft, Uber, and Postmates penalize workers who have low ratings, anything less than five stars feels like a rebuke.

“The rating system works like this: You start off as a five-star driver,” Don, a San Francisco Lyft driver told BuzzFeed News. “If you drop below a 4.6, then your career becomes a question. Uber or Lyft will reach out to you and let you know that you are on review probation. And if you continue to drop, then you’re going to lose your job. They’ll deactivate you.”

I stand by what I wrote four years ago:

Make no mistake: there is a need to have reviews of the new products, new music, and new whatever that competes for our attention and money. But the idea that they need to be judged on a numerical scale is completely ridiculous. A much simpler and more honest approach would be to either “recommend” a product, or to “not recommend” it.

I maintain that star ratings are a poor way to rate pretty much anything. As a method of grading an opinion or experience, it’s inherently dishonest: its equivalence to a numerical ranking system makes it feel like it should be somehow impartial or objective, when a rating is anything but.

I think that impression has given “gig-economy” companies the false confidence that they can rely upon these ratings, with real consequences for their emplo— I’m sorry, independent contractors. O’Donovan:

This sort of rating anxiety extends well beyond Uber and Lyft. “The rating system is terrible,” said Ken Davis, a former Postmates courier, who noted that under the company’s five-star rating system couriers who fall below 4.7 for more than 30 days are suspended. Said Joshua, another Postmates courier, “I really don’t think customers understand the impact their ratings have on us.”

I get that Postmates might just want their couriers to provide exceptional service every time, but that’s unreasonable due to users’ wildly differing standards.

Furthermore, this shows just how dishonest these rankings are. If you’re aware of the preposterously high standards Postmates, Uber, and Lyft set, you’re much less likely to give a three- or four-star rating if your experience is imperfect — you don’t want to be the user who causes the contractor to lose their job.

In general, it’s far clearer to present a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down rating. Apple Music’s “love” and “dislike” options are exactly what I need to tell it, and nothing more: it’s either “play more like this” or “play less like this”. Likewise, everyone I’ve ever spoken to has assumed that Netflix’s old star ranking system were the ratings from either users or critics, but that wasn’t the case: it was a guess as to how likely Netflix thought you — the user — might like that TV show or movie.

Some people might argue that reducing quality ratings to binary options — like or dislike — lacks context, but I don’t think star ratings provide greater context in the real world. I can easily understand whether a product or service was acceptable to me, but I’m certain I’m not the only person who freezes when they need to figure out just how acceptable it was.

Besides, there’s an appropriate way to build context around a rating: a simple, optional, and private comment box. It might be filled with unfair criticism or utter nonsense, but at least words aren’t usually interpreted as a constant metric in the same way that numbers are. Even if a comment box is filled with complete lies, there isn’t the impression that it’s a calculated and inarguable score.

Our crime, as users, is not knowing whether we can be honest with our ratings. But tech firms have created this problem by assuming that users will be honest after implying that anything less than five-star service is unworthy, and then tying contractors’ livelihoods to users’ ratings. That’s unfair to everyone.

Robbing a Bank by DNS

Andy Greenberg, Wired:

The traditional model of hacking a bank isn’t so different from the old-fashioned method of robbing one. Thieves get in, get the goods, and get out. But one enterprising group of hackers targeting a Brazilian bank seems to have taken a more comprehensive and devious approach: One weekend afternoon, they rerouted all of the bank’s online customers to perfectly reconstructed fakes of the bank’s properties, where the marks obediently handed over their account information.

Yet another reminder that the infrastructure of the web is old and fragile, but it’s what we’ve got. I remain bewildered that it works as well as it usually does.

Big Tech Companies Lobby FCC to Preserve Net Neutrality Rules

Hamza Shaban, Buzzfeed:

Top officials from the Internet Association, a trade organization that represents Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix, among others, urged Pai to keep and enforce existing open internet rules. “The internet industry is uniform in its belief that net neutrality preserves the consumer experience, competition, and innovation online,” the group’s officials said, according to a summary of the meeting filed with the FCC.

The Internet Association also told the FCC chair that, according to their own preliminary economic research, net neutrality rules did not negatively impact broadband investment, which contradicts claims from the telecom industry that the regulations would stymie innovation.

It’s in the interests of even the biggest tech firms to preserve these rules, as I explained last week, in response to Bloomberg’s report on Comcast’s coming Netflix competitor:

With the FCC’s current attempts to dismantle net neutrality regulations, don’t be surprised if this service doesn’t count against Comcast subscribers’ bandwidth caps or limits. Also don’t be surprised if, at some point, NBC’s news channels — NBC News, CNBC, and MSNBC — become part of something like this, thereby making it more expensive to watch other news networks. Netflix would also become more expensive under such a scheme, too.

ISPs are attempting to exert tight control over the creation and distribution of media; to compete at the same level, tech companies would also have to become ISPs across the United States. As Google found out, that’s unfathomably difficult due to the permits, time, and infrastructure required. Since it’s unlikely that Comcast and AT&T will be deconstructed à la Ma Bell, tighter regulation is necessary.

Zac Hall’s WatchOS 4 Wishlist

Zac Hall:

WWDC 2017 is just around the corner and we’re eager to see what Apple has planned for watchOS 4 and Apple Watch. While we don’t expect to see an update that addresses every opportunity left for watchOS in one year, there are certainly a lot of areas ripe for improvement considering how new Apple Watch and watchOS are.

[…]

Finally, watchOS 4 could improve customization by adding the ability to have custom tones for alerts like new messages and phone calls. You can already do this on iOS of course, but watchOS doesn’t offer the flexibility. This is something I regularly see readers mention and one of my first complaints when first using Apple Watch at launch.

I’d go even further and hope for a way to match different alert tones to vibration patterns. I don’t push too many notifications from my phone to my Watch, but the few third-party apps that do — Slack, Outlook, and NY Times — all make the same sound with the same vibration pattern. As I almost always have my Watch muted, it would be great to have different vibration patterns for new emails and news alerts, as they don’t have the same priority.

Facebook Faces Increased Publisher Resistance to Instant Articles

Lucia Moses, Digiday:

The Times is among an elite group of publishers that’s regularly tapped by Facebook to launch new products, and as such, it was one of the first batch of publishers to pilot Instant. But it stopped using Instant Articles after a test last fall that found that links back to the Times’ own site monetized better than Instant Articles, said Kinsey Wilson, [EVP] of product and technology at the Times. People were also more likely to subscribe to the Times if they came directly to the site rather than through Facebook, he said. Thus, for the Times, IA simply isn’t worth it. Even a Facebook-dependent publisher like LittleThings, which depends on Facebook for 80 percent of its visitors, is only pushing 20 percent of its content to IA.

Enthusiasm has cooled elsewhere. It’s an about-face from two years ago, when publishers were champing at the bit to join the party. “It’s just a matter of time,” Hearst Digital president Troy Young said at the time. Cosmopolitan was the first Hearst brand to launch, in October that year. Now, Hearst is absent from the program, having determined the monetization isn’t paying off. Hearst declined to comment on the record.

Instant Articles was seen by many as the future of news distribution, much like Apple News and Google’s AMP Project. However, while more people have been using Apple News after its iOS 10 redesign — as the Verge noticed — and AMP has become popular thanks to Google’s promise to elevate the format in search rankings, Instant Articles doesn’t really have the same kind of draw. And then there’s Facebook’s complicated relationship with publishers and their cagey attitude towards data collection, according to Moses:

There are also a lot of details to be worked out when it comes to subscription signups on Instant, such as who owns the customer relationship, what data the publisher gets and how the revenue is shared, Wilson added. “The devil’s in the details.” (A Facebook rep said that for now, with the free digital trials, the publisher owns the relationship once the user signs up.)

Facebook and Google, alike, have a habit of making big changes that dramatically alter publishers’ relationships with them. I’d love to know why they’re far less hesitant to adopt the AMP format than they are Instant Articles.

Samsung Says Bixby Voice Assistant Is Delayed

Ina Fried, Axios:

One of the key signature features of Samsung’s Galaxy S8, its Bixby voice assistant, won’t work out of the box, when the device goes on sale later this month. Other parts of Bixby, including its visual search and reminder abilities, will ship at launch, a Samsung representative told Axios in a statement.

On Twitter, Fried said that Bixby crashed in her demo; Business Insider’s Steve Kovach said much the same.

Bixby is derived from Viv, which premiered at Disrupt NY in May of last year, running fairly smoothly on an iPhone. Samsung acquired the company in October, so they’ve been working to build it into the Galaxy S8 presumably since then. Just goes to show how hard it is to take an existing piece of software, port it to another platform, and make it a core part of the system.

Update: A correction: though some functions of Bixby are enabled by Viv, the core of it is apparently Samsung’s own effort, according to Dan Seifert of the Verge:

Though Bixby is a product of Samsung’s own internal development, the company’s recent acquisition, Viv, will be put to work making Bixby play nice with other third-party services. Viv has a pedigree here: the company was founded by the creators of Apple’s Siri assistant, which had many third-party integrations before it was folded into iOS itself. If there’s a bull case to be made that Bixby will be successful, Viv will be central to it.

Thanks to “sciwizam”.

The 2017 Pulitzer Prize Winners

Matt Giles has compiled links to many of this year’s Pulitzer-winning works. I’ve read many of them, and one of the things that struck me as I worked through this list is just how many of them I remember clearly. I think this illustrates an important quality of a Pulitzer-worthy work: its ability to get stuck in your brain and sit there long after you read the piece.

Spotify, Apple Boost Music Business to Best Year in Two Decades

Lucas Shaw, Bloomberg:

In 2016, U.S. music sales grew 11% to $7.7 billion, the Recording Industry Association of America said Thursday. That’s the biggest jump since 1998, when the industry sold almost six times as many CDs. Streaming, a category that includes Spotify, Pandora and YouTube, accounted for 51 percent, the first time it has contributed the majority of revenue.

Who would have thought that making media widely accessible in a clearly-articulated pricing structure disincentives illegitimate copying and downloads? Wild.

Unfortunately, very little of the $120 per year that many of us pay for these subscription services actually makes it into artists’ pockets. The industry may be doing better, but musicians are still dependent on multiple income streams, from gruelling tour schedules to merchandise sales.

Comcast Reportedly Planning a Netflix Rival

Lucas Shaw and Alex Sherman, Bloomberg:

Comcast Corp. plans to introduce an online video service offering hit shows from its NBCUniversal TV networks in the next 12 to 18 months, an effort to compete with rivals Netflix Inc. and CBS Corp., according to people familiar with the matter.

The new service will include programs from the NBC broadcast network, and could include shows from Comcast cable channels Bravo, SyFy and USA, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing private plans. Comcast is still determining many of the particulars of the service, including whether it will have a live feed of the broadcast network and whether it will include sports, the people said.

With the FCC’s current attempts to dismantle net neutrality regulations, don’t be surprised if this service doesn’t count against Comcast subscribers’ bandwidth caps or limits. Also don’t be surprised if, at some point, NBC’s news channels — NBC News, CNBC, and MSNBC — become part of something like this, thereby making it more expensive to watch other news networks. Netflix would also become more expensive under such a scheme, too. This will be particularly detrimental in areas where only Comcast provides broadband internet speeds.

It might seem silly that I keep repeating posts on this topic, but that’s because I truly believe that this FCC administration — in combination with the Congressional leadership and White House — will be instrumental in the devastation of the web as we know it by reducing choice to a handful of very powerful companies, and allowing subscribers’ personal information to be sold to advertisers without their consent. I’m not being hyperbolic.

Walt Mossberg Will Retire in June

Walt Mossberg, writing in Recode:

It was a June day when I began my career as a national journalist. I stepped into the Detroit Bureau of the Wall Street Journal and started on what would be a long, varied, rewarding career. I was 23 years old, and the year was 1970. That’s not a typo.

So it seems fitting to me that I’ll be retiring this coming June, almost exactly 47 years later. I’ll be hanging it up shortly after the 2017 edition of the Code Conference, a wonderful event I co-founded in 2003 and which I could never have imagined back then in Detroit.

Mossberg has had an incredible career. He really was the first mainstream technology columnist, and he set the formula for the genre’s followers, successors, and imitators — myself included.

Ben Thompson wrote a thoughtful tribute to Mossberg:

There have always been grumblings that Mossberg is “biased” towards Apple. In fact, though, while Mossberg did by and large favor Apple products — Apple made five of Mossberg’s 12 most influential products — the bias was right there in his first column:

Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it’s not your fault.

Mossberg was Steve Jobs’ favorite columnist — and Mossberg a frequent admirer of Apple’s products — because both had the same vision: bringing these geeky, impenetrable, and rather ugly boxes of wires and chips and disks called personal computers to normal people, convinced said computers could, if only made accessible, fundamentally transform a user’s life.

I think that opening salvo was what made Mossberg the original technology columnist for companies to impress, and for readers to look up to. Though there are still those who believe that high technology trumps all, the vast majority of writers have come around to realize that ease-of-use for all users is what makes for a great product or service.

Details Begin Leaking About FCC Chair Ajit Pai’s Plans for Net Neutrality

David Shepardson, Reuters:

The rules approved by the FCC under Democratic President Barack Obama in early 2015 prohibited broadband providers from giving or selling access to speedy internet, essentially a “fast lane”, to certain internet services over others. As part of that change, the FCC reclassified internet service providers much like utilities.

Pai wants to overturn that reclassification, but wants internet providers to voluntarily agree to not obstruct or slow consumer access to web content, two officials said late Tuesday.

The officials briefed on the meeting said Pai suggested companies commit in writing to open internet principles and including them in their terms of service, which would make them binding.

Hands-up, everyone who thinks their ISP is so great that they’d voluntarily promise not to shape traffic to preference their own subscription service over, say, Netflix.

Didn’t think so.

Also, terms of service regulate an agreement between customers and the ISP; my understanding is that this is not an agreement between the ISP and the law. Even though it’s a contract, individual clauses in those agreements have been ruled to be non-binding — most famously, the 1996 decision finding “shrink-wrap” agreements unenforceable.1 More to the point, ISPs would totally put up a fight and sue the FTC or FCC — depending on who ends up regulating ISPs — claiming that their First Amendment rights have been violated. Don’t believe me? In 2015, prior to the introduction of the FCC’s net neutrality rules, Alamo Broadband did exactly that.

Pai’s dogmatic mistrust of regulation is terrible for the neutrality of the web. I am not optimistic for the state of the web in ten years’ time if the proposals described here become reality.

Update: Nilay Patel has an astute point:

Second, let’s say Pai manages to thread the needle and gets every ISP in the country to agree on the exact same open internet language in their terms of service, and further secures a commitment that the language will remain in their terms in perpetuity. Isn’t that functionally identical to… a law? Shouldn’t we just have… a law? And don’t we already have that law? What specifically is Pai trying to accomplish if he agrees that open internet principles are important?

Ah, the old trick of replacing a law with a-pinky-promise-that’s-not-a-law-but-still-legally-binding.


  1. This link is from May 1996, likely making it the oldest article I’ve ever linked to here. ↩︎

Google’s Search Quality Crisis

Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land put together a lengthy explanation of how Google has been dropping the ball in search recently, and what they can do about it. It’s a good overview, and his conclusion is particularly interesting to me:

We should continue to hold Google and search engines to a high standard and highlight where things clearly go wrong. But we should also understand that perfection isn’t going to be possible. That with imperfect search engines, we need to employ more human critical thinking skills alongside the searches we do — and that we teach those to generations to come.

Life itself rarely has “one true answer” to anything. Expecting Google or any search engine to give them is a mistake.

I agree; I think users should have always been viewing search results with much more scrutiny than they do. But many people are lulled into believing that Google’s representation of the truth is the correct one. Their rich snippet answer box made this already-pervasive belief far worse by highlighting a single piece of a webpage as, seemingly, The Answer, even for questions where The Answer doesn’t exist. That’s a deliberate design decision on Google’s part, and one that should be reversed.

Jay Z Has Removed His Records From Spotify, Apple Music

Unlike many artists, Jay Z is fortunate enough to be able to make the choice to only distribute his music for streaming through Tidal. It’s his right and responsibility, as an artist, to set the conditions for how his music will be distributed.

But as a businessperson, he must know that this won’t dramatically improve Tidal’s market share. Very few people will pay ten dollars every month just to have on-demand streaming access to Jay Z’s back catalogue, especially since he hasn’t released a new record in nearly four years. Perhaps he’s working on one and it will be a Tidal exclusive; Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo” seemed to breathe some life into Tidal last year, albeit helped by those acquiring the album through other means.

Update: As of April 10, the ruler’s back. Maybe he just wanted to take the weekend off.

The 2016 Panic Report

It’s been an awesome year for Panic — now in their twentieth of business. But there’s a bee in their bonnet, as Cabel Sasser explains:

iOS continues to haunt us. If you remember, 2016 was the year we killed Status Board, our very nice data visualization app. Now, a lot of it was our fault. But it was another blow to our heavy investment in pro-level iOS apps a couple years ago, a decision we’re still feeling the ramifications of today as we revert back to a deep focus on macOS. Trying to do macOS quality work on iOS cost us a lot of time for sadly not much payoff. We love iOS, we love our iPhones, and we love our iPads. But we remain convinced that it’s not — yet? — possible to make a living selling pro software on those platforms. Which is a real bummer!

This is a hard problem, particularly on the iPad. The Pro model is an ideal canvas for highly sophisticated apps that enable the kind of work more typically completed on laptops, but the financial model of the App Store hasn’t been conducive to that.

The solutions available to independent developers, like Panic, seem rather limited. They could make the app available on a subscription basis, or tie the iOS app to an active desktop app license; but, these pricing models have flaws of their own.

The software-as-a-service model doesn’t work for every kind of app, and it really adds up as more apps use it as a pricing model. It’s especially hard to justify for an app you don’t frequently use.

Treating the iOS version of an app as a companion to the desktop version could allow for an easier-to-swallow price hike when buying the Mac version, but it would run afoul of rule 3.1.4 in the App Store Guidelines.1 I’m also skeptical of how much the desktop app’s price could be increased to sufficiently offset the development cost of the iOS app.

There are probably plenty more pricing models than what I’ve written here, but none I’ve seen yet seem capable of addressing the financial viability of this specific software niche. It’s a tricky problem. Without a solution, though, I question the long-term viability of independently-made professional-grade software on iOS.


  1. “Apps may not use their own mechanisms to unlock content or functionality, such as license keys, augmented reality markers, QR codes, etc.” ↩︎

Why Pro Matters

A fantastic piece by Sebastiaan de With:

Before this week’s announcement, it was looking like the future would simply pass Apple by.

And I was convinced — me, an ex-Apple designer with the greatest passion for Macs — that I had bought my last Mac, and would finally be forced to switch back to PCs.

I’m incredibly relieved I won’t be.

There’s a remarkable ripple effect created by the relatively tiny “pro” Macintosh market. It would be understandable, on the surface, for Apple to discontinue the Mac Pro entirely, but that would require them to cede an influential niche user base. I’m encouraged that they see the value in maintaining — and, maybe, even increasing — their commitment to pro users.

Apple Releases Clips App

If you were looking forward to Apple’s new Clips app, you’ll be delighted to hear that it’s now available.

Lance Ulanoff of Mashable really likes it:

But apps like Instagram and Snapchat have their limits, especially when it comes to permanence. Even the most beautiful snap will be gone in a day.

Tools, like Apple’s iMovie (the free version that runs on iOS) that offer richer tools and more permeance are inscrutable and lack the sense of fun promised by Instagram and Facebook Stories. Whatever you create might look good but will lack that sense of fun and shareability.

Apple’s new video-creation and sharing platform, Clips, is the near-perfect middle ground.

It’s not a social platform or a full-scale video editing platform, though it shares some of the best attributes of both.

I’ve been playing with it for a few hours now, and I think my initial impressions of the app — before I used it — are largely correct. The titling feature is clever and there are some decent filters, but I don’t find it very compelling yet.

It’s not that the app isn’t good at making short, fun videos; in fact, it’s great at doing that. But it seems like it’s trying to shoehorn an Instagram or Snapchat style of app into Apple’s typical UI conventions. As Ulanoff says, it seems less like a competitor to those apps than it does a trimmed-down version of iMovie. Maybe the market for something like that is large, but I’m not sold on it yet.

There are some silly limitations and quirks within the app, too. You can add emoji over a clip, but it seems to only show the “frequently used” set. Live Titles is a really clever idea, but it’s less accurate than dictation or Siri.

It’s a small thing, but the icon is also disappointing. It’s supposed to be a fun, creative, silly app, so why does the icon make it look like it will be for corporate videoconferencing?

I think this is an app worth experimenting with and I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets a handful dedicated users. But I’m skeptical of its chances of long-term success against established social apps. After all, if it’s permanence you’re worried about, you can always save your Instagram and Snapchat posts. I’d be more concerned with how likely it is that Apple remains committed to delivering updates — other experimental apps they’ve shipped, like Music Memos and Cards, quickly became neglected after launch. Apps like these are hard to get right, and I don’t think Clips is a hit yet. One day, I think it could be really great, but only if Apple sees it as a long-term commitment.

Update: Though there’s no social network component internal to Clips, the standard Sharing sheet has been enhanced with a row of recent Messages contacts across the top. I’d love to see that in every Sharing sheet.

Update: I’m not trying to be a pessimistic jerk about Clips. I’m just questioning the wisdom of creating a side project app that’s a late adopter of current trends in video, especially considering iMovie hasn’t been updated since July.

Google Commissions Teen Study That Says Google Is Cool

Corinne Purtill, Quartz:

Hey! Psst? Wanna know what the cool teens are thinking these days? What hip slang they use? What multinational brands they enjoy? Then check out “It’s Lit: A guide to what teens think is cool,” a research publication by the people you think of when you think of cool: the Brand Team for Consumer Apps at Google!

[…]

Teens’ absolute favorite brand — and this is a total coincidence that BTFCAAG has no choice but to pass along — is YouTube, a Google property. The third coolest is Google. The 10th coolest is Chrome, Google’s web browser. Google is the coolest multinational conglomerate subsidiary there is! You don’t even have to take Google’s word for it. They also have quotes from Real Teens. Like ‘Female, 17, from suburban Florida,’ who says: ‘Google is not only a powerful search engine, but great at everything it does, from email to documents.’ Way to stick it to the man, Gen Z!

No, really, do check this thing out (PDF). It’s an amazingly inept piece of PR bullshit. Want confirmation that it’s really, really bullshit? Here’s something I cribbed from page five of their report:

Teens are obsessed with shoes. Within the clothes/fashion/ beauty category almost 30% of the responses of what is cool were ‘shoes.’ To Gen Z, the top 3 coolest shoe brands are Jordan, Converse, and Vans.

Anybody who knows anything about sneakers will be aware that 2016 was the year of Adidas. For the first time in over a decade, a non-Nike brand topped NPD Group’s best-selling chart thanks to the Adidas Superstar. Meanwhile, the various Ultraboost, NMD, and Yeezy models Adidas released in 2016 were easily the hottest sneakers of the year.

Meanwhile, Google’s Brand Team allegedly found that Sunglass Hut is cooler among teens than Vice, and that the Doritos brand is slightly cooler than Amazon, but way cooler than Spotify.

Failures at Uber, Yahoo, and Twitter Are Not PR Problems

A day of rather critical articles — sorry about that, by the way — continues with an excellent piece from Kara Swisher at Recode:

“It’s a PR problem, with the media piling on,” said this person. “And PR can fix it. Let Uber be Uber”

Let’s not let it, shall we?

It’s moments like these that I am not entirely sure I live in a real adult place called Silicon Valley anymore. Instead, when I hear such elaborate justifications, it feels like it is increasingly becoming an environment that abrogates responsibility for actual actions that have actual consequences.

For the egregious ethical and business issues reported at Uber and Yahoo, respectively, PR is nothing more than giving a paint job to a busted-up Ford Pinto.

FCC, FTC Bosses Pen Misleading Washington Post Editorial

Karl Bode of Techdirt tears apart this entirely dishonest editorial jointly written by FCC chair Ajit Pai and FTC chair Maureen Ohlhausen:

Of course, there’s something else the pair intentionally and comically avoid talking about in their treatise. And that’s the fact that to gut FCC authority over broadband and shovel it back to an already-overburdened FTC, regulators need to roll back the Title II reclassification of ISPs as common carriers — and by proxy the nation’s net neutrality rules. Pai and Ohlhausen don’t even utter the phrase “net neutrality” in their missive, knowing all-too-well that they’d be laughed out of town if they didn’t try to hide their real objective under a parade of half-truths and prattle.

But make no mistake, this pretense that we need to shift broadband regulatory oversight back to the FTC because it provides a more “consistent regulatory environment” is a transparently self-serving, telecom industry-concocted canard — and the opening salvo in what will be the death of net neutrality protections if we don’t start paying closer attention.

The way Pai and Ohlhausen frame their editorial is that, by classifying ISPs as common carriers, the big bad Obama administration necessarily moved privacy protections from the FTC to the FCC, and somehow reduced those privacy restrictions in the process. That’s not true, as Bode explains, but their framing implies that privacy should be handled by the FTC alone and, to do that, ISPs should not be classified as common carriers.

Of course, ISPs aren’t just providing internet access any more — they own the media pipeline. Reducing regulatory oversight — particularly by rescinding their common carrier status — will only make this problem worse.

Oath, the Product of Verizon’s Ownership of Yahoo and AOL, Will Be a Privacy Nightmare

Nilay Patel and Ben Popper of the Verge:

This is everything Verizon and AOL have been working toward over the past few years. Like every other broadband provider, Verizon wants to extract more revenue from its network by increasingly owning the media that travels over it.

But unlike AT&T (which bought DirecTV and is in the process of buying Time Warner) or Comcast (which bought NBCUniversal and invested in companies like BuzzFeed and our own Vox Media), Verizon’s plan is far more lowbrow: it’s going to churn out as much cheap content as it can from AOL and Yahoo and tell advertisers it can do a better job of delivering eyeballs because it has better ad-tracking capabilities than Google and Facebook.

If you think the legislators who voted in favour of stripping internet privacy protections from the FCC’s duties — or the FCC chairman himself — were unaware of the catastrophe they created, you’re fooling yourself. They knew perfectly well that ISPs are increasingly in charge of the entire process of media creation and delivery, and that ads could be sold on the back of that. All of this should result in a burst of economic activity, right?

I see a flaw in that: we’re becoming numbed by over-exposure to advertising. Maybe paving the road for ISPs to create the most highly-targeted advertising products will create a burst of economic activity, but I bet its effective timeline is limited, and it comes at the cost of selling out Americans’ privacy.

The Web Looks Like Shit

I’m not linking to this Outline piece because it’s necessarily new information — though it’s nice to have all of the frustrating pieces of the web in a single tidy article. I’m linking to it because of Hanson O’Haver’s excellent explanation of the cumulative effect of all of this bullshit.

Decreasing ad rates have also put a lot of pressure on websites to devote more screen space to ads, and auto-play videos to increase impressions for video ads. “The very first online ad made a lot of money,” said Ben Williams, head of communications at Adblock Plus, “almost as much as print.” But as early as the mid-’90s advertisers were aware of “banner blindness,” the tendency of internet users to simply not look at the parts of the screen where ads usually are.

[…]

It’s easy to become blind to these problems when you spend all day on the internet. You figure out workarounds, stop looking at large portions of the screen, and install an ad blocker. People who don’t grasp these tricks are dismissed as rubes. Meanwhile, the problems grow more intractable. To borrow a phrase, this situation has become dangerous and unacceptable. We’re 20+ years into the internet era, and instead of becoming simpler and more thoughtful, navigating our digital spaces has turned into an increasingly frustrating exercise. Maybe it’s delusional or naively optimistic to say this, but it feels like there must be a better way.

After being inundated with crappy ads for so long, it’s no wonder many of us are becoming immune to their intended effect, hence the rise of internet chum and sneakier forms of native advertising. There’s no way that these trends will result in a better web or more profitable online publishing; it only makes us more likely to ignore anything that has even the vaguest whiff of advertising about it.

DisplayMate’s Review of the Samsung Galaxy S8’s Display

Dr. Raymond Soneira:

The Galaxy S8 is the first in a new generation of OLED Smartphones that have a Full Screen Display design. It is the most innovative and high performance Smartphone display that we have ever lab tested, earning DisplayMate’s highest ever A+ grade.

The display may be just one component in a smartphone, but it’s arguably the one many users will notice most. And virtually every statistic in Soneira’s review backs up his claim that this is the best display that has ever shipped in a smartphone.

However, on colour accuracy:

One very important capability of the Galaxy Smartphones that is often overlooked by many consumers and reviewers, is the set of user selectable Screen Modes that are available under Display Settings, which we cover and measure each one in detail below.

[…]

In order to see the high Color Accuracy, the Display Setting for the Screen Mode needs to match the Color Gamut for the content that is being viewed. All of the reviewers that continue to rant about the poor Color Accuracy of the Galaxy OLED displays have failed to set the proper Screen Mode for their content, which is very accurate as shown in our extensive Lab Measurements and Viewing Tests.

This is preposterous. Colour management is hard — that’s why Craig Hockenberry had to write a book about it. Leaving it up to typical users to recognize when they should enable Adobe RGB instead of sRGB is an idiotic move, and for Soneira to consider this a feature rather than a bug truly shows the contrast between his level of expertise and what users actually want.

One of the four Screen Modes available on the S8 is called Adaptive Display:

The Adaptive Display screen mode provides real-time Adaptive processing that can dynamically adjust images and videos. For some applications it will vary the White Point, Color Gamut, and Color Saturation based on the image content and the color of the surrounding ambient lighting measured by the Ambient Light Sensor (which measures color in addition to brightness).

The other Screen Modes tested by DisplayMate indicated very high colour accuracy, comparable with the displays in the iPhones 6 (but not the 7). Adaptive Display mode, on the other hand, was extremely inaccurate in DisplayMate’s testing because of its egregiously over-saturated colours.

Emphasis mine:

Select the Adaptive Display screen mode using Display Settings – it is the factory default screen mode for the Galaxy S8.

Samsung created a display that can very accurately display the P3 wide colour gamut, yet they chose to set the default to the least-accurate colour profile. Most users won’t change this, just as most people don’t change their wildly over-saturated default TV setting.

I have no doubt that the display component in the Samsung Galaxy S8 is one of the best smartphone displays to have ever shipped. But a display cannot really be separated from the smartphone it’s shipped in. If most customers are likely going to keep its default colour gamut setting, can it really be called the “most innovative and high performance smartphone display”, or receive DisplayMate’s highest-ever grade with honesty? Even if the display can be considered separate of the product, does it really matter that it’s so advanced if few people will ever get to see its true colours?

The Great Laptop Stagnation

MG Siegler offered his thoughts yesterday on his 2016 MacBook Pro:

The issue, as I see it, is the same reason why I thought the MacBook might be the last laptop I ever buy. We’re simply at the end of laptop innovation.

Believe me, I know this is a very dangerous thing to say in any field of technology. I run the risk of Phil Schiller getting up on stage and doing a “can’t innovate anymore, my ass” while unveiling a new, sleek device.

But I just don’t see it. The way forward is the iPad (and tablets in general) eating the laptop. This is still blasphemy to some folks, which is funny. This will happen eventually. Everything dies.

It’s kind of curious to juxtapose that comment with a stat revealed by Apple during their Mac Pro roundtable. Matthew Panzarino of TechCrunch:

Apple now ships computers at a ratio of 80 percent notebooks to 20 percent desktop computers, a stat they haven’t updated the public on in some time.

So, of the approximately 34 million Macs Apple has sold over the past eight reported quarters — earnings for Q2 2017 haven’t been released yet — approximately 27 million of them are laptops, give or take. For comparison, over just the three most recently-reported quarters — Q3 2016 through Q1 2017 — Apple sold approximately 32 million iPads.

I don’t see any grand pronouncements that can be made from these figures and perceptions. Just something to consider.

Woman Who Drinks Six Cups of Coffee Per Day Trying to Cut Down on Blue Light at Bedtime

I’ve been trying Night Shift on-and-off on my Mac for the past few months and I’m struggling to see the appeal. There was one evening where my eyes were truly strained and I needed to complete some stuff on my computer, so I switched it on. After adjusting to the yellowing, I’m still not sure whether the hue shift or lowered brightness was more effective at minimizing my eye strain.

I’ve noticed no difference in my sleeping habits after evenings where I’ve used Night Shift.

I drink two cups of coffee per day.

Apple Is Working on a New Mac Pro, iMac, and External Display

Matthew Panzarino, TechCrunch:

Apple Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller is talking to a small group of reporters in a white stucco building near its headquarters in Cupertino. The purpose of the discussion, while somewhat unclear initially, reveals itself a few minutes in.

The news, if you want it straight: Apple is acknowledging that the Mac Pro they introduced in 2013 has run aground on the cleverness of its own design, and they’re re-thinking the entire machine. In addition, they’ll be releasing a new external display — something it had previously opted out of.

But none of that is coming this year. Today, we’ll see a performance bump on the old design of Mac Pro, which will remain on sale for now. And later this year we’ll see improved iMacs that Apple feels will appeal to a segment of Pro users as well.

John Gruber also attended this briefing, and wrote a little about the obvious irregularity of Apple spilling their own product plans:

I think it was simply untenable for Apple to continue to remain silent on the Mac Pro front. No matter how disappointing you consider today’s speed bump updates to the lineup, they’re certainly better than no updates at all. But there was no way Apple could release today’s speed bumps without acknowledging that in and of themselves, these updates do not suggest that Apple is committed to the Mac Pro. In fact, if they had released these speed bumps without any comment about the future of the Mac Pro, people would have reasonably concluded that Apple had lost its goddamned mind.

Ina Fried of Axios was also there:

The company has no plans for touchscreen Macs, or for machines powered solely by the kind of ARM processors used in the iPhone and iPad. However, executives left open the possibility ARM chips could play a broader role as companion processors, something that showed up first with the T1 processor that powers the Touch Bar in the new MacBook Pro.

This is not necessarily what Apple’s pro customers wanted to hear today, but it is what they — we — needed to hear: an acknowledgement that such a tiny fraction of Apple’s sales are important to the company, and that they’re working on something that will address that. I, of course, have many questions that cannot be answered yet, and I’m okay with that. But on the timing of Apple’s realization that the architecture of the current Mac Pro isn’t capable of keeping up with upgrades, Panzarino quotes these responses:

“I wish I could give you the kind of answer you want with that, which is, ‘oh, there was a day and a meeting and we all got together and said X,’” says Schiller, “but it rarely works that way.”

“We all went on our own emotional journeys, I’d say,” laughs Federighi. “There were periods of denial and acceptance. We all went on that arc.”

I’m not surprised that it has taken this long to even get a whiff of an updated Mac Pro to suit the needs of all of their customers. But why would the development of an all-new Mac Pro preclude them from doing today’s spec bump update a year or two ago? I think that users’ concerns would have been assuaged by even slightly more regular updates.

But here we are, at long last: within sight of a new iMac, and with the knowledge that pro customers are not forgotten. This briefing does a lot, I think, to restore trust in the Mac leg of Apple’s ecosystem stool.

The news of a new display is some pretty fantastic icing on the cake, as far as I’m concerned. I expected that Apple had left the display business behind; their partnership with LG seemed to confirm that.1 After the fiasco with the 5K displays, I couldn’t be happier to read that external displays are still in Apple’s plans.

So: a new Mac Pro, a new display, and an updated iMac. The latter will be out this year, while the other products won’t be — Apple provided no guidance on when to expect them. That might not be stellar news, but it’s open and communicative, and that’s what a lot of us want to hear: an assurance that the Mac is still integral to Apple’s strategy, and that higher-end desktop customers are still important to them.

Update: One thing I didn’t see mentioned, unsurprisingly, is a commitment to regular Mac Pro updates. By the vague descriptions of the machine communicated to this roundtable of journalists, it should allow more frequent updates, but whenever this thing is introduced, I would love to hear and see a commitment to that.

A Mac is like a box of packaged tea: its expiration date might be far into the future on any shelf, but you wouldn’t buy it if you thought it had been made three years ago and was left to sit around.


  1. Over the past several years, I kept hearing hints about a brand new display being developed inside Apple. But, after the LG 5K display was announced as something of a partnership, I assumed that whatever was being developed had either always been destined for the LG display, or assisted LG after Apple had a change of heart. ↩︎

iPad Sales by Screen Size

Interesting perspective from Neil Cybart:

iPad sales have faced one major headwind in recent years. This item explains a significant portion of the sales decline. It’s not inferior software, weak storytelling, or even a longer upgrade cycle. Instead, the iPad’s problem has been the iPad mini.

People aren’t buying as many iPad mini devices these days. Excluding 7.9-inch iPad mini sales from overall iPad sales results in a completely different sales picture. As seen in Exhibit 3, iPad mini unit sales have declined 70% after peaking in 4Q13 and 1Q14. The product’s value proposition has been permanently reduced due to larger iPhones. Apple has clearly experienced Peak iPad Mini. It’s not that the iPad mini form factor is going away, but rather that it will play a smaller role going forward.

As Apple doesn’t break down iPad sales by model, Cybart is using data from Fiksu, a mobile advertising company. Their accuracy appears decent — their iOS version tracking stats show 80% of devices using iOS 10 and 15% using iOS 9 in the week of February 20; Apple’s own stats show 79% on iOS 10 and 16% on iOS 9.

Fiksu’s numbers show iPad sales that are still weaker than they were, say, four or five years ago, but without the massive apparent downfall with iPad Mini sales factored in. A fun — albeit pointless — thought experiment is to consider what iPad sales might have been like had the iPad Mini not been introduced.

I still think a big leap in software is necessary for the iPad line, but a reduced focus on the iPad Mini — and its limited display area — could yield far greater improvements for the bigger models.

See Also: Jean-Louis Gassée’s piece on what he sees as a turning point for the iPad, especially with the launch of the new low-cost and lower-specced 9.7-inch model.

Update: Michael Tsai:

…I think more than linear improvements would be needed for the iPad to become what Tim Cook thinks of it as.

Chris Adamson:

So where is the software of consequence for iPad? And who, given App Store economic realities, can afford to write it?

I’d like Apple to aim for a higher watermark, but I’ll settle for incremental changes — provided that software comes to the iPad that makes it feel like it’s of a professional calibre. I don’t know which happens first, though: does the App Store need to change in some way, or does a piece of “pro” software need to launch first to really give the iPad a kick up the ass?

Notes on the Touch Bar

Michael Lopp does not like his MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar:

In week #3 of actively using the 15” MacBook Pro, I am delighted by its build quality. I love its weight. Last night, I found myself admiring the machining of the aluminum notch that allows me to open the computer. I type deftly on this hardware.

I am also equally deft at randomly muting my music, unintentionally changing my brightness or volume level, and jarringly engaging Siri.

It is maddening. And it’s not improving.

This is a well-written exploration into the very different compromises required to use the Touch Bar compared to a row of function keys. On the plus side, the functions available in that top row are now flexible and can reflect the needs of the currently-foregrounded app; on the flip side, replacing physical buttons with a barely-delineated touch-sensitive strip makes it extremely difficult to make any Touch Bar-centric adjustments by touch alone.

Marco Arment became so frustrated with his Touch Bar-equipped 15-inch MacBook Pro that he replaced it with the 13-inch model that retains the row of physical function keys. The 13-inch “MacBook Escape” has a lot of drawbacks compared to its Touch Bar siblings — two fewer Thunderbolt ports, slower memory, a slower processor, somewhat slower WiFi, and no Touch ID — so that’s a powerful statement about how much the Touch Bar is impeding his typical usage.

With that in mind, Steve Troughton-Smith is running a Twitter poll on how many like the Touch Bar, and how many do not. With 966 votes in, the split was 51/49 in favour of the Touch Bar. The poll is now at around 1,800 votes, and I look forward to seeing the results. It’s going to be very, very close — confusing for a feature pitched as “something much more versatile and capable”.

Update: Troughton-Smith’s poll has ended after nearly 3,000 votes at the same 51/49 split in favour of the Touch Bar’s usability.

New Apple Watch Ad: ‘Live Bright’

I’ve found Apple’s advertising over the past year, especially, to be a bit of a mixed bag. It has felt messy and, frankly, a little bit bland.

This, though, is terrific. Between the near-silhouetted figures and the bright colours, it’s reminiscent of the classic iPod ads. And it features an edited version of Beyoncé’s “Freedom”, so it’s fantastic in every way.

A Universal Theory of Ride Sharing Startups

I’ve spent a decent chunk of the past couple of months explaining how Uber’s service is very clever, but the company is ethically reprehensible. I’ve written about it again and again and again and again, so I’m sure that many of you have tried to leave Uber behind. Maybe you’ve switched to Lyft, for example, or heard about the new Dryvyng app.

Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but they’re not a lot better. Ryan Felton, Gizmodo:

Uber has had a relentless year of scandals, spurring the logical conclusion that its arch-rival Lyft is now in a position to capitalize. John Zimmer, Lyft’s president, spoke at length on Tuesday with Time about how his company’s attempting to do just that — and it’s ridiculous.

[…]

“We’re woke. Our community is woke, and the U.S. population is woke,” Lyft President John Zimmer told Time. “There’s an awakening … Our vote matters, our choice matters, the seat we take matters.”

Except the seat you take in an a Lyft isn’t much different from that of an Uber, even if Zimmer thinks his company is “a better boyfriend.”

Lyft’s sins include partnering with Uber to throw a tantrum about how unfair it is for drivers to have to pass a simple fingerprint-based background check in cities like Austin, and has attempted to suppress employee unionization.

So what about Dryvyng? The service was founded by Craig Brittain, who used to run a revenge porn site. Not a good start. And it gets worse, as chats seen by Melanie Ehrenkranz of Mic show, when he started hurling racist epithets at a prospective investor over Facebook Messenger:

That’s when Brittain flew off the handle. “You need to learn respect and to learn to listen, especially to racially superior people,” he said. “Later, you fucking raghead piece of shit. Hope you leave my country soon. And take your fucking Arab socialist communist friends with you. Fuckin’ towelhead piece-of-shit invader. Fuckin commie.”

What an abhorrent life Brittain has led so far.

And, earlier this month, JetSmarter — a service for sharing time on private jets — tried to extort a Verge journalist into writing a positive review or pay a $2,000 penalty.

I asked earlier today on Twitter why ride sharing startups seem to attract founders who are unrepentant assholes, and Ryan Jones came up with the best response:

@nickheer Can culture be defined by 1 person defining a ruthless market competitive basis?

Maybe it’s as simple as that: Uber, founded by an asshole, has been successful. Therefore — other startup founders in the same market might reason — they must also be assholes in order to be successful in the space. It’s sort of like how every smartphone launch seems to echo the way Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone, except with hate, harm, and entirely unethical behaviours instead of a cool new product.

That’s my theory: ride sharing startups are run by assholes because the most successful one is run by an asshole, and they’re being rewarded.

Twitter Is Ditching the Default ‘Egg’ Avatar

INT. CONFERENCE ROOM ON MARKET STREET

Mid-level Twitter staffer: We need to do something about harassment from Twitter eggs. They’re posting nothing but sexist, racist, and hateful messages and it’s driving away users.

Twitter executive: Okay, let’s get rid of the eggs.

Mid-level Twitter staffer: Oh great, I’ll let everyone on my team know that we’re cracking down on anonymous abus—

Twitter executive: No, like, we’re getting rid of the eggs. We’re replacing the picture with a gumdrop-shaped silhouette.

Mid-level Twitter staffer: But that doesn’t do anything about abuse.

Twitter executive: Ah, but we won’t have any harassment from Twitter eggs any more, right? Am I right? Huh?

Apple to Eliminate Several Business-Related Retail Positions

Juli Clover, MacRumors:

Apple is planning another shakeup within its retail stores, according to a source who shared the company’s plans with MacRumors. At the end of April, Apple plans to eliminate certain retail positions, including Business Manager, Business Events Lead, Events Coordinator, and Events Lead.

Apple Store Leaders began informing affected employees about the change earlier this week, and many were caught off guard by the sudden sunsetting of specialized positions that have long existed at retail stores.

Our source says that the elimination of the Business Manager position is something of a shock because Business Managers lead the Business Team and are responsible for bringing in up to 20 percent of overall store sales.

This news comes just a few weeks after an overwhelmingly positive report on Apple’s success in the enterprise, making it all the more surprising. IT managers said that they loved the purchasing and support experience, but can that be maintained after many of the business-centric roles in retail stores are eliminated? Given my own recent tech support experiences, I’m not so sure.

This Is Almost Certainly James Comey’s Twitter Account

Like many others, after FBI Director James Comey revealed yesterday that he has a secret Twitter account, I spent a few minutes trying to find it. I didn’t have any luck, but Ashley Feinberg of Gizmodo seems to have dug it up. I’m not saying that you should go follow Comey’s personal Twitter account, but I think Feinberg’s detective work here is pretty terrific.

Update: Zeynep Tufekci on Facebook:

Let’s break this down because there is more to this — and it is significant. A less understood issue with algorithms and privacy is how computation can suss out things you did not disclose. Feinberg found Comey’s “secret” accounts simply because.. Instagram’s algorithm helpfully suggested that she follow (undisclosed) member’s of Comey’s family once she put in a request to follow his son — who had otherwise locked down his account.

Comey in a 2014 speech at the Brookings Institution:

Some argue that we will still have access to metadata, which includes telephone records and location information from telecommunications carriers. That is true. But metadata doesn’t provide the content of any communication. It’s incomplete information, and even this is difficult to access when time is of the essence. I wish we had time in our work, especially when lives are on the line. We usually don’t.

More from Comey, earlier this month:

Comey said metadata — the who, where, and when of communications but not their content — isn’t very useful to law enforcement.

“This is what I don’t think people realize. Metadata is limited especially in criminal cases and proving beyond reasonable doubt with pedophiles and terrorists,” Comey said, adding metadata isn’t enough because “metadata doesn’t say much.”

The suggestions offered by Instagram are metadata themselves, and are based on metadata. As a direct result of those suggestions, Comey’s private Twitter and Instagram accounts were found.

Debunking the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Joint Resolution

Look, nothing about the vote to eliminate privacy rules for ISPs is good. All it means is that 265 Republicans in Congress — and, likely, another one who lives in the White House — decided to side with their donors instead of voters.1

Unfortunately, some of the reactions to this decision have been particularly poor — unsurprising, given the marriage of a technical topic and a somewhat esoteric policy. Joy Reid, for instance, recommended that people start deleting their browser history — something which will have no effect on the ability for an ISP to sell ads against subscriber traffic.

Even worse, though, are two campaigns ostensibly crowdfunding for money to buy Congress’ internet traffic history. With over $100,000 in the pot between them, there’s a lot of money going to something that is an effective impossibility.

Nicole Kobie, the Outline:

Even if ISPs could narrow down a specific person’s data, there’s no good reason why they would — if you were Verizon or Comcast, would you hand over data on half of Congress to a crowdfunding campaign? “In addition… an ISP would have to agree to work with someone to sell them data (just like any other business agreement),” noted Brett Woollum, CEO and founder of another smaller ISP, Tekify. “Just because someone wants the data doesn’t mean they have a right to buy it from an ISP. Therefore, I would speculate that the campaign… and others similar to this, wouldn’t likely be very successful.”

Given enough information in advance, there are certainly ways to target advertising in ways both hilarious and creepy. Brian Swichkow targeted Facebook ads at just his roommate, while Andy Baio experimented with hyper-targeting promotional tweets for fun:

But the fun comes with their Keyword Recommendations Tool, which taps the zeitgeist of the Twitter community to recommend “additional keywords we believe could be relevant to your audience.”

These matches can be, oh, a bit quirky. For example, on Twitter, if you enter in “idiot,” it recommends “asshole” and “deals.”

“Losers” suggests “Twilight.”

But there’s no way to get the data that informs these recommendations — in Twitter’s case, a users’ search history, site usage, and what their follower/following network looks like.

One day soon, American ISPs will probably have their own advertising tools, and it will likely be possible to target users with frightening accuracy. But it’s extremely unlikely that an ISP — for all of their faults — will release the raw browsing history for a particular subscriber, or even a group of subscribers, without some kind of pseudonymization or a subpoena.


  1. You have fifteen minutes to stand on a crowded city street and find one person who would like to have advertising sold against their browsing history. Go for it. I’ll wait. ↩︎

The Deck Ad Network Is Shutting Down

Take a look at the list of by-invitation-only members on the righthand side of the Deck’s website. I see so many of my favourite websites in that list: ffffound, Kottke.org, Subtraction, YayHooray, and — naturally — Daring Fireball. Having a Deck ad on a site was a subtle indicator that it was trustworthy and that it had a good reputation. That’s something that almost nothing else — let alone an advertising network — has yet been able to achieve to the same degree.

I’m impressed that the Deck lasted so long. Now, I’m curious about how member sites will replace it. How many will take the Overcast route of selling their own ad inventory? How many will switch to Carbon? Who will try a paid membership like Jason Kottke is doing?

iWork Updates for MacOS, iOS, and the Web

Michael E. Cohen, TidBits:

As with previous iWork updates, all the apps received some nearly identical new capabilities, while simultaneously acquiring individual refinements. Also, like the previous updates, the Mac apps gained the fullest set of new features, the iOS apps got a generous subset of those, and the iCloud apps were limited to a handful while still retaining compatibility with their more sophisticated siblings.

[…]

For example, though you can’t add or even view bookmarks in Pages for iCloud, any bookmarks you have added on, say, the Mac, are not harmed by editing the document in your browser (unless, of course, you delete the text that was bookmarked). Similarly, you can see existing leader lines for pie charts in the browser apps, even though you can’t create or edit them there.

All the browser apps have had a user-interface facelift, and their toolbars are now color-coded to match the iOS color palettes for the iOS apps: orange for Pages, green for Numbers, and blue for Keynote. More interestingly, the toolbar of each browser app now has a button that you can click to open the current document in its native app on the Mac. This feature, however, is only half-implemented, because doing so does not close the document in the browser, which means you’ll see conflict warnings if you make changes with the Mac app without manually closing the document in the browser app first.

I’m impressed that Apple continues to deliver simultaneous updates across three apps on three very different platforms, but I worry that each is not as good as it could be because of it. The second and third paragraphs in the quote I selected are indicative of ways in which the browser version isn’t fully baked.

Meanwhile, the Mac version of Pages still lacks features that were present in “old” Pages. It may have gained LaTeX support, but it’s still missing some contextual menu options that are available in other Mac apps, and I find basic text editing bugs every time I use it. I’m not sure how much of this, if any, is tied to components shared between the three platforms each app is available on, but I didn’t notice the same kinds of bugs when the Mac and iOS versions were more-or-less discrete apps.

Joint Resolution to Eliminate ISP Privacy Rules Passes in Congress

Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica:

The US House of Representatives voted Tuesday to eliminate ISP privacy rules, following the Senate vote to take the same action last week. The legislation to kill the rules now heads to President Donald Trump for his signature or veto.

The White House issued a statement today supporting the House’s action, and saying that Trump’s advisors will recommend that he sign the legislation. That would make the death of the Federal Communications Commission’s privacy rules official.

Though this joint resolution does not create nor eliminate any rules already in place, Please see update below. its approval gives a green light for ISPs to track customers’ browsing activity and sell advertising against it without their explicit consent.

The vote was virtually along party lines, with just fifteen Republicans joining the Democrats in voting against the bill. Six Republicans and three Democrats abstained. Because this was passed under the Congressional Review Act, once signed, the FCC will never again be able to create similar rules.

Emmett O’Keefe of the Data and Marketing Association, a lobbying group for advertising companies, reacted to the vote:

If these rules were to be enacted, they would disrupt the framework that has allowed the marketing ecosystem to responsibly use data to develop vital services that consumers now rely upon while also injecting dynamic innovation and growth into the U.S. economy. This framework is backed up by strong industry self-regulation, enforced by DMA and other partners, and continues to protect consumer privacy. Today’s vote keeps that system – and the responsible use of data – in place, and is a signal that the current self-regulatory system works.

What a load of crap. When Verizon and AT&T quietly began tracking mobile users with a non-deletable identifier in 2014, privacy advocates reacted with appropriate outrage. Even after opting out, Verizon continued to track their customers — they simply did not sell ads against users’ history.

After the press began reporting on the use of these “super” cookies, AT&T stopped using them, but Verizon kept going until the FCC fined them $1.35 million.

Julia Angwin, ProPublica:

However, the settlement does not apply to Verizon’s tracking of its customers who visit the 40 percent of websites that use AOL’s ad network. That is because Verizon owns AOL, and therefore it is not considered a third party that requires opt-in.

That means that unless Verizon users opt out, they can still be identified when they use their smartphone or tablet to browse Web pages containing AOL’s tracking code.

The advertising industry cannot self-regulate; it is positively addicted to data collection. They dream of nothing more than creating vast profiles for each of us and targeting them with new advertising products. By visiting practically any website or using any service, we’re assumed to have opted into whatever data collection policy they have in place, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to opt out — even using a VPN is no longer sufficient.

American legislators had the opportunity to restrict that disturbing trend, if only by a little bit. They could have began enforcing the FCC rules drafted last year. Instead, the Republican party elected to put the creepy desires of ISPs over the privacy of their customers.

I wonder if legislators in the porn watching capital of America are aware that their favourite websites probably aren’t secure and, thus, will be part of their advertising profile.

Update: Contrary to what I wrote earlier, the privacy rules were implemented in October though these rules were not considered final. I apologize for my confusion on this. I’ve updated the headline for accuracy.

The Facebook Model of Innovation

The speedy proliferation of Snapchat Story clones across Facebook’s apps is, I think, one of the most fascinating recent case studies of a feature going from invention to ubiquity. Facebook has four of the most popular apps on any ecosystem — as of writing, Instagram, Messenger, and the Facebook app are all in the top ten most popular free apps in the iOS App Store, with Whatsapp just missing the list at number eleven. And, as of today, all four of those apps have a variation of the Snapchat “Stories” feature shoehorned onto their main screens.

It’s news to nobody that Facebook is unapologetically cloning Snapchat. What is noteworthy is how Facebook has updated Microsoft’s infamous “embrace, extend, and extinguish” strategy for the speed at which Silicon Valley now operates.

Consider this: what top-billing user-facing features has Facebook added so far this year to the four aforementioned apps? Aside from Stories, I can think of three: live location sharing and reactions in Messenger, and live broadcasting in Instagram. The Messenger features are lifted directly from iMessage, Slack, and a handful of other messaging apps, while live video in Instagram is pretty much a rebadged version of Facebook Live — itself largely a copy of Periscope, Meerkat, and Ustream.

Facebook’s copying is unsurprising, just as the prior art they’re using as a reference is unsurprising — the most distinctive features in the copied apps are arguably natural extensions of each app’s environment. But, with one-sixth of the world’s population using their services and their complete platform independence, Facebook’s ability to annihilate anything they deem competitive is unprecedented in its scope.

This power has provided Facebook with the luxury of allowing other companies to take the risk of trying new things, and then either embracing the company via an acquisition, or extinguishing them by duplicating their most unique component. It isn’t so much that Facebook can’t come up with these features on their own, but rather that they’ve elected to let other companies build entire business models around singular features that can be duplicated in Facebook’s far more established ecosystems.

That strategy allows Facebook to experiment with greater extensions to their business model: new advertising and tracking methods, drones that provide internet access to developing nations, and the like. Adding users and presence around the world allows the strategy to dig in even deeper, feeding itself.

As Facebook’s strategy becomes even more pervasive, I wonder what kinds of tech companies are safe. My gut sense is that, over time, Facebook’s strategy allows them to build a diversified portfolio of companies, should they choose to do so, with monopolizing power over internet services. But that only works for Facebook so long as users also dig themselves deeper into their ecosystems. The failure of their email and phone efforts indicates to me that users aren’t ready to dig deeper without a meaningful extension of the existing products that Facebook intended to replace with each. My hope is that users continue to limit Facebook’s reach, and not the other way around.

U.S. House of Representatives Set to Vote on Privacy-Killing Resolution Tomorrow

Kate Tummarello of the EFF:

The Senate voted last week 50-48 on a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution to repeal the FCC’s privacy rules. Now the resolution heads over the House, where it’s scheduled to get a vote on Tuesday.

If the House passes it, you’ll be even more at the mercy of your ISP. Because Congress is using a CRA resolution, the FCC will be prohibited from writing similar rules in the future. And thanks to the current legal landscape, no other federal agency has the authority to protect you against privacy invasions by your ISP.

The argument by the current FCC administration is that these rules create an unfair playing field because companies like Google can track your browsing history to sell ads against it without your explicit permission, but your ISP cannot. And I agree — that is unfair. Online advertisers should also be subject to opt-in regulations.

American readers: please call your representative to tell them why voting against the FCC’s regulations is a terrible idea.

Apple’s 2017 Supplier Responsibility Report

The 2017 edition of this report (PDF) shows progress in a number of critical areas, with big leaps in compliance shown across a total of 705 audits, over a hundred more than Apple did for their 2016 report.

There’s also a big update on an issue I highlighted last year on the supply of cobalt for many electronic products. Caroline O’Donovan, Buzzfeed:

Apple’s 2017 Supplier Responsibility Progress Report includes another milestone: For the first time, the company has published a complete list of its cobalt smelters. It says all of them are participating in third-party audits.

Apple is effectively treating cobalt like they do the four other conflict minerals specified in Dodd-Frank. Of note, the current U.S. administration is reportedly considering suspending rules requiring companies to disclose conflict minerals — a move which would likely be disastrous for those in the DRC.

Apple Releases iOS 10.3

Ryan Christoffel of MacStories on some of the highlights of this release:

If you own AirPods, there’s nothing you need to do to activate Find My AirPods. Simply visit the Find My iPhone app and you’ll see that AirPods are now listed among your other devices.

[…]

At the top of the Settings app in iOS 10.3 there is a new Apple ID profile menu. This new screen centralizes many important details about your Apple ID, including basic personal information and a listing of devices associated with your account. Another improvement in Settings is that iCloud storage is now visualized with a graph that shows how much data you’ve used, and what categories that data is divided into.

The biggest change in 10.3 is something you won’t even see: the update does an in-place file system switch to Apple’s custom APFS format. Ars Technica has previously covered the documented benefits of APFS, and it sounds like a more-than-robust replacement for HFS+ to help take Apple’s products into a cloud-based and encrypted future.

What’s most impressive is that this conversion is done in-place for what is, by far, Apple’s biggest device ecosystem. Over the next month, the number of devices running APFS will go from a relative handful earlier today to hundreds of millions.1

I noticed a couple of other improvements while running the 10.3 betas:

  • You can now love or dislike a topic in News by tapping the buttons to the right of the topic title.

  • At long last, there’s now a Live Photos album in Photos. Live Photos still aren’t identified in the thumbnail view, though, nor can you search for photos by type — Live Photo, Panorama, and so on. This seems like an arbitrary limitation; surely, the search engine in Photos should index photo types, camera models, and other metadata that gets created with every file.

  • You know how if you’re on a home screen that isn’t your first, and you press the home button, it will jump to the first home screen with an animation of all of your icons whizzing past? For as long as I can remember, that animation has always been super janky with a weird frame dropping hiccup in the middle of it. Every device I’ve had running every version of iOS since iPhone OS 1.1 has exhibited this bug.

    In 10.3, that animation is — wait for it — finally far smoother. It’s still not perfect — jumping from my fourth home screen to the first has some noticeable lag — but it is way nicer on both my iPhone 6S and second-generation iPad Mini.

Let me know if you find anything else of interest in 10.3 that I, or others, may have missed. It seems like a pretty big release, especially for a “point” update.

Update: Steve Troughton-Smith:

TIL 32-bit iOS devices don’t get APFS. The 64-bit train’s pulling away from the station…

I don’t anticipate any 32-bit device will support iOS 11.

Update: One more benefit to this update is that plenty of Twitter users are reporting a jump in available storage space after installing 10.3, with some reporting several gigabytes of additional space. It isn’t clear how much of this space is regained thanks to APFS — compared to, say, other improvements and optimizations — but it’s a welcome enhancement.


  1. Apple also released MacOS 10.12.4 and WatchOS 3.2 today. I’m not sure about the latter, but the former is not transitioning to APFS with today’s update. ↩︎

The FCC Doesn’t Consider Cybersecurity or Privacy Their Problem

Violet Blue, in an op-ed for Engadget:

In addition to freezing the privacy protections, Pai gutted its provisions to make ISP’s notify consumers when there’s a breach. That would’ve been nice considering Comcast’s track record. But, unfortunately for us, making breach notifications mandatory would be very expensive for companies whose priorities are their advertisers and not their customers.

[…]

Cybersecurity in communications is not the FCC’s area, Pai and O’Rielly maintain when questioned, much to the delight of broadband and telecom providers, we’re sure. In fact, O’Rielly stated that it’s not really in any rules anywhere that the FCC should be doing anything about cybersecurity, so, like, they won’t be. Pai and O’Rielly didn’t high-five after he said that. But from the way their faces twitched to smiles, like when someone tells adults that safety in their frat house isn’t technically their responsibility, they didn’t need to.

The thinking by Pai and his cohorts seems to be that the Department of Homeland Security should be responsible for cybersecurity risk oversight in the communications sector. Yes, the DHS: an organization with no regulatory authority over the commercial communications sector. Which is, you know, exactly what the FCC was created for.

The degree to which this FCC administration and Congress are prepared to go to capitulate to the demands of ISPs at the clear expense of every American is astonishing. These decisions will have long-lasting detrimental effects on Americans’ privacy and security.

Google to Discontinue Gchat, Replace With Hangouts

Madison Malone Kircher, New York magazine:

Starting in June, Google is saying good-bye to one of its most beloved products, Gchat. Officially, the chat app’s name was Google Talk; Gchat was just what hip, personal-computer owners started calling it back in the day, but the name has persisted. While the functionality of Gchat isn’t really going away — users will be rolled over to Hangouts, a Google chat platform that has been up and running for four years at this point and does effectively the same thing — the name and user interface will be no more.

However will users cope with only the choice of using Allo, Duo, Android Messages, Hangouts, and Google Voice for their messaging and communication needs?

Update: Updated to correct the naming of Android Messages, which I had previously called “Google Messenger”, which is Gchat, which is what is being discontinued. In my defence, it’s really hard keeping track of all of these apps.

Apple Says Exploits Described in Latest WikiLeaks Dump Are All Old

Part of Apple’s statement, as received by Ina Fried at Axios:

Based on our initial analysis, the alleged iPhone vulnerability affected iPhone 3G only and was fixed in 2009 when iPhone 3GS was released. Additionally, our preliminary assessment shows the alleged Mac vulnerabilities were previously fixed in all Macs launched after 2013.

Nothing shocking here. The Thunderbolt vulnerability described breathlessly by WikiLeaks is that “Thunderstrike” bug that was patched over two years ago for 2013 and newer Macs. Not surprisingly, keeping your system up to date continues to be the best defence against everyone from script kiddies to intelligence agencies.

The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself to Death

Jia Tolentino, writing in the New Yorker:

Last September, a very twenty-first-century type of story appeared on the company blog of the ride-sharing app Lyft. “Long-time Lyft driver and mentor, Mary, was nine months pregnant when she picked up a passenger the night of July 21st,” the post began. “About a week away from her due date, Mary decided to drive for a few hours after a day of mentoring.” You can guess what happened next.

[…]

Mary’s story looks different to different people. Within the ghoulishly cheerful Lyft public-relations machinery, Mary is an exemplar of hard work and dedication — the latter being, perhaps, hard to come by in a company that refuses to classify its drivers as employees. Mary’s entrepreneurial spirit — taking ride requests while she was in labor! — is an “exciting” example of how seamless and flexible app-based employment can be. Look at that hustle! You can make a quick buck with Lyft anytime, even when your cervix is dilating.

There is a very real and largely-unaddressed human cost behind the convenience offered by startups like Lyft, Uber, and Fiverr. “Gig economy” jobs are a uniquely new way of blending the anxiety of freelance work with the pay of a minimum-wage job — and sometimes, well below that. This is not fair to those participating in these jobs today, nor is it an effective long-term economic backbone.

Drawing Connections Between Apple’s Acquisitions of Workflow and Siri

A couple of interesting connections have emerged between Apple’s acquisitions of Siri and Workflow — in 2010 and yesterday, respectively — and I thought they were worth noting.

First is the note that Workflow is remaining in the App Store post-acquisition. This parallels the way Apple handled the standalone Siri app after they bought it in April 2010. Greg Kumparak, in an October 2011 report for TechCrunch:

Long before today’s announcement that the Siri Voice Assistant would be an integral part of iOS, Siri was a third-party app. It wasn’t as pretty, and not nearly as well integrated, but it had one big advantage: it ran on just about any iOS device.

Then Apple bought Siri. It immediately became clear that Apple was making a push into voice — and yet, the app stayed on the store. It lived on un-updated, but it lived on nevertheless. Then Apple introduced Siri… exclusively for the iPhone 4S.

And with that, the life of Siri (the application) came to an end, making way for Siri (the feature).

It’s terrific that Workflow is remaining in the App Store — even better, it’s now free — but it’s also a reminder that it will, one day, vanish into the ether as a standalone app.

That brings me to an excellent article from Khoi Vinh speculating on the future of Workflow and one potential reason for Apple’s purchase:

But this move also hints at what the future of Apple’s strategy for Siri, smart assistants and home automation might be. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to guess that Workflow could play a key role as an elegant, easy-to-learn scripting environment for many if not all of Apple’s future endeavors in cloud-connected, AI-powered, voice-enabled platforms. When you look at competitors like Amazon’s Alexa platform, Google Assistant, Cortana, etc., they all lack a truly elegant, easy-to-master entryway for casual users who want to customize their experiences—and that’s exactly what Workflow gives Apple. (Though don’t be surprised if these other players acquire Zapier or IFTTT soon as well.)

I know this is all speculative, but I’d love a way to build custom workflows for Siri. It could be like HomeKit’s scenes feature, but for my entire phone — and, ideally, all of my Apple devices. There’s tremendous potential there, especially with the effortless UI that the Workflow team conjured up and the increasingly seamless way iCloud-connected devices are communicating with each other.

U.S. Senate Republicans Vote to Lift Key Internet Privacy Protections

Hamza Shaban, Buzzfeed:

The Senate voted Thursday to make it easier for internet service providers to share sensitive information about their customers, a first step in overturning landmark privacy rules that consumer advocates and Democratic lawmakers view as crucial protections in the digital age. The vote was passed along party lines, 50-48, with all but two Republicans voting in favor of the repeal and every Democrat voting against it. Two Republican Senators did not vote.

Passed by the Federal Communications Commission in the final months of the Obama presidency, the privacy rules prohibited internet providers like Comcast and Verizon from selling customer information, including browsing history and location data, without first getting consent. The rules also compelled providers to tell customers about the data they collect, the purpose of that data collection, and to identify the types of third party companies that might be given access to that information.

House Republicans are also expected to vote to lift these privacy protections, so this is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from being signed by the President. Once it does, it will severely hamper the FCC’s ability to pass similar rules in the future, when the commission is not run by someone who is determined to sign away the future of the web because of a personal dogma.

Apple Acquires Workflow

Well, here’s a weird piece of news. Matthew Panzarino, TechCrunch:

Apple has finalized a deal to acquire Workflow today — a tool that lets you hook together apps and functions within apps in strings of commands to automate tasks. We’ve been tracking this one for a while but were able to confirm just now that the ink on the deal is drying as we speak.

[…]

Workflow the app is being acquired, along with the team of Weinstein, Conrad Kramer and Nick Frey. In a somewhat uncommon move for Apple, the app will continue to be made available on the App Store and will be made free later today.

Back in November, Apple eliminated Sal Soghoian’s position as Product Manager of Automation Technologies — he now works for the Omni Group on automation. At the time, Craig Federighi promised in an email that they have “every intention to continue [their] support for the great automation technologies in MacOS”. This acquisition makes me think that they’d like to extend automation support to iOS in a more comprehensive way, too, and is the first indication I’ve seen that Apple is continuing to take automation seriously after such a worrying November. What shape that will take, I have no idea.

Pixure and PanelKit

Federico Viticci, MacStories:

Pixure is Louis D’hauwe’s excellent pixel art studio app for iOS that lets you create retro-styled illustrations. Pixure was already best suited for the iPad’s bigger display, but the latest version 2.2 adds PanelKit – a UI framework created by D’hauwe himself to turn traditional iPad popovers into floating panels.

I am genuinely surprised that Apple approved this, given the troubles Steven Troughton-Smith and Cabel Sasser had with getting clearance for conceptually multi-windowed app environments on the iPad. I hope that progress keeps being made in this direction. While something as sophisticated as the MacOS UI would likely translate poorly to the iPad, basic multi-window functionality combined with reduced modality would make the system leaps-and-bounds better for multitasking. Even something as simple as dragging and dropping between apps in Split View seems like a basic yet vital enhancement.

iTunes 12.6 Adds Cross-Device Movie Rentals

It’s not often that I agree with a headline containing the word “finally”, but it feels apt here. Juli Clover, MacRumors:

iTunes 12.6 introduces a “Rent once, watch anywhere” feature that lets iTunes users watch iTunes movie rentals across all devices with iOS 10.3 or tvOS 10.2.

Prior to this update, an iTunes movie was only available on a single device at a time. When a movie rented on a Mac was transferred to an iPhone, iPad, or iPod using USB, the movie became unavailable from an iTunes library until returned to the Mac.

A movie rented on an iOS device or an Apple TV was not previously watchable on other devices and could not be transferred between devices.

Basically, a rental is now attached to an account rather than a device. It doesn’t really matter whether the nine year delay in introducing this is the fault of Apple or movie studios, the fact is that it was a crappy situation that I ran into more than once. I imagine others have run into the same issue, particularly if they started the rental on an iOS device, quite reasonably assuming that they could pick it up on their Apple TV later.

iOS 10.3 and tvOS 10.2 have not yet been released.

Clips

Also announced today in the midst of Apple’s press release blitz is a new app called Clips. It won’t be released until April and requires iOS 10.3, which isn’t out yet, but it’s clear what the app is and what it will do: it’s a copy of the sharing features in Instagram and Snapchat, using other networks — especially Messages — as its social sharing outlet.

Stephen Nellis of Reuters explains how Clips could be a serious Snap and Facebook competitor:

Apple has a huge number of users for Messages, the flagship app for short notes that is built into the iPhone’s iOS 10 software. Apple does not say how many people use the app, but it does say that there more than 1 billion iOS devices on the market and that 79 percent of them run iOS 10.

Apple also says that Messages is the most commonly used app on iOS devices, giving the company potentially up to 800 million users for its latest messaging platform. Snap, by contrast, has 161 million daily active users. While Apple’s Clips competitor will technically be a separate app from Messages, it will be tied closely to it for the ability share Clips videos with other Apple users.

This is written horribly. Nellis implies that Messages is on 79% of iOS devices by stating that Messages is built into iOS 10, and that iOS 10 is on 79% of iOS devices. Therefore, he surmises, Clips has a potential market of 800 million users.

Using that same math, the Snapchat app has a far greater market potential because it only requires iOS 9 or newer, representing 95% of all iOS devices. Yet its growth has come to a crawl.

I’m not convinced, though, that Clips is a serious competitor. I think it’s a perfectly fine app; the Live Titles feature — which makes onscreen captions based on what’s being said — is especially cool. But Clips is separate from Messages, so there are more steps between starting to capture a moment and showing it off.

Also, if this is supposed to run up against Stories, it seems misguided. The whole point of the Stories feature in other apps is that it creates a passive way to view or post a current video-based status that will expire at some point. Sending individual video messages to a bunch of your friends generates more friction. If they’re trying to take on Instagram and Snap in broader terms, that’s an extremely tall order, and Apple has a rough history with building ecosystem-constrained social networks.

Even if Clips is quietly successful as a standalone product where only the results are shown on other social networks, what’s to stop Facebook from duplicating its features. Heck, by announcing it weeks before it’s set to launch, why wouldn’t Facebook or Snap add a Live Titles-esque feature to their apps as well?

Update: Maybe this is Apple’s play for a mobile equivalent to the wildly-successful Photo Booth app on the Mac, but I’d say that ship has long sailed.

Apple’s Spring Cleaning

If Apple is, indeed, holding an April event — as I still think they are — it seems like they had some stuff to get out of the way first. They launched some cool new Watch straps, added a vibrant-looking Product Red version of the iPhones 7 to the mix, and doubled the available storage configurations for the iPhone SE.

The biggest news is probably in the iPad department. While they haven’t updated the iPad Pro lineup, they cleaned up the other parts of the iPad line. The Mini 2 is gone, as is the iPad Air 2. In place of the latter is the new iPad — it’s just called “iPad”. Its full designation is actually “iPad (5th Generation)”, which makes it the successor — in name — to 2012‘s “iPad (4th Generation)”, which is a little bit weird. The renaming does follow the de-Air-ification of Apple’s product naming scheme.

The product itself is a curious blend of the two generations of the iPad Air, and the iPhone 6S. It has the A9 processor of the iPhone, the thickness and weight of the first-generation iPad Air, and the networking capabilities of the iPad Air 2. In a sense, you can think of it as an “iPad SE”. But it also has some limitations: the display is doesn’t have any of the advanced features or wide colour gamut of the iPads Pro — it isn’t even laminated — and it lacks support for the Pencil.

But it’s inexpensive. Really inexpensive. Prices start for 32 GB of storage at just $329 in the US, which is an astonishing deal for those hoping to deploy iPads in a classroom or corporate setting, or anyone who wants an inexpensive tablet with a big screen. It’s $399 for a 128 GB model, which is the same price as the 128 GB iPad Mini 4 — the only remaining variant of that device, as of today.1

So what about the rumoured iPad Pro updates? I’d be surprised if they wait until autumn to introduce new models; by then, the 12.9-inch model would be two years old and virtually untouched in that time. It’s not out of the question, but it seems like a bad guess to me. My best guess is that there’s still an April event planned, and this news dump was a way to refresh a few products without sacrificing stage time. Why announce them in advance of an assumed event? I think it’s a good way to give these products their own space the news cycle2 and help emphasize any updates the iPad Pro line may get, even if it’s not the rumoured all-new 10.5-inch device.

That’s just a guess, though.


  1. I’m surprised the iPad Mini wasn’t bumped to an A9 chip and marketed as the “7.9-inch iPad”. ↩︎

  2. My alternative theory is that they did have an April event planned and had to postpone it, but felt comfortable announcing these products through a press release only. ↩︎

Connecting the Conversation

You’ve probably read Charlie Warzel’s profile for Buzzfeed of Techmeme and its founder Gabe Rivera; yet, you may have missed this excellent followup from Adam Tinworth:

In digital content circle, we talk a lot about ‘content atomisation’, the idea that the publishing packages of the past have been atomised into individual articles found via search or social. In a sense, what Techmeme does is reconnect those atoms into molecules of news, allowing you to track not just the most popular articles, but to explore the interconnections between them and other articles, which respond to them or follow them up. [Those] connections both inform the ratings, but also guide to the reader into the broader context of the story.

It’s such a compelling idea that I’m surprised that nobody is really working on it in any other way. A decade back, the blog platform makers were really interested in connecting up conversations online. That led to the advent of standards like Trackback and Pingback, both of which got steadily buried under ever-increasing volumes of spam. And, to add to the woes, much of the discussion around any single article is now buried away in private spaces like Facebook.

But still, it seems a strange gap in the technology of the web that it’s surprisingly hard for the casual reader to easily find responses and follow-ups to something they’ve read.

As it happens, hot news and surrounding analysis does have a place on the web: Techmeme’s companion sites for media and the press at Mediagazer, celebrity gossip at Wesmirch, and the original political news aggregator Memeorandum.

Unfortunately, of all of the sites under the Techmeme umbrella, only Techmeme and Mediagazer have human editors. That means that sites like Memeoradum — which draws upon the conversation around a particular story — can be swayed by influential yet unreliable sources. In an era of stories that span the gamut from misleading to outright false, that is of particular importance. Memeorandum may not be a fact-checking site, but it ought to prioritize news articles that are, well, truthful.

Recode: Anthony Levandowski Was Hired as a Consultant at Uber While He Founded Otto

A small but truly amazing update on that Uber-Otto lawsuit. Johana Bhuiyan, Recode:

To bolster its suit, Alphabet laid out a detailed timeline of Levandowski’s relationship with Uber executives, including CEO Travis Kalanick. According to Alphabet, that relationship dates back to the summer of 2015, approximately six months before Levandowski even left Alphabet.

Now, sources are adding more to that claim. Kalanick hired Levandowski as a consultant to Uber’s fledgling self-driving effort as early as February 2016, six months before Levandowski publicly got his company off the ground, according to three sources.

It’s not entirely uncommon for engineers to consult for other companies, but the timing of Levandowski’s hiring at Uber so close to the initial formation of Otto raises a number of questions.

You don’t say. Questions such as “Would this look a little funny to the employer I left just a few weeks prior?” or “Is this a potentially suspicious arrangement should said past employer decide to sue my future employer?” Those are the important questions worth asking.

On a Commitment to Diversity at Apple

Late last month at Apple’s shareholders meeting, attendees overwhelmingly sided with Apple in their disagreement with a proposal to improve diversity amongst the company’s leadership.

Natalie Walters of the Street:

In this year’s proposal, Maldonado and Zevin Asset Management requested that Apple be required to increase the diversity of senior management and its board of directions. The lack of diversity is a “business risk.”

“Shareholders believe that companies with comprehensive diversity programs, and strong commitment to implementation, enhance their long-term value, reducing the company’s potential legal and reputational risks associated with workplace discrimination and building a reputation as a fair employer,” the proposal said. In addition, a more diverse board would increase creativity and reduce the “groupthink” at the company, they argued.

Apple argued that its efforts to increase diversity are “much broader” than the “accelerated recruitment policy” that the proposal puts forth. Instead of focusing on Apple’s senior management and Board, the company takes a more “holistic” view extending to anyone who wants to work in the tech sector in the future.

This is the second year running that Antonio Maldonado’s proposal has been shot down, and for a similar reason as last year: Apple seems content with the direction of their current diversity efforts.

Apple’s overwhelmingly white and male1 management team is also one of the closest-watched in the industry. While they haven’t experienced the kind of high-profile top-down discriminatory issues seen at other major tech firms, they do run the same risks as any other somewhat-homogenous ecosystem. They seem to be aware of that, given the way that they’ve improved diversity in new hires, but that doesn’t address more senior management positions.

Improving the diversity of the board would be a big start, as would any changes to the senior management shown on the company’s website. Making these kinds of big strides would show a seriousness to their efforts that, I think, would be more impactful than their half-baked “holistic” statement.


  1. According to their latest figures, management and leadership positions are 72% male and 67% white. ↩︎

Uber President Jeff Jones Quits After Six Months on the Job

I regret not saving my — frankly, excellentJ. Bruce Ismay analogy for this resignation.

Update: Okay, I admit it. I really jumped the gun on that analogy. Dave Lee of BBC News:

The backroom manoeuvrings suggest bigger changes at Uber are on the way. Two separate, well-placed sources at the company have told the BBC that Mr Kalanick will likely step down as chief executive soon after the new COO is in place.

I nominate Uber’s management for the 2017 Crunchie award for “Corporate Team Most Named for Ironic Reasons”.

iMessage App Store Growth Slows, According to Sensor Tower

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch:

According to a new report from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower, there are nearly 5,000 Message-enabled apps – the same number of iOS apps released in year one of the App Store. That should be a promising figure, given how much the iOS App Store has grown over time – it has 2.2 million apps as of January, 2017, Apple said.

But unlike the iOS App Store, the iMessage App Store is already seeing the developer interest and excitement wearing off.

From its launch in September, 2016 and the end of October, Sensor Tower says the number of iMessage-enabled apps had grown approximately 116 percent to nearly 1,100. By November, that figure had grown another 108 percent to around 2,250 apps. But by December – notably a month when developers rush to be ready for the numerous users unwrapping new iPhones and installing apps – growth slowed to 65 percent, bringing the store to 3,700 iMessage apps.

Growth continued to fall in the new year, with 18 percent growth from December, 2016 to January, 2017 followed by 9 percent growth from January to February, 2017.

I’ve long been optimistic about the potential for iMessage apps. I use them all the time. But it isn’t the new gold rush I think many developers hoped it might be. iMessage apps are, of course, much more limited in their utility and possibilities, and the novelty factor has worn off. But another big reason for this drop is surely that the iMessage App Store UI is buried behind a confusing layering of menus, and the app drawer isn’t very scalable.

Apple has done a good job of not overpowering the fundamental features of Messages with the new features added in iOS 10, but those features now might be too hidden and hard to discover. Balancing those two aspects of Messages is a tricky design problem that I hope is considered for the next major version of iOS.

Google Says They Will Revamp Ad Policies After Boycotts

Some more followup for a story I covered yesterday, when the Guardian announced that they would be suspending their Google ad buy since their ads were appearing on extremist and hateful websites and YouTube videos. The Guardian called for other brands to join them, and join them they did.

Joe Mayes and Jeremy Kahn, Bloomberg:

[…] the U.K. government and the Guardian newspaper pulled ads from the video site, stepping up pressure on YouTube to police content on its platform.

France’s Havas SA, the world’s sixth-largest advertising and marketing company, pulled all its U.K. clients’ ads from Google and YouTube on Friday after failing to get assurances from Google that the ads wouldn’t appear next to offensive material. Those clients include wireless carrier O2, Royal Mail Plc, government-owned British Broadcasting Corp., Domino’s Pizza and Hyundai Kia, Havas said in a statement.

Some good news though: Google is giving advertisers more control over placement. Ronan Harris of Google:

We’ve begun a thorough review of our ads policies and brand controls, and we will be making changes in the coming weeks to give brands more control over where their ads appear across YouTube and the Google Display Network.

Google provides no specifics, and I’m curious to see how this could feasibly work. Harris prefaced Google’s announcement by stating that their ability to control ad placement is fairly limited:

However, with millions of sites in our network and 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, we recognize that we don’t always get it right. In a very small percentage of cases, ads appear against content that violates our monetization policies.

There are some well-known websites and YouTube channels that most people would reasonably consider hateful, bigoted, and xenophobic, but there are also plenty that aren’t as well-known. How will this be policed? Reporting offenders is not in the interest of those who frequent the kinds of websites and channels targeted by these changes.

When an Ad Is Not an Ad

Some followup on yesterday’s story about Google Home devices playing an apparent ad for Beauty and the Beast, in which I mocked Google’s claim that it wasn’t an ad. Turns out that it, truly, wasn’t, according to a followup statement obtained by Catalin Cimpanu of Bleeping Computer:

“This wasn’t intended to be an ad,” said a Google spokesperson regarding the incident. “What’s circulating online was a part of our My Day feature, where after providing helpful information about your day, we sometimes call out timely content. We’re continuing to experiment with new ways to surface unique content for users and we could have done better in this case.”

Disney may not have paid Google to tell Home users about their new movie, but that’s what it felt like to a lot of people. And now Google really, really knows that their users won’t tolerate anything resembling an ad on their Home devices.

Alphabet’s Autonomous Cars Had to Be Adjusted in Every Mile They Drove

Johana Bhuiyan, Recode:

The top line: Uber’s robot cars are steadily increasing the number of miles driven autonomously. But the figures on rider experience — defined as a combination of how many times drivers have to take over and how smoothly the car drives — are still showing little progress.

[…]

In January, the cars only drove 5,000 miles. At that point, however, the company only had about 20 active vehicles, mainly in Pittsburgh. By February, the company’s cars were driving themselves around 18,000 miles a week.

[…]

For example: During the week ending March 8, the 43 active cars on the road only drove an average of close to 0.8 miles before the safety driver had to take over for one reason or another.

No word on how many red lights were run.

See Also: The Uber Bombshell About to Drop.

The Guardian Pulls All Google Advertising

Jane Martinson of the Guardian:

The Guardian has withdrawn all its online advertising from Google and YouTube after it emerged that its ads were being inadvertently placed next to extremist material.

Ads for the Guardian’s membership scheme are understood to have been placed alongside a range of extremist material after an agency acting on the media group’s behalf used Google’s AdX ad exchange.

David Pemsel, the Guardian’s chief executive, wrote to Google to say that it was “completely unacceptable” for its advertising to be misused in this way.

He said the Guardian would be withdrawing its advertising until Google can “provide guarantees that this ad misplacement via Google and YouTube will not happen in the future”.

I think this is a fine stance for the Guardian to take, but I also saw a Google ad in the sidebar of this very article. I don’t intend to conflate the buying of ad space with the display of ads, nor imply any hypocrisy on the Guardian’s part. But this goes to show that the automated buying and provision of ad space across the web creates unintended effects for everyone. It’s in an advertiser’s best interests to select their most relevant audience, but the slots on the Guardian’s website could potentially go to advertisers that the website’s readers would disagree with.

Similarly, I’ve seen plenty of ads from Carbon — the provider of the ad in the right-hand column of this website — promoting marketing automation tools that are largely built on mass data collection and retention, something I frequently criticize. However, I trust that Carbon won’t allow an ad from Breitbart or some neo-Nazi organization.

No matter how much publishers trust advertisers, the only way this can be resolved reliably is to eliminate the automated buying and selling of ad space across larger networks. Every publisher — or small, select, and invite-only group of like-minded publishers — must retain their own inventory. That’s massively difficult and, as a result, is unlikely to be the future of ads on the web. But so long as ads are distributed across huge networks where little control is held by advertisers and publishers alike, there will always be instances of disagreement between advertising and where it is displayed.

Google Says That the Ad That’s Running on Some Home Devices Isn’t an Ad

CaptainCapitoni” on Reddit:

This morning while I was getting ready for work, I did my usual “Okay Google, good morning”. After information about the time and weather, my google home said something along the lines of

By the way, Beauty and The Beast opens in theaters today. In this version, Belle is the inventor. Sounds more like it to me.

I’m not a fan of ads on this device. I don’t believe I’ve done any searching for the film either, so I think it’s not due to perceived interest. Has anyone else heard similar ads?

Another user, “drak0bsidian”, says that they also heard the ad, and Bryson Meunier posted a recording of it on Twitter.

The Verge’s Chris Welch asked Google about it, and they provided him with some grade-A bullshit in response:

This isn’t an ad; the beauty in the Assistant is that it invites our partners to be our guest and share their tales.

I don’t care how much storytelling tinsel an advertisement happens to be wrapped in — an ad is an ad.

I looked through Google’s support documentation for Home and even downloaded the app looking for anything that would specifically state that the device could be used for advertising. Nothing on the Google Home website implies that ads would start running on the device. The Google Home FAQ only vaguely nods at anything promotional on the device:

First and foremost, we use data to make our services faster, smarter, and more useful to you, such as by providing better search results and timely traffic updates. Data also helps protect you from malware, phishing, and other suspicious activity. For example, we warn you when you try to visit dangerous websites. Also, on surfaces where we show ads, we use data to show you ads that are relevant and useful, and to keep our services free for everyone.

But there’s no mention of whether Google Home is an advertising “surface”, and audio ads are not one of the types shown in any category on Google‘s advertising site.

Maybe users will react to this like they would towards the ads on radio stations or Spotify’s free tier, but I wouldn’t want this in my apartment. Imagine waking up in the morning and asking Google about your new emails, only to hear it tell you about a new movie or some product. Gross.

Update: Drew Pickard on Twitter:

RE: the text of Google’s response to the Beauty and the Beast “Ad”

It’s another ad. “BE OUR GUEST” is a song from the movie.

wtf

Can’t wait to meet Google’s new PR team of Gaston and a talking candlestick.

Update: According to Tim Bradshaw, Google has removed the ad.

Genius Will De-Emphasize Web Annotations in Favour of Video

Casey Newton of the Verge:

Genius, which raised $56.9 million on the promise that it would one day annotate the entire internet, has been losing its minds. In January, the company quietly laid off a quarter of its staff, with the bulk of the cuts coming from the engineering department. In a post on the Genius blog at the time, co-founder Tom Lehman told employees that Genius planned to shift its emphasis away from the annotation platform that once attracted top-tier investors in favor of becoming a more video-focused media company.

While Genius has done some incredibly dumb things over its short existence, it is truly a brilliant product. More than anything, its simplicity is key to its appeal. A move into video explanations feels like investor meddling more than it does a conscious strategy change.

This move strikes me as a symptom of a broader cultural condition in Silicon Valley that emphasizes rapid growth and significant investment. Genius is the kind of product that probably could have existed just fine without investors, lots of staff, or big offices. Sure, it may have taken longer to arrive where the company is today, but they wouldn’t have to take on the baggage of VC whims or high overhead. As a result, they’d be able to keep the company true to what it does best.

Justice Department Lays Charges in Yahoo Intrusion

Despite InfoArmor’s doubts, the Justice Department is charging two FSB agents and two hackers-for-hire with the breach of 500 million accounts. Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post:

The Justice Department announced Wednesday the indictments of two Russian spies and two criminal hackers in connection with the heist of 500 million Yahoo user accounts in 2014, marking the first U.S. criminal cyber charges ever against Russian government officials.

The indictments target two members of the Russian intelligence agency FSB, and two hackers hired by the Russians.

The charges include hacking, wire fraud, trade secret theft and economic espionage, according to officials. The indictments are part of the largest hacking case brought by the United States.

The New York Times has a copy of the full indictment.

Hacking Back

Brian Krebs:

Recently, I heard from a security professional whose close friend received a targeted attempt to phish his Apple iCloud credentials. The phishing attack came several months after the friend’s child lost his phone at a public park in Virginia. The phish arrived via text message and claimed to have been sent from Apple. It said the device tied to his son’s phone number had been found, and that its precise location could be seen for the next 24 hours by clicking a link embedded in the text message.

That security professional source — referred to as “John” for simplicity’s sake — declined to be named or credited in this story because some of the actions he took to gain the knowledge presented here may run afoul of U.S. computer fraud and abuse laws.

Vindication is sweet, but the actions that “John” took would, of course, be impossible for most people. Even identifying a suspicious site can be difficult, especially as websites continue to coalesce around a handful of shared design motifs that are easy to replicate. So long as we rely upon passwords, phishing will continue to be a common and reasonably successful method for criminals to steal login credentials.

Perhaps it would be possible for Safari to automatically identify suspected phishing sites by comparing samples of the source code with known Apple ID login pages. Or, maybe Safari could alert users who use the same login details as their Apple ID on an insecure site.

Silicon Valley Is Failing Many, Including Women and Persons of Colour

Liza Mundy, in a cover story for the Atlantic:

As Bethanye Blount’s and Susan Wu’s examples show, succeeding in tech as a woman requires something more treacherous than the old adage about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. It’s more like doing everything backwards and in heels while some guy is trying to yank at your dress, and another is telling you that a woman can’t dance as well as a man, oh, and could you stop dancing for a moment and bring him something to drink?

Such undermining is one reason women today hold only about a quarter of U.S. computing and mathematical jobs—a fraction that has actually fallen slightly over the past 15 years, even as women have made big strides in other fields. Women not only are hired in lower numbers than men are; they also leave tech at more than twice the rate men do. It’s not hard to see why. Studies show that women who work in tech are interrupted in meetings more often than men. They are evaluated on their personality in a way that men are not. They are less likely to get funding from venture capitalists, who, studies also show, find pitches delivered by men—especially handsome men—more persuasive. And in a particularly cruel irony, women’s contributions to open-source software are accepted more often than men’s are, but only if their gender is unknown.

Some of the solutions attempted by Silicon Valley companies sound like a mix between New Age bullshit, and a handwavey means for discriminatory practices to be acknowledged without committing to change. This is a problem that requires acknowledgement and action to combat deeply-engrained working and cultural styles. Mundy’s piece is a must-read.

Report Claims Lowest Sales Ever on DSLRs and Mirrorless Cameras in 2016

I first read this piece from LensVid — no byline — nearly two weeks ago and I’ve been thinking about it ever since:

We shall start in the top left and the amount of cameras produced worldwide. 2010 was the top year ever for the camera industry with 121 million cameras that were produced, since than we have seen a steady decline with a huge drop in 2013 to only 61 million cameras – basically half, and in 2015 we saw another (almost) halving to only 35 million cameras and the most recent number from 2016 brings another huge drop to only 23 million cameras or 35% drop – year-to-year – twice as much as what happened the year before.

Their analysis is generally what you might expect: smartphones have effectively killed the compact point-and-shoot camera, and mirrorless cameras are having a mixed reception. But these are the two bullet points that have had me thinking about this piece:

The DSLR market is shrinking – this was to be expected but it is not because of the rise of mirrorless. Why this is happening is probably a combination of reasons – at the entry level some people who might have considered buying a DSLR a few years back just settle for their smartphone camera which is better than ever and will soon improve even further with dual cameras, smart zoom technologies and more advanced features. At the mid to high end segments – there just isn’t enough innovation to justify replacing gear as often as it used to be and on the more positive side – cameras are quite reliable and replacing a working camera for a new one which doesn’t offer significantly more, just doesn’t make sense to many users.

I remember the days of DSLRs making huge leaps in sensor quality and megapixel count with every iteration. Features like HD video recording made each new generation that much more significant. But now, virtually all of the photographers I know have been comfortable with whatever camera they bought five-to-eight years ago, or even longer.

The biggest innovations of the past few years have been to commoditize higher-end sensors. The Fujifilm GFX 50S and Pentax GFX 645Z have brought medium format sensors to a high-end DSLR price point, while cameras from Canon, Nikon, and even Sony have brought down the price of entry for a full-frame DSLR. I hope this trend continues, because there’s an appreciable difference — even for non-professionals — between the APS-C sensors of consumer DSLRs and full-frame sensors.

Cameras are for older people – you can’t see this in the numbers but we clearly see this all around us – aside from the professional segment – dedicated cameras do not interest the younger generation. The people who are still interested in photography are typically around the ages of 40-60 or more – the same people who maybe shot with analog cameras as youngsters and now have the time and money to invest in photography as a hobby – their children and grandchildren are far less interested in cameras and prefer to use their smartphones.

If they’re going to make their point based on anecdotal evidence, I’ll make my counterpoint based on the same: I’ve seen loads of younger people carrying their DSLRs everywhere. A Canon Rebel is standard fare amongst YouTube vloggers and the skateboarders near where I live. Whenever I head near a retail strip or a mall, I see groups of teenagers that have cameras slung over their shoulders.

If anything, my bet is that it’s actually a more middle-aged demographic that has become disinterested in buying cameras: they’re less interested in video capabilities and experimentation. For many of them, a smartphone’s camera is fine for basic documentation.

The Uber Bombshell About to Drop

A compelling read by Daniel Compton:

In the last few weeks Alphabet filed a lawsuit against Uber. Alphabet and Waymo (Alphabet’s self-driving car company) allege that Anthony Levandowski, an ex-Waymo manager, stole confidential and proprietary information from Waymo, then used it in his own self-driving truck startup, Otto. Uber acquired Otto in August 2016, so the suit was filed against Uber, not Otto.

This alone is a fairly explosive claim, but the subtext of Alphabet’s filing is an even bigger bombshell. Reading between the lines, (in my opinion) Alphabet is implying that Mr Levandowski arranged with Uber to:

  1. Steal LiDAR and other self-driving component designs from Waymo

  2. Start Otto as a plausible corporate vehicle for developing the self-driving technology

  3. Acquire Otto for $680 million

Below, I’ll present the timeline of events, my interpretation, and some speculation on a possible (bad) outcome for Uber.

Even with the head start created by a staff entirely familiar with autonomous vehicles, it is truly unbelievable that Otto could go from being founded in January to running a fully-functional prototype on public roads in May, and then acquired by Uber in August, all in the same year. If the endless stories about Uber’s dreadful internal culture aren’t crippling enough, this might well be.

Prevent Videos From Auto-Playing in MacOS Web Browsers

Kirk McElhearn:

Auto-play videos suck. They use bandwidth, and their annoying sounds get in the way when you’re listening to music and open a web page. I happen to write for a website that uses them, and it annoys me to no end. (My editors have no control over those auto-play videos, alas.)

But you can stop auto-play videos from playing on a Mac. If you use Chrome or Firefox, it’s pretty simple, and the plugins below work both on macOS and Windows; if you use Safari, it’s a bit more complex, but it’s not that hard.

I thought we settled this back in the 1990s when webpages would automatically play some shitty MIDI interpretation of a pop song in the background. Apparently, today’s batch of web-oriented marketing types didn’t get the memo about how interruptive it is to automatically play a video — with sound, in many cases — any time someone tries to read a page on their site.

McElhearn does a good job pulling together all the ways you can stop autoplaying video in the browser of your choice. In Safari and Safari Technology Preview, it requires setting a command-line hidden preference. But if publishers are going to subject their visitors to the scourge that is autoplaying video, it seems apt for there to be a non-hidden browser control. Unfortunately, a policy change in iOS 10 implies that Apple is actually going the other way and encouraging the use of autoplaying video — albeit, without sound.

At the rate this stuff is going, I’ll pretty soon become one of those people who browses the web in plain text. It seems increasingly like a reasonably appealing option.

Update: After disabling inline video playback on the latest MacOS beta and the latest version of Safari Technology Preview, I noticed some unexpected behaviour from YouTube videos. I’ve seen similar reports from others running different combinations of MacOS and Safari, including non-beta versions.

ShatChat

MG Siegler on Facebook’s now-pathological need to copy Snapchat in every app they own:

The ‘Story’ format makes sense in Instagram. From the get-go, it was a visual feed of information. While it was definitely aggressive to put the ‘Stories’ feature front-and-center at the top of every users’ feed, it proved to be a smart move. Not only did it spur usage, if people didn’t want to use the funtionality, they just kept scrolling on down the feed, just as they had always done.

The um, story, is completely different in Messenger. Here, people have their list of contacts and/or groups that they chat with. The most recent conversations — likely the most important — are at the top of that feed. But if you’re anything like me, you’re often scrolling down a bit because you have many regular conversations. And so this screen real estate is insanely valuable. And Messenger puked up this new ‘Day’ nonsense all over it.

Yes, people share photos on Messenger. Undoubtedly a ton. That’s maybe how you try to justify this move to yourself if you’re Facebook. But Messenger is fundamentally about chatting; it’s a utility. Photos may be additive, but they’re not core. You could try to pivot your service into making them core, but that doesn’t mean you should.

For whatever reason, Facebook isn’t content to let their text messaging replacement app be good at just sending text-based messages. About a year ago, they added “bots” to the system, which few people seem to use; now, they’ve cluttered it up with this “Day” feature. Perhaps Messenger Day is supposed to be a visual interpretation of a status message, or just a prompt to get people to use Messenger in a different way. But it seems to come at the cost of making the app less good at messaging.

It’s not just Facebook, of course: Apple is facing discovery problems with iMessage apps, and Google’s Allo app — built around the company’s cleverly-named virtual assistant, Assistant — seems to be struggling as well. But both of these features can be easily ignored within the app; you can still use them for basic messaging. Facebook, on the other hand, seems content to muddy its primary messaging app and create something that feels almost like an alternative Facebook experience. To what end?

MacOS Sierra Logging Spew

Lloyd Chambers (via Michael Tsai):

My 2013 Mac Pro was running a bit noisy and hot for some hours yesterday even while idle. It is normally whisper quiet and all but inaudible. I have seen that behavior before, and it is always caused by some runaway process doing something useless in the background.

MacOS Sierra has been filled with new bugs, too numerous to contemplate. But the one discussed here is what I call the “logging spew” bug: a continuous stream of logging visible in the Console application, and steadily growing the size on disk of the numerous logging files, all of which are 100% useless to 99.999% of users.

The volume of logging in Sierra and iOS 10 alike has been mind-boggling to me. I’ve previously mentioned the bloated size of sysdiagnose files I’ve submitted when reporting bugs, for particularly stupid reasons. I see the same iTunes bug as Chambers:

On a Mac Pro no touch user interface exists, but the engineers at Apple don’t bother to test much any more, so the com.apple.nowplayingtouchui apparently is just going to fail forever.

I used to be able to open Console to diagnose minor system and application issues. Now, I just see a load of these error messages and information about my WiFi connection, neither of which is relevant to me.

Apple Tops Laptop Magazine’s Tech Support List for Third Consecutive Year

Avram Piltch of Laptop Magazine summarized their findings for why they ranked Apple first for the third year in a row:

Apple offers the best tech support in the business, year after year. The company’s website and mobile app are loaded with helpful, step-by-step tutorials and, whether you reach them via phone or live chat, support reps are knowledgeable and friendly. Apple also answered Twitter messages quickly and accurately.

Henry T. Casey wrote up the full report card:

While calls did not go perfectly, Apple’s customer support team provided solutions in a speedy and positive manner. The company does not get any points for finally creating a Twitter support account (and is it too good for Facebook?), but we do applaud the team running that account for the timely, helpful replies.

If Apple wants to improve its support, it should ensure support techs learn about all of the new features so that they can give completely accurate answers to questions on topics such as iCloud Documents. Its Twitter account could also improve by providing answers directly, instead of linking to posts where the content is found. Overall, though, Apple offers the best support of any laptop manufacturer, as it has for many years.

It’s good to hear that Laptop continues to find Apple’s support channels the best in the industry, but I worry that it’s seeing a reduced focus within the company. Yesterday, I linked to a report from MacRumors stating that Apple will no longer be training their Genius Bar staff in Cupertino, or even on real devices.

This is a small thing, but I’m a little concerned about the cumulative effect of changes like these. I noticed a degradation in service quality last year when I found it very difficult for me to get an appointment, through the usual means, for an iPhone battery swap. When I did manage to get an appointment for that recall program, my store — predictably — didn’t have any batteries in stock.

When Marco Arment noted on Twitter that he was also finding it hard to get support for his iPhone 7, a bunch of people replied with their tales of Apple Store support woe: lots of waiting around, parts not in stock, and repeat visits to resolve the same issue. I assume people would be less likely to reply if they weren’t having issues, but there was an alarming volume of replies along similar lines.

All told, the combination of long wait times, hard-to-get appointments, a focus on self-service within the Support app, and less robust Genius training seems like bad news for maintaining Apple’s long-excellent support channels. I hope reviving higher calibre service options is on the company’s radar.