Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Susan Fowler Proved That One Person Can Make a Difference

Kara Swisher wrote a tribute for Recode to Susan Fowler and the effects four months after her now-infamous blog post:

Yes, that was it: Susan Fowler showed us the donkeys that were worshiped as kings by the VCs and investors and boards and, yes, the media, too.

But post-Fowler, you could not ignore it, because she pulled off what poet Louise Gluck wrote about in her poem, “Circe’s Power”: “I never turned anyone into a pig. Some people are pigs; I make them look like pigs.”

Which is to say that Fowler did everyone in tech a public service by doing nothing more than making pigs look like pigs.

I doubt anyone in tech will make as much of a difference as Fowler did this year — or, indeed, in the next few years as the effects of her post continue to be felt. Her decision to publish was courageous. But it’s also a reminder that it’s necessary to take concerns like hers seriously every single time, regardless of perceived tone or incredulity. Believe the women and people of colour — and others, of course, but those groups more frequently than not — when they explain the ways that they are isolated, bullied, and unfairly treated at any company.

The Fraught History of FireWire

Richard C. Moss, Ars Technica:

The rise and fall of FireWire — IEEE 1394, an interface standard boasting high-speed communications and isochronous real-time data transfer — is one of the most tragic tales in the history of computer technology. The standard was forged in the fires of collaboration. A joint effort from several competitors including Apple, IBM, and Sony, it was a triumph of design for the greater good. FireWire represented a unified standard across the whole industry, one serial bus to rule them all. Realized to the fullest, FireWire could replace SCSI and the unwieldy mess of ports and cables at the back of a desktop computer.

Yet FireWire’s principal creator, Apple, nearly killed it before it could appear in a single device. And eventually the Cupertino company effectively did kill FireWire, just as it seemed poised to dominate the industry.

The beauty of FireWire is that it had promised, consistent speeds no matter how long the file transfer took. That meant that transferring equivalent data was way faster on a FireWire 400 connection than it would be using USB 2, which made it great for storing large libraries of music, movies, and photos, and especially good for system backups. When I used a mid-2007 MacBook Pro, it was always connected to two FireWire drives: one for Time Machine, and one for my music collection.

Thunderbolt has effectively replaced that niche now — for me, and for lots of others, too — but Apple won’t be making the same mistakes they made with FireWire:

FireWire’s innovations as a technology were drawing attention from the tech press—Byte magazine awarded it Most Significant Technology, for instance—but within Apple, Teener recalls that simply keeping the project alive required a conspiracy between FireWire’s Apple and IBM collaborators. Supporters kept the project funded by each telling their marketing guys the other companies were going to use it.

Getting funded and getting shipped is not the same thing, however. The decision-makers in the Mac engineering and marketing groups refused to add FireWire to the Mac. “Their argument was, ‘Well, show us that it’s being adopted in the industry, and we’ll put it in,'” explained Sirkin. It was their technology, but they didn’t want to be first to push it.

This time, Apple’s going all-out with their commitment to Thunderbolt — the newest MacBook Pros have no other kinds of connectors, aside from the headphone jack. Also, Apple isn’t in a mid-1990s-esque disarray and, this time, Intel has made Thunderbolt 3 entirely royalty-free to try to spur adoption.

Reviewing the First iPhone

Backchannel is now at Wired, unfortunately — I really don’t want my readers to have to deal with Wired’s anti-adblock nonsense — but this is a good piece from Stephen Levy:

On a sunny Sunday 10 years ago, I was strolling down Broadway in the Flatiron district of New York, listening to music on my phone. The song was suddenly interrupted by a call. A familiar voice barreled into the earbuds.

“What do you think?”

It was Steve Jobs, asking for my opinion on the yet-to-be-released iPhone, which I had been using for about a week. I was one of four reviewers who received early units, and it turned out that Jobs pestered each one of us. (A couple of days earlier I had gotten a warning that Steve might call, “just to say hi.”) Though Jobs would never admit it — Hey, just a friendly call, buddy! — Apple was under pressure for what might have been the riskiest product launch in its history.

But the pressure was on me and my three colleagues as well. This was arguably the most hyped product of all time—a New York magazine cover was declaring the product “The Jesus Phone,” not as an endorsement but a statement of how this as yet-unvetted slab of glass and aluminum had become a repository of all our hopes and dreams. What if one of us was an outlier — either positive or negative — and his take (yes, we were all guys) proved disastrously wrong?

One of the things Scott Forstall pointed out in his interview with John Markoff is how these initial reviews framed the iPhone in the context of BlackBerrys and other “smartphones” of the era. I get that, but the iPhone was so clearly advanced for its time that early reviews simply weren’t able to capture or contextualize that.

Recall Steve Jobs’ “a widescreen iPod, a mobile phone, and an internet communications device” bit from the Macworld 2007 keynote: big applause for the iPod, huge applause for the phone, and a light golf clap for the internet communicator. It turns out that the third thing was, by far, the most important aspect of the device.

See Also: The Internet Archive has a copy of Stephen Levy’s 2007 review.

John Markoff’s Interview With Scott Forstall and Three Original iPhone Team Members

John Markoff of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California scored an impressive and wide-ranging interview with members of the original iPhone team — including Scott Forstall — to mark the tenth anniversary of its launch. If you’re just interested in the Scott Forstall bit, Philip Elmer-DeWitt posted a trimmed version.

Even though you probably know the short versions of a lot of these stories, I highly recommend watching the full interview. It’s pretty awesome hearing all of them speak at length about such a high-stakes project, but that’s particularly true for Forstall. There are details in every story they tell that you may not have ever considered, like Forstall’s story of demoing the iPhone for the first time for Cingular’s CEO and being concerned about WiFi access at the hotel.

If you have two hours of listening time today and you’re debating whether to spend it on a podcast or this, choose this interview.

Update: I’ve just noticed that Elmer-DeWitt‘s trimmed version omits Forstall‘s heartwarming stories about producing Broadway shows, and a fantastic story about Microsoft sending him a dead fish.

Kalanick Out

Big scoop for Mike Isaac, New York Times:

Travis Kalanick stepped down Tuesday as chief executive of Uber, the ride-hailing service that he helped found in 2009 and that he built into a transportation colossus, after a shareholder revolt made it untenable for him to stay on at the company.

Mr. Kalanick’s exit came under pressure after hours of drama involving Uber’s investors, according to two people with knowledge of the situation, who asked to remain anonymous because the details are confidential.

And a rather excellent piece from the Financial Times’ Alphaville blog:

Uber Technologies Inc is an eight-year-old taxi company based in San Francisco. Its backers include some of the world’s smartest technology investors, like Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.

The company is at a crossroads. We are looking for a chief executive to replace our famously aggressive founder, who remains on the board and retains a ton of voting rights. Candidates will need to demonstrate experience in putting lipstick on pigs, putting out dumpster fires and leading businesses as they pivot from ‘hot mess’ to ‘performatively woke’.

Just a week ago, Kalanick took what was then a “leave of absence” of indeterminate length; now, he’s out. But unfortunately, even though he’s no longer CEO, Kalanick will still be on the board and, therefore, in a position of power. I’m sure that Uber’s culture has been created from the top down, and Kalanick’s continued board membership, voting rights, and founder status allow him to still be a figurehead for the company.

If he is involved in picking a replacement that is a good “cultural fit”, I doubt there will be many substantive changes. Uber’s internal culture is aptly named — it’s like a toxic mold, and will persist so long as any trace of it remains at the company. They can go through the motions of implementing Eric Holder’s recommendations, but nothing will make a real difference until their people commit to a completely different mental perspective.

Update: It’s worth pointing out that, while Uber has faced constant controversy since it launched, you can draw a direct link between Susan Fowler’s February post and Kalanick’s ousting.

Third-Party Companies Are Collecting Form Data Without User Consent

Kashmir Hill and Surya Mattu, Gizmodo:

If you’re daydreaming about buying a home or need to lower the payment on the one you already have, you might pay a visit to the Quicken Loans mortgage calculator. You’ll be asked a quick succession of questions that reveal how much cash you have on hand or how much your home is worth and how close you are to paying it off. Then Quicken will tell you how much you’d owe per month if you got a loan from them and asks for your name, email address, and phone number.

You might fill in the contact form, but then have second thoughts. Do you really want to tell this company how much you’re worth or how in debt you are? You change your mind and close the page before clicking the Submit button and agreeing to Quicken’s privacy policy.

But it’s too late. Your email address and phone number have already been sent to a server at “murdoog.com,” which is owned by NaviStone, a company that advertises its ability to unmask anonymous website visitors and figure out their home addresses. NaviStone’s code on Quicken’s site invisibly grabbed each piece of your information as you filled it out, before you could hit the “Submit” button.

Quicken is just one of over a hundred websites known by BuiltWith that use NaviStone. This technique seems completely unethical to me, but NaviStone isn’t the only company providing tracking services for partially-completed form data: FormStack — which cites Delta Airlines, Netflix, Twitter, and Stanford as clients — highlights their version of the feature on their website. Gravity Forms, a popular WordPress plugin, has available a partial entries add-on. FormRescue has on its homepage a demo of cancelling a form entry and being opted into an email marketing list — something that’s entirely illegal in Canada.

Some of this functionality is optional, such as the Gravity Forms add-on and the FormStack functionality. But you, as a user, would never know which websites you visit are using scripts like these to disclose your partially-completed form entries to third parties without your explicit consent.

Inside Apple’s Fight Against Leaks

The last time anyone wrote about Apple’s “plumbers”, that I can recall, was in 2009, when Gizmodo’s Jesus Diaz called them the “Gestapo” in his usual tone of moderation and subtlety.

Today, though, William Turton of the Outline has the big scoop:

A recording of an internal briefing at Apple earlier this month obtained by The Outline sheds new light on how far the most valuable company in the world will go to prevent leaks about new products.

The briefing, titled “Stopping Leakers – Keeping Confidential at Apple,” was led by Director of Global Security David Rice, Director of Worldwide Investigations Lee Freedman, and Jenny Hubbert, who works on the Global Security communications and training team.

I can’t wait for Thurton to have leaked to him the audio from the investigation into this leaked anti-leaking audio. Got that? Good.

If you’ve been following Apple for any length of time, you might have noticed how little leaked for WWDC this year, as compared to previous years. Specific details — seven tweeters and a woofer, a Mac Pro-esque design, and so on — of the HomePod were known beforehand, but that sort of thing tends to come from the supply chain. In recent years, though, the balance between supply chain leaks and corporate leaks has apparently changed:

However, Rice says, Apple has cracked down on leaks from its factories so successfully that more breaches are now happening on Apple’s campuses in California than its factories abroad. “Last year was the first year that Apple [campuses] leaked more than the supply chain,” Rice tells the room. “More stuff came out of Apple [campuses] last year than all of our supply chain combined.”

I wonder if Apple is including in this the prerelease peek of the black Milanese Loop band, the prerelease ads for the iPhone 7, and the framework leak of the TouchBar-equipped MacBook Pros. Other than those secrecy blunders, it still seems like the vast majority of leaks originate on the assembly line, even recently.

PayPal Says They’ll Soon Begin Supporting Instant Bank Transfers, Including in Venmo

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch:

PayPal announced this morning a plan to speed up money transfers between its service, Venmo and users’ bank accounts for those with supported MasterCard and Visa debit cards. This new “instant transfers” service will be available at a rate of $0.25 per transaction, and will deliver funds in a matter of minutes, instead of the day or so it typically takes when using PayPal or Venmo.

PayPal has been operating in the peer-to-peer payments business for nearly two decades, but the company has been more recently challenged by a number of newcomers, like Square Cash, for example, whose key advantage has been the ability to “cash out” to your bank account instantly.

PayPal says that they’re going to launch this ahead of the peer-to-peer Apple Pay support arriving with iOS 11, which will presumably launch in September. One of the hangups of peer-to-peer Apple Pay — when compared to, say, Square Cash — is that transferred funds sit on a virtual spending card in Wallet, instead of being immediately sent to a connected bank account.

No word on whether instant transfers, as with pretty much all of the popular peer-to-peer payment apps, will be a U.S.-only feature; I certainly hope it will launch worldwide. I still use PayPal for a few things, and I appreciate any way I’m able to treat it as a silent bridge between my bank account and places where I send and receive money.

Andrew Cunningham Has Left Ars Technica

Two years ago, John Siracusa announced that he would no longer be writing his book-length MacOS reviews. After he stopped, Andrew Cunningham and Lee Hutchinson kept up the tradition while Cunningham was also writing equally thorough reviews of every version of iOS since iOS 7.

It doesn’t sound like he’ll be writing any more of his longform reviews. I’ll miss them, but I’m sure his writing over at the Wirecutter will be equally fastidious.

Personal Details of 198 Million American Voters Leaked

The era of big data breaches isn’t stopping — if anything, it seems to be getting worse. In April last year, the Telegraph reported that 50 million Turkish citizens’ details were leaked. At around the same time, the Rappler noted the leak of 55 million Philippine voting records, which was followed shortly by news of over 90 million Mexicans’ voting records.

Now, this, from Dan O’Sullivan of UpGuard:

In what is the largest known data exposure of its kind, UpGuard’s Cyber Risk Team can now confirm that a misconfigured database containing the sensitive personal details of over 198 million American voters was left exposed to the internet by a firm working on behalf of the Republican National Committee (RNC) in their efforts to elect Donald Trump. The data, which was stored in a publicly accessible cloud server owned by Republican data firm Deep Root Analytics, included 1.1 terabytes of entirely unsecured personal information compiled by DRA and at least two other Republican contractors, TargetPoint Consulting, Inc. and Data Trust. In total, the personal information of potentially near all of America’s 200 million registered voters was exposed, including names, dates of birth, home addresses, phone numbers, and voter registration details, as well as data described as “modeled” voter ethnicities and religions.

This echoes a leak of of the information of 191 million voters from December 2015, but this is even worse with the inclusion of ethnicity and religion data, which can be used to target specific individuals. You know all those tech companies promising not to assist with the creation of a so-called “Muslim registry”? Even without Facebook’s enormous data set, this is the next closest thing.

Lyft Invents Bus

Heather Yamada-Hosley of Lifehacker tried Lyft’s new Shuttle service:

I take Lyft or Lyft Line a couple times a week, usually because I’m traveling with other people and it’s the same or cheaper (and much, much cleaner, faster, and more pleasant) than taking public transportation. But Lyfts can add up fast and Lyft Line, while less expensive, can take you out of your way and make your travel time much longer.

Lyft Shuttle addresses both those issues by having you walk to a nearby pick up spot, get in a shared car that follows a pre-designated route, and drops you (and everyone else) off at the same stop. So, basically, you share a ride with other people (most of the time) so your ride price is lower, but you know exactly how long the ride will take because you’re on a pre-designated route.

Raphael Orlove of Jalopnik had basically the same thought as, well, most Lifehacker commenters:

Lyft is testing out a new service called Lyft Shuttle, which runs at a lower cost than its usual it’s-not-a-taxi app, but runs on a preset route picking up at preset stops. You may be familiar with this concept already, as in other parts of the world that are not Silicon Valley, this is known as a “bus.”

Apart from the sheer absurdity of Lyft claiming innovation to investors by copying and pasting ideas from Manchester in 1824, this seems like an insidious attempt at privatizing public transport. That’s a problem because the goals of public transport — to provide transportation to everyone regardless of income or mobility — tend to run counter to the goals of private companies. Most transit systems in the United States and around the world don’t turn a profit, and that’s okay. We all subsidize them because their goal is for all of us to use them. Besides, it’s better than public transit being subject to the whims of Silicon Valley investors.

I hear the public transport system in San Francisco isn’t very good, so it’s tempting to argue that Lyft could provide healthy competition. But one reason that Bay Area transit isn’t very good is that it’s desperately underfunded — in part because many tech companies based in the region, including Lyft, are engaged in various tax avoidance strategies.

Lyft and their investors can do whatever they want with their money and time. If they want to reinvent the bus, they should go for it. But they should also be contributing their fair share so that everyone may have equal access to safe, reliable, and fast public transportation.

Update: Brian Feldman, New York magazine:

… To spell it out for the tech crowd, what is annoying about Lyft’s new project, to those of us who ride buses, is that it describes and re-creates an underfunded and underappreciated public service as a revolutionary new endeavor. No one doubts that autonomous driving, if and when it actually arrives, will change how buses are operated. But that would happen regardless of Lyft’s invention, or reinvention, of the bus.

I use public transit extensively. I love the idea of making it easier and better to use for everyone. I dislike the idea of making it a VC-subsidized expensive private enterprise operating out of San Francisco.

The Radium Girls

Kate Moore, Buzzfeed:

Ever since the glowing element had been discovered, it had been known to cause harm; Marie Curie herself had suffered radiation burns from handling it. People had died of radium poisoning before the first dial painter ever picked up her brush. That was why the men at the radium companies wore lead aprons in their laboratories and handled the radium with ivory-tipped tongs. Yet the dial painters were not afforded such protection, or even warned it might be necessary.

That was because, at that time, a small amount of radium — such as the girls were handling — was believed to be beneficial to health: People drank radium water as a tonic, and one could buy cosmetics, butter, milk, and toothpaste laced with the wonder element. Newspapers reported its use would “add years to our lives!”

But that belief was founded upon research conducted by the very same radium firms who had built their lucrative industry around it. They ignored all the danger signs; when asked, managers told the girls the substance would put roses in their cheeks.

The biggest difference between women working in chip manufacturing today and the “radium girls” is that the latter were paid well. That doesn’t excuse the toxicity of the work nor the industry’s lies, but it suggests we’ve gone backwards: not only are women once again encouraged to work in a particularly dangerous industry without adequate protections, they’re not even being compensated for the hazards.

(Via Andrew.)

Women Are Paying a Steep Price for Our Digital World

Cam Simpson, Bloomberg:

In 2010 a South Korean physician named Kim Myoung-hee left her assistant professorship at a medical school to head a small research institute in Seoul. For Kim, who’s also an epidemiologist, it was a chance to spend more time on the public-health research she’d embraced as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard five years earlier.

In her new post, a series of cancer cases in South Korea’s microelectronics industry drew her interest, including one particular episode that had caught the public eye: Two young women working side-by-side at the same Samsung Electronics workstation and using the same chemicals contracted the same aggressive form of leukemia. The disease kills only 3 out of every 100,000 South Koreans each year, but these young co-workers died within eight months of each other. And their disease was among those most clearly tied to carcinogens. Activists discovered more cases at Samsung and other microelectronics companies, mostly among young women. Industry executives denied any link.

Kim began compiling and analyzing occupational-health studies about semiconductor workers worldwide, a body of work that had drawn little attention in South Korea despite the industry’s importance there. She found 40 different works published by 2010, and virtually every one mentioned exposure to toxic chemicals. “I had no idea that this is a chemical industry, not the electronics industry,” she says.

This is a heartbreaking story. It’s not news that the electronics manufacturing industry is dangerous; it is news that this danger was known in the United States, but was moved overseas when it became undeniable. Instead of making electronics production safer after studies proved the risks, though, companies simply transferred those risks onto underpaid young women and buried the true cost of their role in the chip production process.

CRTC Rules Against Carrier Locking, Unlocking Fees

Lisa Cumming, Vice:

Now, the age of locked-to-carrier phones is ending in Canada: if you buy your phone, you’ll be able to use it wherever you want, full stop.

As of Dec. 1, carriers can no longer charge an “unlocking fee” to unlock your phone. Moreover, all newly purchased devices must be unlocked from the get-go, according to new regulations from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the federal telecommunications regulator, which came out on Thursday. Last year, telecoms made more than $37 million charging people to unlock their devices, according to a CBC report.

This is an especially important decision in Canada’s oligopolic carrier market. Unfortunately, there are no regulations from the CRTC that prevent carriers from raising their prices to compensate, which is likely what will happen. Because of Canada’s geography and various laws designed to make sure adequate cellular access is not confined to major cities, there’s very little chance this situation will change while the infrastructure is privately owned and operated. Therefore, the CRTC ought to consider proposals to nationalize cellular infrastructure and allow carriers to resell it.

The iPod Hi-Fi

Apple’s prior attempt at a home audio system famously didn’t sell particularly well, but the thought and consideration that went into it indicates that this was a product of real passion and care. Check out the ridiculously thick battery door and the near-seamless body. No matter how much I appreciate the premium quality of today’s aluminum and glass Apple products, a part of me will always miss the glossy white plastic era, and the iPod Hi-Fi might be the truest expression of its ideals.

Wistron CEO Says the New iPhone Will Have ‘Wireless Charging’

Debby Wu, Nikkei’s Asian Review:

iPhone assembler Wistron, a smaller rival to Hon Hai Precision Industry and Pegatron, on Wednesday confirmed that waterproof and wireless charging will be incorporated into the new 5.5-inch iPhones to be launched later this year.

“Assembly process for the previous generations of [iPhones] have not changed much, though new features like waterproof and wireless charging now require some different testing, and waterproof function will alter the assembly process a bit,” [Wistron Chief Executive Robert Hwang] told reporters after the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting on Wednesday.

A couple of things of note here. First, Hwang probably got a cracking phone call this morning from Cupertino, and how much would you have loved to be in an Apple SVP’s office when that happened?

Second, Wu says that this concerns the “new 5.5-inch iPhones”, which is curious. Does that mean it’s coming to a new generation of iPhone 7 Plus models — a sort of iPhone 7S Plus? Does that exclude a presumed non-Plus iPhone 7S? Or does she mean that the screen size of the so-called iPhone 8 is 5.5 inches?

Also, an observation: all the way back in September of 2012, I was convinced that Apple wouldn’t implement wireless charging until it was truly wireless. A charging mat or magnetic puck might be cool, but they offer little convenience over plugging a cable into a device. Apple seems to think the same thing — they don’t call the charging setup used by the Watch “wireless charging” — they call it a “magnetic charging cable”.

I doubt the CEO of Wistron is dropping any real hints here, and I have no idea if the new iPhone will sport truly wireless charging, in the same way we think of every other use of the word “wireless”. But I’m looking forward to a day when I can simply pop my iPhone onto my nightstand like I do my glasses and book, go to sleep, and wake up to a charged phone, without a second thought.

With This Year’s OS Updates, Apple Will Improve Encryption of iMessage Backups

Just before WWDC, if you’ll remember, I had a little argument with myself about the nature of encryption for iCloud backups. I was specifically interested in the nature of iMessages within iCloud backups because, as noted by Joshua Kopstein of Vice, Apple has the keys to their own backup system:

It turns out the privacy benefits Apple likes to talk about (and the FBI likes to complain about) basically disappear when iCloud Backup is enabled. Your messages, photos and whatnot are still protected while on your device and encrypted end-to-end while in transit. But you’re also telling your device to CC Apple on everything. Those copies are encrypted on iCloud using a key controlled by Apple, not you, allowing the company (and thus anyone who gets access to your account) to see their contents.

That’s set to change with this year’s round of operating system updates. Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, Vice:

During an interview with Apple blogger and Daring Fireball’s owner John Gruber, Federighi said that the company has figured out a way to do syncing while still remaining unable to read your iMessages. Here’s what he said (this exchange is around the 01:05:30 timestamp in the video):

“Our security and encryption team has been doing work over a number of years now to be able to synchronize information across your, what we call your circle of devices—all those devices that are associated with the common account—in a way that they each generate and share keys with each other that Apple does not have.”

“And so, even if they store information in the cloud, it’s encrypted with keys that Apple doesn’t have. And so [users] can put things in the cloud, they can pull stuff down from the cloud, so the cloud still serves as a conduit—and even ultimately kind of a backup for them—but only they can read it.”

It isn’t clear how they’re doing this, nor is it clear whether this only applies to iCloud syncing of messages or all iCloud backups.

After Gawker’s Demise, the ‘Inventor of Email’ Targets Techdirt

Rather than accepting the fact that he wasn’t the first person to come up with email, and that Mike Masnick has every right to mock him publicly, Shiva Ayyadurai has resorted to petulant, Trumpian bullying tactics to try to buy his way into history, and bury any publication that dares to publish the facts. Even if Ayyadurai loses his frivolous, fact-bending lawsuit, he might still put Techdirt out of business; meanwhile, Techdirt effectively loses either way. It’s shameful.

Charles Thacker, Dead at 74

Cyrus Farivar, Ars Technica:

Charles Thacker, one of the lead hardware designers on the Xerox Alto, the first modern personal computer, died of a brief illness on Monday. He was 74.

The Alto, which was released in 1973 but was never a commercial success, was an incredibly influential machine. Ahead of its time, it boasted resizeable windows as part of its graphical user interface, along with a mouse, Ethernet, and numerous other technologies that didn’t become standard until years later. (Last year, Y Combinator acquired one and began restoring it.)

Thacker also helped demonstrate the viability of a tablet-style computer — something bigger than a PDA with PC-like capabilities — when he worked on prototypes for Microsoft’s Tablet PC project in the late 1990s.

Jake Swearingen, New York magazine:

Fellow Xerox engineer Alan Kay had the idea for what he called a “Dynabook,” — a computer with the form factor of a book that would be permanently networked, allowing for its contents to be continuously updated. Thacker took the idea and ran with it, eventually migrating to Microsoft where he worked on their Tablet PC, released in 2002. Again, while Microsoft’s version of the tablet was not a success, it laid the foundation for tablet computers to come — including, of course, the iPad.

That’s a life well lived.

Quirks in Apple’s Mac Pricing Strategy

Riccardo Mori:

I’m a terribly budget-conscious customer, alas, but even if I weren’t, the thing that irritates me the most is how certain components of many Mac base configurations look purposefully unappealing to induce people to upgrade them right away, thus spending more money. I mean, a spinning 5400rpm hard drive in a retina iMac, in 2017? I had a 5400rpm hard drive when I purchased my 12-inch PowerBook G4 more than 13 years ago. Eight gigabytes of RAM in the high-end 27-inch Retina 5K iMac, aimed at customers whose needs very likely demand a bare minimum of 16 GB of RAM? Laptops with a non-upgradable 128 GB SSD? All this with base model configurations that aren’t exactly cheap from the start. It doesn’t strike me as treating your customers respectfully.

This situation feels like a repeat of the longstanding 16 GB entry-level capacity for iOS devices: it’s clearly inadequate. I don’t know what hardware Apple’s executive team uses, but I doubt any of them could honestly recommend that someone should buy an iMac today with a spinning hard drive. Solid state storage might be far too expensive to put in every iMac, but they could at least start with a Fusion Drive which, yes, would eat into margins, but it would be the right thing to do.

By the way, I think that executive test is a good way to benchmark the value of product configurations. I could imagine Tim Cook or Phil Schiller using a 13-inch MacBook Pro with a 256 GB SSD; I couldn’t imagine either of them being happy with the base-level 128 GB model.

Adam C. Engst, TidBits:

Thinking about buying one of Apple’s just-updated iMacs? You’ll want to pay close attention while configuring them because you could end up with a worse configuration for the same price depending on how you start, or you might pay more for the same configuration. Alert reader Yasuhiro Sugawara of Sugarwater Brothers deserves the credit for identifying these quirks in Apple’s online store.

I assume these quirks are related to Apple’s affinity for upgrade pricing ending in –00, but it would be helpful if the online store could suggest Macs of the same price in a better configuration.

Mixed Messages in an Excerpt From ‘The One Device’

Vice’s Brian Merchant has a new book coming out about the iPhone’s origins. Called “The One Device”, it will apparently chronicle the development and production on the tenth anniversary of the iPhone’s release. The Verge published an excerpt from the book this morning and it seems to contain a number of inaccuracies or mixed messages.

There are little things amiss. For example, on the “Project Purple” codename:

Why Purple? Few seem to recall. One theory is it was named after a purple kangaroo toy that Scott Herz — one of the first engineers to come to work on the iPhone — had as a mascot for Radar, the system that Apple engineers used to keep track of software bugs and glitches throughout the company.

The mascot for Radar is not a kangaroo; it’s either an anteater or an aardvark because, well, they eat bugs. This is really tiny detail, but it’s the kind of thing that makes me question the depth of research afforded to this book. The Radar mascot is well-known even outside of Apple, particularly in the broader development community.

But then there are bigger things, like Tony Fadell’s on-the-record claim that Phil Schiller demanded a hardware keyboard during planning meetings:

He “just sat there with his sword out every time, going, ‘No, we’ve got to have a hard keyboard. No. Hard keyboard.’ And he wouldn’t listen to reason as all of us were like, ‘No, this works now, Phil.’ And he’d say, ‘You gotta have a hard keyboard!’ ” Fadell says.

Apparently, one of those meetings became particularly heated:

“We’re making the wrong decision!” Schiller shouted.

“Steve looked at him and goes, ‘I’m sick and tired of this stuff. Can we get off of this?’ And he threw him out of the meeting,” Fadell recalls. Later, he says, “Steve and he had it out in the hallway. He was told, like, Get on the program or get the fuck out. And he ultimately caved.”

John Gruber:

So I’ll just say this: this story about Phil Schiller pushing for a hardware keyboard comes one source (so far — if anyone out there can back that up, my window is always open for little birdies), and that one source is the guy who admittedly spent over a year working on iPhone prototypes with a click wheel interface.

Phil Schiller also denies Fadell’s story. Very few people were privy to meetings about the iPhone in 2005, so this will likely remain a he-said-he-said standoff, unless Steve Jobs’ ghost wants to chime in.

For what it’s worth, Merchant’s book will probably be an entertaining read. I’m certainly going to check it out. As usual with ostensibly secret-spilling books about Apple, though, it should be enjoyed with an elevated level of skepticism.

Update: Tony Fadell says that the anecdote about Schiller isn’t correct. But Merchant quotes him directly in the excerpt published on the Verge, so something isn’t adding up here. Either the writer completely botched Fadell’s quote — which raises serious questions about the accuracy of the entire book — or Fadell dramatized it while being interviewed and wishes to walk back from an exaggerated recollection.

The iPad’s Other Shoe Has Dropped

Matt Gemmell’s full-time computer is his iPad, so he has some thoughts on the big changes coming in iOS 11:

The presence of a persistent dock, for example, changes the whole language of the machine. It’s no longer a phone-like launcher, with app sessions sitting on top; it’s a task-focused device, where you can arbitrarily branch to other areas as you wish. The Home screen has been demoted from its hub status, and instead it becomes the Mac’s Launchpad, to which it gave its look and functionality.

Drag and drop, with cross-app persistence, multiple non-modal sessions, and multi-touch adding and stacking, is an example of what iOS and the iPad should be all about: showing how we can not only replicate sophisticated desktop-era interactions on a touch device, but even improve upon them by being freed from the tyranny of the pointer.

Aurélien Che’s recording of stacking multiple kinds of objects and being able to drop them individually really indicates the power of upgrading an old computer paradigm for a device that you can directly manipulate with your fingers. It has been a long time coming, but it’s extraordinary.

Gemmell also posted a slow-motion video of scrolling on his new iPad Pro. It’s so smooth that it makes the 60 Hz display of his old Pro look like a basic animation, rather than pushing the webpage up and down. I hope ProMotion comes to every single one of Apple’s devices, but I’d especially like to see it on the Apple TV — potential technical limitations aside, it would allow movies to be shown at their correct frame rate.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick Takes a Leave of Absence

Heather Somerville and Joseph Menn, Reuters:

Chief Executive Travis Kalanick told employees on Tuesday he will take time away from the company he helped to found, citing the need to grieve for his recently deceased mother and to work on his leadership skills, according to an email from Kalanick seen by Reuters.

Kalanick, 40, did not say how long he would be away from Uber, the ride-hailing firm that he helped turn into the world’s most valuable venture-backed company, but has run into problems due to its rough-and-tumble approach to regulations and its own employees.

“During this interim period, the leadership team, my directs, will be running the company,” Kalanick wrote in his email. “I will be available as needed for the most strategic decisions, but I will be empowering them to be bold and decisive in order to move the company forward swiftly.”

Progress — to some degree or another. Not only does Kalanick need to deal with a family tragedy — and rightfully so — the time off should allow the company to start putting in place the recommendations from the report by Eric Holder and Tammy Albarrán. Their suggestions include everything from limiting Kalanick’s power and responsibilities, to reducing a workaholic culture by rescheduling catered dinners to an earlier time.

While Kalanick says that the leadership team will be running Uber while he’s absent, there seem to be very few people left on that team. Who, exactly, is going to be running the company?

Update: Yahoo Finance was sent a copy of the audio from the all-hands internal meeting announcing Kalanick’s leave (autoplaying video warning):

While speaking, Huffington pointed out that Uber was adding a woman to its board, Wan Ling Martello.

“There’s a lot of data that shows when there’s one woman on the board, it’s much more likely that there will be a second woman on the board,” she said.

“Actually what it shows is it’s much likely to be more talking,” Uber board member David Bonderman said.

This happened seven minutes into a meeting addressing pervasive sexism within the company. Seven minutes is all it took for one of the assholes in charge of the company to make a sexist remark. Kalanick may be absent, and many of his ilk may have left the company, but their rotten attitudes remain.

Update: Now Bonderman is off the board. Who knows — maybe they are serious about clearing out all the assholes.

User Frustration With Different Online Advertising Techniques

Therese Fessenden of the Nielsen Norman Group:

In 2004, we wrote about the most hated advertising techniques based on research conducted by Christian Rohrer and John Boyd. Online advertising has changed significantly since then, giving us plenty of new formats to test and new questions to ask. With that, we decided to run a study to determine which advertising techniques are most disruptive and detrimental for the modern user experience.

We conducted a survey with 452 adult respondents from the United States who were not employed in an IT- or marketing-related industry. In this survey, participants were shown 23 wireframes corresponding to different types of advertisements and rated how much they disliked them on a scale of 1 to 7.

You won’t be surprised by anything in the top five, but you may be surprised by how many respondents were not as bothered by retargeted ads as most other formats.

When you think about how many of these ad techniques can often be found on the same webpage, it’s no surprise that ad blocking is on the rise. It’s beyond the scope of this survey, but I’d be interested to see some research into the acceptability of anti-blocking techniques, and how likely they are to create paying subscribers or disable ad blockers.

The Talk Show Live From WWDC

This is the third year in a row that John Gruber has hosted Apple executives as his guests on the WWDC version of the Talk Show, and I think it’s the best one yet, despite some funky audio mixing. The conversation between Gruber, Craig Federighi, and Phil Schiller felt more informative and more relaxed. The highlights include Federighi highlighting improved iCloud privacy, the careful choreography of upgrading all iOS devices to APFS, and elaborating on how drag and drop works in iOS 11. It’s worth listening to, but I’d take the ninety minutes to watch the video, if I were you.

Emil Michael, Uber’s SVP of Business, Resigns

Mike Isaac, New York Times:

Emil Michael, Uber’s senior vice president for business and second in command at the ride-hailing company, left the company on Monday morning, according to an email sent to employees.

Mr. Michael’s departure comes after a series of scandals that have rocked the company over the past year, forcing the board of directors to call an investigation into Uber’s culture and business practices.

The results of that investigation, conducted by Eric H. Holder Jr. of Covington & Burling, were delivered to Uber’s board on Sunday. Mr. Holder’s report recommended that Mr. Michael depart the company, and the board said on Sunday evening that it had accepted all of the recommendations.

In 2014, Michael forgot that he was on the record when he suggested to a Buzzfeed editor that Uber could, theoretically, hire opposition researchers to dig up dirt on targeted journalists as retaliation for negative coverage. He later stated that those candid statements did not reflect his actual views.

Appholes

Last week, Jason Fried posted a screenshot of an ad for Apple’s new series, “Planet of the Apps”, featuring a quote from Andrew Kemendo, one of the contestants on the show:

I rarely get to see my kids. That’s a risk you have to take.

I don’t have any contempt for Kemendo for saying this; it’s a common sentiment in today’s workforce, particularly in Silicon Valley. The never-ending workday that was once the domain of the CEO has since spread to even the lowest-level employees. David Heinemeier Hansson, Fried’s co-founder at Basecamp, captured “trickle-down workaholism” in a fantastic article:

Neither these athletes [Kobe Bryant and LeBron James] or these writers [Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, and Charles Darwin] were giving up anything on whatever contemporaries that may have put in more time, more hours, or greater sacrifices. Their contributions to the world were in no way diminished by their balanced approach, quite the contrary.

So don’t tell me that there’s something uniquely demanding about building yet another fucking startup that dwarfs the accomplishments of The Origin of Species or winning five championship rings. It’s bullshit. Extractive, counterproductive bullshit peddled by people who either need a narrative to explain their personal sacrifices and regrets or who are in a position to treat the lives and wellbeing of others like cannon fodder.

It’s critical to understand that Kemendo’s quote isn’t reflecting upon a unique situation for Apple. In 2008, Fred Vogelstein documented the development of the first iPhone in an oft-cited article (sorry about the Wired link):

For those working on the iPhone, the next three months would be the most stressful of their careers. Screaming matches broke out routinely in the hallways. Engineers, frazzled from all-night coding sessions, quit, only to rejoin days later after catching up on their sleep. A product manager slammed the door to her office so hard that the handle bent and locked her in; it took colleagues more than an hour and some well-placed whacks with an aluminum bat to free her.

If anything, this should be read as a cautionary tale rather than a playbook — that, despite the success and ingenuity of the iPhone, this is something that should not happen.

In other words, it’s a circumstance that should not be promoted.

I feel terrible for Kemendo, his fellow contestants on “Planet of the Apps”, and anyone else who is stuck in a situation where they feel pressured to compromise on family and friends because of their job. That shouldn’t happen — ever. Even though the ad in question was eventually deleted, it isn’t a work-life balance that Apple — or any company — should feel comfortable promoting.1


By the way, I sat through the first episode of “Planet of the Apps” — because I work hard for you — and I stand by what I wrote after the trailer was released in February:

I’ve seen more than a few people write this off as a dramatized version of app development — compiling code and funding rounds, as seen through a reality TV filter. I think that’s overly kind. The premise is derivative, and the clips — so far — seem mediocre and dull. What has been shown so far does a disservice to the vast majority of developers, too.

I’ve very little to add beyond this. Without adequate time spent on character development, I’m not invested in the success of any of the participants so far, so every apparent crisis they face seems louder but no more urgent. Even with my knowledge of all of the judges’ backgrounds — especially with my knowledge of Will.I.Am’s Salesforce watch — I don’t buy any of them as serious startup mentors. Very little in the show convinced me otherwise.

Also, there are a lot of indications that this is a TV show, like audible director cues and visible camera booms. It’s super weird and it doesn’t really add anything to the show.

My perception might change later in the season, but this isn’t an encouraging start. I like the idea of Apple making original TV shows; I don’t like this attempt.


  1. Worth mentioning, too, is that Apple was one of several major tech companies — including Google, Intel, and Adobe — that conspired to fix employee wages and agreed not to recruit between themselves. ↩︎

The iPad’s Renaissance

John Paczkowski had the chance earlier this week to speak with Craig Federighi and Phil Schiller about Apple’s new iPad Pro models and the iPad-specific enhancements coming in iOS 11:

For a while — since its inception — iOS has been iPhone-first, with nods to the iPad as well.

This is the first time that iOS has (seemingly) been designed from the get-go with the iPad at top of mind. While last year’s iPad Pro may have delivered on hardware, without a strong OS update to match, it felt incomplete as a “primary” computer. Yet given this new operating system — especially when taken together with this year’s hardware — it feels like the iPad may be at another inflection point.

Apparently, the silicon used to drive iPad displays at 120 Hz took four years to develop. The software features in iOS 11 seem like they’ve taken a couple of years on their own to design and build. Consider, for instance, the drag and drop feature: it seems so simple, but — as noted in this years Platforms State of the Union presentation — Apple paid considerable attention to the security of a drag and drop operation, and it required APFS to be fast enough.

As much as the past couple of years have felt a little bit like a drought for the iPad — iPad Pro hardware aside — the innovations launched this year truly feel like a renaissance for the product line. Apple really is trying to tick all the boxes to make the iPad the best computer for most people, most of the time. I just hope that they can keep up the momentum, and not tick-tock between releases of iOS that seem primarily designed for the iPhone, and releases made for the iPad.

Will Uber Fire Travis Kalanick?

Maya Kosoff, Vanity Fair:

Uber C.E.O. Travis Kalanick has long been the sort of leader that Silicon Valley venerates: brash, unapologetic, and committed to winning at all costs. As his ride-hailing start-up’s valuation ballooned, the press wrote off Kalanick’s jokes about picking up women on demand and thrived on the drama of his secret plans to sabotage his rivals. But as Uber matured into a globe-spanning, $70 billion behemoth, stories of the company’s aggressive, macho culture ran up against evolving expectations for what is acceptable behavior in a tech industry finally grappling with sexism. Now, in the wake of a series of metastasizing scandals, a once unthinkable question is being asked: will Uber’s board fire Travis Kalanick?

Or, to frame it another way, what would it take for Uber to fire Kalanick? At any other company, he’d have been walked out of the building four or five scandals ago; Uber, though, has a uniquely high tolerance for intolerable behaviour. From an ethical standpoint, is there anything Kalanick can do wrong in the eyes of Uber’s board?

WSJ Gains Subscribes While Fading in Search Results

Gerry Smith, Bloomberg:

After blocking Google users from reading free articles in February, the Wall Street Journal’s subscription business soared, with a fourfold increase in the rate of visitors converting into paying customers. But there was a trade-off: Traffic from Google plummeted 44 percent.

The reason: Google search results are based on an algorithm that scans the internet for free content. After the Journal’s free articles went behind a paywall, Google’s bot only saw the first few paragraphs and started ranking them lower, limiting the Journal’s viewership.

I’m not sure how this effect can last for the Journal, but it goes to show that publications don’t necessarily benefit from being available to search engines. For an established publication — like the Wall Street Journal — the benefits may really only run one way: towards search engines.

Siri’s Complicated and Fraught Life So Far

Tripp Mickle reports for the Wall Street Journal (work around the paywall via Twitter) on Siri’s stumbles within Apple:

Siri’s capabilities have lagged behind those of rivals elsewhere, as well. In tests across 5,000 different questions, it answered accurately 62% of the time, lagging the roughly 90% accuracy rate of Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa, according to Stone Temple, a digital marketing firm.

A separate study by Loup Ventures, a market-research firm, shows Siri performs better than rivals on core iPhone functions, so-called command-related queries — making calendar appointments, placing phone calls, sending text messages — but doesn’t do as well answering questions accurately from the web.

Apple has tried to close the gap through acquisitions. In 2015, it purchased VocalIQ, a Cambridge, England-based startup that designed a system to improve a virtual assistant’s conversational ability.

It’s not the inability for Siri to process complex conversational queries that worries me; it’s Siri’s lack of rudimentary contextual understanding. A simple example: Tuesday night, at about 11:00, I asked Siri on my Watch “is it going to rain tomorrow?”; Siri responded by displaying a ten-day forecast. This is wrong for two reasons:

  1. My query was binary, and displaying a forecast does not answer it. Asking the same thing to Siri on my iPhone resulted in a direct answer, so I would expect a yes or no in the more time-constrained context of the Watch.

  2. If I’m asking about what the weather will be like “tomorrow”, it makes far more sense to show me the hourly forecast.

My second objection is, I admit, subjective — a couple of people replied to my tweet asking why the hourly forecast would make sense if no rain is expected. But I think the use of “tomorrow” should supersede that and show me a more fine-grained forecast.1

My first objection, though, seems entirely obvious to me: I’m asking a question, and it should provide an answer. I think it’s fair to limit that expectation to avoid Google’s “one true answer” problem, but this is a question already answered on the iPhone in plain terms.

This is just one example; I’m sure you can think of your own instances of baffling inconsistencies and total disobedience. My experiences with Siri over the years have been mixed, and it’s stuff like this that drives me up the wall. I would love if Siri could start understanding more complex and nuanced questions; I can’t understand why, nearly six years later, it fails to do the right thing with the most basic kinds of queries.


  1. I also think that the hourly forecast should begin at the time I’m usually awake instead of midnight. Siri knows what time my alarm is set for, and I use a sleep tracking app that feeds into HealthKit, so it has more than enough entirely local information to be able to figure that out. ↩︎

Police in China Detain Twenty-Two Over iPhone Information Theft

Yang Jie and Josh Chin, Dow Jones Newswires:

Police in eastern China said they had detained 22 people, including 20 from Apple “direct sales outlets” in China and companies Apple outsources services to. Police said those detained had used Apple’s internal system to illegally obtain information associated with iPhone products like phone numbers, names and Apple IDs, and then sold the information.

[…]

Under earlier laws, companies have largely escaped punishment when employees used their access to internal computer systems to steal users’ personal data, according to Liu Chunquan, an intellectual property lawyer with Shanghai-based Duan & Duan Law Firm.

That has changed under the cybersecurity law, Mr. Liu said, with companies now potentially facing fines and other punishment by regulators unless they can prove their systems weren’t to blame for leaks.

The kind of information that was captured and resold here is the information a customer would regularly provide if they needed to have their iPhone serviced. No word on whether that includes device passcodes as well, which are now used as an authentication measure. Such information, though, should only be made available to an employee for the shortest possible amount of time, and I would hope that only those on a “need to know” basis can access it.

The 2017 Apple Design Award Winners

When I didn’t see the Apple Design Awards anywhere on this year’s WWDC schedule, I became concerned that they were dropping them. They’re a hallmark of WWDC — a recognition of the best work that designers and developers do.

Rene Ritchie, iMore:

Instead of the traditional award show on Monday night, which was great in the moment but often got buried beneath all the keynote news, Apple handed out the Design Awards (ADA) in a small, private ceremony where the developers got to meet with Craig Federighi and other executives.

Now, with the keynote safely behind them, Apple is launching the ADAs to the public with a brand new website and a proper moment for each and every one of the winners — and their apps — to shine.

All of the winners are listed — with stories about the developers and how the apps came to be — on a dedicated webpage. I haven’t had the chance to try every winning app, but I regularly use a few of them, and they’re very deserving. Truly, a showcase of the best of the App Store.

Notable, seven of the ten winners are paid apps — up front, not free with an in-app purchase to unlock. Kudos.

An Uber Executive Accessed and Shared a Rape Victim’s Medical Records

Kara Swisher and Johana Bhuiyan, Recode:

A top Uber executive obtained medical records of a woman who had been raped during a ride in India, according to multiple sources.

He is no longer with the company, an Uber spokesperson said.

The executive in question, Eric Alexander, the president of business in the Asia Pacific, then showed the medical records to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and SVP Emil Michael. In addition, numerous executives at the car-hailing company were either told about the records or shown them by this group.

Every time I think Uber has sunk to its lowest possible point, they dig a little further. Or, in this case, a lot: based on Swisher and Bhuiyan‘s report, it sounds like Alexander acquired this report in an attempt to discredit the victim. To make matters worse, Alexander was apparently not part of the twenty-plus staffers fired during yesterday’s company-wide cull:

Alexander had not been among those fired, Uber said yesterday when asked about his status. Now, after Recode contacted the company about his actions, he is no longer employed there. Uber declined to comment further.

I don’t understand how Travis Kalanick is still CEO. This is abhorrent.

A Eulogy For CAPTCHA

Abigail Rowe, the Awl:

So this is how we prove our humanity, by TYPEing-IN the dirty-sock arithmetic on a Tide-branded CAPTCHA. “Prove you’re human.” It’s so blah, so crass — not even a please. And the worst part: CAPTCHA was supposed to be a good thing! Reducing spam? Good! Halting the internet bot takeover? Good! Improving AI technology? Good, hopefully! Stopping one bot from buying up all the whatever and reselling it 500%? Yes! Good again! But CAPTCHA isn’t so straightforward. And through it’s question, and our often incorrect answers, a darker, more dysfunctional portrait of the internet and the economy behind it seems to tip its hand.

The death of the CAPTCHA is encouraging partly because typing an incoherent string of characters is deeply irritating, but also because of some of the unethical economic byproducts that it has created, as Rowe mentions. I doubt very many of the people working on CAPTCHAs considered that the product they were building would create an industry of human beings expected to behave like robots. Similarly, the popularity of mobile app markets and their dependency on top lists created a demand for schemes to manipulate store rankings, resulting in unverified photos of poor working conditions for people manually and repetitively downloading apps.

I’m a designer; you may be a designer, too, or work in some capacity on features intended to prevent automated usage. It’s an ethical responsibility of our industry to recognize if there is a potential for manual abuse, too, by exploiting underpaid workers in places with more lax labour laws.

More on Safari’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention

WebKit security engineer John Wilander explains how Safari’s new Intelligent Tracking Prevention feature works:

A machine learning model is used to classify which top privately-controlled domains have the ability to track the user cross-site, based on the collected statistics. Out of the various statistics collected, three vectors turned out to have strong signal for classification based on current tracking practices: subresource under number of unique domains, sub frame under number of unique domains, and number of unique domains redirected to. All data collection and classification happens on-device.

Cookies are then distributed into “buckets” and their behaviour is adjusted based on the user’s interaction with the first- and third-party domains. I’m curious to see how well this works over time, particularly when it’s faced with tracking scripts like those from Criteo and AdRoll, which re-route Safari users’ traffic through their tracking domains in order to create a pseudo first-party interaction.

Uber Hires Bozoma Saint John, Fires Over Twenty Harassers and Bullies

Lots of news at Uber today, starting with a report from TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden:

Last week, ahead of WWDC, there was a ripple of news when Axios discovered that Bozoma Saint John — one of the more noticeable execs at the company for being a woman of color, who led an Apple Music demo at the previous year’s WWDC to some acclaim — was leaving Apple. Now TechCrunch has learned where she’s landing: she’s going to Uber.

We received the news via a tip, and have confirmed the appointment through multiple sources at Uber. The company, we understand, views the appointment as important in helping “turn the tide on recent issues.”

After Axios broke that news last week, I knew that Boz sadly wouldn’t be appearing during the keynote yesterday. She’s a fantastic presenter, and I’ve heard nothing but excellent things about her track record; I’m sure she’ll make a great Chief Brand Officer at Uber. And Uber’s going to need some great people of Boz’s calibre to turn it around.

Eric Newcomer, Bloomberg:

Uber Technologies Inc. said it fired more than 20 people after a company investigation into harassment claims.

Bobbie Wilson, an attorney at Perkins Coie LLP, gave Uber’s more than 12,000 employees an assessment of the firm’s investigation on Tuesday, according to a person familiar with the issue, who asked not to be identified discussing personnel matters. A separate probe commissioned by Uber that’s being led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has given its own recommendations to a subcommittee of Uber’s board of directors, the person said.

In a review of 215 human-resources claims, Perkins Coie took no action in 100 instances as it continues to investigate 57 others; meanwhile, 31 employees are in counseling or training, while seven received written warnings from the company, an Uber spokesman said. The issues deal with harassment, discrimination, retaliation and other HR matters. The company didn’t name the employees who were let go. Some of the people fired were senior executives, according to the person.

Even after a housecleaning like this, there’s still the matter of Uber’s internal culture. It’s hard to imagine really meaningful change happening at the company just because they fired a bunch of people, especially with Travis Kalanick still in charge.

Intelligence Contractor Charged With Leak After the Intercept Publishes Documents

Yesterday, Matthew Cole, Richard Esposito, Sam Biddle, and Ryan Grim of the Intercept published a blockbuster story about an NSA report concerning Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections. However, that story was overshadowed within about an hour by news that the U.S. Justice Department was charging the alleged leaker of that report.

Charlie Savage, New York Times:

The F.B.I. affidavit said reporters for the news outlet, which it also did not name, had approached the N.S.A. with questions for their story and, in the course of that dialogue, provided a copy of the document in their possession. An analysis of the file showed it was a scan of a copy that had been creased or folded, the affidavit said, “suggesting they had been printed and hand-carried out of a secured space.”

The N.S.A.’s auditing system showed that six people had printed out the report, including Ms. Winner. Investigators examined the computers of those six people and found that Ms. Winner had been in email contact with the news outlet, but the other five had not. In a statement, the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, praised the operation.

The Intercept issued a statement earlier today, effectively declining to comment, but it sounds like they failed to adequately protect their source. Scans of the documents published online as part of their story show printer marks that identify the document’s date, time, and printer used.

This isn’t the first time something like this has occurred. In 2014, the New York Times failed to adequately redact a presentation it published as part of the Edward Snowden cache of documents. Their error exposed the name of an NSA agent. In 2012, Vice disclosed John McAfee’s location because they left location data embedded in their published photos.

The complexities of classified documents and journalists’ occasional inexperience with the highly-technical requirements of handling them came up during John Oliver’s interview with Snowden, as reported by Alan Yuhas of the Guardian:

Oliver then asked Snowden not whether his actions were right or wrong but whether they could be dangerous simply due to the incompetence of others. The Last Week Tonight host claimed that the improper redaction of a document by the New York Times exposed intelligence activity against al-Qaida.

“That is a problem,” Snowden replied.

“Well, that’s a fuck-up,” Oliver shot back, forcing Snowden to agree.

“That is a fuck-up,” Snowden replied. “Those things do happen in reporting. In journalism we have to accept that some mistakes will be made. This is a fundamental concept of liberty.”

“But you have to own that then,” Oliver replied. “You’re giving documents with information that you know could be harmful which could get out there … We’re not even talking about bad faith, we’re talking about incompetence.”

The difference between the Times’ redaction mistakes and the Intercept’s is that the latter’s mission statement explicitly cites Snowden’s leaked documents as the kinds of stories they chase:

After NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden came forward with revelations of mass surveillance in 2013, journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill decided to found a new media organization dedicated to the kind of reporting those disclosures required: fearless, adversarial journalism. They called it The Intercept.

Based on what has been reported so far, the alleged leaker screwed up by emailing the Intercept at work, and using a work printer to create colour versions of the documents.1 However, it’s also looking like the Intercept screwed up by showing original scans of the documents to the NSA while investigating this story, and by publishing versions that can easily be traced back to the printer used.


  1. Printing or scanning in black and white, especially at a higher contrast setting, will make the dots invisible. ↩︎

New Versions of Safari Block Autoplaying Videos, Remarketing

Apple’s press release:

Safari can automatically use Reader to open articles in a clean, uncluttered format, while Autoplay Blocking stops media with audio from automatically playing in the browser.

Intelligent Tracking Prevention in Safari uses machine learning to identify and remove the tracking data that advertisers employ to follow users’ web activity.

It wasn’t mentioned in the keynote, but iOS 11 also includes Intelligent Tracking Prevention. These two enhancements alone are enough reason to try to explain to friends and family what High Sierra is and why they should update once it’s out. Good luck getting anyone used to that name, though.

Google Relaunches Contributor Service

Back in January, Google abruptly shut down Contributor, the U.S.-only service that would allow you to pay to remove ads on websites. And now, contrary to my assumptions, it has returned.

Hannah Kuchler, Financial Times which, I think, might be behind a login, but one that I believe you can bypass with a Google referral:

Google will enable publishers to ask readers who use ad-blockers for micropayments, as part of a push to improve the quality of advertisements and combat the rise of ad blockers.

[…]

Comicbook.com trialled the experience and found it convinced people to “white list” a site so that blockers do not remove its ads. The feature will be available in five countries including the US and the UK now, and more countries later in the year. As each publisher will set their own price, it is not yet clear how much it could cost consumers.

This updated version of Contributor was introduced on a chickenshit minimalist webpage that features an uncompressed 2.2 MB PNG stock photo of a man highlighting the word “Working” on a document, an uncompressed 1 MB PNG stock photo of a plant beside a laptop keyboard, and not a single mention of whether hiding ads will also prevent Google from collecting tracking data.

Currently, just twelve sites have signed up to participate in Contributor, and it looks like each has to be added to the Contributor “pass” individually. In effect, it’s a Google-run site subscription service on a per-page basis. Call me pessimistic, but I don’t see this becoming very successful, and I bet it will be unceremoniously canned within the next two years or so.

MacOS, APFS, and Time Machine Possibilities

Gene Steinberg:

One thing Time Machine does not do is to allow you to boot from the backup drive. So if your startup drive fails, you would have to restore your data to a new drive before you can get back to work. That’s certainly a severe limitation for the busy person or business. The best solution to that dilemma is to install a dedicated backup app that can create a clone drive; in other words, a mirror of your setup drive. You can use an external drive for the backup, or even a partition, but the latter wouldn’t be a good move. If a drive fails, you’d lose both backups.

[…]

Now the existing version of Time Machine was designed with the current file system, HFS+, in mind, recognizing its limitations. With APFS, Apple builds a new version of Time Machine. Does APFS make it possible to boot from a Time Machine volume?

One of the possibilities listed this year in WWDC Bingo is a Time Machine in the Cloud feature. There are plenty of offsite backup companies, but having a la carte restoration of files — from anywhere in the world — integrated with Time Machine would be a dream.

However, there are still times when a local backup is ideal — say, if you don’t have internet access, or your internet connection is slow, or if you’d prefer full encryption that you control. I would love to see enhancements to Time Machine this year that fully take advantage of APFS, if it’s ready to ship in MacOS Malibu, or Monterey, or whatever it is that they’re calling it this year.

WWDC Bingo

Ryan Jones’ gigantic WWDC Bingo spreadsheet returns on Google Docs. So far, fifty-four people — including yours truly — have added their best guesses for what will be announced this year. So far:

  • No single line item is seen by all participants as guaranteed. Yes, there is one person who has guessed that Apple will introduce a new Mac Mini on Monday. Two people do not believe there will be any major iPad enhancements in iOS 11.

  • A couple of guesses are nearly evenly split across all participants: the likelihood of iTunes for Mac being split into at least two new apps, and whether Jony Ive will be physically present.

  • Aside from Phil Schiller, lots of people think that this year’s Talk Show Live guest will be either Craig Federighi or Tim Cook. I wasn’t the only person to guess Jony Ive, but I think it’s a bit optimistic.

  • Participants seem pretty split on how many buttons will be undone on Eddy Cue’s shirt.

  • I’m slightly less optimistic than the median.

If you’d like to participate, hop in. The winner will have the dubious honour of being the best at interpreting Apple Kremlinology.

Pinboard Acquires Delicious

A short history of Pinboard and Delicious, as told in four excerpts by ex-Yahoo/Delicious employee and now Pinboard lord and king, Maciej Cegłowski.

January 2010:

There have been two big surprises in the past six months. The first was discovering that a minimalist paid bookmarking site can effectively compete against delicious, a free service that has all the resources of Yahoo at its disposal, a five year headstart, and until the recent layoffs employed some thirty people. Yahoo management single-handedly created our market with a series of terrible product decisions, and has continued to push the yoke forward and keep the nose pointed straight at the ground.

March 2011:

On December 16th Yahoo held an all-hands meeting to rally the troops after a big round of layoffs. Around 11 AM someone at this meeting showed a slide with a couple of Yahoo properties grouped into three categories, one of which was ominously called “sunset”. The most prominent logo in the group belonged to Delicious, our main competitor. Milliseconds later, the slide was on the web, and there was an ominous thundering sound as every Delicious user in North America raced for the exit.

Delicious was ultimately saved from sunsetting by being passed from one company to another, never staying very long under any particular ownership.

October 2015:

I recently heard from a competitor, let’s call them ACME Bookmarking Co., who are looking to leave the bookmarking game and sell their website.

Cegłowski may be calling them “ACME” here, but he’s clearly talking about Delicious.

Today, June 2017:

Pinboard has acquired Delicious.

[…]

Do not attempt to compete with Pinboard.

A fitting end to a multiyear saga. If I could find a way to do justice to that Italian “kissing fingers” gesture in words, I would.

Inside the U.S. Congressional Campaign to Halt Internet Privacy Rules

Kimberly Kindy, Washington Post:

“While everyone was focused on the latest headline crisis coming out of the White House, Congress was able to roll back privacy,” said former Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler, who worked for nearly two years to pass the rules.

The process to eliminate them took only a matter of weeks. The blowback was immediate.

Constituents heckled several of the lawmakers at town halls. “You sold my privacy up the river!” one person yelled at Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) — lead sponsor of the Senate bill — at a gathering in April. Several late-night comedians roasted congressional Republicans: “This is what’s wrong with Washington, D.C. I guarantee you there is not one person, not one voter of any political stripe anywhere in America who asked for this,” Stephen Colbert said.

I still can’t find anyone who thinks that undoing these rules was a good idea. Even the Republicans’ rationale, summarized in Kindy’s article, are so flimsy that they fall apart with even the most cursory questioning:

The industry, Republican FCC commissioners and lawmakers said the restrictions were too broad and should be limited to highly sensitive data, such as personal medical information, not data gathered from activities like online car shopping. The rules, they said, would cause consumers to miss out on customized promotions. And, opponents said, the threat to privacy was overstated — a provider might learn that a person visited a website but would not typically know what the person did while there.

Do Americans want to see more targeted advertising? No. Do Americans want their internet service provider to retain a full record of all of the websites they visit? Hell no. No shit.

Another revelation in Kindy’s article:

By January, trade groups for tech companies such as Facebook and Google had joined the fight to undo the privacy rules, according to records and interviews. Those companies are regulated by a different government body, the Federal Trade Commission, but they worried that Congress might someday find a way to expand the reach of the rules so that they apply to all technology companies.

One can only hope that explicit opt-in rules do become the norm, and are similarly applied to ISPs and technology companies.

Apple’s Aborted Story Arcs

Dr. Drang:

Last week David Sparks wrote a nice little article about text and screen effects in Messages and how Apple is missing the boat by not updating it with new effects, allowing the feature to get stale. It’s a good article in its own right, but it’s also a template. Apple introduces so many things with great fanfare and then forgets to follow up.

There’s a good list in this post, but I have a couple of additions:

  • Remember Live and Dynamic wallpapers? Neither has been updated since their introductions in 2015 and 2013, respectively.

  • Remember the “Learn to Play” feature in GarageBand? It was introduced in 2009, and hasn’t been updated since 2010. The artist lesson store is exactly the same as the day it launched nearly eight years ago.

I get that times and priorities change, but it sort of seems like Apple released all of these things, and then instantly forgot about them in the pursuit of the next big thing.

The Boutique Smartphone

One of the things I love most about the automotive industry is the wild variety of stuff that’s possible from a base of four wheels and a powertrain. Most models are designed to be practical, and that’s why the best-selling cars all look very similar to each other and have basically the same functions, with the notable exception of the Ford F-150.

Even with the vast majority of cars being made by companies focused primarily on practicality, there’s still room in the marketplace for boutique manufacturers. Some of them produce fewer than one hundred units annually, with stratospheric prices: Spyker, Koenigsegg, and Pagani, to name a few. That money doesn’t just buy exclusivity — it also pays for radical innovations. Koenigsegg’s Regera doesn’t have a gearbox, for example, while Pagani is well-known for its innovations in carbon fibre composites.

Other companies price their cars more accessibly, but still have a recalcitrant attitude towards any notion of practicality or real-world usability. Alfa Romeo has a solid track record of making cars with more personality than sense. The Giulia Quadrifoglio, for example, is billed as being a performance sports sedan that can run with the likes of BMW and Mercedes, but Patrick George tested one for Jalopnik and found that it’s still an Alfa Romeo:

This feels readily apparent when you step inside. Boy, does it want to be a BMW 3 Series in there. The gear selector, the dashboard, the center console, the shape of the arm rest, the shape and location of the infotainment system’s control knob — all of it feels like it was traced over from the Bavarians, but badly.

The inside is rife with rough and cheap-feeling plastic, not to mention a persistent rattle from the dash plagued us on our weeklong test.

But that’s okay, says George, because the Giulia goes like stink and sounds like heaven.

And that’s something only Alfa Romeo — and companies like them — can get away with. If BMW’s next M4 drove perfectly but had a crap interior, people would be furious. That’s right: BMWs are, according their marketing, “ultimate driving machines”, but Alfas have always been more like pure fun, in sheet metal form.

Of course, this kind of separation between mass-market efficiency and small-market experimentation has been happening in the fashion world since the industrial revolution created large-scale manufacturing. Smaller design houses have the opportunity to find a niche for themselves by designing and making garments that transcend clothing, and become wearable art.

Even the camera market shows a clear division between the two biggest camera companies and the rest. Canon and Nikon have always been reliable and safe bets, but you have to go to a company like Leica to find a monochromatic digital camera, or to Ricoh to get a feature like Full Press Snap.1 It’s not that the big two manufacturers can’t introduce models and features like these; it’s that they’re geared for making models for lots of people, rather than for specific people.

So why isn’t there a boutique manufacturer of smartphones, like there is in many other industries? Why isn’t there a company doing interesting things with the basic smartphone formula of a screen, a battery, and a cellular radio? Is there room for one in the marketplace?

It feels like these are the kinds of questions that Andy Rubin is trying to answer with Essential, his new company. They’re planning on making an Amazon Echo competitor and a full “ambient” operating system for internet-of-things devices, but they’re starting with a smartphone called, simply, the Essential Phone.

David Pierce, Wired:

Most people look at smartphones and see one of the largest and most competitive markets in history, one with no room (or profits) for anyone but Apple or Samsung. And most people complain that there’s no innovation. Rubin disagrees. Vehemently. He sees loads of innovation, but believes companies don’t take advantage of it because they’re simply too big. “When Apple finds some new technology, they’re like, ‘Great, can I have 50 million next quarter?’ Manufacturers are like, ‘No, you can’t. We just invented it,’” he says. Meanwhile, companies design by committee — with too much input from supply chain experts and accountants — and everything moves slowly.

If Essential sells 50 million phones this quarter, Jason Keats, the company’s head of product architecture, is totally screwed. Essential simply cannot produce that many phones. That’s the point. “We’ve gone after technologies and methods of manufacturing that aren’t designed to support 50 million devices,” he says.

I like this attitude. Rubin and the rest of the people who run Essential are smart enough to know that they almost certainly won’t outsell smartphones from Apple or Samsung. But they might be able to produce a far more interesting product, and I think that counts for something.

So, is the Essential Phone interesting? Pierce’s article mentions that it doesn’t use radically different components and it isn’t waterproof, and the Essential website really only points to two noteworthy differences between it and, say, a Samsung Galaxy S8.

The first is that the chassis is made of titanium, which Essential says allows the frame to perform better in drop tests. But after dropping a smartphone, even very finicky people — like me — are much less concerned about the condition of the case than of the display. Even though it’s fifth-generation Gorilla Glass — the same kind first used last year in the Galaxy Note 7 — it’s still prone to shattering on impact.

The second noteworthy difference is the inclusion of magnetic power connectors. Even though we’ve seen similar functionality before in the Microsoft Surface and iPad Pro, I think that’s a cool addition.

The magnetic accessory connectors are probably the most interesting thing about this phone. Aside from that, it still runs stock Android and uses the same kind of internals as plenty of other smartphones. That’s a bit disappointing because, while the Essential Phone may be a perfectly functional device, it’s not as adventurous as I had hoped from a company that’s totally fine with selling fewer units every quarter. If they really are, in the words of their head of product architecture, trying to find “technologies and methods of manufacturing that aren’t designed to support 50 million devices”, I’d love to see more.

Perhaps my expectations are too high here. Perhaps it isn’t possible to have an experimental smartphone company. Cars and fashion are symbols of power, money, prestige, and sex appeal; cameras — even digital ones — are tactile and ultimately personal objects that capture memories. But smartphones have, so far, been utilitarian objects above all else. Is it possible for a consumer tech product to rise to the level of high fashion?

That’s without getting into the inherent uniqueness of the products from more obscure companies. Practically every smartphone, including the Essential, uses parts from the same supply chains and, unless the phone is from Apple, is probably going to run Android. Is it truly possible to have a boutique smartphone company when so much of the phone’s hardware and functionality is predetermined and shared with other phones?

More curiously, I wonder if a boutique smartphone company something we might even want. One of the most revolutionary aspects of the devices you and I use every day is that they’re the exact same products used by some of the wealthiest people on Earth. The commoditization of technology is probably the greatest equalizer in modern commerce since the invention of the printing press.

Unfortunately, the closest thing the smartphone industry has to a firm making niche devices today is Vertu, a company that charges an absolute fortune for basic Android phones wrapped in leather and gold.

Perhaps that’s the only innovation that’s left: changing the case, while sharing technology with everyone else. But the premise of Essential suggests that there’s so much more that can be done from a company that’s okay with selling fewer units, and not having to worry about working at a phenomenal scale.

On the other hand, maybe the most boutiquey smartphone company is the one that makes the most of any single model: maybe it’s Apple. They’re building phones using techniques previously reserved for prototyping and small-scale production, designing their own CPUs, and might even start making their own wireless chipsets. They build their own operating system that nobody else can use, and they make design decisions that have a certain Apple-y quality. They build software and hardware for hundreds of millions of people around the world, and must weigh interesting decisions — like a complete redesign of the operating system, or the removal of the headphone jack — against its impact on that many people. Even so, they still do radical things.

That’s what I’m hoping to see from Essential. Maybe it’s all marketing bullshit, but I really like the idea of a company that is more comfortable experimenting with ideas than gunning for sales. It’s early days, so I hope to see the kinds of technologies that can only be built into phones at a scale of, say, hundreds of thousands of units instead of tens of millions. Any market is better when there are more entrants and crazier ideas. The cool thing about a company deliberately limiting their production capacity — as Essential says they are — is that their ideas don’t need to be judged by how well they sell. But I’m still not sold on the idea that a functional consumer electronics device can, truly, be cool.


  1. I’m fully aware that I’m stretching the definition of “boutique” by using Ricoh as an example, by the way. ↩︎

A Year of Maps

I’ve previously linked to Justin O’Beirne’s well-illustrated essays about Apple Maps and Google Maps, but I think this might be his best yet.

There are effectively two sections in this piece. The first is an exploration of how many changes Google made to a specific section of San Francisco compared to how many times Apple changed the same area, and what those changes are. It’s clear that Google is iterating more on their mapping product with the intention of surfacing more places, more accurately, more of the time.

The second section of O’Beirne’s piece is an extension of that last point. It’s about how Google changed their cartography and priorities over the past year, and it’s worth reading.

I hope Apple’s on-the-ground data collection indicates that they’re pushing for a big improvement soon. But, while they may be working really hard, Google’s designers and engineers aren’t twiddling their thumbs either, and Google is starting with a much stronger base. This article is so good that Apple could almost use it as a todo list. And they probably should.

More on iCloud Backups and Encryption

Last week, I linked to Rene Ritchie’s piece and argued that device backups in iCloud should have the option of being encrypted. iTunes offers a similar option. Laurent Boileau pointed me to this Apple knowledgebase article, which indicates that device backups are encrypted in iCloud. I revised my link with a correction:

Past Apple documentation claimed that device backups in iCloud were encrypted, but that didn’t include some user data like Notes, iMessages, and SMS messages. I don’t know why I didn’t verify this before posting, but I apologize for the error.

Now, I’m correcting the record yet again, because I think I was right the first time: iCloud backups may be encrypted, but not in the same way that iTunes backups are.

Michael Tsai in a February 2014 link:

I still think this is misleading because it ignores the fact that iCloud backups are encrypted with a key that’s in Apple’s possession. We know this because you can buy a new iPhone and restore your backup simply by entering your Apple ID and password. And we know that your password itself is not the key because Apple’s support people can restore your account access if you forget your password.

This runs counter to the expectations in Apple’s security guide (PDF). Page 16, under the “Keybags” heading:

Backup keybag is created when an encrypted backup is made by iTunes and stored on the computer to which the device is backed up. A new keybag is created with a new set of keys, and the backed-up data is re-encrypted to these new keys.

And page 17:

iCloud Backup keybag is similar to the backup keybag. All the class keys in this keybag are asymmetric (using Curve25519, like the Protected Unless Open Data Protection class), so iCloud backups can be performed in the background. For all Data Protection classes except No Protection, the encrypted data is read from the device and sent to iCloud. The corresponding class keys are protected by iCloud keys.

It also differs from the expectations made by that knowledgebase article, which says that iCloud “always encrypts your backups” while iTunes “offers encrypted backups (off by default)”.

My — admittedly, entry-level — understanding of everything I’ve read about this is that device backups are, indeed, encrypted in iCloud but users don’t hold the keys — Apple does. The comparison they make to iTunes in that knowledgebase isn’t fair because encrypted backups made using iTunes are entirely in the user’s control, while encrypted backups made using iCloud are in Apple’s control.

I should have been clearer in my initial link to Ritchie’s article: iCloud should offer an encrypted device backup option that is tied to an Apple ID, or to a secondary device. That means that if a user were to change their Apple ID password, the backup would become invalid and a fresh one would need to be created; but, it also makes iCloud backups that much safer.

I think I got this right this time, but please do let me know if I goofed again.

Google Launches Free Attribution Product to Associate Offline Purchases With Online Ads

Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg, Washington Post:

To power its multibillion-dollar advertising juggernaut, Google already analyzes users’ Web browsing, search history and geographic locations, using data from popular Google-owned apps like YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps and the Google Play store. All that information is tied to the real identities of users when they log into Google’s services.

The new credit-card data enables the tech giant to connect these digital trails to real-world purchase records in a far more extensive way than was possible before. But in doing so, Google is yet again treading in territory that consumers may consider too intimate and potentially sensitive. Privacy advocates said few people understand that their purchases are being analyzed in this way and could feel uneasy, despite assurances from Google that it has taken steps to protect the personal information of its users.

This feature was initially launched as part of Google’s Analytics 360 suite last year, but a free version is now being made available as well. According to this Post story, Google says that the way both Attribution products work is by using a broader data collection set, and that various formulas are used to “double-blind” purchases.

However, even if store owners and Google employees never see who purchased what, this still feels wrong on so many levels. For this to be effective, there has to be some association made between a purchaser, whether they have seen an ad, and how that campaign was delivered — through social media, a general website, and so forth. Therefore, there must be enough information to correlate the three factors, which is enough information for specific purchases to be tracked back to an individual. If there isn’t that level of granularity, the service is pointless, isn’t it?

The efficacy of Google Attribution leads to another problem: Google is both the seller of advertising, and the company reporting on whether it’s effective. Yuyu Chen, Digiday:

The issue of Google and Facebook grading their own homework is still a big concern for marketers, as recently underscored by WPP CEO Martin Sorrell. Because of the inherent conflict of interest, Crossmedia CEO Kamran Asghar said his agency would never use attribution services from Google or Facebook.

“We do our best to avoid any vendors — be it media or tech — that pose a conflict of interest,” said Asghar. “Google is a media company, and, therefore, clients should monitor it — and all channels — with credible third parties who are independent of selling media.”

Facebook launched a similar offline conversion product last year. Both products rely on treading a very fine line between determining the success of an ad campaign and tracking users on an uncomfortably fine level, and I think they’re overstepping that line in a big way. This feels downright creepy, and it’s the kind of thing only Google and Facebook can do because they’re entrenched into the fabric of the web. That should probably scare you in its own right: these two companies know exactly who uses the web better than anyone else. And, now, they know your offline activities too.

When Apple launched Apple Pay, they made a point of stating that they don’t track transactions over time. I don’t think Apple’s privacy protections necessarily prevent Google and Facebook from associating purchases with ad views, but it can’t hurt to consider using services from companies that build privacy protections into their products and services, instead of those that try to find the thinnest tightrope they can walk between what is and is not considered creepy.

Mossberg Out

Walt Mossberg penned what is officially the last column of his career for the Verge and Recode, and it’s — as you might imagine — about tech’s journey since he began covering it regularly in 1991, and where it’s going:

I expect that one end result of all this work will be that the technology, the computer inside all these things, will fade into the background. In some cases, it may entirely disappear, waiting to be activated by a voice command, a person entering the room, a change in blood chemistry, a shift in temperature, a motion. Maybe even just a thought.

Your whole home, office and car will be packed with these waiting computers and sensors. But they won’t be in your way, or perhaps even distinguishable as tech devices.

This is ambient computing, the transformation of the environment all around us with intelligence and capabilities that don’t seem to be there at all.

It sounds like Mossberg is excited about this future, if apprehensive about the lack of privacy and security regulations that surround it. While I’m sure he won’t be writing a weekly column, I’d be surprised if we never hear from Mossberg again when there’s so much to discuss.

Thanks, Walt.

These Are the Misleading and Wrong Arguments Against Net Neutrality

Devin Coldewey, writing for TechCrunch before the FCC’s proposal was released yesterday:

It is frequently said that the point is not to remove the rules themselves, just change the authority to something a little less heavy-handed.

This is a puzzling assertion to make when the proposal itself asks over and over again whether the “bright line” rules of no blocking, no throttling, etc should be removed. It’s pretty clear that proponents don’t think the rules are necessary and will eliminate them if they can. Just because they frame their preference in the form of a question doesn’t make it any less obvious.

A sort of corollary to this argument is that internet providers will voluntarily adhere to suggested practices. This is a pretty laughable suggestion, and even if it were true, it self-destructs: if companies have no problem subjecting themselves to these restrictions, how can they be as onerous as they say?

We’ll know more about what is and isn’t on the chopping block when the final text of the proposed rules is made available, at which point I’ll update this story.

That weaselly framing has, indeed, persisted in the FCC’s proposal (PDF):

In the Title II Order, despite virtually no quantifiable evidence of consumer harm, the Commission nevertheless determined that it needed bright line rules banning three specific practices by providers of both fixed and mobile broadband Internet access service: blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization. The Commission also “enhanced” the transparency rule by adopting additional disclosure requirements. Today, we revisit these determinations and seek comment on whether we should keep, modify, or eliminate the bright line and transparency rules.

Make no mistake: the FCC is seeking to hamper or eradicate these rules, as Ajit Pai suggested last month, and replace them with a pinky promise.

Device Backups in iCloud Should Be Encrypted

Rene Ritchie, iMore:

Apple has posted its Report on Government and Private Party Requests for Customer Information for the second half of 2016.

[…]

The TL;DR of it is that demands on the data being stored on our iPhones, iPads, and Macs are, unsurprisingly, up.

In this context, it’s important to remember that while Apple protects messages and other personal data with end-to-end encryption, Apple has to turn over iCloud backups when and if required to do so by law.

Unlike local backups, no option is available to encrypt iCloud backups. Possible technical hangups notwithstanding, I’m surprised that’s something that hasn’t yet been made available in iCloud. If iMessages are worth encrypting in transit, surely they’re worth encrypting in a backed-up state as well.

Update: Well this is embarrassing. Via Laurent Boileau, it appears that iCloud backups are, indeed, encrypted (page forty-one of that PDF). Past Apple documentation claimed that device backups in iCloud were encrypted, but that didn’t include some user data like Notes, iMessages, and SMS messages. I don’t know why I didn’t verify this before posting, but I apologize for the error.

Destroying Internet Freedom

The seventy-five-page document (PDF) released today by the FCC represents the clearest view yet of Ajit Pai’s point of view on what ISPs offer, how to regulate providers, and what he sees as the Commission’s role in making sure that the open web continues to thrive. And, in short, it’s a crock of shit.

I anticipate that Karl Bode and Jon Brodkin will explore this proposal — titled “Restoring Internet Freedom”, like a gigantic middle finger to anyone who truly cares about freedom on the internet — on a much deeper level than I can, but I’d like to present a few excerpts for your review.

Americans cherish a free and open Internet. And for almost twenty years, the Internet flourished under a light-touch regulatory approach. It was a framework that our nation’s elected leaders put in place on a bipartisan basis. President Clinton and a Republican Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which established the policy of the United States “to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet … unfettered by Federal or State regulation.”

During this time, the Internet underwent rapid, and unprecedented, growth. Internet service providers (ISPs) invested over $1.5 trillion in the Internet ecosystem and American consumers enthusiastically responded. Businesses developed in ways that the policy makers could not have fathomed even a decade ago.

These are the opening sentences of the proposal, and they already hint at a misleading document. In the context of this proposal, the implication is that the high investments of internet service providers in the nineteen years prior to the 2015 decision to classify providers under Title II is responsible for the rapid expansion and overwhelming success of online businesses and services. This proposal then goes on to blame Title II classification for an apparent destruction of the internet’s economy:

The Commission’s Title II Order has put at risk online investment and innovation, threatening the very open Internet it purported to preserve. Investment in broadband networks declined. Internet service providers have pulled back on plans to deploy new and upgraded infrastructure and services to consumers. This is particularly true of the smallest Internet service providers that serve consumers in rural, low-income, and other underserved communities. Many good-paying jobs were lost as the result of these pull backs. And the order has weakened Americans’ online privacy by stripping the Federal Trade Commission — the nation’s premier consumer protection agency — of its jurisdiction over ISPs’ privacy and data security practices.

This is complete myth building. ISPs themselves state that Title II has not affected their infrastructure plans, and the vast majority of publicly-traded ISPs actually saw an increase in capital expenditures from 2015–2016, compared to the two years prior. There is no indication that the classification of ISPs as common carriers has impacted either their business or the internet economy as a whole: the stock prices of all major American ISPs have increased over the past five years and, with the exception of Verizon, dramatically so. Of the ten most valuable publicly-traded companies in the world, five are American tech companies — all have a far higher valuation than they did five years ago. Put simply: the internet economy isn’t dying; it’s bigger than it ever has been, and the common carrier designation hasn’t made a dent in that trajectory.

Furthermore, the Commission’s claim that consumer privacy has been affected by the classification of ISPs under Title II is wildly misleading.

But the outright falsehoods in this proposal aren’t nearly as egregious as the way the Commission misinterprets the role of an ISP. The 2015 common carrier designation is based on the FCC’s classification of ISPs as telecommunications companies, rather than information service providers. I’ll get to the latter categorization in a moment, but first, a quick word from the Commission on why ISPs — which categorize themselves in SEC filings as “telecommunications service” companies — are not telecommunications companies:

In contrast, Internet service providers do not appear to offer “telecommunications,” i.e., “the transmission, between or among points specified by the user, of information of the user’s choosing, without change in the form or content of the information as sent and received,” to their users. For one, broadband Internet users do not typically specify the “points” between and among which information is sent online. Instead, routing decisions are based on the architecture of the network, not on consumers’ instructions, and consumers are often unaware of where online content is stored.

What a load of hot garbage. A user specifies what internet connections they wish to make by typing or selecting URLs or addresses over other protocols. That the route chosen by the infrastructure is not directly controlled by the user is immaterial.

The FCC’s argument is akin to them stating that someone isn’t driving to a specific destination because they’re forced to pass through other towns because that’s how roads work, or that FedEx isn’t a courier company because a shipper doesn’t get to choose whether their parcel goes through Memphis.

So how does the FCC define “information service provider”, and why do they think the internet falls under that categorization?

Section 3 of the Act defines an “information service” as “the offering of a capability for generating, acquiring, storing, transforming, processing, retrieving, utilizing, or making available information via telecommunications, and includes electronic publishing, but does not include any use of any such capability for the management, control, or operation of a telecommunications system or the management of a telecommunications service.”

[…]

Whether posting on social media or drafting a blog, a broadband Internet user is able to generate and make available information online. Whether reading a newspaper’s website or browsing the results from a search engine, a broadband Internet user is able to acquire and retrieve information online. Whether it’s an address book or a grocery list, a broadband Internet user is able to store and utilize information online. Whether uploading filtered photographs or translating text into a foreign language, a broadband Internet user is able to transform and process information online. In short, broadband Internet access service appears to offer its users the “capability” to perform each and every one of the functions listed in the definition — and accordingly appears to be an information service by definition.

This is the part where things get necessarily lawyerly. For that, we’ll turn to page twenty-seven of a June 2016 ruling (PDF) from the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals:

In support of its second conclusion — that from the user’s point of view, the standalone offering of broadband service provides telecommunications — the Commission explained that “[u]sers rely on broadband Internet access service to transmit ‘information of the user’s choosing,’ ‘between or among points specified by the user,’” without changing the form or content of that information. … The Commission grounded that determination in record evidence that “broadband Internet access service is marketed today primarily as a conduit for the transmission of data across the Internet.”

The Commission then cited ISPs’ marketing in defence of their position, arguing that their very own ads sell ISPs on the basis of speed and reliability of arbitrary data transfer. That is, they sell themselves as dumb pipes. The Court of Appeals held up the 2015 Title II reclassification in this and many other decisions.

But the significance of all of this is kind of moot, as Mike Masnick explains:

For Pai to successfully roll back those rules, he’d need to show that there was some major change in the market since the rules were put in place less than two years ago. That’s… almost certainly going to fail in court. Again, this is important: Pai can change the rules, but that rule change will almost definitely be shot down in court.

[…]

Congressional net neutrality haters (e.g. those receiving massive campaign contributions from big broadband players…) are well aware that Pai’s plans have no chance in court. Yet, they want there to be this kind of uproar over the plans. They want the public to freak out and to say that this is bad for the internet and all that. Because this will allow them to do two things. First, they will fundraise off of this. They will go to the big broadband providers and act wishy washy on their own stance about changing net neutrality rules, and will smile happily as the campaign contributions roll in. It’s how the game is played.

The second thing they will do… is come to “the rescue” of net neutrality. That is, they will put forth a bill — written with the help of broadband lobbyists — that on its face pretends to protect net neutrality, but in reality absolutely guts net neutrality as well as the FCC’s authority to enforce any kind of meaningful consumer protection. We’ve already seen this with a plan from Senator Thune and this new bill from Senator Mike Lee.

This is really important to keep an eye on. Because, as bad as the proposal released today is — and it’s really bad — the fight won’t be over even if these rules pass, and are then overturned. I’m not very confident that the highly divided and very partisan Congress will get this right.

There are a couple of things you can do if you’re American. First, acknowledge your support for retaining Title II classification for ISPs. Comments will be added to the public record on this, so when this proposal is passed with millions of people opposing, there’s a clear sign that it isn’t in the public interest.

The second thing you can do — if this ever becomes a Congressional issue — is call your public representatives. Urge them to keep the common carrier designation for ISPs. I get that everyone seems to be telling you to call your representatives for a laundry list of reasons, but this is really important. Most everyone seems to agree with keeping the ’net neutral if it’s explained to them, but it can be hard to explain what’s going on here and what is at stake.

And that brings me to the third thing you can do: tell your friends about this, particularly those less technically inclined. Get them engaged, and get them to call as well. Every voice counts, even when it seems like those accountable aren’t listening. They absolutely will be listening if they fuck up the ’net for a generation.

Design Before You Minify

Don Melton:

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use tactics like minification, resource concatenation, server-side compression, etc. to improve performance.

But have a strategy for performance first. Have a design. Consider whether you need all those libraries you’re tempted to include. Consider whether you need to write even more JavaScript, CSS, JSON and Christ-knows-what-all to “improve” the user experience.

Maybe leveraging those Content Delivery Networks will let you get away with it. But maybe they won’t.

Consider, too, the weight of code that isn’t being written directly, instead being added by plugins and addons. Analytics, advertising, and retargeting scripts tend to consume far too many resources each — combined, they’re a recipe for a website that’s disrespectful to its users by being bloated and invasive. That can’t be saved by code minification.

Facebook’s Been Making It Up All Along

Alex Hazlett of Mashable, reacting to the leaked Facebook moderator rulebook:

All we’ve had to go on about Facebook’s guiding principles have been generic platitudes from Zuckerberg until a few months ago, when he gave us a few thousand words of generic platitudes. The company has always clung mightily to vagueness – and secrecy. Facebook says it wants to protect free speech and to avoid censorship. But censorship is something to be avoided because it’s a mis-calibration: Something valuable was prohibited or erased. The banned book was worth reading. The activist’s speech needed to be heard. The silencing was a problem because of the values it acted against. Facebook has never understood that. They’ve operated at the level of the particular, and they have studiously avoided the theoretical that makes that particular worth fighting for.

Sure, if Facebook had decided to take an actual stand, they’d have had detractors. But if they’d been transparent about why, their users would have gotten over it. If you have principles, and you stick to them, people will adjust.

Instead, Facebook seems to change their policies based on the level of outrage that is generated. It contributes to a perception of them as craven and exploitative. This is why Facebook lurches from stupid controversy to stupid controversy, learning the hard way every. single. time.

I think Hazlett is right — Facebook ought to take some sort of stand. But I don’t think they will, because it’s too easy to coast between controversies that most people forget about after a day or two. We have regulatory bodies for a reason; without them, participants in many industries would also be briefly reactionary.

Notes From an Emergency

Maciej Cegłowski, in an infinitely-quotable transcript from a talk he gave at Republica Berlin:

The danger facing us is not Orwell, but Huxley. The combo of data collection and machine learning is too good at catering to human nature, seducing us and appealing to our worst instincts. We have to put controls on it. The algorithms are amoral; to make them behave morally will require active intervention.

The second thing we need is accountability. I don’t mean that I want Mark Zuckerberg’s head on a pike, though I certainly wouldn’t throw it out of my hotel room if I found it there. I mean some mechanism for people whose lives are being brought online to have a say in that process, and an honest debate about its tradeoffs.

Cegłowski points out, quite rightly, that the data-addicted tech industry is unlikely to effectively self-regulate to accommodate these two needs. They’re too deeply-invested in tracking and data collection, and their lack of ethics has worked too well from a financial perspective.

Cegłowski, again:

But real problems are messy. Tech culture prefers to solve harder, more abstract problems that haven’t been sullied by contact with reality. So they worry about how to give Mars an earth-like climate, rather than how to give Earth an earth-like climate. They debate how to make a morally benevolent God-like AI, rather than figuring out how to put ethical guard rails around the more pedestrian AI they are introducing into every area of people’s lives.

The tech industry enjoys tearing down flawed institutions, but refuses to put work into mending them. Their runaway apparatus of surveillance and manipulation earns them a fortune while damaging everything it touches. And all they can think about is the cool toys they’ll get to spend the profits on.

The message that’s not getting through to Silicon Valley is one that your mother taught you when you were two: you don’t get to play with the new toys until you clean up the mess you made.

I don’t see any advantage to having a regulated web. I do see advantages to having regulated web companies.

All of us need to start asking hard questions of ourselves — both as users, and as participants in this industry. I don’t think users are well-informed enough to be able to make decisions about how their data gets used. Even if they read through the privacy policies of every website they ever visited, I doubt they’d have enough information to be able to decide whether their data is being used safely, nor do I think they would have any idea about how to control that. I also don’t think many tech companies are forthcoming about how, exactly, users’ data is interpreted, shared, and protected.

Update: If you — understandably — prefer to watch Cegłowski speak, a video of this talk has been uploaded to YouTube. Thanks to Felix for sending me the link.

Facebook’s Internal Rulebook for Moderators

Nick Hopkins of the Guardian received a copy of about one hundred training manuals used to guide Facebook’s moderation policies:

One document says Facebook reviews more than 6.5m reports a week relating to potentially fake accounts – known as FNRP (fake, not real person).

Using thousands of slides and pictures, Facebook sets out guidelines that may worry critics who say the service is now a publisher and must do more to remove hateful, hurtful and violent content.

Yet these blueprints may also alarm free speech advocates concerned about Facebook’s de facto role as the world’s largest censor. Both sides are likely to demand greater transparency.

I would wager that it’s impossible to come up with a single set of guidelines that can clearly guide the moderation policy for two billion users spread across hundreds of countries. Even being more aware of their existing rulebook is unlikely to be helpful — someone acting nefariously could use them as guidance, while others will certainly see the rules as needlessly prohibitive and claim that Facebook shouldn’t censor any viewpoint, no matter how objectionable.

Facebook currently gets to decide its own level of squeamishness — they’re a private company, of course. But is there a size or scale at which it’s no longer okay for a company to create their own oversight? There has never been a single company that connects a quarter of the world’s entire population until now. Is it okay for that many people in so many places to be communicating using a rulebook developed by twenty- and thirty-somethings in California?

See Also: The Moderators.

Google’s Proprietary Fork of HTML Is Taking Over the Open Web

Ingrid Lunden, TechCrunch:

As Google looks for ways to keep people using its own mobile search to discover content — in competition with apps and other services like Facebook’s Instant Articles — the company is announcing some updates to AMP, its collaborative project to speed up mobile web pages.

Today at the Google I/O developer conference, Google announced that there are now over 2 billion AMP pages covering some 900,000 domains. These pages are also loading twice as fast as before via Google Search. Lastly, the AMP network is now expanding to more e-commerce sites and covering more ad formats.

In Google’s post announcing that AMP pages load faster — which Lunden links to — they also explain some additional capabilities offered to AMP pages:

Many of AMP’s e-commerce capabilities were previewed at the AMP Conf and the amp-bind component is now available for origin trials, creating a new interaction model for elements on AMP pages.

Forms and interactive elements were previously verboten in AMP land, but they’re now allowed through a proprietary — albeit open source — and nonstandard fork of HTML largely developed and popularized by one of the biggest web companies out there.

Scott Gilbertson of the Register:

Quite a few high-profile web developers have this year weighted in with criticism and some, following a Google conference dedicated to AMP, have cautioned users about diving in with both feet.

These, in my view, don’t go far enough in stating the problem and I feel this needs to be said very clearly: Google’s AMP is bad – bad in a potentially web-destroying way. Google AMP is bad news for how the web is built, it’s bad news for publishers of credible online content, and it’s bad news for consumers of that content. Google AMP is only good for one party: Google. Google, and possibly, purveyors of fake news.

Consider this: Google owns the most popular search engine and the biggest video hosting platform in most countries, operates one of the most-used email services on Earth,1 has the greatest market share of any mobile operating system, makes the most popular web browser in many countries, serves the majority of the targeted advertising on the web, provides the most popular analytics software for websites, and is attempting to become a major internet service provider. And, to cap it all off, they’re subtly replacing HTML with their own version, and it requires a Google-hosted JavaScript file to correctly display.

I’ve been pretty open about my distrust with ISPs. I think the FCC’s likely destruction of net neutrality legislation will be regarded as an easily-averted decision driven by dogma, and it will ruin the open web. At the same time, though, we cannot ignore Google’s slow takeover of the web. The world wide web is slowly becoming a Google product, and that’s just as fundamentally flawed as if the web were a division of Comcast.


  1. In the words of Marco Arment, an “email-like product” that doesn’t follow IMAP standards and is, in many ways, a proprietary interpretation of email. ↩︎

Disabling Slack Indexing Seems to Improve Spotlight Performance on iOS

I’ve generally had pretty good luck with Spotlight on iOS, but I’ve long noticed that results are delayed or nonexistent after not using it for a little while, particularly if I haven’t rebooted my phone recently. I thought I was losing my head a little bit, until I found a tip on Twitter from Anand Iyer‏:

Settings > General > Spotlight Search > toggle Slack off

Just like that, Spotlight seems to be running quickly again. Every query I’ve tried is fast and reliable, even if I don’t use my phone for a while. I don’t know why Slack, in particular, seems to make Spotlight perform so poorly — other apps surely index thousands of messages and require network lookups to complete — but this one weird trick seems to make Spotlight performance issues disappear.

Update: John Gruber:

Sounds like there might widespread problems with Spotlight indexing on iOS 10, because a bunch of readers have written to say they have the same problem but don’t even have Slack installed.

I’ve seen this Slack trick working for a few other people, so I wonder what the common thread is between those of us with Slack installed and those without. Perhaps there are issues with indexing large numbers of items, or perhaps toggling a setting simply rebuilds the Spotlight cache.

Update: I’ve seen reports that 10.3.2 fixes this bug altogether. Daniel Shockley says that he improved Spotlight performance by toggling languages, which makes me think that it is — or was — a bug that can be worked around by clearing a cache.

Boring Google

I only loosely followed Google I/O as it was happening, but I’m catching up on its reception. The most pervasive sentiment I’ve seen is that it was, to put it bluntly, boring.

Karissa Bell, Mashable:

That wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t that long ago when Sergey Brin enlisted a group of skydivers to introduce the world to Google Glass. Or when Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) division, the skunkworks behind moonshot ideas like modular smartphones, gesture-sensing radar, and clothing with embedded sensors, was a reliable source of shock and awe for I/O attendees.

This year, though, there was no sign of ATAP, which lost its chief visionary Regina Dugan to Facebook last year.

It’s not just ATAP, either. There was no sign of anything remotely experimental. Instead, we got to see the most polished version of Google’s augmented reality tech yet (which, by the way, started in ATAP nearly four years ago), new skills for Google’s digital assistant, VR features we don’t really need, and yet another fine, but also boring, update for Android.

I get the point that Bell is making here: Google has a reputation for having a bit of a quirky attitude that bubbles through their products and services. But I disagree — I’m glad that Google is being a bit more honest in admitting that they are a bonafide corporate entity, not a gigantic startup. Yeah, it’s a bit boring, but it’s the truth.

Of the experiments that Bell mentions, two — Google Glass and Project Ara — are officially on hold, but I wouldn’t bet on them coming out of hold any time soon. The gestural control system and connected jacket are scheduled to ship later this year, but that also seems to be the case for a lot of Google products: perpetually coming soon.

Ben Thompson:

This is why I think that Pichai’s “boring” opening was a great thing. No, there wasn’t the belligerence of early Google IOs, insisting that Android could take on the iPhone. And no, there wasn’t the grand vision of Nadella last week, or the excitement of an Apple product unveiling. What there was was a sense of certainty and almost comfort: Google is about organizing the world’s information, and given that Pichai believes the future is about artificial intelligence, specifically the machine learning variant that runs on data, that means that Google will succeed in this new world simply by being itself.

Before I/O began this year, Matt Birchler reflected on last year’s event:

Google’s I/O conference last year was big on flash, but little in substance that will actually move users away from iOS. Google Assistant has proven to be a big win for the company, as it has asserted itself as the best voice assistant out there for a lot of things. Google Home, which I don’t own yet, is a strong competitor to the Amazon Echo which has been gaining popularity.

But beyond the Assistant-related announcements, everything else was a bit of a letdown.

This year’s event was nowhere near as flashy. The Android updates seemed a bit obvious — the system now has notification badges for app icons, as an example — and that’s probably a good thing. Google’s big company reality doesn’t really match their wacky persona, and a dizzying array of new messaging apps every year is confusing in the real world. It’s boring, but it’s okay that Google is becoming more reliable and, well, normal.

FCC Votes to Begin Dismantling Net Neutrality

Karl Bode, Techdirt:

Surprising absolutely nobody, the FCC today voted 2-1 along strict party lines to begin dismantling net neutrality protections for consumers. The move comes despite the fact that the vast majority of non-bot comments filed with the FCC support keeping the rules intact. And while FCC boss Ajit Pai has breathlessly insisted he intended to listen to the concerns of all parties involved, there has been zero indication that this was a serious commitment as he begins dismantling all manner of broadband consumer protections, not just net neutrality.

Libby Watson, Gizmodo:

The commission will now consider Pai’s proposal, which would repeal the reclassification of broadband providers as “common carriers” (a little like utilities) under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. Pai’s proposed rulemaking would also “seek comment” on the so-called “bright line” rules—no blocking, throttling, or paid prioritization of internet traffic—likely meaning those rules would be watered down or even erased. We won’t know for sure until closer to the final vote, but without Title II authority, the FCC might not be able to enforce those rules anyway.

Much like a repeal of net neutrality would allow, this vote is a clear demonstration that a few powerful companies have their interests prioritized far higher than the millions of people who don’t have a boatload of cash to spare. This result may have been expected, but that doesn’t make it any less of a pile of horse shit.

Watson, again:

Meanwhile, the other Republican, Mike O’Rielly, laid the groundwork for ignoring pro-net neutrality comments that have already flooded in and will likely continue to do so before the vote, saying FCC rules aren’t decided “like a ‘Dancing With the Stars’ contest.” More than 2.1 million comments have already been filed, though as we’ve reported, hundreds of thousands of those appear to be astroturfed, possibly bot-filed anti-net neutrality comments, submitted under the names of other people. But as much as O’Rielly might want to dismiss the comment process, every comment in favor of net neutrality makes it more obvious that Pai’s proposal is something that only ISPs want.

O’Rielly’s disparagement of democracy and Pai’s refusal to take seriously the millions of comments in favour of Title II regulation says everything you need to know about what these jackasses think of Americans’ values and voices.

Cultured Code Launches Things 3

I’ve been using Things as my primary todo app for as long as I can remember, and it has always been a well-designed and thoughtful app from good people. But the last major version of Things was launched in 2012 and, any way you cut it, that’s a really long time ago for any piece of software. It’s a testament to how good the app is that I — and many others — have stuck with it for so long.

And, now, there’s a new version. I’ve been using Things 3 on all my devices for a while and it’s amazing. I can promise you that this is one of the best-designed apps to grace any Apple platform in a very long time — not just the way it looks, but what it does.

Ryan Christoffel, MacStories:

As with many other task managers, you’ll find a plus button in the bottom area of the screen to add new tasks. But in Things for iOS, that button has a special name: the Magic Plus Button.

In one of the most clever methods of task entry I’ve seen, the Magic Plus Button can be dynamically moved around the screen as a way to add additional data. While its default location will always be the lower right corner, the button can be dragged and dropped into different spaces of the app to do different things. Tap and drag the button into your list of projects to create a new project. Drop it into a list of tasks in Today to create a new task in that exact spot. Drop it into the Inbox icon that appears in the lower left corner to create the task in your Inbox. And, my personal favorite, when viewing your Upcoming list, drag and drop the button on to the day when that task needs to be acted on, and you’ve just assigned its start date.

The idea of a persistent button floating in the lower-right sounds very much like it’s pulled from Google’s Material Design guidelines, but it doesn’t feel that way. Cultured Code has clearly given a lot of thought to the way the Magic Plus Button should work, and its visual appearance is a reflection of that — not the other way around. My favourite little tip for this button: drag it to the left side of the screen within a project to create a section.

There’s lots more to love, like calendar integration and the redesigned Areas function, but at its core, it’s still Things. That means bulletproof sync, lots of little details, and a stubborn refusal to compromise their vision for what apps like this should be. I really like this set of updates.

I’ve written frequently here about supporting developers, the race-to-the-bottom of the App Store, and the lack of good apps on the Mac App Store. Cultured Code bucks the trend of reducing the price of their apps or introducing a subscription model, and these apps are better for it. Supporting good developers comes at a real monetary cost: $10 for the iPhone app, $20 on the iPad, and $50 on the Mac. But if a great task management app is what you’re looking for and you don’t want a company doing sketchy stuff with your data, Things might be worth the investment for you. I know that it is for me.

Twitter Increases Ad Tracking, Now Ignores Do Not Track

Twitter:

As we work to make our content more relevant to people on Twitter, we also want to offer the best and most transparent privacy and data controls.

Today, we’re announcing a suite of industry-leading tools to give you more access to your information and greater, more granular control over how it’s used. We’ve also updated our Privacy Policy to reflect the improvements that we’ve made to Twitter.

With such strenuous emphasis on the ways in which this update “increases transparency” and gives users more control, it’s no surprise that the meat of this post is near the bottom: Twitter will, like Facebook, be using data gathered across the web from embedded posts and sharing buttons to increase targeting options for advertisers.

Tim Peterson, Marketing Land:

At the same time as Twitter is giving people more control over how they are targeted, it is removing support for Do Not Track, which people can use to ask every website they visit not to track their behavior in order to target them with ads. Twitter made a big deal about supporting Do Not Track in May 2012, so its reversal is a surprise — unless you’ve been following the wave of major ad-supported digital platforms opting to ignore Do Not Track requests. When Hulu announced last July that it would no longer support Do Not Track, it joined nine other major digital platforms that do not respond to these opt-out requests. Now Twitter has joined that list.

As Twitter was one of very few major websites that actually honoured browser-based Do Not Track requests, this is more of a conceptual setback. Still, I liked that Twitter did bother to ask users whether they were okay with being tracked; now, they’re just burying that confirmation in the privacy policy that nobody reads.

Like Google and Facebook, Twitter is now displaying the topics it thinks you’re interested in, how old it thinks you are, and what languages it thinks you speak — apparently, I speak Estonian and Portuguese. Twitter goes one step further and allows you to request a list of which advertisers are currently targeting your profile. As of writing, 874 advertisers have included my personal account in over two thousand of their audience lists, while 102 have for the Pixel Envy auto-posting account. I’m not sure how much can really be inferred from this information, but at least I now know that 102 advertisers — including KFC and Uber — are targeting my unmonitored robot-posting account.

JSON Feed

Brent Simmons and Manton Reece:

The JSON Feed format is a pragmatic syndication format, like RSS and Atom, but with one big difference: it’s JSON instead of XML.

For most developers, JSON is far easier to read and write than XML. Developers may groan at picking up an XML parser, but decoding JSON is often just a single line of code.

Beyond developer advantages, one of the really nice things about JSON is that it’s very nearly human-readable, even in code form. Take a look at my JSON feed — the most unreadable parts of it are the raw HTML blocks; everything else is pretty self-explanatory.

WordPress support is handled by an elegant plugin, via Michael Tsai.

Panic

Panic’s Steven Frank shares some arresting news:

Last week, for about three days, the macOS video transcoding app HandBrake was compromised. One of the two download servers for HandBrake was serving up a special malware-infested version of the app, that, when launched, would essentially give hackers remote control of your computer.

In a case of extraordinarily bad luck, even for a guy that has a lot of bad computer luck, I happened to download HandBrake in that three day window, and my work Mac got pwned.

Long story short, somebody, somewhere, now has quite a bit of source code to several of our apps.

That’s the bad news; the good news is that Panic have taken extraordinary steps — steps that even they admit are probably overkill — to help ensure that no harm will befall their customers.

Beyond the situation at hand, this announcement’s honesty and transparency is admirable. They’ve created some truly innovative stuff that would likely be considered proprietary knowledge, like a wicked fast FTP engine and a ridiculous toolbar. But the Panic people are good people, and their handling of this is a model for other companies to follow should they be faced with a similar situation.

Update: I’ve been thinking about this story all day. I wanted to underscore that Panic was able to receive such an understanding and sympathetic reception to this news because they do things right pretty much all the time. They’re good people making good software. I wrote above that this is a model response for other companies, but I’m not sure many others could announce similar news in this fashion: most other companies have too much baggage and aren’t as trusted as Panic. It’s not so much that this response is what other companies should copy; it’s Panic’s entire approach.

BGR: Apple to Discontinue iPad Mini

I never link to BGR, but Jonathan Geller heard an intriguing rumour that I think such a link is worth your time and attention:

First introduced in 2012, Apple’s iPad mini was a welcome alternative to the much larger, thicker, and heavier 9.7-inch iPad. There was no 5.5-inch iPhone Plus, so the iPad mini made a great choice for light reading and effortless web browsing, email, and gaming. The market doesn’t stand still, however, and we’re now looking at a redesigned iPad Pro to be launched this summer that should offer everything the current 9.7-inch iPad features, but in a smaller footprint with a larger 10.5-inch display.

On the other side, there’s the 5.5-inch iPhone 7 Plus, which is large enough to negate the need for a tablet for many users. The device you take everywhere, that’s always with you, that has the best camera, and that has everything else you need. The device that you already own. Therein lies the problem, and that’s why we have heard from a source close to Apple that the iPad mini is being phased out.

There’s a fair amount of news to unpack here, so let’s start with the headlining item, which isn’t really a surprise when you think about it: the new 9.7-inch iPad has a starting price $100 less than the Mini, and the Mini is only available in a 128 GB configuration that’s priced identically to the 128 GB iPad. If Apple wanted to keep the Mini around, they would likely also retain its differentiated price, or at least keep the 32 GB model in the lineup.

I’ll miss the Mini, though. Quite apart from size, the weight difference between the Mini and the 9.7-inch iPad makes the smaller model so much nicer to hold with one hand. The Mini also has the highest-density display that ships in any iPad which, combined with the weight and size, makes it perfect for reading.

Geller also mentions that the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is being replaced this summer with a 10.5-inch model, a rumour which has been corroborated by multiple websites. However, no report I’ve seen yet mentions the 12.9-inch Pro, and that doesn’t make any sense to me: the 9.7-inch Pro was introduced more recently than its larger sibling and has features that the bigger model still doesn’t, like a True Tone display and higher-quality cameras. It would surprise me if Apple updated the 9.7-inch Pro first, or didn’t make a meaningful upgrade to the 12.9-inch model at the same time — yet, I haven’t seen a single rumour about the big iPad Pro. Very peculiar.

See Also: Neil Cybart’s analysis of iPad Mini sales relative to the rest of the iPad line.

Inside Apple Park

Apple is clearly excited about Apple Park; they’ve been showing it off to journalists at a regular clip. In March, they gave Steven Levy a tour, and he published his account of it today in Wired:

Of course I’ve seen images of it, architectural equivalents of movie trailers for a much-awaited blockbuster. From the day Jobs presented to the Cupertino City Council, digital renderings of the Ring, as Apple calls the main building, have circulated widely. As construction progressed, enterprising drone pilots began flying their aircraft overhead, capturing aerial views in slickly edited YouTube videos accompanied by New Agey soundtracks. Amid all the fanboy anticipation, though, Apple has also taken some knocks for the scale and scope of the thing. Investors urging Apple to kick back more of its bounty to shareholders have questioned whether the reported $5 billion in construction costs should have gone into their own pockets instead of a workplace striving for history. And the campus’s opening comes at a point when, despite stellar earnings results, Apple has not launched a breakout product since Jobs’ death. Apple executives want us to know how cool its new campus is — that’s why they invited me. But this has also led some people to sniff that too much of its mojo has been devoted to giant glass panels, custom-built door handles, and a 100,000-square-foot fitness and wellness center complete with a two-story yoga room covered in stone, from just the right quarry in Kansas, that’s been carefully distressed, like a pair of jeans, to make it look like the stone at Jobs’ favorite hotel in Yosemite.

Investors who prioritize lining their own pockets over improvements for employees are gigantic assholes, but this is a pretty indulgent project, even by Silicon Valley standards. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — as I’ve written before, it’s as much an Apple product as the stuff that you can find in a retail store, just on a vastly larger scale. It wouldn’t be very Apple-y to build their new office without considering every way of making it more elegant.

There’s an anecdote Levy shares midway through the article where he and Jony Ive are looking at the concrete structure of some of the parking garages. Ive points out that many of the utility needs — plumbing, wiring, and so on — were incorporated into the beams instead of being left exposed, as is typical. It’s the kind of detail that, when repeated across all of the buildings at Apple Park, probably increased construction costs considerably. As a result, most companies would have probably nixed it early on. But Apple’s treatment is far more considered and resolved.

I was intrigued by some of the criticisms of the building that Levy chose to include in his article:

As Apple Park inches toward completion, its critics are getting louder, and what began with aesthetic judgments of the digital renderings — the Los Angeles Times’ architecture critic called the Ring a “retrograde cocoon” — has lately turned to social and cultural critiques. That the campus is a snobby isolated preserve, at odds with the trendy urbanist school of corporate headquarters. (Amazon, Twitter, and Airbnb are all part of a movement that hopes to integrate tech employees into cities as opposed to having them commute via fuel-gobbling cars or numbing Wi-Fi-equipped buses.)

I don’t necessarily object to these criticisms, but I have three observations:

  1. The rise of employees working from home or in remote locations means that the physical location of any corporate headquarters isn’t necessarily as impactful as it once was.

  2. I live in a city with a well-defined downtown core full of office towers, surrounded by largely-residential neighbourhoods. At night and on the weekend, the downtown core can feel apocalyptic.1 Corporate campuses outside of a city centre are kind of like an inverted version of that: their employees return to the city centre on weeknights and weekends, rather than leaving it.

  3. Apple Park really isn’t that far away from major commercial strips in Cupertino and San Jose, and it’s surrounded by residential neighbourhoods. If employees wish, they can live within walking or cycling distance of Apple Park.

Levy also notes that Apple Park lacks childcare facilities. In a 2014 Fortune story, Apple explained that their paternity leave policies extend to a total of eighteen weeks for expectant mothers, and up to six weeks for other expectant parents. Is that really enough support for new parents?


  1. This is changing. I’ve lived in the downtown core for about three years and I’ve noticed loads more people lately spending their evenings and weekends in the commercial core than I used to see. ↩︎

Apple’s New Retail Store at Piazza Liberty

How fitting is it that sixteen years after Steve Jobs showed the world the original format of the Apple Store comes what is likely their most ambitious location yet?

Piazza Liberty will be much like their Fifth Avenue and Pudong store locations, with the actual store located underground. But instead of a giant glass-encased Apple logo sitting above the entrance, they’re envisioning a massive renovation to the square, and placing the entrance behind a water feature.

I’ve been a little skeptical of Angela Ahrendts’ proposal to overhaul the stores to become the “third place” for groups of teenagers and young adults. It seems a little strange to go hang out at a computer shop. But the Piazza Liberty location looks like it could be a completely different kind of concept, because it really uses the historical space to give a true common area that just happens to be near an Apple Store.

Sending iTunes to a Farm Upstate Somewhere

MG Siegler comments on Microsoft’s announcement that iTunes would be coming to the Windows Store:

Anyway, the jokes came fast and furious on Twitter after the news was announced. But what’s actually funny here is that the jokes are basically the exact opposite of the one Steve Jobs made. Whereas Jobs noted that many Windows users would write to Apple to tell them that their favorite software on Microsoft’s OS was iTunes, no one says that anymore. In fact, no sane macOS user, myself included, would dare say such a thing about iTunes. Because it has been awful for the better part of this past decade now.

In fact, at this point, it’s old hat to rag on iTunes. It has been so bad, for so long, that the joke is stale. And yet, somehow Apple doesn’t seem to be in on the joke. Because if they were, surely iTunes would no longer exist.

I’ve long argued against the idea of splitting up iTunes into its myriad functions. I see the value in it — iTunes has almost become its own self-contained operating system — but I’ve long felt like it could be more complicated. To buy an album, put a few tracks in a playlist, and then sync it to your iPhone, you’d have to open the iTunes Store, purchase the record, then open the Music app to add the songs to a playlist, then open the Sync app — or whatever — to pop it onto your iPhone.

Except, that’s not right any more, at least not for many customers. To add a few songs from an album to a playlist on their Mac and then sync the playlist to their iPhone, they just have to add the songs in the Apple Music view of iTunes to the playlist of choice, and then iCloud should handle the rest.

The other piece of evidence that I had for why Apple would be reluctant to split iTunes into several core apps is that it would likely mean doing the same for Windows. But that investment would be far easier to stomach if they were required to make major changes in order to release iTunes on the Windows Store.1

I can’t think of many new features I’m aching for in the next major version of MacOS. One item that has persisted on my wish list for about ten years is a totally overhauled iTunes. Maybe that’s not what’s needed; it’s time to kill it and replace it entirely.


  1. Will Apple really be paying Microsoft’s 30% Windows Store fee for songs purchased in iTunes? ↩︎

Reports of the MP3’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

You may have heard that the company that invented the MP3 codec just recently killed it off, but you have heard wrong. If anything, it’s almost the opposite: the MP3 format has been set free.

Jason Koelber, Vice:

Fraunhofer’s announcement notes that the company is “terminating” the “licensing program” for the MP3, opening the door for royalty- and licensing-free use of the format. While it’s true that there are more efficient and higher quality methods of encoding audio these days (Spotify, iTunes, and other streaming services use OGG or AAC), this means that it’s now easier to make MP3s than it has ever been.

“If you look carefully, they weren’t announcing the death of the mp3, they’re announcing the end of their licensing program,” Witt told me. “That program has been in decline for years because of streaming, but now you no longer have to go to Fraunhofer to get their permission to use it. Fraunhofer made many billions of dollars of this thing, but as a profit source for them, it’s over. Now it’s kind of free technology and free use.”

The MP3 spec represents an antiquated way of compressing audio — compared to today’s formats, it requires a higher bitrate to achieve quality comparable to an AAC file, and isn’t nearly as good at preserving anything in the extremes of the audible spectrum. But it’s not dead and, unlike AAC, a license is no longer required to encode or decode an MP3 file.

How to Accidentally Stop a Global Ransomware Attack

“MalwareTech”:

I woke up at around 10 AM and checked onto the UK cyber threat sharing platform where i had been following the spread of the Emotet banking malware, something which seemed incredibly significant until today. There were a few of your usual posts about various organisations being hit with ransomware, but nothing significant…yet. I ended up going out to lunch with a friend, meanwhile the WannaCrypt ransomware campaign had entered full swing.

When I returned home at about 2:30, the threat sharing platform was flooded with posts about various NHS systems all across the country being hit, which was what tipped me of to the fact this was something big. Although ransomware on a public sector system isn’t even newsworthy, systems being hit simultaneously across the country is (contrary to popular belief, most NHS employees don’t open phishing emails which suggested that something to be this widespread it would have to be propagated using another method). I was quickly able to get a sample of the malware with the help of Kafeine, a good friend and fellow researcher. Upon running the sample in my analysis environment I instantly noticed it queried an unregistered domain, which I promptly registered.

The key takeaway in this story is that “MalwareTech” followed their usual protocols; the effect was simply far more profound in this instance. Incredible stuff.

Today’s Global Ransomware Attack Justifies Apple’s Stance in the San Bernardino iPhone Case

Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times:

Law enforcement agencies may want a way into highly secure gadgets and apps to further their investigations — such as when the FBI pressed Apple last year to hack into the iPhone used by a gunman in the San Bernardino terror attack. But the companies have repeatedly pointed out that there’s no safe way to build an entry point just for trusted government organizations.

Though the NSA hasn’t confirmed it was hacked, the purported leak of its tools shows that even supposedly secret vulnerabilities can get into the wrong hands.

“It goes back to the mafia expression,” said John Bambenek, threat research manager at Fidelis Cybersecurity. “The only way to keep a secret is for three people to know it and two of them to be dead.”

Because the potential contents of the San Bernardino iPhone involved such a high-profile and politically-charged case, Apple’s decision sounded, to some, like they were being either insensitive or overly politically correct. Most people with a technical background could see the implications if Apple was compelled to create a special version of iOS that would allow the FBI to breach that iPhone’s passcode. However, intervening time and major security breaches have proved their stance to be correct. Good for Apple to withstand political and public pressure to do what was right.

Alexa Doesn’t Support Caller Blocking

Nicole Nguyen, Buzzfeed:

To use Alexa calling and messaging, users need to verify their phone number and import their entire address book, which a spokesperson says is stored “securely in the Amazon cloud.” Your phone number essentially becomes your username and, like on WhatsApp and Signal, anyone with your phone number will be able to contact you on your at-home Echo or Echo Dot (including, er, PR people, much to the chagrin of this reporter). The key difference is that WhatsApp and Signal allow users to block certain contacts, while Alexa does not.

[…]

There are other privacy concerns as well. There’s no password protection to use Alexa calling, which means anyone in your household can make an Alexa call using your account. They can also ask your Echo device, “Play my message” when you receive a new text or voice message (Alexa calling does not support voicemail) and listen to that message without your consent.

The worst part of all of this? You need to phone Amazon to get them to deactivate it. Yeah — you can enable it via the app, but you have to wait on hold for someone else to deactivate it. That’s atrocious.

Apple’s Long-Term Investment in Corning

With today’s news from Apple that they’re investing $200 million from their recently-announced Advanced Manufacturing Fund in Corning Glass, I thought it might be fun to revisit how Corning became such an integral part of today’s consumer electronics.

Bryan Gardiner, Wired:

From above, Corning’s headquarters in upstate New York looks like a Space Invaders alien: Designed by architect Kevin Roche in the early ’90s, the structure fans out in staggered blocks. From the ground, though, the tinted windows and extended eaves make the building look more like a glossy, futuristic Japanese palace.

The office of Wendell Weeks, Corning’s CEO, is on the second floor, looking out onto the Chemung River. It was here that Steve Jobs gave the 53-year-old Weeks a seemingly impossible task: Make millions of square feet of ultrathin, ultrastrong glass that didn’t yet exist. Oh, and do it in six months. The story of their collaboration — including Jobs’ attempt to lecture Weeks on the principles of glass and his insistence that such a feat could be accomplished — is well known. How Corning actually pulled it off is not.

Apple’s attempt to switch to sapphire crystal for the iPhone 6 is something else that has been well-documented. While it didn’t work out for them, its failure seems to have ultimately strengthened their relationship with Corning.

The Software Security Model Is Broken

Chris Baraniuk, BBC News:

A massive ransomware campaign appears to have infected a number of organisations around the world.

Computers in thousands of locations have apparently been locked by a program that demands $300 (£230) in Bitcoin.

There have been reports of infections in more than 70 countries, including the UK, US, China, Russia, Spain, Italy and Taiwan.

Many security researchers are linking the incidents together.

BBC News:

NHS services across England and Scotland have been hit by a large-scale cyber-attack, which is being treated as a major incident.

The prime minister said the incident was part of a wider attack affecting organisations around the world.

Some hospitals and GPs cannot access patient data, after their computers were locked by a malicious program demanding a payment worth £230.

The individual aspects of this story aren’t necessarily new, but the scale of this attack is, as far as I can figure out, unprecedented. And, because of how widespread this attack is, the low ransom demand also appears to be a relatively new tactic. Instead of banking on a single target paying tens of thousands of dollars, the perpetrator can assume that more people will be willing to pay just $300 to get back to work.

Some reports are framing this attack through the method of its operation: it uses a method developed by the NSA and patched by Microsoft on March 14, before being leaked by Shadow Brokers a month later.

But, while that’s interesting, I don’t think it’s the main story. This attack reveals something that’s obvious to anyone whose main role during the holidays is updating their family’s computers: the software security model is deeply flawed. There are simply too many points of failure, and all of them are human.

Developers leave bugs in the software they build all the time. Sometimes, these bugs can be exploited in a way that allows someone to gain an elevated level of permissions. These bugs are typically only found when someone is actively trying to find them. Patches can be made available, but it’s up to users to decide to update.

Users have been conditioned to be wary of installing any software updates because it’s risky: software updates regularly break applications that users rely upon. In a home environment, that’s irritating; in an enterprise environment with life-or-death consequences — like in the NHS — an incompatibility can be disastrous.

Update: This specific strain of the malware should no longer spread now that a “sinkhole” domain was registered by a security researcher, completely by accident.

Is the Gig Economy Working?

The short answer: it depends on who you ask, and for what reasons.

Nathan Heller, the New Yorker:

The American workplace is both a seat of national identity and a site of chronic upheaval and shame. The industry that drove America’s rise in the nineteenth century was often inhumane. The twentieth-century corrective—a corporate workplace of rules, hierarchies, collective bargaining, triplicate forms—brought its own unfairnesses. Gigging reflects the endlessly personalizable values of our own era, but its social effects, untried by time, remain uncertain.

Support for the new work model has come together swiftly, though, in surprising quarters. On the second day of the most recent Democratic National Convention, in July, members of a four-person panel suggested that gigging life was not only sustainable but the embodiment of today’s progressive values. “It’s all about democratizing capitalism,” Chris Lehane, a strategist in the Clinton Administration and now Airbnb’s head of global policy and public affairs, said during the proceedings, in Philadelphia. David Plouffe, who had managed Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign before he joined Uber, explained, “Politically, you’re seeing a large contingent of the Obama coalition demanding the sharing economy.” Instead of being pawns in the games of industry, the panelists thought, working Americans could thrive by hiring out skills as they wanted, and putting money in the pockets of peers who had done the same. The power to control one’s working life would return, grassroots style, to the people.

The basis for such confidence was largely demographic. Though statistics about gigging work are few, and general at best, a Pew study last year found that seventy-two per cent of American adults had used one of eleven sharing or on-demand services, and that a third of people under forty-five had used four or more. “To ‘speak millennial,’ you ought to be talking about the sharing economy, because it is core and central to their economic future,” Lehane declared, and many of his political kin have agreed. No other commercial field has lately drawn as deeply from the Democratic brain trust. Yet what does democratized capitalism actually promise a politically unsettled generation? Who are its beneficiaries? At a moment when the nation’s electoral future seems tied to the fate of its jobs, much more than next month’s paycheck depends on the answers.

This is a long article, but it’s worth spending some time with. Heller does a fantastic job of delving into the nuances of “gig economy” jobs, and how participants are frequently sold a myth. That’s not to say that these jobs can’t be good, but rather that the groups of people who benefit most are often as imbalanced as in the broader economy.

The FCC Pretends to Support Net Neutrality and Privacy While Moving to Gut Both

Kit Walsh, writing for the EFF:

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has proposed a plan to eliminate net neutrality and privacy for broadband subscribers. Of course, those protections are tremendously popular, so Chairman Pai and his allies have been forced to pay lip service to preserving them in “some form.” How do we know it’s just lip service? Because the plan Pai is pushing will destroy the legal foundation for net neutrality. That’s right: if Pai succeeds, the FCC won’t have the legal authority to preserve net neutrality in just about any form. And if he’s read the case law, he knows it.

The FCC is dearly underestimating the intelligence of American voters. Despite tens of thousands of bogus comments made on their proposal to deregulate ISPs, the vast majority of what I’ve seen of the million-plus filings indicate overwhelming support for the continued classification of ISPs under Title II.

Analyzing a Counter-Intelligence Operation

Adam Nossiter, David E. Sanger and Nicole Perlroth, New York Times:

The National Security Agency in Washington picked up the signs. So did Emmanuel Macron’s bare-bones technology team. And mindful of what happened in the American presidential campaign, the team created dozens of false email accounts, complete with phony documents, to confuse the attackers.

Gadi Evron, writing for Hacker Noon:

So Macron’s people, and specifically Mounir Mahjoubi, who I want to make sure and meet one day, claim to have fed APT28 false data in a “counteroffensive”. Maybe they have’ maybe they haven’t. Maybe they did something else entirely. Maybe it wasn’t them.

Regardless, their PR win as shown above — planned or not — with or without cyber, was in the bag.

This is an incredible story, and its lessons should ripple through the information security world. The big takeaway is that Macron’s technology group guessed — correctly — that the campaign would be infiltrated at some point, so they planned around that assumed eventuality. At this point, that should be the default security mode for any major campaign or corporation: assume that a breach will occur, if it hasn’t already.

The FCC’s Net Neutrality Proposal Is Being Spammed

Zack Whittaker, ZDNet:

So much so that more than 58,000 identical comments have been posted since the feedback doors were opened, now representing over one-in-ten comments on the FCC’s feedback docket.

“The unprecedented regulatory power the Obama Administration imposed on the internet is smothering innovation, damaging the American economy and obstructing job creation,” the comment says. “I urge the Federal Communications Commission to end the bureaucratic regulatory overreach of the internet known as Title II and restore the bipartisan light-touch regulatory consensus that enabled the internet to flourish for more than 20 years.”

The comments follow the same pattern: the bot appears to cycle through names in an alphabetical order, leaving the person’s name, and postal address and zip code.

We reached out to two-dozen people by phone, and we left voicemails when nobody picked up. A couple of people late Tuesday called back and confirmed that they had not left any messages on the FCC’s website. One of the returning callers specifically said they didn’t know what net neutrality was. A third person reached in a Facebook message Tuesday also confirmed that they had not left any comments on any website.

Several people have pointed out how similar this comment is to a 2010 CFIF anti-net neutrality press release:

“The unprecedented regulatory power the Obama Administration seeks over the Internet is both unnecessary and dangerous,” said Timothy Lee, CFIF’s VP of Legal and Public Affairs. “The type of Net Neutrality regulations the administration seeks to impose on the Internet threaten to cut off tens of billions of dollars in private investment annually, and will cost our struggling economy good-paying American jobs at a time when we can least afford it.”

I doubt the CFIF is being this campaign to discredit the FCC’s open comment process, but this looks like astroturfing by an organization that wants to undo net neutrality rules. If it is, that’s shameful. I hope the FCC ignores these clearly automated comments.

Amazon Announces $229 Box With Screen

James Vincent, the Verge:

Amazon has officially unveiled its latest Echo product: a touchscreen device with built-in Alexa called the Echo Show. The device was extensively leaked this week, but is now available to pre-order from Amazon for $229.99.

The Show has the same basic capabilities as the regular, voice-only Echo (like setting timers and listening to music) but the built-in display adds plenty of new functionality. The Show’s screen will give users more information about their Alexa queries (displaying a full weather report or the steps in each recipe, for example), and can be used to play videos, including news briefings from the likes of CNN, and content from YouTube and Amazon Video.

This sounds promising, right? Kind of like having an iPad Mini that’s always on and features a way better version of Siri. Only one small problem: it’s hideous. Nostalgia may be a powerful force, but I don’t imagine many people are nostalgic for a mid-1980s appliance. It weighs a kilo, so it’s meant to sit in one place all the time, and that place is probably going to be somewhere in the open because of the kind of device this is. People will see it.

I’m not saying that it should look like an iMac, either. In fact, I’m glad it isn’t yet another product aping Apple’s design language, because I think there are plenty of other ways to design consumer electronics. But that doesn’t mean it needs to be ugly.

This might sell well; it might sell poorly. I don’t know, and I wouldn’t want to prognosticate failure simply because the Echo Show doesn’t look good. But I wouldn’t buy this iteration of it.

Update: Perhaps the biggest Amazon news of today wasn’t the Echo Show, but the rebuilt Alexa app that is going head-to-head with iMessage and FaceTime.

Go FCC Yourself

Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica:

Comedian John Oliver has once again asked his viewers to fight on behalf of net neutrality, and the Federal Communications Commission website wasn’t able to handle the immediate influx of angry comments.

On HBO’s Last Week Tonight, Oliver yesterday announced a new URL, gofccyourself.com, that redirects to the FCC proposal to eliminate net neutrality rules. (Clicking “Express” is the easiest way to submit a comment.) The comments website promptly crashed, making it difficult or impossible to file comments last night and this morning. The comments site has started working, but only intermittently.

As of writing, approximately 140,000 people have submitted feedback encouraging the FCC to keep ISPs classified as Title II companies. Three years ago, however, about four million submission were posted for the then-proposed rules that also would have destroyed net equality. If you’re American, you should comment.

Marguerite Reardon, CNet:

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai wants a do-over of the rules governing net neutrality.

But he’s trying to keep an open mind about the proceedings.

“I don’t have any predetermined views as to where we’re going to go,” he said in an interview with CNET on Thursday. “That’s the reason that we call it a notice of proposed rulemaking. It’s not a decree.”

Later in the same interview:

“Are we going to treat this new technology as we do the water company, or the electric company, or Ma Bell from the 1930s?” he said.

The internet is not a new technology any longer, and Pai’s feigned ignorance of that makes it sound like he’s made up his mind: he doesn’t believe the internet is as much of a utility as it truly is.

“Ultimately, my hope is that a return to that bipartisan, Clinton-era light-touch approach, one that served us well for 20 years, is going to be one that finds bipartisan support again,” he said.

Pai has called the Title II classification of ISPs a “partisan” issue on several occasions — you can see another instance of it in Oliver’s piece. But net neutrality hasn’t been a partisan issue or decision until the Republican party decided to make it one by framing it as “Obamacare for the internet”. It isn’t a partisan issue, not really. It’s a power struggle between every American and a handful of corporate interests, and Pai is on the ISPs’ side.

JP Morgan: Free AirPods With the Next iPhone

Tom Sykes at the Apple Post:

Apple’s upcoming iPhone 8 is building itself up to be one of the most anticipated iPhone releases of all time, and the latest research note published by analyst JP Morgan adds to the anticipation by claiming Apple will offer free AirPods with the premium iPhone 8, music to the ears of many who are eager to get their hands on Apple’s wireless earbuds.

I’m not saying this absolutely cannot or will not happen, but why would Apple give away a product for which it is currently struggling to meet demand, and which gives them the potential of an extra $160 per iPhone buyer? The answer, of course, is that they wouldn’t, so something — or, more likely, everything — about this rumour is wrong.

iCloud Is a Magical Black Box

Riccardo Mori:

iCloud has indeed got better over time, but perhaps the main reason that’s still keeping me from going all-in with it is that the service is too out-of-the-way, too invisible to the user, while I require a certain degree of transparency from a service that’s supposed to sync a lot of my files and information over the air. Yes, it’s nice that iCloud feels like magic when everything works. The problem is that ‘magic’ becomes ‘black box’ when something doesn’t work.

I don’t frequently see errors in iCloud but, when I do, there’s virtually no way to debug them other than hitting the “Try Again” button.

I’ve told this story before, but back when I was setting up iCloud Photo Library, I ran into a strange error where none of my devices would upload my photos. Toggling iCloud off and back on would briefly show a message saying that it was waiting for an iCloud backup to complete — I don’t use iCloud backups on my phone. After toggling everything I could think of, rebooting my iOS devices and Mac several times, trying different WiFi networks, and even restoring my phone, I resorted to filing a bug report. That’s a step almost no users would take.

The nice people who handle bug reports wanted me to install a logging profile. Users would struggle with this despite Apple’s straightforward instructions.

A week later, I received an email from someone in iCloud engineering. She scheduled a call and worked on my case personally. She was able to resolve the bug on my iPhone remotely, but found that a similar bug with Photos on the web wasn’t fixed yet. She filed an internal ticket; nearly a month later, it was fixed, too.

A system like this isn’t scalable. iCloud bugs are such a mysterious black box that a technician at an Apple Store or typical phone support would not be able to assist with resolving them. A typical user would no more consider firing up Console than they would think about filing a radar, but at least the system log can assist a more advanced user with debugging on their own.

Trust in Apple’s Services

One of the most captivating story lines at Apple over the past fifteen years or so is the growth of their services business. It’s now booking over $7 billion in revenue per quarter for the company, and its tight integration with the first-party software that Apple ships on its product lines helps build a case for customer loyalty, but only if they make their cloud services truly great. And, for a long time, that wasn’t the case.

But today, Ryan Christoffel makes the case in MacStories that Apple’s services are actually, well, good:

The Apple of today has made services a core part of its business. Not only from a financial standpoint, but also in the area of user experience. The experience Apple sells is not merely one of hardware, or software – it includes services. And it’s that Apple experience that helped make the iPhone one of the most successful products in the history of the world.

[…]

You can draw your own conclusions from this story, but mine is that Apple’s services get a bad rap they generally don’t deserve; the company’s reputation for not doing services well is outdated. Are things perfect? Of course not. But they’re a lot better than the common narrative says.

Of the fourteen services Christoffel says he relies upon, I am a frequent user of eleven: iCloud Calendar syncing, iCloud Drive, Photos, Maps, Apple Pay, iTunes, Apple Music, News, iMessage, Siri, and the App Store. I also use a few services he doesn’t mention, like Reminders and Contacts syncing, and iCloud Keychain.

And, much like many of you I’m sure, I’ve had shaky experiences with pretty much all of these. iCloud Drive files take forever to show up on different devices, for example, and Maps data is still incomplete and occasionally incorrect where I live.1 iTunes preorders are still buggy,2 while Siri remains painfully obtuse when it comes to following context.3

But a few years ago, I went practically all-in on Apple’s services and I’ve reached a similar — if less enthusiastic — conclusion as Christoffel: they’ve become quite good. iMessage notifications, for example, go to the device I’m currently using without lighting up every device at once. Apple Music has performed reliably, and the For You recommendations strike a good balance between discoverability and familiarity. Much to my surprise, iCloud Keychain and Photos have been bulletproof over the past couple of years, in particular.

I don’t blame anyone for their skepticism of Apple’s cloud services offerings; for a very long time, these services were entirely deserving of their lacklustre reputation. Next to Google’s established and reliable offerings, Apple was playing a fast game of catch-up in public, and it showed. Despite their presently-good state, however, I get a wary look whenever I recommend many of Apple’s services to someone who asks. A lot of people have been burned before by bad experiences with Maps or iTunes, and are reluctant to trust in more Apple services.

And that’s unfortunate, because I’ve found that Apple’s products — much like any other tech company’s — work a lot better when you invest deeper into their ecosystem. Getting users to trust in doing so, however, is going to be as hard for Apple as were the technical improvements to their services.


  1. Recent highlights include an entire stretch of businesses that were placed on 10A Street instead of 10 Street, a car dealership marked as a golf course, and areas marked as parks contradicted by the aerial view. ↩︎

  2. When my preorder of Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.” became available for download, iTunes failed to update the tags on the lead single “HUMBLE.” for accuracy. ↩︎

  3. My girlfriend’s conversation with Siri, not too long ago:

    “Remind me to send in my application tomorrow at 9 PM.”

    Did you mean Sunday or Monday?

    “Sunday.”

    Okay, I found this on the web for Sunday. ↩︎

Microsoft Launches Surface Laptop

The long-rumoured Surface Laptop is, at last, a reality, and it looks damn good. Michael Tsai’s roundup is, as usual, a terrific summary of early media impressions.

I’d love to take a closer look at this thing. It seems to slot in between the MacBook and the 13-inch MacBook Pro, if those products shipped with Gatekeeper switched to allow apps only from the App Store.

See Also: Jack Wellborn’s excellent 2015 article on Microsoft building the reference designs for Windows OEMs.

Analysis of Internal Facebook Code Submissions Reveals Gender Bias

Deepa Seetharaman, Wall Street Journal (paywalled, but you can click through from Twitter):

Last year, a longtime engineer at Facebook Inc. gathered data that revealed a controversial finding: Code written by women was rejected much more frequently than code written by their male colleagues, according to people familiar with the matter and screenshots of internal discussions viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Julia Carrie Wong, the Guardian:

In October, Jay Parikh, Facebook’s vice-president of engineering, told engineers internally that the company had conducted its own analysis of the code review process “using confidential employee data so we could gain a better understanding of what is happening”.

The Facebook analysis took into account engineers’ “level” within the company and found “no statistically significant difference” between female and male engineers within the same level.

Parikh attributed the difference that the original analysis found to “the difference in gender distribution between levels”, meaning the fact that Facebook has more female engineers at lower levels than higher levels.

While Parikh’s comment might sound like it disputes the engineer’s analysis, it doesn’t necessarily do either and it provides support for the engineer’s claim that there is significant gender bias within Facebook — and, likely, throughout most tech companies. He’s basically saying that female engineers are not promoted as frequently as their male colleagues to higher positions within the company.

This isn’t entirely new information — a 2016 study found that female contributors to open source project on GitHub were more likely have their contributions accepted when they had gender neutral names, but less likely when they had more typically feminine names. This data lends further support to a pervasive gender bias in the tech community. A band-aid solution would be to require all code reviews to be anonymous; a more comprehensive solution is to value women.

Travis Kalanick Cancelled His Code Conference Interview

Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, Recode:

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is not the first exec to deal with sexual harassment and sexism issues. And he’s not the first to be accused of stealing technology. He’s also not the first to anger customers through cloddish statements. And he’s not the first to face significant doubts about his ability to manage a fast-growing startup.

But he is the very first speaker in the 15 years we have been putting on our tech and media events to cancel his interview due to the many embarrassing issues at his company. In this case, because the report from former Attorney General Eric Holder on Uber’s culture and management problems has been delayed until the week of Code at the end of May.

Without Swisher and Mossberg hammering Kalanick about Uber’s stormy past few months, this should alleviate a potential PR problem. Yet, the PR problem is not the concern.

‘Dok’ Malware on MacOS

Ofer Caspi of Check Point Software:

People often assume that if you’re running OSX, you’re relatively safe from malware. But this is becoming less and less true, as evidenced by a new strain of malware encountered by the Check Point malware research team. This new malware – dubbed OSX/Dok — affects all versions of OSX, has 0 detections on VirusTotal (as of the writing of these words), is signed with a valid developer certificate (authenticated by Apple), and is the first major scale malware to target OSX users via a coordinated email phishing campaign.

Once OSX/Dok infection is complete, the attackers gain complete access to all victim communication, including communication encrypted by SSL. This is done by redirecting victim traffic through a malicious proxy server.

Glenn Fleishman, Macworld:

Apple confirmed that Gatekeeper wasn’t bypassed. That developer certificate has been revoked, which will prevent it launching in the future without a warning. Apple has confirmed that it updated XProtect, its silent malware signature system, to ward it off as well. There’s no indication about how many users might have been infected, as Check Point’s research team encountered it in the wild.

The malware is only able to execute its payload by requiring the user to jump through a lot of manual steps — including, of course, typing an administrator’s password. MacOS requires administrator-level privileges on a semi-regular basis; a user might type their admin password into a prompt at least a few times every week without really thinking about it. As much as all of us are aware that we shouldn’t open sketchy email attachments, we should also be very cautious of any request for a system admin password.

Fortunately, Apple has an existing asset that would make the Mac far more secure: the Mac App Store. Apps there are vetted and, because of the store’s rules, would never ask a user for an admin password. If the Mac App Store were part of a healthier ecosystem, I think more users would see it as their first choice and, consequently, be more concerned when any app requests an admin password.

A New Vocabularity for Net Neutrality

DeRay Mckesson:

Does someone have a better name than “net neutrality” to describe the issue? It’s not resonating with people at all.

Mckesson is right: net neutrality needs a more effective name. However, more than not resonating, I think the almost bureaucratic wording of the phrase “net neutrality” has allowed it to become politically twisted and skewed. Remember this word salad tweet from Ted Cruz in 2014?

“Net Neutrality” is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.

This doesn’t even come close to making sense.

Mckesson’s followers chimed in with great suggestions for clearer and more direct messaging. “Internet freedom” and “internet liberty” were common terms, both of which sound very American. If I got to vote for a name, though, it would likely be for “net equality”. Instead of erring on the side of describing how traffic is treated, “net equality” promotes the effect of network neutrality. More than that, it makes clear what net neutrality advocates are protesting: network inequality proposed by ISPs.

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.

Update: Ged Maheux:

Hey, guess who I just got a call from? A very nice rep at Apple saying we can put the alternate app icons back in Twitterrific. Woot!!

I’m glad to hear that this has been resolved in favour of the Iconfactory, but developers shouldn’t need to deal with the confusion and ambiguity that comes from a situation like this. Rules should be clear and applied consistently to all developers regardless of size.

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.

Update: This has been clarified by Apple, as of May 4: only in-app purchase commissions are being cut.