Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

First Reviews of the Samsung Galaxy Fold

Dieter Bohn, the Verge:

Samsung isn’t canceling or delaying the launch of this $1,980 folding smartphone from its April 26th launch date. So I feel a sense of responsibility to get this review out before people buy it. I’ll just say it right out front: I cannot recommend that anybody buy this thing until we know what’s up with these broken screens. The whole situation isn’t quite the fiasco of exploding Note 7 smartphones, as nobody’s safety is threatened, but it is, well, weird.

So here’s what I’m going to do: review the Galaxy Fold as if this whole terrible screen breaking thing will get resolved. Don’t take that to mean that I think it absolutely will be or that I think you should dismiss these problems. Entirely the opposite: you should not buy this phone until we get more information — and even then, it’s not a great purchase.

Joanna Stern, Wall Street Journal:

Even then, I have to ask: Why in the world is a $2,000 glamour phone held together by a flimsy piece of plastic? The feeling of cheapness is as great a sin. Why didn’t Samsung integrate this apparently necessary protective layer better into the body of the phone? (The company’s answer: It makes the phone easier to service. There’s a vote of confidence!)

[…]

At a time when smartphone innovation seems to have stalled and companies are looking to sell us the Next Big Thing, the coming years will be about new and exciting experiments like this. Some early adopters will gleefully raise their hands and pay to test drive the future. But we are not all willing beta testers.

Reading these two reviews has helped me understand the potential of the Galaxy Fold in a way that Samsung’s own product launch keynote did not. It’s not a phone that unfolds into a bigger screen; it’s a small and simplified tablet that can fold in half. If the idea of a tablet as just a bigger smartphone is appealing to you, a device like this might also be.

But not this product. Even if we totally ignore the unignorable display problems and questionable reliability, there are so many basic software implementation problems that it’s hard to see this as anything more than a prototype that is years away from being ready to ship to consumers.

Except it isn’t shipping years from now; I still can’t believe Samsung will deliver these things to customers next week. But they will, and those customers will pay $2,000 for an experiment that might break at any time, all so Samsung can say that they were first.

Facebook Acknowledges Millions More Passwords Stored in Plain Text, and Contacts Uploaded Without Consent

Kurt Wagner, Recode:

Facebook first announced late last month that it had stored hundreds of millions of user passwords unencrypted on its servers, a massive security problem. At the time, it said that “tens of thousands” of Instagram passwords were also stored in this way.

On Thursday morning, Facebook updated its blog to say that, actually, “millions” of Instagram users, not “tens of thousands,” were impacted.

That’s real bad, but that’s not all, because it never is with Facebook. Remember how they were asking some users for their email account passwords just two weeks ago?

Rob Price, Business Insider:

Since May 2016, the social-networking company has collected the contact lists of 1.5 million users new to the social network, Business Insider can reveal. The Silicon Valley company said the contact data was “unintentionally uploaded to Facebook,” and it is now deleting them.

The revelation comes after pseudononymous security researcher e-sushi noticed that Facebook was asking some users to enter their email passwords when they signed up for new accounts to verify their identities, a move widely condemned by security experts. Business Insider then discovered that if you entered your email password, a message popped up saying it was “importing” your contacts without asking for permission first.

At the time, it wasn’t clear what was happening — but on Wednesday, Facebook disclosed to Business Insider that 1.5 million people’s contacts were collected this way and fed into Facebook’s systems, where they were used to improve Facebook’s ad targeting, build Facebook’s web of social connections, and recommend friends to add.

Are they evil? Is their internal culture and sense of corporate ethics corrupt? Are they merely criminally inept?

Whatever the case, it doesn’t seem to have spooked Facebook’s shareholders. The company’s stock has climbed pretty steadily since the beginning of the year, and it’s at about the same price as this time last year. And, even though Facebook — the website and app — has been losing users, Facebook — the company — has insulated themselves by acquiring apparent alternatives. There are simply few automatic consequences for their repeated, brazen, and systemic breaches of trust.

Samsung Galaxy Fold Reviewers Are Noticing Screen Problems After Days of Use

Dieter Bohn, the Verge:

Look closely at the picture above, and you can see a small bulge right on the crease of my Galaxy Fold review unit. It’s just enough to slightly distort the screen, and I can feel it under my finger. There’s something pressing up against the screen at the hinge, right there in the crease. My best guess is that it’s a piece of debris, something harder than lint for sure. It’s possible that it’s something else, though, like the hinge itself on a defective unit pressing up on the screen.

It’s a distressing thing to discover just two days after receiving my review unit. More distressing is that the bulge eventually pressed sharply enough into the screen to break it. You can see the telltale lines of a broken OLED converging on the spot where the bulge is.

Bohn isn’t the only one with problems: Steve Kovach of CNBC, Mark Gurman, and Marques Brownlee all report broken screens on their review units, which they were provided with earlier this week. It appears that Gurman and Brownlee peeled off a protective layer. It looks kind of like that plastic film that all new devices ship with to protect them in transit, but this one is apparently supposed to stay on the screen.

Samsung said a couple of weeks ago that they tested the Galaxy Fold extensively, but this is not a problem that should occur with a two thousand dollar smartphone that will, apparently, be shipping to customers next week. The Galaxy Fold is still a prototype.

Update: Samsung has given a statement to the Verge emphasizing that users should not remove the film that looks like it can and should be removed from the screen. Some people have said that there’s a note that comes with the device indicating that this film should not be peeled off, but Mark Gurman says that some review devices did not have this notice. Also, according to Joanna Stern, Samsung is not delaying the device’s launch despite the issues reported with devices in the first few days of use. I do not think this will go well.

Apple Music’s Improved ‘For You’ Tab

The “For You” tab in Apple Music received a huge update yesterday, and I’m pretty sure I was the first to notice it, for whatever that’s worth. Juli Clover, MacRumors:

Apple Music is now recommending content based on specific bands you’ve listened to before, and there are categories such as “Case of the Mondays,” “Start Your Week Right,” and “To Make You Smile.” There are also category recommendations for music genres you’ve listened to in the past.

Recommendations can be shifted using the Love and Dislike features in Apple Music, and going forward, Apple plans to provide more regular updates to the “For You” section so you’ll have fresh content and recommendations more frequently.

This is far better than the old version of the tab, which prioritized adding new friends and listening to their music over finding more stuff based on your own tastes. The tab seems to keep up with your day a lot better — for example, I was listening to the National’s “Alligator” for a while today and several albums were suggested soon after in “For You”. That makes more sense than having those suggestions offered hours-to-days later.

I’m still baffled by the “New Releases” section at the bottom. Surely it should suggest, well, new releases, but the second-through-fifth suggestions are all over two weeks old. In that time, new albums have been released from artists I’ve listened to and have “loved” on Apple Music that simply don’t show up, not to mention releases from artists that are closely related to my listening history.

However, the first suggestion in “New Releases” is for an album released Monday, so things are looking up.

As Qualcomm and Apple Settle Litigation, Intel Announces It Won’t Make 5G Modems After All

Apple and Qualcomm jointly released this single paragraph announcement of their litigation settlement following the first day of arguments in its trial:

Qualcomm and Apple today announced an agreement to dismiss all litigation between the two companies worldwide. The settlement includes a payment from Apple to Qualcomm. The companies also have reached a six-year license agreement, effective as of April 1, 2019, including a two-year option to extend, and a multiyear chipset supply agreement.

Shortly after, Intel announced that it would be exiting the 5G modem business. Apple’s first 5G iPhone was expected to ship next year with Intel modems, but that obviously won’t be happening now.

Sadly, this is a victory for Qualcomm’s monopolistic licensing practices for industry standards. Today’s settlement will allow Apple to use Qualcomm’s patents for their own 5G modems, rumoured to be used in iPhones shipping in 2021.

Update: Lauly Li, Cheng Ting-Fang, and Takeshi Shiraishi, Nikkei Asian Review:

Intel has been the sole modem chip supplier for iPhones since 2018, owing to Apple’s legal dispute with Qualcomm.

“Apple had been a little concerned whether a sole supplier for modems could affect the company’s plan to introduce its first 5G smartphone next year,” a person familiar with the matter said.

Two questions:

  1. Did Intel give Apple a heads-up that it would be exiting the 5G modem business, thereby prompting today’s settlement?

  2. If yes, is the time between that notification and the settlement better measured in days, hours, or minutes?

Facebook Shared User Data With High-Spending Advertisers, and Repeatedly Proposed Selling Data

Olivia Solon and Cyrus Farivar, NBC News:

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg oversaw plans to consolidate the social network’s power and control competitors by treating its users’ data as a bargaining chip, while publicly proclaiming to be protecting that data, according to about 4,000 pages of leaked company documents largely spanning 2011 to 2015 and obtained by NBC News.

The documents, which include emails, webchats, presentations, spreadsheets and meeting summaries, show how Zuckerberg, along with his board and management team, found ways to tap Facebook’s trove of user data — including information about friends, relationships and photos — as leverage over companies it partnered with.

In some cases, Facebook would reward favored companies by giving them access to the data of its users. In other cases, it would deny user-data access to rival companies or apps.

The litigation that surfaced these documents concerns a creepy app that allowed users to find friends’ bikini pictures. The app’s ability to use friends’ photo albums was terminated by Facebook not necessarily because it violated a developer agreement or because it’s very gross but, according to these documents, for Facebook’s own power and control purposes.

That is just one of several ways Facebook demonstrated an appalling understanding of its own ethical obligations. Executives discussed plans to sell access to user data, and even gave extended data to highly-valuable advertisers. Posts that users marked as visible only to them were, in some cases, available to third-party apps.

I don’t like the idea of a company strip-mining its users’ every move in the digital and physical worlds to create profiles of information against which shitty ads are sold; but, if that is something that anyone still thinks has societal benefits, let’s all agree that the company should ensure that users have control over how their information is shared further.

The Architecture of Humanity

Osita Nwanevu reacts to yesterday’s heartbreaking fire at Paris’ Notre-Dame:

How many things have we put up over the last few decades that would spiritually wound people the world over if they burned down a century from now?

Albert Burneko, Deadspin:

This is not how buildings go up in modern times, and not only or even mainly because technology and construction methods allow them to go up much faster than they did in the 12th century. The project, in constructing a medieval cathedral, was not to get the building up and completed and into use as quickly or efficiently as possible, so that the developer could begin charging rent on its interior square footage. The project was to make the most beautiful and most awe-inspiring possible work of devotion, to create the most permanent possible monument to the human ideals that inspired the project. The idea was to do this no matter how long it all took — to make the finished product vast and timeless and cumulative; such a building would invariably be filled with mystery, would hum with it, and would be worth tending and nurturing and loving forever.

One of the few projects I can think of that has not yet been completed is Gaudí’s Sagrada Família. When that’s done — probably within the next ten years — what other things have we built over the last hundred years that could safely join the ranks of stuff that has been built for the sake of humanity? What are we building today that, if it were consumed by fire, would cause the kind of global anguish and outpouring of grief that defined much of yesterday for the loss of the structure itself?

Twitter’s Complicated and Messy Verification Process

Twitter’s verification process has been a mess since it launched. It was long only offered by invitation to public figures; but, in 2016, the company created a process for the general public to become verified. Even though Twitter still limited verification to people deemed notable enough, it acknowledged that there were individuals who may have been missed by a company run by young men in California.

In November 2017 Twitter announced it would be suspending its public verification process after an organizer of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer was found to be a verified Twitter user. However, the company never actually stopped verifying accounts. Cale Guthrie Weissman reported in 2018 for Fast Company that users were still being given a checkmark; and, today, Karissa Bell reports for Mashable that the process has continued:

Celebrities, and others with backchannel connections to the company, are able to become verified as Twitter ignores everyday users and those without insider access. In many ways, this secretive process is now more opaque and unfair than it was when anyone could apply on Twitter’s website. At a time when Twitter says it’s trying to be more transparent about its rules, the lack of an official verification policy is hurting groups already susceptible to abuse, critics say.

Twitter argued that it never intended for verification to be a sign of importance — only a way to indicate a real account belonging to a more public figure. Surely, though, if it’s something that’s open exclusively to those it invites to be verified, that’s an implicit assumption that the person is prominent enough for the company to reach out.

Twitter seems utterly confused about what its verification program ought to be. Should it be just a simple way to communicate that an account is run by a real person or company, rather than an impersonator or a robot? Should it be only for public figures? What is a public figure anyhow, in Twitter’s view? How big of a following does a band or a press photographer or a sound recordist need to have for them to be considered notable in Twitter’s eyes?

Most of the special features of verification have been opened up to all users, though I’ve heard that verified users see fewer ads. So the special feature of verification really is the badge — the indication of public visibility and importance. I don’t think it will ever shake a feeling that users bearing it on their profiles are special. I’m not sure Twitter does enough to recognize that or understand the implications of continuing to show a verified badge on Paul Joseph Watson’s profile, for example, and every nonsense tweet he produces from his internal fountain of fecal matter.

Internet Association Lobbying Group Defangs Illinois State Bill to Ban Unauthorized Microphone Use

Sean Gallagher, Ars Technica:

On April 10, the Illinois State Senate passed the “Keep Internet Devices Safe Act,” a bill that would ban Internet device manufacturers from collecting audio from Internet-connected devices without disclosing it to consumers. But the bill was substantially neutered after a fierce lobbying effort by an industry association backed by Amazon and Google.

[…]

The original bill would have made collection of audio by an Internet device “an unlawful practice under the Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act.” That wording would have allowed device owners to complain to the Illinois Attorney General’s office, or any Illinois state’s attorney, and could result in fines of up to $50,000 per case — on top of any other compensatory damages for privacy violations.

The Internet Association — members of which include Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook — complained, in part, that the bill would allow for penalties of accidental microphone activation. Bugs happen, of course, but why shouldn’t there be liability for unauthorized collection of personal data, even when it’s a mistake? If anything, it’s pretty astonishing that huge breaches of privacy due to negligence are just sort of waived away.

Foxconn Denies Verge Report That Buildings Photographed Empty Are Actually Empty While Announcing Development of Another Empty Building

Nilay Patel, the Verge:

Earlier this week, The Verge published a lengthy investigation into the many “innovation centers” Foxconn has announced in Wisconsin as part of its deal with President Trump to build a (status unknown) LCD manufacturing plant in the state. After spending 10 days on the ground, we simply reported the obvious: most of the “innovation centers” are empty, some of the buildings were never actually purchased, and no one in Wisconsin really seems to know what’s going on.

Today, Foxconn responded to that piece by… announcing another innovation center in Wisconsin, this one in Madison, the state’s capital. The building, which currently houses a bank, actually sits directly across the street from the Capitol building, and it will continue to house the bank because Foxconn did not announce when it would be moving in.

Here are some other things Foxconn did not announce: how much it had paid for the building, how many floors of the building it would occupy, how many people would work there, or what those people would be doing.

Who cracks first and decides to give up on this act — Foxconn or the government of Wisconsin?

Tesla Artificially Caps $35,000 Model 3, Makes It Available for Purchase in Retail Stores Only

From the Tesla blog:

Last quarter, we introduced two new Model 3 variants with more competitive pricing than ever before – Standard and Standard Plus. Since then, Standard Plus has sold at more than six times the rate of Standard, far exceeding our expectations.

Given the popularity of the Standard Plus relative to the Standard, we have made the decision to simplify our production operations to better optimize cost, minimize complexity and streamline operations. As a result, Model 3 Standard will now be a software-limited version of the Standard Plus, and we are taking it off the online ordering menu, which just means that to get it, customers will need to call us or visit any one of the several hundred Tesla stores. Deliveries of Model 3 Standard will begin this weekend.

It was just a month and a half ago — and at the very same time that the promised $35,000 Model 3 became available — that Tesla said that they were going to shutter virtually all of their physical retail stores. Then, just two weeks later, they halted closure of their retail stores and said that they would increase prices instead.

Now, a month later, they’re announcing that, to purchase a base Model 3, you need to go to one of their stores and do so in person. Oh, and because it’s only an artificially limited version of the pricier Standard Plus, it costs the company the same amount to make it. And they’ve made Autopilot standard across the range, because there’s nothing you want more from a company that doesn’t know what it’s doing than a car that drives itself.

Hat tip to George for this link.

AMP Doesn’t Always Improve Site Performance, But Many Publishers Have No Good Choice

Walid Halabi, Unlike Kinds (via Michael Tsai):

But Google already ranks websites by speed. This tells us that every crawled site’s performance is measured in some way that Google finds accurate enough to use for a site’s ranking – you know, the position on Google’s results that can literally mean the difference between a failed business and one that makes millions of dollars, that an $80 billion industry is built upon.

So you’d imagine that Google’s existing page speed ranking could easily be used to limit which sites appear in the carousel. Anything with a performance score below an 80 could appear as a performance issue in Google Search Console, and the site demoted.

But no, Google insists you build your website with their technology.

Google isn’t slowing down in its push to recraft and control the language used to build the web. A couple of weeks ago, they officially launched AMP for email, which is terrible in every way. Yet, there is simply no good choice for publishers who want a chance of their stories appearing at the top of the page for anyone using Google on their phone. This power grab is disgusting and should be treated as an attempt at a hostile takeover.

The Narrow, Subtle Case Against Julian Assange

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

I am no fan of Julian Assange or Wikileaks. However, for years I’ve made it clear that prosecuting him for publishing leaked documents would be a huge mistake by the US. The DOJ spent years trying to come up with an excuse to charge Assange, but kept realizing they had no case, because while he may have had malicious intent, none of his public actions in releasing documents were any different — legally speaking — than what any investigative journalism outlet did in releasing obtained documents. The Supreme Court has made it clear that publishing classified documents is protected by the First Amendment. If he went beyond just releasing documents, as the indictment alleges, it becomes a lot trickier — but there’s a fine line here.

It’s been clear in the last year or so, that despite years of not finding anything, the DOJ was finally moving ahead with plans to charge him. As we noted last year, everyone who believes in a free press should be concerned about what this might mean for press freedoms in the US as the case proceeds. And that’s true, even if the specific charges right now are limited to actions that are unrelated to the publishing of the documents.

Rayne” at Emptywheel:

I don’t think Conspiracy to Commit Computer Intrusion (18 USC 371, 1030(a)(1), 1030(a)(2), 1030(c)(2)(B)(ii)) is enough to warrant extradition alone.

Otherwise a Leicestershire 18-year-old would have been looking extradition for his attempted hacking of U.S. officials in October 2015, instead of eight charges of “performing a function with intent to secure unauthorised access,” and two of “unauthorised modification of computer material.”

The waiting game continues.

It is not useful speculating at what, specifically, Assange may be charged with in addition to conspiring to crack a user’s password in an attempt to mask a source accessing classified information. But it is worth keeping a close eye on this case. As several legal observers have noted today, there are parts of Assange’s case that overlap with regular journalistic practices of guarding the identity of sources, and receiving secret and classified information. Therefore, this is a case that must be read in its entirety; no single part of the indictment should be seen as setting precedent to punish journalists who work with leaks involving the same kinds of information.

Foxconn Continues to Be a Mystery in Wisconsin

Josh Dzieza, the Verge:

I heard many theories about what Foxconn was doing while I was in Wisconsin: that it’s a scheme to get visas for Chinese workers, a plot to acquire intellectual property or to buy up real estate and become a landlord or to get access to Lake Michigan water for mysterious reasons. A nearby farmer who’d been watching the project closely thinks it’s a ploy to get investor visas using commercial bonds and an excuse for Koch Industries to pipe freshwater over the subcontinental divide and for the military to make large screens inside the US, and that the final product will be a city of tax-protected warehouses and assembly facilities for mostly imported goods. “It’s all opaque so it’s nothing but a guessing game,” he told me.

But the most plausible explanation I heard is that Foxconn’s secret is that it has no idea what it’s doing in Wisconsin.

“In China, people announce projects like this all the time, and some of them get built, and some of them don’t,” said Willy Shih, a Harvard business school professor who consulted in the screen industry for several years. They’re called “state visit projects,” he said. Politicians get a photo op, and companies to get some political goodwill, but everyone knows the announcement is extremely preliminary. Ultimately, the company will do whatever makes economic sense, and sometimes, that turns out to be nothing.

Setting aside the politics and sheer lunacy of this project, it’s heartbreaking to see what it’s doing to the communities Foxconn is eroding. Hundreds of residents’ lives have been upturned; fields have been converted into dirt pits. It could all be for nothing.

Supermassive Black Hole Revealed for First Time Through Interferometry and Artificial Intelligence

Michelle Lou and Saeed Ahmed, CNN:

A global network of telescopes known as the Event Horizon Telescope project collected millions of gigabytes of data about M87 using a technique known as interferometry. However, there were still large gaps in the data that needed to be filled in.

That’s where [Katie Bouman’s] algorithm — along with several others — came in. Using imaging algorithms like Bouman’s, researchers created three scripted code pipelines to piece together the picture.

They took the “sparse and noisy data” that the telescopes spit out and tried to make an image. For the past few years, Bouman directed the verification of images and selection of imaging parameters.

It’s worth reading the 2016 press release announcing the development of this algorithm for a great explanation of how it works.

Ad Targeting Settings in Facebook Reveal Use of Mass Collections of Private Data

Katie Notopoulos, Buzzfeed News:

On Facebook under Settings, there’s a page in the Ads section where you can view your Ad Preferences. Most of this is fairly straightforward — choices about how you’ll allow ads and how advertisers target you based on things like what pages you’ve liked. But there’s one section there that will probably surprise you: a list of advertisers “Who use a contact list added to Facebook.”

[…]

The list of Advertisers, a feature Facebook added for transparency, is incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t an expert in advertising (and even some who are!), and leads to the unsettling realization that, fuck, man, our data is out there and trafficked without our consent and being used by advertisers in ways we have no clue about.

Here’s mine. Me. A person who has lived in New York for 20 years. There’s a South Carolina real estate agent and car dealerships in Colorado, Arizona, Texas, Michigan, It makes absolutely no sense.

Anti-spam laws seem increasingly antiquated. Canada’s law — which went into effect several years ago and is one of the most stringent I know of — requires that recipients give clear consent to receiving marketing messages through electronic means, including email and text message. But it does not place any restrictions on companies from using email addresses as a means of targeting ads. The American aptly-named CAN SPAM law still allows renting an email list, and there’s nothing preventing that list from being used to target ads.

New Music, Podcasts, and Books Applications Rumoured to Be Coming to MacOS

Steven Troughton-Smith:

I am now fairly confident based on evidence I don’t wish to make public at this point that Apple is planning new (likely UIKit) Music, Podcasts, perhaps even Books, apps for macOS, to join the new TV app. I expect the four to be the next wave of Marzipan apps. Grain of salt, etc

Guilherme Rambo, 9to5Mac:

The new Books app will have a sidebar similar to the News app on the Mac, it will also feature a narrower title bar with different tabs for the Library, Book Store, and Audiobook Store. On the library tab, the sidebar will list the user’s Books, Audiobooks, PDFs and other collections, including custom ones.

The new Music, Podcasts, and TV apps will be made using Marzipan, Apple’s new technology designed to facilitate the porting of iPad apps to the Mac without too many code changes. It’s not clear whether the redesigned Apple Books app will also be made using the technology, but given that the redesign came to iOS first and its usage for the other apps, it’s likely that this new Books app will also be using UIKit.

The unrequited optimist in me is imagining a next generation of cross-platform app that feels completely platform native no matter where it’s running. But I have also used Music on the iPad and it’s not as good as its iPhone sibling — and those are just different versions of the same app on the same platform.

iTunes has seemingly been living on borrowed time for years. Between the launch of Apple Music and the separation of its components on iOS, it has seemed like only a matter of when, not if iTunes was to be killed on the Mac. And, as I have no plans to stop using my local music collection and manually syncing a subset of it to my iPhone, I am wary of what this could mean for my stubborn situation over the long term. Rambo says that his sources indicate that iTunes will be left in MacOS 10.15 for people like me, but what about two years from now, for example? I recognize that this is increasingly uncommon.

Apple Drops Data Migration Fee For New Macs and Repairs

Adam Engst, TidBits:

Apple has dropped the $99 fee that it previously charged for migrating data from an old Mac to a newly purchased machine. TidBITS reader and TekBasics consultant David Price wrote to tell us that he has generally advised clients to pay Apple to migrate data to newly purchased Macs, but when he accompanied his brother-in-law to pick up a freshly migrated iMac last week, Apple informed him that there was no charge for the service.

I contacted an Apple Store Operations Specialist, who confirmed the policy change.

It seems to me that the $99 fee was a legacy cost associated with Apple’s One to One program,1 which was discontinued in 2015.


  1. I still miss Gary Allen. ↩︎

Invisible User Tracking by HTML5’s New ‘Ping’ Attribute for Links

Jeff Johnson:

This is a follow-up to my recent article Safari link tracking can no longer be disabled. I’m quite surprised that my complaining about a hidden preference in Safari has generated so much discussion on the internet. I’m also quite pleased, because I think it’s important to draw attention to the privacy implications of the HTML anchor ping attribute and have a public debate about it. I’ve heard so many people say that they weren’t even aware that anchor ping existed until they saw my article, so I’m glad to raise awareness.

[…]

Anchor ping was supposed to be transparent as in easily perceived by the user. Instead, anchor ping has become “transparent” as in invisible to the user. The browsers never informed the user about the ping notifications. And now browsers such as Safari and Chrome are removing the ability of the user to disable the notifications. As far as privacy is concerned, this is not “a wash” compared to previous tracking methods. It’s a cover-up.

Ever since Johnson posted his first article on the subject, I still can’t figure out what users gain by not being informed of both the target URL and the ping. When links are being used for tracking purposes, it makes sense to show the contents of the href so that users aren’t misled; but, if we start assuming all browser features will be used maliciously, it is easy to see why the ping attribute should also be visible to the user. That’s understandable for anyone who has ever followed a bit.ly link to a phishing attempt, shock website, or catchy 1980s music video — hey, remember when the internet was kind of jokey?

Study Suggests Users Don’t Expect Google To Collect as Much Data as It Does

Jason Kint, Nieman Lab:

Our findings show that many of Google’s data practices deviate from consumer expectations. We find it even more significant that consumer’s expectations are at an all-time low even after 2018, a year in which awareness around consumer privacy reached peak heights.

The results of the study are consistent with our Facebook study: People don’t want surveillance advertising. A majority of consumers indicated they don’t expect to be tracked across Google’s services, let alone be tracked across the web in order to make ads more targeted.

Half of those surveyed didn’t expect Google to combine data collected across the web with data collected in its apps. Only about a third of survey respondents indicated that they thought Google might collect information from non-Google apps and services.

Informed consent means that everyone should understand who gets their data and how they obtain it. Users should get to make that choice. So far, that choice has instead been made through voluminous privacy policies, browsers that default to automatically accepting all cookies, and companies that rely on the ignorance and complacency of users just trying to get things done.

Microsoft Announces It Will Stop Selling E-Books Which, Due to DRM, Will Make Existing Customer Libraries Unusable

Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing:

Microsoft has a DRM-locked ebook store that isn’t making enough money, so they’re shutting it down and taking away every book that every one of its customers acquired effective July 1.

Customers will receive refunds.

This puts the difference between DRM-locked media and unencumbered media into sharp contrast. I have bought a lot of MP3s over the years, thousands of them, and many of the retailers I purchased from are long gone, but I still have the MP3s. Likewise, I have bought many books from long-defunct booksellers and even defunct publishers, but I still own those books.

I remember when the iTunes Store was controversial because songs purchased from it were encumbered with DRM. In 2007, Steve Jobs pointed out that using some form of copy protection was a label requirement, not Apple’s decision, and that the company’s preference was to have DRM-free music. And, over the succeeding two years or so, pretty much every song on the store became DRM-free.

In the subsequent ten years, we have somehow regressed. We are now increasingly dependent on subscriptions where DRM is more understandable, and we have fewer choices for non-DRM downloadable versions. I think this shift will be deeply regrettable over the long term.

Facebook Buys Native Advertising Series in the Telegraph Defending Its Business Practices

Rob Price, Business Insider:

Facebook has found a novel solution to the never-ending deluge of negative headlines and news articles criticizing the company: Simply paying a British newspaper to run laudatory stories about it.

Facebook has partnered with The Daily Telegraph, a broadsheet British newspaper, to run a series of features about the company, Business Insider has found — including stories that defend it on hot-button issues it has been criticised over like terrorist content, online safety, cyberbullying, fake accounts, and hate speech.

The series — called “Being human in the information age” — has published 26 stories over the last month, to run in print and online, and is produced by Telegraph Spark, the newspaper’s sponsored content unit.

As an example, this article — about how an app developer left a hundreds of millions of Facebook users’ records on an publicly-available Amazon server — looks exactly the same as this advertisement for Facebook’s account security practices. And there are twenty-five more where that ad came from, all of which look like puffy-but-legitimate news stories that sit alongside one Facebook scandal after another.

This is exactly the worry about sponsored posts and native advertising. It can be done well, but that’s very rare; it is often sneaky and labelled poorly. But what the Telegraph is enabling here is far worse. The paper is participating in and profiting from Facebook’s whitewashing campaign.

New Powerbeats Pro Wireless Headphones Announced, and Some General Thoughts on Bluetooth Headphones

I’m really picky about what headphones I use. For the past several years, I’ve used various neutrally-equalized in-ear monitors. I like them because they sit inside the ear canal, so they isolate what I’m listening to and effectively mute ambient sounds. I also like that frequencies are balanced across the spectrum: they’re not tinny, but they also don’t overemphasize lower frequencies.

I’ve mentioned previously that Apple’s headphones haven’t ever felt great in my ears. The AirPods seem to fit better, but I’m still adjusting to them. A complaint I’ve seen from others about the AirPods is that bass frequencies sound tinny, but I haven’t noticed that problem at all. Lower frequencies sound rich and full to me; if anything, I’ve found the AirPods a little too bass-heavy for my tastes. This is one of the factors that has helped me realize that my complaints about fit have less to do with the size and shape of Apple’s earbuds in my ears, and more to do with their placement.

All of this is to say that the Powerbeats Pro, introduced today and shipping next month, are enticing to me. They feature the same technology as the AirPods: Apple’s H1 chip that improves connection reliability and allows fast device switching, in-ear detection, and great battery life with automatic charging in their case. But instead of sitting just inside the ear, they burrow their way into the ear canal for better noise isolation and fit. They’re also more subtle than a pair of AirPods, especially if you get them in navy, olive green, or black.

The case is much larger than the dental floss-like case of the AirPods, however, and it doesn’t support Qi charging. The latter point isn’t a concern for me — I exchanged my wirelessly-charging AirPods for a standard wired case because, hey, fifty bucks is fifty bucks — but that may be something that tips the scales for you. If it isn’t that, it’s this: these are nearly $100 more than a set of AirPods in the United States.

There’s also the question of lifespan. The batteries in most of these wireless headphones aren’t exactly replaceable so, even though the electronics inside may be completely functional, there’s no way to power them; you need to recycle them or throw them away when the batteries have expired. Apple offers a battery replacement program, but that’s more of an AirPods replacement program; the fee is the same for lost AirPods as it is for a battery swap.

For what it’s worth, I generally get only a couple of years of life out of the wired headphones I’ve owned — even some of the nicer ones. AirPods are more expensive than any headphones I’ve owned so far — and I would wager that it’s the same story for most AirPods owners — while the Powerbeats Pro model is pricier still. One would hope that they would get a longer life than just a couple of years for financial and environmental reasons. It feels a little silly tossing away a perfectly good set of earbuds because a known consumable item within them cannot really be replaced.

Pursuing Increased Viewership, YouTube Executives Ignored Warnings About the Rise of Conspiracy and Extremist Videos

Mark Bergen’s investigation for Bloomberg is devastating:

Micah Schaffer joined YouTube in 2006, nine months before it was acquired by Google and well before it had become part of the cultural firmament. He was assigned the task of writing policies for the freewheeling site. Back then, YouTube was focused on convincing people why they should watch videos from amateurs and upload their own.

A few years later, when he left YouTube, the site was still unprofitable and largely known for frivolity (A clip of David, a rambling seven-year old drugged up after a trip to a dentist, was the second most-watched video that year.) But even then there were problems with malicious content. Around that time YouTube noticed an uptick in videos praising anorexia. In response, staff moderators began furiously combing the clips to place age restrictions, cut them from recommendations or pull them down entirely. They “threatened the health of our users,” Schaffer recalled.

He was reminded of that episode recently, when videos sermonizing about the so-called perils of vaccinations began spreading on YouTube. That, he thought, would have been a no-brainer back in the earlier days. “We would have severely restricted them or banned them entirely,” Schaffer said. “YouTube should never have allowed dangerous conspiracy theories to become such a dominant part of the platform’s culture.”

Somewhere along the last decade, he added, YouTube prioritized chasing profits over the safety of its users. “We may have been hemorrhaging money,” he said. “But at least dogs riding skateboards never killed anyone.”

It has only gotten worse as YouTube’s popularity has increased and Google has taken a more active role in the company. Bergen cites verbal warnings to YouTube staff members from company lawyers, advising them not to get too involved in content moderation to avoid losing plausible deniability. He writes about an internal demonstration that showed that “alt-right” videos were among the most popular categories on the platform, and how a father’s exploitation of his children was defended with free speech arguments.

Meanwhile, one of the best music critics on YouTube is struggling with having dozens of his videos pulled due to copyright violations — despite falling under fair use allowances — and a small-ish comedy channel was deleted from the platform for reasons that are unclear at best. And these individuals can’t simply go somewhere else; there isn’t another YouTube. It has a monopoly on the independent web video space.

Firefox Nightlies Begin Requiring User Action to Trigger Push Notification Requests

Johann Hofmann of Mozilla:

Permission prompts are a common sight on the web today. They allow websites to prompt for access to powerful features when needed, giving users granular and contextual choice about what to allow. The permission model has allowed browsers to ship features that would have presented risks to privacy and security otherwise.

However, over the last few years the ecosystem has seen a rise in unsolicited, out-of-context permission prompts being put in front of users, particularly ones that ask for permission to send push notifications.

[…]

According to our telemetry data, the notifications prompt is by far the most frequently shown permission prompt, with about 18 million prompts shown on Firefox Beta in the month from Dec 25 2018 to Jan 24 2019. Not even 3% of these prompts got accepted by users. Most prompts are dismissed, while almost 19% of prompts caused users to leave the site immediately after being confronted with them. This is in stark contrast to the camera/microphone prompt, which has an acceptance rate of about 85%!

This is a great move, and I hope all browsers copy Mozilla’s initiative. This will not, however, block those irritating One Signal prompts; for that, you’ll want to block onesignal.com and cdn.onesignal.com in your favourite ad or script blocker.

All software ought to more carefully consider the ways a new feature can be exploited, but web browsers should be especially vigilant due to the open nature of the web. It’s frustrating how jackass marketers and “growth” teams can’t resist abusing a feature as simple as allowing users to get notified when they have a new message.

Facebook Demands Passwords to Some New Users’ Email Accounts for ‘Verification’

Kevin Poulsen, the Daily Beast:

Facebook users are being interrupted by an interstitial demanding they provide the password for the email account they gave to Facebook when signing up. “To continue using Facebook, you’ll need to confirm your email,” the message demands. “Since you signed up with [email address], you can do that automatically…”

A form below the message asked for the users’ “email password.”

“That’s beyond sketchy,” security consultant Jake Williams told the Daily Beast. “They should not be taking your password or handling your password in the background. If that’s what’s required to sign up with Facebook, you’re better off not being on Facebook”

It was just two weeks ago that Facebook admitted to storing the passwords of 600 million users in plain text logs.

Even setting aside that critical story and Facebook’s appalling track record on privacy — generally, but also when it comes to account security features — this is teaching users that entering the password to their email account is okay as long as they see some recognizable brand name on the page, regardless of whether it matches their email provider.

A reminder that it was just a year and a half ago that Facebook asked for users’ nude photos, too. I’m trying to think of what else they could possibly want from users that they don’t already have. A blood sample, perhaps?

Update: Facebook says that they will stop doing this.

The Effect of Product Shutdowns on Google’s Reputation

Ron Amadeo, Ars Technica:

We are 91 days into the year, and so far, Google is racking up an unprecedented body count. If we just take the official shutdown dates that have already occurred in 2019, a Google-branded product, feature, or service has died, on average, about every nine days.

Some of these product shutdowns have transition plans, and some of them (like Google+) represent Google completely abandoning a user base. The specifics aren’t crucial, though. What matters is that every single one of these actions has a negative consequence for Google’s brand, and the near-constant stream of shutdown announcements makes Google seem more unstable and untrustworthy than it has ever been. Yes, there was the one time Google killed Google Wave nine years ago or when it took Google Reader away six years ago, but things were never this bad.

For a while there has been a subset of people concerned about Google’s privacy and antitrust issues, but now Google is eroding trust that its existing customers have in the company. That’s a huge problem. Google has significantly harmed its brand over the last few months, and I’m not even sure the company realizes it.

I get where Amadeo is coming from because I, too, have virtually no trust in Google’s ability to maintain projects long-term. I wonder how much this realistically impacts their reputation, though — mostly because technology companies are barely trusted at all. Reading a comments section on the internet is scarcely recommended, but I found plenty of educational feedback on Matt Blaze’s recent editorial on software updates for the New York Times. If you’re in the tech industry at all, I think it’s worth reading.

An optimistic take is that Google is cleaning house and focusing on a set of core products and services from which it can collect data to sell advertising against. But that’s unlikely. There’s a greater chance that they’ll introduce another chat app by the end of the year.

Regarding That Ostensibly ‘Small Number of Customers’ Reporting Problems With Their MacBook Keyboards

David Heinemeier Hansson, writing on Basecamp’s Signal v. Noise blog:

Apple keep insisting that only a “small number of customers have problems” with the MacBook keyboards. That’s bollocks. This is a huge issue, it’s getting worse not better, and Apple is missing the forest for the trees.

The fact is that many people simply do not contact Apple when their MacBook keyboards fail. They just live with an S key that stutters or a spacebar that intermittently gives double. Or they just start using an external keyboard. Apple never sees these cases, so it never counts in their statistics.

It isn’t news that the butterfly keyboard switches in the post-2015 MacBook line are unreliable to the degree that it has breached a technically-focused audience, recently featuring in a Wall Street Journal article and in commentary from well-known individuals. There’s also plenty of statistical evidence, in the form of Genius Bar repair figures sourced by Apple Insider, to support the widespread understanding that these keyboards suck.

But what’s missing from the numbers Apple Insider published and the general malaise about these keyboards is any understanding of the impact they’re having on otherwise-silent users. Hansson’s piece sheds some light on this, plus a poll he posted on Twitter. As of writing, over 4,600 people have responded: 38% say that their keyboard is perfect, 11% say that they had problems with the keyboard but Apple fixed it, and 51% say that they’re living with their keyboard problems.1 I’m not surprised by that — people who use their laptop a lot, especially for work, cannot just be without their computer for a week or two. It is enormously disruptive.

The thing I keep getting back to in my head is that this is a problem that should not exist. The highlight feature of the next MacBook model should be something like Face ID or being powered by one of Apple’s own kick-ass processors, not a keyboard that hasn’t regressed and now functions correctly. And I understand completely that all tech companies experiment with new and different things. In Yosemite, Apple tried to replace the fine-but-old mDNSResponder with the new-but-flaky discoveryd; that decision was reverted after a year. Apple has now been shipping MacBooks with crappy butterfly keyboards for four years.

The Apple-related story I want to read most of all right now is about how these keyboards came to be, what happened after problems began to show up, and how they kept shipping regardless. My inbox is always open.


  1. Twitter does not publish results until the poll is completed, but you can see the poll’s current state in the page’s source. ↩︎

Low-Light Photography With the Huawei P30 Pro

Vlad Savov, the Verge:

I know what date it is, but let me assure you that this is no April Fools’ gag: Huawei’s P30 Pro has the best low-light camera, better even than Google’s Pixel Night Sight, and it sets a new benchmark for night photography. It’s so good that it will make iPhone and Samsung Galaxy phone owners question their fealty. Huawei has taken the most challenging situation for any photographer and made it as easy and casual as snapping a shot in broad daylight.

I don’t much like how bright these photos are — I feel that night should look like, well, night — but the P30 Pro demonstrates a remarkable advancement in low-light capabilities, particularly in its ability to remove noise while preserving detail. Better low-light performance remains my wish for pretty much any digital camera. The exposure can be set so that it still looks dark, but this level of improvement to noise reduction is something I’d like to see the rest of the industry copy.

Apple Cancels AirPower

Well, that sucks.

This must be frustrating for all involved in the project, and I bet the details aren’t really that exciting. Matthew Panzarino, in the linked article, is one of many people who have said that it just ran too hot. But I am very curious about the circumstances that lead to it being announced in 2017. It didn’t make sense then and has been embarrassing ever since.

Following the Launch of Apple News Plus, Apple Announces Closure of Texture on May 28

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch:

A year ago, Apple acquired the digital newsstand app Texture to form the basis of its new subscription-based service, Apple News+, which launched on Monday. As some have expected, the standalone Texture app will soon shut down as a result. According to emails sent to current Texture subscribers pointing to a FAQ on the company’s website, Texture’s last day of service will be May 28, 2019. Existing customers will be offered a one-month free trial to Apple News+ to make the jump.

A closure like this was bound to come. It doesn’t make sense for Apple to continue to operate both Texture and Apple News.

But not everyone is thrilled about this change, of course.

Specifically, Android users and other subscribers without any Apple devices will now no longer have a way to access Texture, they’ve realized. That means they’ll lose access to the service entirely when it closes down in May (unless they buy a Mac or iOS device.)

It’s unsurprising that Apple did not announce an Android version of any of their new services. Apple has enough users of iPhones, iPads, and Macs that they can create a mostly-insular ecosystem — for now, at least. I also question if and when their cross-platform offerings will extend beyond Apple Music and perfunctory iCloud support; and, it really does seem more of a question of when. I understand the appeal of exclusive shows on Apple TV Plus, for example, but it’s kind of strange to me that they’re also hardware exclusive.

Update: It would, indeed, be very strange if Apple’s original TV shows were limited to their own hardware, which is why they already announced that they would also be coming to some smart TVs, Amazon’s Fire TV, and the Roku.

The FTC Is Investigating ISP Privacy Practices

Lisa Vaas, writing on Sophos’ Naked Security blog:

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Tuesday demanded that the country’s largest broadband providers hand over their privacy policies and explain what data they collect from consumers, why, who they share it with, and how consumers can change or delete it.

In launching this broad inquiry into consumer data-handling practices, the FTC sent orders demanding answers from AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Xfinity, and Google Fiber.

One of the purposes of the investigation is to figure out how consumers’ data gets used to fuel targeted advertising.

Make no mistake: this is an important investigation to undertake due to the immense quantity of information passing through these ISPs’ infrastructure that can be used to target users.

Only one thing: the FCC — not, to be clear, the FTC, which has launched this investigation — created legislation in 2016 which would have required ISPs to get affirmative user consent in order to use their information for targeted advertising purposes. It was set to go into effect at the end of 2017; however, in March of that year, Republicans blocked that legislation using a rule that prohibits substantially similar laws from being imposed by the FCC.

In short, if Republicans in the House and the Senate weren’t such jackasses two years ago, consumer privacy would be better protected and this investigation would not be necessary.

In a Statement to Joanna Stern, Apple Acknowledges Persistent Problems With MacBook Keyboards

Joanna Stern, Wall Street Journal (paywalled, as usual):

“We are aware that a small number of users are having issues with their third-generation butterfly keyboard and for that we are sorry,” an Apple spokesman said in a statement. “The vast majority of Mac notebook customers are having a positive experience with the new keyboard.” If you have a problem, contact Apple customer service, he added.

[…]

This is the experience you’re providing to customers who shell out $1,200 or more — sometimes a lot more. This is the experience after THREE attempts at this keyboard design. It’s time to stop prioritizing thinness over usability. It’s time to set the butterfly keyboard free. Let it fly… far, far away.

This whole MacBook keyboard situation is utterly embarrassing and ultimately damaging to Apple’s reputation. It’s an expensive, hard-to-fix, customer-unfriendly failure of the design is how it works mantra.

Also, while I understand that any company’s PR team seeks to minimize the apparent impact of a complaint, their statement’s claim that a “small number of users are having issues” is condescending and tone-deaf. There are plenty of MacBook buyers who find themselves unable to type — once more: unable to type — on their expensive computers because fundamental flaws in the hardware have not been rectified after four years. It’s unconscionable.

Their keyboard service program also does not acknowledge issues with or provide extended service for 2018 MacBook Pro or MacBook Air models. The one-year warranty included with those models will expire, at the earliest, in mid-July.

The Second-Generation AirPods Are a Little Glimpse of Magic

Federico Viticci, MacStories:

When you write about technology long enough – and I should know this, given that this very website turns 10 next month – it’s easy to let an undercurrent of cynicism color your every opinion about tech products you’re writing about. I get it – more than ever, corporations like Apple should be held accountable for their impact on our society and economy, and it’s our job as reporters, writers, and podcasters to critique the minutiae of their decisions. I say this as the person who writes an annual essay about a mobile operating system that dissects APIs and developer frameworks. It’s easy to be swept up in criticism at all costs.

I want to remind myself, and by extension MacStories readers, that it’s okay to appreciate a product for what it is and be enthusiastic about it when it’s delivered to consumers in a way that transcends spec sheets and console war-style debates. The new AirPods are such a product.

I was wrong. Everyone I asked told me that the AirPods fit the same as the EarPods, so I didn’t even bother to drop over $200 Canadian to give them a shot. But it turns out that all of those people are liars. These things fit far better than EarPods in my ears, and they’re as brilliant as everyone says. AirPods are easily one of the best products Apple has ever done, and I only regret not trying them sooner.

I am a fool.

Censorship of Apple News in China, Even on Roaming Devices

Paul Kehrer:

News content is a sensitive topic in China. The government exercises a significant degree of control over information sources so it is unsurprising that Apple would choose to not support News there. However, instead of simply being locked behind a hardware feature gate, Apple chose to disable it much more forcefully. If you enter China with a US iPhone (e.g. one purchased in the US from a US carrier or at a US Apple Store), using a US carrier, with your phone set to the US region, and with location services disabled for the News app, you will still receive this message upon opening News:

Feed Unavailable

Apple News isn’t supported in your current region.

To accomplish this censorship Apple is using a form of location fingerprinting that is not available to normal applications on iOS. It works like this: despite the fact that your phone uses a SIM from a US carrier it must connect to a Chinese cellular network. Apple is using private APIs to identify that you are in mainland China based on the name of the underlying cellular network and blocking access to the News app. This information is not available via public APIs in iOS specifically to improve privacy for users.

It seems to me that no other news apps will self-censor when roaming in China because no third-party news apps can censor themselves, for the reason Kehrer describes. Why would Apple capitulate to an autocracy by kneecapping their first-party news app when it seems completely unnecessary?

Update: Macs sold in China now disable the flag emoji for Taiwan, too.

E.U. Votes to Pass Copyright Directive Inclusive of Articles With Potentially Damaging Effects for the Web

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

Well, it was a nice run while it lasted, but the EU Parliament has just put an end to the open internet. By the incredibly thin margin of just five votes, the Parliament voted against any amendments to the proposal — which was a necessary step to fixing or deleting Articles 11 and 13. After that, they voted to approve the EU Copyright Directive, including the terrible versions of both Article 11 and 13. This is an inauspicious day and one that the EU will almost certainly come to regret. While we now need to see how each of the member states will implement the actual laws put forth in the Directive (meaning the damage in some states may be more mitigatable than in others), on the whole the EU Copyright Directive requires laws that effectively end the open internet as an open communications medium. Sites that previously allowed content creators to freely publish content will now be forced to make impossible choices: license all content (which is literally impossible), filter all content (expensive and failure-prone), or shut down. Sites that used to send traffic to news sources may now need to reconsider, as doing so will inexplicably require payment.

Masnick is not alone in painting a dark picture of the web of the future based on these two articles in the Directive, but it doesn’t appear to be completely dire. For example, merely linking to a news publication doesn’t appear to require any sort of payment — that’s the second subparagraph in the Article (PDF). It also seems to allow ample room for criticism, commentary, educational use, and so forth. And, as far as Article 13 is concerned, Matt Reynolds of Wired UK wrote a great guide clearing it up.

Even so, it seems like the admirable aims of the Directive run into obvious real-world problems. For example, as Reynolds reports:

Mary Honeyball, a British Labour MEP who supports Article 13, says. “Some [online platforms] fear that Article 13 requires the implementation of automated ‘upload filters’. However, Article 13 makes no such requirement and in fact states that automated blocking should be avoided,” Honeyball says in a statement. “The text only requires that [platforms] either license or remove copyrighted material.”

It isn’t clear how non-automated intervention is supposed to sort through the four hundred hours of video uploaded every minute to YouTube and figure out whether the use of any identified copyrighted material constitutes a violation. Perhaps this is a stealthy way of forcing giant platforms to scale back.

Also, contrary to the New York Timesinexplicable framing, this seems like it could be a windfall for Google. As Reynolds says in an accompanying video, it’s likely Google will license YouTube’s Content ID system to third parties.

I don’t know what the next two years’ worth of legislation in E.U. member countries will look like, and I don’t know what the web will look like afterwards. Contrary to those believing that this is a death knell for the open web, I’m not sure it will be massively different. But this Directive also seems like a highly restrictive and implausible attempt to rewind the clock on the web. I doubt it will accomplish its intentions, but I also doubt that Europeans will be browsing an entirely locked-down web in 2021.

Update: Turns out that nine representatives who intended to vote for amendments that would have removed Articles 11 and 13 from the Directive voted against those amendments by mistake. Parliament is refusing to honour their intended votes even though they messed with the voting order which caused this confusion and which would have been enough votes to change the result. Disgraceful.

Update: Brent Simmons:

Will it still be legal to distribute an RSS reader in Europe? I honestly don’t know, but would like to know.

I want to know this, too. My admittedly amateur read is that an RSS reader would be treated as similar to a web browser, so long as it does not rehost materials.

Some Brief Thoughts on Services, Generally, and Apple’s Announcements Today, More Specifically

It’s striking how much of our media — and I use that term very generously — is moving towards a system of monthly payments. In a sense, it’s more honest: most software, for example, is merely licensed to users; you don’t actually own your copy of Photoshop, for example. And the terms of a software license can be limiting. Educational terms typically forbid using the software to create commercial work. It’s also possible that the software-as-a-service model encourages more frequent updates from developers; and, even outside of software, can be reflective of ongoing service value. Netflix works as a subscription because you can pay a flat monthly fee and watch whatever you want. It’s easy to understand.

But moving to a monthly payment strategy has its own downsides. There are circumstances where paying all the time feels like a decision made less by the people who make the products, and more like decisions made by the people who count the money. It can also be a form of lock-in. Photoshop, for instance, creates files in a proprietary format that can require a specific version of Photoshop to open correctly. There used to be a time that, if I want to open any of the Photoshop files I have on my Mac, it was solely dependent on whether the version of Photoshop I use worked on the latest version of MacOS; and, for the past eight years, it has. But now, I can’t just drop another few hundred dollars on a new version that will secure me for another eight years; I must pay twenty American dollars every month from now until the end of time. That’s an absurd argument.

But news? That’s something that has been subscription-based for ages because it’s regularly updated. The reason for an ongoing payment is obvious. The new Apple News Plus service is, on its surface level, very easy to understand: pay ten dollars a month — or thirteen, in Canada; it isn’t available anywhere else yet — and you get access to a whole bunch of magazines and newspapers that, on their own, would each charge more than ten dollars a month for a subscription. The sources available are remarkable: the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Mother Jones, the Walrus, and Rolling Stone are all available as magazines; a subscription to News Plus apparently also includes the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times, but I haven’t been able to find either of those. Normally I’d chalk that up to it being a Canadian availability problem, except the Journal and the Times are mentioned in Apple’s Canadian press release and their marketing webpage.

That seems too good to be true and, indeed, there are caveats. For one, the Journal is only offered in a stripped-down version; no other publications were announced as having similar limitations, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s one of the incentives Apple would use to try to get other publishers on board. It’s also not quite living up to their marketing copy, which promotes Apple News Plus as allowing “full access to hundreds of magazines and leading newspapers”. Also, while many of the magazines use Apple’s own format, about half are simply presented as PDFs. I don’t know whether the blame for that should be shouldered more by Apple or publishers, but it makes for a crappy reading experience on the iPad and worse on the iPhone.

Overall, Apple News Plus is the service that fits most neatly into an existing paradigm of subscription services.

A close second is Apple’s redesigned Apple TV app, which will allow purchasing subscriptions to channels like HBO and Showtime, as well as a new Apple TV Plus service with original programming. It’s confusing that Apple’s television boxes are called Apple TVs, the app is the Apple TV App — which, by the way, is available on smart televisions and third-party platforms — and their original programming is called Apple TV Plus.

You can watch Apple TV using Apple TV on your Apple TV.

Cool.

Then there was Apple Arcade, their subscription for games that somehow managed to avoid the Apple Games Plus moniker. A very cool thing about this service is that Apple is promising that games will have no ads and no in-app purchases; the subscription rate is the price you pay.

That’s sort of the end of the specific features of services that Apple announced today. And you’ll notice that my descriptions of their non-News services are much shorter — they simply didn’t provide many concrete details, nor pricing, nor specific availability.

I want to zoom back out here and return to the biggest question of all: why? Apple is now a full steam ahead services company — at least, for Apple customers, primarily — and they introduced a credit card today. Why are they doing this?

The best explanation is that these are the services Apple’s employees and leadership team actually want to use. They want a Netflix-but-for-news; they want an all-you-can-play virtual arcade; they want to make TV shows; they want a credit card with less bullshit. Those are fine enough goals. The iPhone started in a similar way: people at Apple realized that cellphones sucked, so they made one that they would actually use. It’s the same with the iTunes Music Store, too, and the iPod. All of these great inventions were the product of dissatisfaction with the status quo, and an idea of what would be better.

I’m cautiously optimistic that this is the path Apple is chasing. But I am also fighting an inner voice that wonders if this is driven by bean counters in search of recurring revenue. Apple is obviously chasing services as their next big product category; Tim Cook has been completely transparent about that in earnings calls and public appearances. Assuming — generously — that Apple Arcade and Apple TV Plus are each ten dollars per month, it’s easy to think that there are customers who will be spending fifty dollars a month in optional extras: the aforementioned two services, Apple News Plus, Apple Music, and two terabytes of iCloud storage because five gigabytes is basically mockery in 2019. That’s six hundred dollars a year just to Apple and just for services; that doesn’t include the iPhone Upgrade Program, or the cost of channels purchased through Apple TV, or Netflix or Hulu or any other more full-featured streaming platform.

And it still feels gross that Apple is partnering with, of all companies, Goldman fucking Sachs.

Setting aside my ever-present worries about five companies based on the west coast of the United States becoming dominant over our digital lives — though not to the same capacity and not for the same worries — there’s little wrong with Apple wanting a slice of the services pie. But I truly hope that it’s driven by passion for news, games, and television; it would be shameful and worrying if this was a financial decision first and foremost. To paraphrase Walt Disney, they shouldn’t create services to make money; they should make money to create more great products and services.

The Real-World Effects of Google Maps’ Neighbourhood Labels

Caitlin Dewey, OneZero:

It was late spring in Buffalo, New York, in 2015 — a season that was unusually hot that year, and heated. The wood-paneled meeting room at Gethsemane Grape Street Baptist Church hummed with anxious homeowners from Buffalo’s Fruit Belt neighborhood, where a burgeoning, billion-dollar medical complex threatened to displace them.

Poor folks had called the Fruit Belt home for more than 150 years — first German immigrants, then African-Americans. Lott’s parents bought their pale turquoise two-story house in 1955, moving north from Bluefield, West Virginia, to help build up a community that would become the heart of Buffalo’s black working class.

Now that community was under threat — or so it seemed to Lott. The 66-year-old had Googled directions to her neighborhood and found that the app had changed the name of her community from the “Fruit Belt” to something called “Medical Park.”

Google has a history of applying perplexing names with uncertain sourcing to neighbourhoods. Due to the company’s status, it’s very easy for these names to replace existing names as they become more widely-used.

For what it’s worth, I checked Apple Maps. True to form, its biggest problem is that neighbourhood naming is inconsistently shown. No neighbourhood names are visible in Calgary, for example, but they are plentiful in San Francisco; I cannot, however, judge their accuracy. In Buffalo, “Fruit Belt” is not shown as a neighbourhood name; neither is “Medical Park”. If you search for “Fruit Belt” in Apple Maps, a pin is dropped approximately in the middle of the neighbourhood outline; a search for “Medical Park” drops a pin on the medical complex.

Opensignal Report Finds AT&T’s Made-Up ‘5G E’ Service Is Slower Than 4G Service From T-Mobile and Verizon

Ian Fogg of Opensignal:

Some AT&T users in the U.S. have recently seen “5G E” appear on the status bar of their existing smartphones, replacing 4G. This move has sparked controversy because AT&T is using updated 4G network technologies to connect these smartphone users, not the new 5G standard.

AT&T describes its 5G E service as follows, “5G Evolution is our first step on the road to 5G. We’re starting by enabling faster speeds on our existing LTE network—up to 2x faster than standard LTE.”

[…]

Analyzing Opensignal’s data shows that AT&T users with 5G E-capable smartphones receive a better experience than AT&T users with less capable smartphone models, for example those with an LTE Category below 16. But AT&T users with a 5G E-capable smartphone receive similar speeds to users on other carriers with the same smartphone models that AT&T calls 5G E. The 5G E speeds which AT&T users experience are very much typical 4G speeds and not the step-change improvement which 5G promises.

It’s almost impressive how shameless AT&T is in its false advertisement. This is unquestionably deceptive.

Also, I get that AT&T is probably still one of the biggest iPhone carriers in the United States — if not the world — but it’s frustrating to see them allow this bullshit. Perhaps it’s a contractual obligation, but they shouldn’t allow AT&T to mislead their users.

Twitter’s Algorithmic Timeline Sometimes Surfaces Radical Tweets, Boosting Their Reach

Oliver Darcy, CNN:

Over the last several months, Twitter has begun inserting what it believes to be relevant and popular tweets into the feeds of people who do not subscribe to the accounts that posted them. In other words, Twitter has started showing users tweets from accounts that are followed by those they follow. This practice is different from the promoted content paid for by advertisers, as Twitter is putting these posts into the feeds of users without being paid and without consent from users.

[…]

In effect, the practice means Twitter may at times end up amplifying inflammatory political rhetoric, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and flat out lies to its users. This comes at a time when other platforms, like YouTube, are facing intense criticism for using algorithms to suggest content to users. It’s been documented, for instance, that YouTube’s algorithm has exposed users to fringe content and helped radicalize them online. YouTube has pledged to address the problem.

[…]

There is some irony to the amplification of these right-wing voices. Trump and other prominent Republicans have long accused Twitter of “shadow banning” users with conservative viewpoints, an accusation Twitter has strongly denied. In reality, not only is Twitter not “shadow banning” these right-wing personalities for their political viewpoints, the platform’s algorithm is actually amplifying some of their tweets to audiences who do not even follow their accounts.

Algorithmic recommendations from all major platforms — Instagram and YouTube, especially — are failing users by encouraging them to take their interests to the farthest maximum: a you like coffee; have you tried cocaine? kind of effect. Are these features necessary? I imagine recommendations increase the amount of time spent on these platforms which, in turn, increases their ad revenue and improves the figures they report every quarter. Evidence is growing, though, that recommendations are also detrimental to the health of the platform and its users.

I hate to sound like a Luddite, but was there something wrong with a purely reverse-chronological feed?

Instagram Accounts Promoting Discrimination, Hate, and Conspiracy Theories Are Thriving

Taylor Lorenz, the Atlantic:

Instagram is teeming with these conspiracy theories, viral misinformation, and extremist memes, all daisy-chained together via a network of accounts with incredible algorithmic reach and millions of collective followers — many of whom, like Alex, are very young. These accounts intersperse TikTok videos and nostalgia memes with anti-vaccination rhetoric, conspiracy theories about George Soros and the Clinton family, and jokes about killing women, Jews, Muslims, and liberals.

[…]

Following just a handful of these accounts can quickly send users spiraling down a path toward even more extremist views and conspiracies, guided by Instagram’s own recommendation algorithm. On March 17, I clicked Follow on @the_typical_liberal. My account lit up with follow requests from pages with handles alluding to QAnon, and the app immediately prompted me to follow far-right figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Laura Loomer, Alex Jones, and Candace Owens, as well as a slew of far-right meme pages such as @unclesamsmisguidedchildren and @the.new.federation. Following these pages resulted in suggestions for pages dedicated to promoting QAnon, chemtrails, Pizzagate, and anti-vaccination rhetoric.

[…]

By Monday, there were five videos of the Christchurch attack posted by meme pages in my feed. Four of them are still up, and on Tuesday, another was surfaced at the top of my feed. The captions on all the videos question the validity of the attack and claim that it was a false flag carried out by the U.S. government.

Many of the individuals that Lorenz interviews for this article are 16; by Election Day 2020, some will turn 18 having only trusted this cynical, bizarre, surreal, and entirely fictional feed of current events. This isn’t just a problem for kids; you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think these accounts also have plenty of voting-age followers who isolate themselves within this bubble every time their feed refreshes.

I find myself increasingly convinced that there are fundamental design failures in these platforms, and they’re exacerbated by scale and machine learning.

Facebook Stored Hundreds of Millions of User Passwords in Plain Text for Years

Brian Krebs has the scoop:

Facebook is probing a series of security failures in which employees built applications that logged unencrypted password data for Facebook users and stored it in plain text on internal company servers. That’s according to a senior Facebook employee who is familiar with the investigation and who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

The Facebook source said the investigation so far indicates between 200 million and 600 million Facebook users may have had their account passwords stored in plain text and searchable by more than 20,000 Facebook employees. The source said Facebook is still trying to determine how many passwords were exposed and for how long, but so far the inquiry has uncovered archives with plain text user passwords in them dating back to 2012.

My Facebook insider said access logs showed some 2,000 engineers or developers made approximately nine million internal queries for data elements that contained plain text user passwords.

Shortly after Krebs went live with this report, Facebook acknowledged that they failed at fundamental security practices in a press release titled “Keeping Passwords Secure”, because of course they did. Twitter used basically the same title when they, too, admitted to logging users’ passwords in plain text.

As with Equifax, investors continue to not give one shit about any of these scandals, even as the company is slowly eroding any remaining semblance of care about privacy, security, or basic ethics. As of writing, the company’s stock is up about a dollar for the day, and about $30 since the beginning of the year.

Facebook Says That It Will Stop Allowing Discrimination by Age, Race, Gender, and Location in Some Ads

Jack Gillum and Ariana Tobin, ProPublica:

Facebook advertisers can no longer target users by age, gender and ZIP code for housing, employment and credit offers, the company announced Tuesday as part of a major settlement with civil rights organizations.

The wide-ranging agreement follows reporting by ProPublica since 2016 that found Facebook let advertisers exclude users by race and other categories that are protected by federal law. It is illegal for housing, job and credit advertisers to discriminate against protected groups.

ProPublica had been able to buy housing-related ads on Facebook that excluded groups such as African Americans and Jews, and it previously found job ads excluding users by age and gender placed by companies that are household names, like Uber and Verizon Wireless.

[…]

The changes apply to advertisers who offer housing, employment and credit offers to U.S.-based users of Facebook, Instagram and Messenger. Facebook said it hopes to implement the requirements by the end of the year.

I might be overlooking something painfully obvious, but it’s pretty wild that Facebook’s settlement allows them to keep going with this illegal and immoral practice until the end of the year. Why not require them to start immediately by eliminating obviously-discriminatory terms from ad targeting options and give them until the end of this month to sort it out? It seems very generous to give them over eight months to “hopefully” be compliant with the law for something they’ve known about for nearly three years.

On the Third Day of Launches, Apple Showed to Me: Updated AirPods

The headline features:

  • A new H1 chip specifically for headphones replaces the W1 in the previous-generation product, which Apple says allows for faster connections and switching between devices.

  • “Hey, Siri” support, also powered by the H1.

  • An optional charging case that supports the Qi standard, which is available at the time of purchase as a $40 upgrade in U.S. pricing, and which is sold separately for around $80. It supports first-generation AirPods as well.

A nice thing about the new AirPods is that Apple isn’t versioning them in the product name. They’re “AirPods”, just like the last generation. And, if you order these online, you can now engrave the case.

It’s too bad they still don’t work with my ears.

Today is iMac Day

Jason Snell:

After nearly two years of waiting, iMac fans can rejoice at the arrival of an update. Today is iMac day. Apple on Tuesday announced a new generation of 4K and 5K iMacs with big internal upgrades. The old iMacs had seventh-generation Intel processors, but these models have eight-generation processors — and in a couple of cases, the very latest ninth-generation processors. Apple has upgraded processor cores across the board, so that most models have six cores and there’s even an option for eight. And both sizes of iMac now have optional access to the more powerful Radeon Pro Vega graphics processor.

The $1099 base model non-Retina iMac remains unchanged, the desktop equivalent of the $999 MacBook Air—an old model anchored to a low price. But beyond that, things get more interesting.

I really like the way this week is shaping up.

The updated iMacs look like fantastic updates. For a start, the iMac previously topped-out with a quad-core processor; the new ones start at a quad-core in the 21.5-inch size, while the ground floor 27-inch model has a six-core processor. The differences between the top-of-the-line 27-inch iMac and the entry-level iMac Pro are shrinking — on paper, at least. These are seriously good Macs. They may be spec bumps rather than entirely new products with a T2 enclave and Face ID, but they feel current, and that’s important.

Jason Snell interviewed Colleen Novielli, Apple’s iMac product manager, on the latest Upgrade podcast. Snell and Novielli’s conversation is engaging and wide-ranging; as Snell and co-host Myke Hurley pointed out, it’s refreshing to hear more voices — and, in particular, more women at Apple — because the company can seem monolithic and entirely male. Novielli touches on this in her interview.

Snell asked Novielli about the base-model iMacs that retain a spinning hard drive. She acknowledged that it’s a cost-based decision; I still think it’s indefensible. The drives Apple uses in the base-model iMacs, and even the Fusion Drives in the step-up models, don’t perform acceptably running Mojave. The base model iMac is simply not a good product and should be purchased by nobody, so it’s hard to see why it’s still available.

Apple also made adjustments to the pricing of the higher-end SSD configurations in the MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, and Mac Mini, and gave the iMac Pro some even higher end options.

Ahead of Next Week’s Event, Apple Introduces New iPad Air and iPad Mini Models

Apple:

Apple today introduced the all-new iPad Air in an ultra-thin 10.5-inch design, offering the latest innovations including Apple Pencil support and high-end performance at a breakthrough price. With the A12 Bionic chip with Apple’s Neural Engine, the new iPad Air delivers a 70 percent boost in performance and twice the graphics capability, and the advanced Retina display with True Tone technology is nearly 20 percent larger with over half a million more pixels.

Apple today also introduced the new 7.9-inch iPad mini, a major upgrade for iPad mini fans who love a compact, ultra-portable design packed with the latest technology. With the A12 Bionic chip, the new iPad mini is a powerful multi-tasking machine, delivering three times the performance and nine times faster graphics. The advanced Retina display with True Tone technology and wide color support is 25 percent brighter and has the highest pixel density of any iPad, delivering an immersive visual experience in any setting. And with Apple Pencil support, the new iPad mini is the perfect take-anywhere notepad for sketching and jotting down thoughts on the go. The new iPads are available to order starting today and in stores next week.

These look like great new products. Both appear to be, more or less, two sizes of the same device. The iPad Air takes the place of the 10.5-inch iPad Pro that was retained in the lineup with the release of the modern iPad Pro models launched last year, but with some differences in the display and camera.

These changes clean up the iPad lineup considerably. The devices with the home button all support the first-generation Apple Pencil, all have Lightning ports, and none are called “pro”; all iPad Pro models have Face ID, a USB-C connector, and support the second-generation Apple Pencil. I still think that the iPad lineup is just a hair more complicated than it needs to be; I question how much difference an average user will see between the 9.7-inch iPad model and the 10.5-inch iPad Air in both size and capability.

But, of course, that’s just the situation today; let’s see if there’s more of a difference in these models once WWDC rolls around.

A Sensation Not Unlike Slapping Yourself in the Face

There’s a lot going on in Spotify’s complaint to the European Commission alleging anticompetitive behaviour by Apple. Their supporting evidence is plentiful — there’s a blog post by Spotify’s CEO Daniel Ek and a new Time to Play Fair website, though the complaint itself has no accessible documentation — but it is not always precise or particular.

Their complaint seemed, to me at least, to be completely valid on its face: Spotify is required to process new subscriptions in its app through Apple’s in-app purchase mechanism, from which Apple takes a 30% cut, which is reduced to 15% after the first year of a recurring subscription. Spotify also cannot mention other avenues by which a user may purchase a subscription, until recently could not create an app for the Apple Watch because the right public APIs weren’t available, and still is not available on HomePods. An Apple Music subscription, meanwhile, incurs no 30% “tax”, is available on all of Apple’s platforms, and gets priority treatment at every turn.

On further reflection, though, I’ve changed my mind. Mostly. To be clear, I completely understand Spotify’s frustration and I think there are changes that Apple can make to their App Store policies. But I also think that Spotify’s complaints prioritize sensationalism over facts.

Furthermore, I have no intention of defending either company, per se. I am not a lawyer; I cannot assess Spotify’s accusations from a legal level. Even if I were a lawyer, I wouldn’t do this work pro bono. Both companies are valued at billions of dollars and employ legal teams to serve their needs. This post serves as a way for me to sort out my own head on this and to try to understand, mostly for myself, why neither company’s stance seems comfortable, logical, or sane; but, also, why I have a hard time supporting Spotify’s arguments. Mostly.

To illustrate why I’ve largely changed my mind on this, I’d like to break down Ek’s argument as laid out in his blog post. First, in full:

Apple operates a platform that, for over a billion people around the world, is the gateway to the internet. Apple is both the owner of the iOS platform and the App Store — and a competitor to services like Spotify. In theory, this is fine. But in Apple’s case, they continue to give themselves an unfair advantage at every turn.

To illustrate what I mean, let me share a few examples. Apple requires that Spotify and other digital services pay a 30% tax on purchases made through Apple’s payment system, including upgrading from our Free to our Premium service. If we pay this tax, it would force us to artificially inflate the price of our Premium membership well above the price of Apple Music. And to keep our price competitive for our customers, that isn’t something we can do.

As an alternative, if we choose not to use Apple’s payment system, forgoing the charge, Apple then applies a series of technical and experience-limiting restrictions on Spotify. For example, they limit our communication with our customers — including our outreach beyond the app. In some cases, we aren’t even allowed to send emails to our customers who use Apple. Apple also routinely blocks our experience-enhancing upgrades. Over time, this has included locking Spotify and other competitors out of Apple services such as Siri, HomePod, and Apple Watch.

And, now, in pieces:

Apple requires that Spotify and other digital services pay a 30% tax on purchases made through Apple’s payment system, including upgrading from our Free to our Premium service. If we pay this tax, it would force us to artificially inflate the price of our Premium membership well above the price of Apple Music. And to keep our price competitive for our customers, that isn’t something we can do.

A critical thing to remember is that Spotify isn’t required to sell subscriptions through in-app purchases. Any Spotify Premium subscription sold on any device — including on the web — will work in the Spotify iOS app. It is unquestionably more convenient and more obvious to offer a premium subscription from within the app, but it is not necessary.

With that in mind, Spotify has three options:

  1. Make the price of subscriptions uniform no matter where the user purchases it and absorb Apple’s commission.

  2. Charge about 43% more for subscriptions paid through in-app purchases, which gets users to cover the 30% fee charged by Apple — and Google; more on that later.

  3. Don’t allow subscriptions to be purchased within the app; assume users will figure out how to subscribe.

Spotify has experimented with all three of these options and found them lacking. It’s understandable why they would — a 30% commission could easily be their entire profit margin, or nearly so;1 charging iOS users more to cover Apple’s commission doesn’t look good from a PR perspective. Right now, they’re on the third option, and it seems they’re not big fans of that, either, because it’s clunky and non-obvious.

So why is Apple taking a 30% haircut off developers’ earnings? Their justification for taking a cut before subscriptions were available was, as first said by Steve Jobs, to keep the store running. But there were some other reasons, too:

When we sell the app through the App Store, the developer gets 70% of the revenues right off the top. We keep 30% to pay for running the App Store. There are no credit card fees for the developer — we take care of all of that. There are no hosting fees for us hosting the app — we take care of all that. There’s no marketing fees. The developer gets 70% of the revenues, and it’s paid monthly.

Even in an era of subscription-supported apps, it would be silly to entirely disregard how many costs Apple absorbs. Spotify’s app is over 90 MB and is one of the most popular apps on the store; as I write this, it’s sixth on the list of top free apps, just above Facebook. It’s updated every week, too. If they had to pay for the hosting and bandwidth just for the app, it would be like if every user streamed one or two more albums every week. Credit card fees can also add up, especially for smaller developers, and Apple does a lot of promotional work for developers big and indie.

But is 30% the right cut to be taking, or is it too much? I’m not sure. My gut instinct is that it’s higher than it should be — especially for subscriptions, where it seems more like rent seeking. And what would be the right amount, anyhow? Would lowering it to 25% be enough; should it be a flat 15%? What if it were more like a credit card interchange fee of 1-3%? What about zero?

An analogy I’ve seen used before is that this situation is like a supermarket that sells a mix of national and store brands. The store brands are almost always less expensive than an equivalent product from a national brand, and the store will take a cut of all national brand sales for marketing, keeping the store running, and for store profit. Therefore, national brands must justify their cost. For example, many national brands are positioned as being of a higher quality, or having a better reputation.

Apple Music is the store brand; other streaming services like Tidal, YouTube Music, and Spotify are national brands. Tidal and YouTube Music both sell premium subscriptions through in-app purchases, while Spotify has elected not to do so. Tidal’s differentiator is that it has the option to stream lossless audio, and it carries some exclusive releases. YouTube has live performances, covers, and an enormous library of music videos, in addition to the usual collection of studio recordings.

Spotify should be able to position itself as a place where users curate tens of thousands of unique playlists that you simply can’t find anywhere else. Or it could brag about the app’s remarkably precise recommendations. Recalling both of those features as I write this has made me want to resubscribe.

As with any analogy, there are some holes in thinking of the App Store as a supermarket. For one, while there are probably several supermarkets near where you live, there’s only one App Store on iOS. But that doesn’t mean there’s only one place to buy stuff; you can buy subscriptions to any of the services I’ve mentioned in Safari, too. This isn’t a perfect solution, of course, as it’s a bit like trying to order a national brand’s products directly from them as opposed to going through common channels: you have to know where to look, but you’ll probably get a better price.

Indeed, to that last point: users must know where to look. Apple doesn’t let developers indicate where users may purchase subscriptions outside of their app, and they are absurdly strict about this. Not only must developers not use any kind of button or link to an out-of-app subscription option, they’re not allowed to so much as mention it anywhere in the app — including in any documentation embedded or linked to from the app — or in its App Store description. In Spotify’s case, the best they’re allowed to do is allude to Spotify Premium in certain circumstances, and say that “Spotify Premium can’t be purchased in this app”. Those explanations are cryptic and unhelpful, but that’s all any developer is allowed to say.

However, I can think of one possible justification for Apple requiring the use of in-app purchases for subscriptions, other than services revenue: it’s consistent. Users may build familiarity and trust with in-app subscription confirmations, and subscription options are centrally available in iOS. Apple undermines that argument, however, due to unnecessarily complicated subscription management and a lack of policing subscription abuse. Klaxons and giant red lights should go off inside Cupertino when a colouring book app is charging users over $700 per year through a weekly subscription.

Part of the problem is simply the scale at which the App Store operates. I wish App Review acted more like a quality barrier and less like it was actively seeking incredibly stupid reasons to reject apps.

So, to summarize:

  1. Apple’s cut is neither unprecedented nor extraordinary.

  2. Other developers are happy to sell subscriptions using in-app purchases.

  3. Apple’s cut may be excessive, especially for subscriptions, but it is not unique.

  4. Apple has severely restricted the ability for developers to tell users how to buy subscriptions if they don’t use in-app purchases, producing cryptic and byzantine explanations.

Fortunately for you — and me — the next paragraphs in Ek’s argument require far less explanation. To continue:

As an alternative, if we choose not to use Apple’s payment system, forgoing the charge, Apple then applies a series of technical and experience-limiting restrictions on Spotify. For example, they limit our communication with our customers — including our outreach beyond the app. In some cases, we aren’t even allowed to send emails to our customers who use Apple.

For what it’s worth, I cannot find anything in the App Review Guidelines that would support a reading of the rules that would prohibit Spotify from emailing Spotify users using the email attached to their Spotify account regardless of the device they’re on, so long as they have opted into receiving emails from the company. Strava emails me all the time; so does Delectable. I’m not sure what circumstances Ek could possibly be referring to here that would prohibit customer communications; he does not elaborate.

Apple also routinely blocks our experience-enhancing upgrades. Over time, this has included locking Spotify and other competitors out of Apple services such as Siri, HomePod, and Apple Watch.

Apple issued a response to Spotify’s case. They state that Spotify is available through CarPlay and on the Apple Watch, and that they issued app updates just as quickly as they normally would have. They also say that they’ve asked Spotify about Siri support — which, as far as I can tell, would be limited to Siri Shortcuts, which is kind of a cop-out — and Spotify has not made a solid commitment.

Spotify makes a big deal in Ek’s post and on their timeline about how Apple Music has been available on the Apple Watch and HomePod since those products were released — and how Siri is able to control Apple Music directly — but no third-party music streaming services have been able to take advantage of those products directly. It may be frustrating for users and developers of those services, but I’m not convinced this is for sinister reasons. I think it’s totally plausible that trying to get third-party services to work well with Siri and the HomePod just isn’t working in a way that’s satisfactory so far. Siri is generally inadequate from even a first-party perspective, let alone in its developer capabilities; there’s no reason to suspect malice when any user of Siri can tell you that it’s just not a terrific voice assistant for being the oldest one around.

By the way, Apple’s response to Spotify’s accusations has the conviction of damp newspaper. Their press release drags in some nonsense about Spotify’s disagreement with new royalty rates determined by the Copyright Royalty Board, and claims that there’s a level playing field for developers when everyone knows that the biggest developers often get special treatment. They didn’t even bother to sign the damn thing.

One of the reasons this dispute has been rattling around in my head and why I’ve been having a hard time figuring it out is because both companies are acting like jackasses. Apple should have no problem allowing developers to direct users to purchase subscriptions outside of their app. Perhaps there should be restrictions on the subscription page — for example, mandating a minimum level of security, or maybe requiring that the checkout form supports Apple Pay. The rest of Spotify’s complaints are distracting, with some bordering on asinine.

Perhaps most of all, Spotify ought to encourage users to pick up a premium subscription. If it’s worth it, I’m sure users will jump at the chance to pay. If the rapid rise of Apple Music has taught us anything, it’s that people don’t have a problem with paying for a music streaming service, even if it lacks standout features. Spotify has a compelling product, and they should do a better job of selling it.

Update: A previous version of this piece stated incorrectly that Google has a similar payment structure to Apple’s for in-app purchases. While it is true that Google generally mandates that developers use their payment gateway for subscriptions — and that those payments are subject to a similar commission scheme as Apple’s — Google has afforded an exception to services that offer subscriptions that may be used across multiple platforms.


  1. It has been reported that Netflix and other major media companies quietly enjoy a 15% commission from in-app purchases rather than the 30% rate Apple normally charges. I don’t know whether Spotify is or has ever been on the sweetheart discount rate, but I wanted to mention it for completeness’ sake. ↩︎

Rich Lowry Pennybags

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to dismantle dominant tech companies has, naturally, generated quite the critical response. I’ve seen plenty of well-considered articles praising her stance and generally agreeing with it. I’ve also read some great pieces disagreeing with her: Mike Masnick doesn’t think it makes sense; Karl Bode thinks that, if we ought to have a discussion about antitrust, we must also consider ISPs and mobile carriers; and Kevin Roose thinks that treating all tech companies the same is short-sighted.

But nothing I’ve read comes close to the raging tire fire that is Rich Lowry’s op-ed in Politico:

Tech is caught in a right-left pincer, made all the more powerful by the populist spirit afoot in both parties. Conservatives don’t like these companies because they are owned and operated by sanctimonious Silicon Valley liberals subject to the worst sort of groupthink. Progressives don’t like them because they are colossal profit-making enterprises.

That’s why there is some chance Washington might get together, and along the lines Warren proposes, effectively outlaw the business models of some of the most successful and iconic American companies. It’s the most compelling evidence yet that, yes, we are losing our minds.

Lowry’s framing here, using caricatures of the players involved, obfuscates legitimate criticism of large tech companies. Nobody ought to believe or consider these ridiculous straw man arguments when the actual reason is perfectly understandable: a handful of technology companies have more control over how people around the world communicate, learn, and do business than almost any other business has had for decades. It is welcoming that antitrust concerns may still be bipartisan after the interpretation of such laws has become extraordinarily narrow-minded for the last thirty to forty years — as Lowry conveniently illustrates just a couple of paragraphs later:

[Sen. Warren] charges that the tech companies use mergers to limit competition and cites as an example Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp. It’s hard to discern the harm here. When the social network bought it, WhatsApp was available for a fee. Now it’s free and more people use it than ever before. What’s the problem?

Forget, for example, that the fee to use WhatsApp prior to Facebook’s acquisition of it was all of $1. Set aside, too, that the elimination of that fee came with targeted advertising in the app, and that Facebook’s acquisition of the company served to feed its data mining machine.

Lowry, here, basically argues that reduced competition is just fine so long as the cost of goods does not increase. But it also means that there’s vastly reduced choice in the marketplace. Of the current top five free apps in the App Store, four are from Facebook; three of those are either wholly or partly direct messaging apps. Two of those — WhatsApp and Instagram — are apps Facebook acquired.

Reduced competition isn’t solely a problem of price, either. From a capitalist viewpoint, choice in the marketplace also allows consumers to switch to alternatives when a product, service, or company doesn’t meet their expectations; it also encourages innovation. The publication that Lowry edits, the National Review, has a history of publishing articles that affirm this belief.

She calls out Google for allegedly killing off its competitors by burying them in its searches. It’s not obvious that Google actually does this, although its search business inherently involves constantly making choices to try to best serve what people want to see. No government regulator is going to make Google’s searches better, or is qualified to even try.

European and American regulators already found that Google has artificially prioritized its own products in search results and deliberately demoted competitors. European antitrust investigators, in particular, indicated that Google’s shopping service was promoted even when it wasn’t necessarily relevant or as helpful as competitors’ results.

Why does Google provide a tool without which it’s impossible to imagine contemporary life — and has opened up vast vistas of readily available information — for free? Because it can monetize it with advertising. Without the advertising revenue, which Warren insists should be a separate business, Google has no incentive to devote engineers to constantly improving its search engine.

Warren’s proposal doesn’t say that Google cannot fund its search engine or its myriad other products with advertising. Instead, she’s advocating for a separation of the explicitly advertising technology parts of the company from the end-user side of things.

Maybe Lowry doesn’t mean advertising more generally. A more generous read of this could be that Google’s user products would suffer from forcing their targeted advertising technologies to be a separate company from their user products. But I don’t buy that either. Google rose to be the best web search engine before they began building user profiles and targeting ads in a precise way.

None of this is to deny that there are genuine concerns about tech companies. They need rules for content that honor viewpoint-neutrality and the spirit of the First Amendment, and perhaps there should be tighter regulations around privacy.

This might be Lowry’s laziest point so far. The spirit of the First Amendment protects the right of these private companies in privately-negotiated contracts between them and users to make choices about what they wish to allow on their platforms. If Lowry believes that Facebook has too much control over speech, that’s because Facebook is a gigantic company that swallows competitors or copies them with impunity. The solution is decidedly not to promote Facebook to even greater control over users’ communications and somehow also treat them as a passthrough entity for American government interests. This is a ridiculous argument that’s a hair’s breadth away from effectively nationalizing the company. I am not inherently opposed to that, but I imagine Lowry would be.

And how does Lowry suppose “viewpoint neutrality” would be enforced by a private entity? What is “neutral”? Does it mean a platform ought to treat every viewpoint identically, no matter how heinous and hateful? How does that work in countries that are not the United States and, therefore, have laws designed to protect the rights of typically-persecuted individuals? How does that work with platforms’ increasingly-algorithmic arrangement and promotion of shared material? It’s ludicrous.

I think there are perfectly reasonable criticisms for what Warren has said so far regarding her plan to break up tech companies. It is clearly a starting point for such a discussion — not a final regulatory document. But there are few articles I’ve seen which are as lazy and dismissive of it as Lowry’s. There is simply no reason to frame this in stereotypical partisan terms when Warren’s argument is so easily understood and, therefore, worth discussing for its potential implications. Plenty of other writers did a far better job.

Charlie Whiting Dies Aged 66

Andrew Benson, BBC:

Charlie Whiting, the head of Formula 1 for motorsport’s governing body the FIA and one of the most influential people in the sport, has died aged 66.

[…]

Whiting’s death leaves a hole at the FIA – he was the go-to person for teams on all matters pertaining to an F1 weekend.

Australian Michael Masi will take Whiting’s place as race director, safety delegate and permanent starter this weekend in Melbourne.

A huge loss. Tributes have been pouring in all day from current and former drivers, team staff, journalists, and others. Simon Arron of Motor Sport wrote a particularly touching tribute.

App Store Covers RSS Readers

Excellent coverage by Apple — as captured by Michael Tsai — of a software category that has, until recently, been seen as on the verge of death largely because of increasingly-siloed methods of news consumption.

Murdoch’s Myopic Antitrust Concerns

Sherisse Pham, CNN:

Rupert Murdoch’s Australian media company is calling for the breakup of Google, saying the US tech company wields too much power over news outlets and online advertisers.

News Corp Australia said breaking up the tech giant is a “very serious step,” but insisted that “divestment is necessary in the case of Google, due to the unparalleled power that it currently exerts over news publishers and advertisers alike,” according to a submission to Australian regulators published on Tuesday.

Anthony Ha, TechCrunch:

More than a year after the deal was first announced, it looks like Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox is about to close.

Disney announced today that the deal is “expected to become effective at 12:02 a.m. Eastern Time on March 20, 2019,” suggesting that it has obtained the final approval needed, specifically from regulators in Mexico.

21st Century Fox was spun off in 2013 from News Corp, but both are chaired by Rupert Murdoch. After this acquisition, Disney’s bevy of franchises and assets will dominate the box office — including virtually all control over the rights to Marvel characters — and will have significantly greater control over Hulu, television stations, and production studios worldwide.

I am still digesting the discussion around Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to break up tech companies, but it’s pretty rich to hear that argument echoed by one company chaired by a guy who made nearly $8 billion selling off another of his companies, thereby reducing competition in the entertainment space.

‘River of News’-Style RSS Reader and Reeder 4 Beta

“Exciting developments on the RSS front” is not a phrase you can use every day; but, today is an apt day to use it. Rob Fahrni announced that he’s working on a new app that aims to deliver RSS updates as a constant stream, like a Twitter app. I like the simplicity of this and, with the right discovery options, it could be a great introduction for those who use social media for news and would prefer a reverse-chronological feed.

Also released today was the first public beta of Reeder 4 for MacOS. Reeder has always been one of the best RSS clients around and, in the first day I’ve spent with the fourth major version, I’ve found it to be just as well-designed and thoughtfully considered as its predecessors but with some excellent new features.

Without creepy user targeting or algorithmic manipulation, website feed readers may be relatively quaint, technologically, but they put users in control of their reading experience. I think the hardest question for RSS readers is how it could gain broader interest outside of the more technically sophisticated user group. As I wrote earlier this year, website feeds need to be surfaced in an obvious and easily understood way. I’m not sure what that looks like. Maybe feeds just need a new brand.

Adam Clark Estes Has Scratched His iPhone XS’ Display

Adam Clark Estes, Gizmodo:

I’ve had my iPhone XS for a little over three months, and it’s driving me crazy. Not the whole thing. The phone is beautiful, fast, a joy to use. What’s driving me crazy is an increasingly complex network of scratches on the display glass. The first ones were small, almost unnoticeable at a glance. Then, about six weeks after I spent well over $1,000 upgrading to the iPhone XS, a ribbon-shaped abrasion appeared on the screen and then another. The worst part is that Apple is pitching a fit about fixing it.

This is more-or-less the same article Estes wrote last year; except, then, there were loads of reports of scratched iPhone 8 and iPhone X displays. This batch of iPhones doesn’t seem to have the same issue. In his iPhone XS review, John Gruber confirmed that these displays should, according to Apple, be the least prone to scratching and shattering, while Michael Tsai wrote that his iPhone XR doesn’t have any noticeable scratches yet. So, while Estes’ display may well be scratched up, it doesn’t appear to be indicative of a trend. The reports are, so far, mixed.

Here’s why I’m linking to this, though. Estes:

Unfortunately for me, AppleCare can’t solve my scratch problem. In multiple conversations with both Genius Bar employees and Apple Support, I was told that surface scratches were treated as cosmetic damage and were not covered. One Apple employee slyly suggested that if my screen somehow developed a crack in it, I could get the entire display replaced for just $30. If I just wanted to replace the display as it was, scratches and all, Apple would charge me $280. And replacing the display would be the only way to rid myself of the scratches. There was no magical buffing machine in the back of the Apple Store and no way to replace the glass itself.

This is the complete opposite of my experience with AppleCare and a scratched display. I began noticing the degrading quality of my iPhone X’s display just a couple of months into owning it. They were just hairlines, but they built up throughout the year to the point where, eventually, I asked my local Apple Store if I could use one of my accidental damage claims to get the display swapped. They only asked if I was sure, but they were happy to do the repair.

Apple Officially Announces March 25 Event, ‘It’s Show Time’

As reported last month by John Paczkowski of Buzzfeed News, Apple has officially announced an event for March 25. They’re calling it “It’s Show Time” — if that sounds familiar to you, it’s because they launched the first video-capable iPod, the second generations of the iPod Nano and the iPod Shuffle, and movies on the iTunes Store at a 2006 event with nearly the same name.

Accordingly, you can expect to see some form of video subscription product and probably something similar for newspapers and magazines. New iPads, second-generation AirPods, and the long-delayed AirPower charging mat might also see the light of day, and there are signs that Apple Pay Cash might be expanding beyond the United States in the near future, too.

You May Have Forgotten Foursquare, But It Didn’t Forget You

Paris Martineau, Wired:

Ask someone about Foursquare and they’ll probably think of the once-hyped social media company, known for gamifying mobile check-ins and giving recommendations. But the Foursquare of today is a location-data giant. During an interview with NBC in November, the company’s CEO, Jeff Glueck, said that only Facebook and Google rival Foursquare in terms of location-data precision.

You might think you don’t use Foursquare, but chances are you do. Foursquare’s technology powers the geofilters in Snapchat, tagged tweets on Twitter; it’s in Uber, Apple Maps, Airbnb, WeChat, and Samsung phones, to name a few. (Condé Nast Traveler, owned by the same parent company as WIRED, relies on Foursquare data.)

In 2014, Foursquare launched Pilgrim, a piece of code that passively tracks where your phone goes using Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, and GSM to identify the coffee shop or park or Thai restaurant you’re visiting, then feeds that data to its partner apps to send you, say, an offer for a 10 percent off coupon if you leave a review for the restaurant. Today, Pilgrim and the company’s Places API are an integral part of tens of thousands of apps, sites, and interfaces. As Foursquare’s website says, “If it tells you where, it’s probably built on Foursquare.”

I’m sure many apps and services from the earliest days of the App Store are dead now, but I wonder what happened to the ones that aren’t. In either case, I wonder what happened to stored user data — particularly private and personally-identifiable details. Was all of it securely wiped from servers, in the case of a company shuttering? What kind of highly-private data is still lingering on servers and development machines worldwide that has simply been forgotten about by users who have moved on to other apps and services?

Leica Launches the Q2

Dan Bracaglia, DPReview:

The Leica Q2 is a fixed-lens, full-frame camera sporting a new 47.3MP sensor and a sharp, stabilized 28mm F1.7 Summilux lens. It’s styled like a traditional Leica M rangefinder and replaces the hugely popular original Leica Q (Typ 116), launched in 2015.

The Q2 looks essentially the same as its predecessor, but under the hood notable improvements have been made including the addition of weather-sealing, better battery life, a new processor and an improved electronic viewfinder. Sensor resolution has also nearly doubled.

So far, I’ve seen that they’ve fixed at least two of the three major complaints I’ve had with my first-edition Q: they’ve weather- and dust-sealed the body, and they’ve redesigned the on/off control on top so you don’t have to be super precise to select single capture mode. They haven’t changed anything that I love about the camera, from its perfect lens to its wonderful macro control and, judging by the samples I’ve seen, its gorgeous capture quality. If they’ve fixed the Q’s terrible lens cap that falls off all the time when the lens hood is attached — my only other major complaint — this is a home run.

Apple Is Now Commissioning Original Artwork for Apple Music Playlists

Bijan Stephen, the Verge:

Records should have good art. For albums as diverse as London Calling, Horses, and Fear of a Black, the images on their covers were as recognizable as the music on the wax. While Apple Music isn’t a record label (yet), it did recently decide to add original art to its playlists. Its goal was to bring that instant recognition to its own content, so the company enlisted everyone from the creator of the iconic AC/DC logo to the person who designed the art for Migos’ chart-topping album Culture to make it happen.

The artwork is meant to “connect more directly with the communities and the culture for which they were intended,” says Rachel Newman, Apple’s global director of editorial. Before now, Apple’s playlists had a uniform presentation that didn’t necessarily speak to the music. “In many ways, it’s a visual representation of the music that you will find inside that playlist,” said Newman. That includes Hip Hop Hits, Dale Reggaetón, and The Riff, which are all immensely popular.

Original artwork is something that Apple seems to be taking seriously, from this to the App Store. This is especially interesting to me:

“The connection to music is — it has always been about kind of a tribe or a culture,” Newman said. “I just think that the difference is, these days, that there are just so many more of them.” In the old days, you’d be able to tell the style of music on a record by what was on its cover. (In a really general sense.) Newman said some of that artistry has been lost over time. “I think so many of these artists had done that work, and even those who hadn’t were very close to a lot of that work,” she said. “And I think just love the concept of being able to be a return to that kind of lost art in many ways.”

The kind of art Newman is talking about, of course, is still immediately recognizable. That’s part of what makes it special. Apple Music is going for the same thing, even though it’s hard to tell what kind of impact that art might have today. Streaming services are fundamentally distribution mechanisms for other people’s work, and it’s generally the work that matters. That said, it’s a competitive advantage to have the packaging and marketing of other people’s work be as high value as possible because it enhances the user experience. In that light, giving a platform a visible human touch becomes a very good idea.

A few years ago, Spotify launched a new identity that made heavy use of duotone artwork to unify the disparate photographs and illustrations provided by musicians’ representatives. Though that prescriptive identity has shifted somewhat in recent years, the overall feel of Spotify’s custom art is very much tied to their identity. It’s a uniform, more or less.

But the playlist covers Apple is creating and commissioning are all over the place. Some are illustrative and bright, while others are based on photos. Some are greyscale, and some are a Spotify-esque duotone. The only unifying characteristic is the Apple Music logo in the upper-right. I’m a little conflicted about this. There’s no solid identity for what constitutes an Apple Music playlist, and everything I’ve seen seems to be experimental without necessarily being cohesive. It’s a little less confident than most design we see coming from Apple. However, it’s very true to its medium; these playlist covers are as varied as album covers and feel almost more integrated because of that.

The Uber-Style Servant Economy

Farhad Manjoo, writing in 2015 in the New York Times:

The larger worry about on-demand jobs is not about benefits, but about a lack of agency — a future in which computers, rather than humans, determine what you do, when and for how much. The rise of Uber-like jobs is the logical culmination of an economic and tech system that holds efficiency as its paramount virtue.

“These services are successful because they are tapping into people’s available time more efficiently,” Dr. Sundararajan said. “You could say that people are monetizing their own downtime.”

Think about that for a second; isn’t “monetizing downtime” a hellish vision of the future of work?

Manjoo, again, in a 2016 piece in the Times:

But Uber’s success was in many ways unique. For one thing, it was attacking a vulnerable market. In many cities, the taxi business was a customer-unfriendly protectionist racket that artificially inflated prices and cared little about customer service. The opportunity for Uber to become a regular part of people’s lives was huge. Many people take cars every day, so hook them once and you have repeat customers. Finally, cars are the second-most-expensive things people buy, and the most frequent thing we do with them is park. That monumental inefficiency left Uber ample room to extract a profit even after undercutting what we now pay for cars.

But how many other markets are there like that? Not many. Some services were used frequently by consumers, but weren’t that valuable — things related to food, for instance, offered low margins. Other businesses funded in low-frequency and low-value areas “were a trap,” Mr. Walk said.

Another problem was that funding distorted on-demand businesses. So many start-ups raised so much cash in 2014 and 2015 that they were freed from the pressure of having to make money on each of their orders. Now that investor appetite for on-demand companies has cooled, companies have been forced to return sanity to their business, sometimes by raising prices.

In a fantastic article published today, Alexis C. Madrigal of the Atlantic assessed over a hundred Uber-for-x companies and found that, while there were mixed economic results with the companies themselves, the analysis revealed a deeper common truth about this style of company:

The inequalities of capitalist economies are not exactly news. As my colleague Esther Bloom pointed out, “For centuries, a woman’s social status was clear-cut: either she had a maid or she was one.” Domestic servants—to walk the dog, do the laundry, clean the house, get groceries—were a fixture of life in America well into the 20th century. In the short-lived narrowing of economic fortunes wrapped around the Second World War that created what Americans think of as “the middle class,” servants became far less common, even as dual-income families became more the norm and the hours Americans worked lengthened.

What the combined efforts of the Uber-for-X companies created is a new form of servant, one distributed through complex markets to thousands of different people. It was Uber, after all, that launched with the idea of becoming “everyone’s private driver,” a chauffeur for all.

The pitch for these kinds of services is that our cars are usually stationary, our spare bedrooms are usually empty, and we might have some spare time to deliver tacos in our neighbourhood. But this isn’t what has been happening. Ride-sharing drivers were once able to make a modest living driving full-time for a single service; now, they’re making half what they used to, so they drive for multiple services and for longer hours — still without the benefits of true full-time employment. Meanwhile, wealthy people buy up multiple properties for Airbnb, which may skirt or even break commercial lodging regulations.

This is an unfair economy which, because it is still so dependent on venture capital funds, is also unsustainable in its current form.

German Regulators Tell Tesla to Stop Advertising Prices With Fuel Savings Estimate

Christoph Steitz, Reuters:

Tesla had displayed the 56,380 euro ($63,811) original price for the Model 3 online as well as a price of 51,380 euros when taking account of estimated fuel savings of 5,000 euros over five years, Wettbewerbszentrale said.

“Even if ‘savings’ could be realized, such an amount cannot be deducted from the purchase price or the monthly rate … because customers must pay the full price at the time of purchase or financing,” the association said.

I asked Canada’s Competition Bureau about Tesla’s pricing over the weekend and received a response this morning. While their spokesperson could not comment on the specifics of this incident and couldn’t even tell me whether they had received any complaints about Tesla at all, they did give me a statement about estimated cost savings more generally. In part:

Fine print that expands on, or clarifies possible ambiguities in the main body of an advertisement, is unlikely to mislead consumers, assuming that the general impression of the advertisement is not otherwise misleading. The potential to mislead consumers increases significantly when a disclaimer is used to restrict, contradict or somehow negate the message to which it relates. If the main body of the advertisement creates a materially false or misleading general impression in itself, before any reference is made to a disclaimer, then fine print may not do much to alter the general impression in a way that ensures that consumers will not be misled.

I don’t know whether Tesla factoring estimated gas savings into the total cost of the car is misleading from a legal standpoint, but it feels dishonest. It also lacks confidence. Does Tesla not think that the Model 3 can effectively compete at $47,600 in Canada?

The MacBook Hierarchy of Needs

Jason Snell, Six Colors:

I might love an SD card slot and a return of MagSafe and for Apple to keep the headphone jack around, but in the end, there are adapters that will bridge those gaps if need be. No adapter will solve the problem of an unreliable or unpleasant keyboard or replace a display. That’s where Apple must supply something that works for everyone — and if the needs of its users are varied, it should offer a variety of products that can fulfill those needs. A one-size-fits-all approach can work, but only if you’re really successful with the choices you make. With the 2015 MacBook keyboard design, Apple missed the mark — and still forced the result into every single new laptop it designed.

It is worrying to me that this even needs to be stated. Imagine if the iPhone or iPad shipped with a display that didn’t accurately register touches after a couple of months. Unfathomable; and, yet, that’s basically the situation for Apple’s entire notebook lineup.

This shitty keyboard was basically the reason that, earlier this year, I bought an iMac that was last updated in 2017, rather than a much fresher MacBook Pro. My partner is also looking to upgrade her MacBook Air right now, and she absolutely wants to keep using a Mac notebook. Her choices are to buy now and pick up AppleCare for when it inevitably needs to be serviced, or to wait until the summer to see if it has been fixed. I’m sure lots of people are facing the same dilemma — a dilemma that does not need to exist. It should not exist. A keyboard should be reliable by design, and that should go without saying.

Berndnaut Smilde’s Ephemeral Sculptures

Daniel Stone, National Geographic:

Berndnaut Smilde creates fluffy clouds in locations where nature never would place them. The Dutch artist’s sculptures last five seconds — 10 seconds tops — before they disappear.

Smilde’s ongoing project, called “Nimbus,” explores the visual effects of clouds. A church or museum interior looks different behind a cloud, and an everyday cloud is peculiar in a castle or a canyon. Each scene is made more intense by lasting only moments.

Via Jason Kottke, who introduced to me the concept of an “ephemeral sculpture”, in those words. I think that phrase is a beautiful idea unto itself: a physical object that only briefly exists.

Mark Zuckerberg Spews Some Bullshit About Facebook Becoming a ‘Privacy-Focused’ Communications Platform

Ryan Mac, Buzzfeed News:

In a Facebook post that is thin on specific details and titled “A Privacy-Focused Vision For Social Networking,” Zuckerberg outlines a future in which his company will build tools to help users communicate privately, using secure, end-to-end encrypted messaging and ephemeral stories. If Facebook, which has often made promises about privacy and fallen short, is able to execute this plan, it would mark a monumental shift in how the company operates, and more importantly, how it conducts business.

“I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms,” Zuckerberg writes. “Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally, which is why we build social networks.”

Is anyone falling for this bullshit? Facebook is a company that is defined by its creepy need to know everything to the extent that it rushes from scandal to scandal concerning its use of private data, headed by a man who puts tape over his laptop’s webcam and bought up all of the houses around his own just so he could tear them down for additional privacy.

If Facebook truly is going to build private, encrypted services for its users, it’s not because the company’s culture has radically pivoted to embrace the value of privacy. This is more likely a tactic, rather than a goal for its own sake.

Update: Bryan Menegus, Gizmodo:

My main question is, when Mark Zuckerberg wants to have an intimate, encrypted conversation with friends that won’t stick around to haunt him years later, what software does he use?

Great question.

Adi Robertson, the Verge:

Since 2017, Chinese law has required online services to store user data within its borders. Several overseas tech companies formed partnerships with local businesses, including Apple, which raised privacy concerns by migrating data to servers controlled by the state-run China Telecom last year. (Apple has said it’s still maintaining strong user privacy.) Google is facing its own firestorm over the prospect of a censored Chinese search app, although no such app has been released and the company does not maintain servers in China.

Facebook seems to be taking a harder line. If Zuckerberg holds to this promise, he’s effectively locking Facebook out of the Chinese market for the foreseeable future. And he’s implying that any company dealing with “places where [data] won’t be secure” is endangering the future of privacy.

In theory, it doesn’t matter where encrypted user data is stored. You could drop a hard drive full of highly-classified American government documents into North Korea and, if it’s properly encrypted, there is no practical need to worry. Even so, China’s legal system doesn’t necessarily have the same checks and balances as in many other countries. A concern is that Apple could be compelled to give up their iCloud encryption keys for Chinese users.

Zuckerberg trying to lecture Apple on privacy is just cute. While he may now be dismissive of offering services in China, Facebook’s history in the country indicates that the company tried desperately to launch there, even creating a method to censor posts in compliance with Chinese government policies. Zuckerberg’s post doesn’t come from a virtuous place; it’s just frustrated spin for a plan that didn’t come to fruition.

Updates on Apple’s Supply Chain for 2019

Apple:

Apple today released its 13th annual Supplier Responsibility Progress Report detailing how the company is expanding educational opportunities and protecting the planet’s resources. As of 2018, 17.3 million supplier employees have been trained on workplace rights, and 3.6 million have received advanced education and skills training. All final assembly sites for iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch, AirPods and HomePod are now certified Zero Waste to Landfill, while conserving billions of gallons of water and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

From the report (PDF):

It takes multiple pieces of protective film to cover an Apple product during its journey on the assembly line. Film is placed and removed to help keep products pristine as they come to life. Each piece is small, but it adds up to being a significant portion of the non-recyclable waste generated during assembly.

We set our sights on a solution — finding a new protective film that could be diverted from incineration and, instead, recycled. After conducting research, it became clear that no recyclable protective film was available on the market. This introduced an opportunity for Apple engineering teams to partner closely with a protective film supplier.

The turning point for the project was identifying a combination of adhesive and film that could be recycled together. The result? A cost neutral, recyclable protective film that in its first year of adoption, diverted 895 metric tons of waste from incineration and avoided 1880 metric tons in carbon emissions from Apple manufacturing. Better yet, the film has also been made available by the supplier for other companies to adopt in their manufacturing processes.

Maddie Stone, in Gizmodo’s environmental imprint Earther:

Two years ago, the company announced that it hopes to stop mining the Earth “one day.” Since then, Apple has embarked on a clandestine, multi-front war against waste, finding new sources of materials in everything from manufacturing scrap to dead devices. And by periodically trumpeting small milestones—a robot that can rip apart 200 iPhones an hour; a MacBook Air with a “100 percent recycled aluminum” case — the tech giant reminds the world it’s progressing toward its goal of a mining-free future.

But the truth is that goal remains a distant one. For a company that sells over 200 million smartphones a year, along with millions more tablets and computers, achieving what sustainability wonks call a “circular economy” will amount to a complete overhaul of everything from how Apple devices are manufactured to what we do with those devices at the end of their lives. It will require Apple to develop — or facilitate the development of — groundbreaking new recycling technologies. Perhaps most crucially, Apple will have to make design and policy choices that encourage consumers to upgrade and repair their old devices rather than discard them for the latest model.

The question is whether that’s a future Apple truly wants — or one that its investors will allow.

I completely understand the cynicism here. I haven’t seen another giant tech company — in particular, any other major hardware company — approaching environmental matters in the way Apple has, but I also think there is a valid question to be asked of whether Apple truly is the leader in its field or whether others are making more substantial moves, just more quietly. One would assume that, if another company were an environmental leader, they would want everyone to know. And if Apple wants to be perceived as a leader, their techniques ought to stand up to journalistic scrutiny and questioning.

But there were parts of Stone’s piece that, I feel, are misguided in trying to raise suspicion. For example, regarding the company’s extensive use of aluminum (and please forgive me for quoting at length):

Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that Apple’s push to end mining has begun with a focus on reducing one of its biggest sources of manufacturing waste — aluminum. Mining bauxite and smelting it to produce the silvery metal is incredibly energy-intensive, and Apple requires a lot of high-grade aluminum to carve the signature “unibody” cases its computers use. Problematically, the milling machine process it uses also generates a lot of scrap.

So, Apple has started collecting that scrap, melting it down and forming new hunks of aluminum that can be used to carve more gadget husks.

While Apple would not say when exactly it started “recycling” aluminum in this manner, it had crept into the company’s environmental reports by 2016. By 2018, Apple had gotten good enough at saving scraps that it was creating entire product lines out of them. The 2018 MacBook Air and MacMini are the first Apple products to be produced with a “100 percent recycled aluminum” case, using an alloy made of “shavings of recaptured aluminum that are re-engineered down to the atomic level.” This change, along with the use of less aluminum overall, helped cut the carbon footprint of the devices roughly in half, according to Apple.

Critics are quick to point out that Apple is packaging what is essentially a shrewd business decision as a win for the environment.

“Their milling-machine approach to manufacturing is incredibly wasteful, so they’d have to recapture the metal or it wouldn’t be economical,” Kyle Wiens, CEO of the electronics repair company iFixit, said in comments emailed to Earther, adding that aluminum was the “lowest hanging fruit” on Apple’s 100 percent recycling pledge.

I don’t think it’s a surprise that environmentally-savvy moves can also be great for business. Why scrap something when it could be used in the production of another product? Also, Apple has repeatedly stated that one reason they choose aluminum is because it is so easily recyclable. That may mean it’s the “lowest-hanging fruit”, but it isn’t at all unfair for Apple to point out that it’s a critical part of their products’ environmental design.

Basically, Apple made a great decision a long time ago to invest in aluminum because it makes more durable, nicer, and more environmentally-friendly products, and has spent the years since extolling those virtues. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be suspicious of.

Fifteen Million Fewer Americans Are Using Facebook Now Compared to 2017

Kimberly Adams of Marketplace interviewed Larry Rosin of Edison Research:

Kimberly Adams: In your survey you found an estimated drop of 15 million fewer Facebook users in the U.S. today than in 2017. That’s just in the U.S. Is this a meaningful drop for Facebook?

Larry Rosin: I don’t see how you couldn’t say it’s a meaningful drop. Fifteen million is a lot of people, no matter which way you cut it. It represents about 6 percent of the total U.S. population ages 12 and older. What makes it particularly important is if it is part of a trend. This is the second straight year we’ve seen this number go down. Obviously, the U.S. is the biggest market, in terms of dollars, and it’s going to be a super important market for Facebook or anybody who’s playing in this game.

[…]

Rosin: We only show trace numbers of people leaving social media altogether. They’re obviously just transferring their usage. The big gainer, interestingly, is under the same roof as Facebook. It’s their co-owned Instagram.

Facebook has insidiously covered themselves for any eventuality. They acquired Whatsapp and Instagram to ensure that ostensibly alternative choices are still Facebook’s, while in developing nations they’ve locked users into the platform, where the company is virtually synonymous with the internet as a whole.

Thunderbolt 3 Becomes USB 4

Peter Bright, Ars Technica:

Fulfilling its 2017 promise to make Thunderbolt 3 royalty-free, Intel has given the specification for its high-speed interconnect to the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF), the industry group that develops the USB specification. The USB-IF has taken the spec and will use it to form the basis of USB4, the next iteration of USB following USB 3.2.

Making Thunderbolt royalty-free and not dependent on an Intel controller chip would likely be of considerable interest to a company that may want to build the protocol into a non-Intel platform. I wonder if any company in particular comes to mind.

AirPods as a Status Symbol

Elena Cresci, the Guardian:

Of all the widely ridiculed tech products, Apple’s AirPods have experienced an extraordinary turnaround. Back in 2016, they were roundly mocked by the tech industry. Tiny wireless earbuds? It seemed like a recipe for disaster – streets would be littered with these lost headphones, which would clutter up city pavements like discarded gloves and babies’ socks.

[…]

But fast-forward to 2019 and, somehow, the £159-a-pair little pods have transformed into a bona fide status symbol. Diana Ross has a pair, Kristen Stewart wears them and a woman in Virginia has even started a cottage industry by turning them into earrings for people (which does solve the problem of inevitably losing them).

2 Chainz:

These are called “life savers”. That’s right: AirPods. I love them for the same reason that you love them for.

You know you love something because, as soon as you think you lost them, the whole world has to stop until you find these again. I’ve lost them a couple of times, but I’ve found them a couple of times, so we’re even.

The original modern status symbol headphones were the white earbuds that came with the iPod. Those were overtaken by Dr. Dre’s Beats models — which, of course, Apple now owns. But I don’t think anything matches AirPods as both a status symbol and a daily essential.

And they still don’t work with my ears, which is upsetting.

What Using an iPhone SE Is Like in 2019

Juli Clover, MacRumors:

Every time Apple restocks the clearance site, available iPhone SE models go quick, suggesting there’s still quite a lot of interest in the 4-inch device. We recently picked up an iPhone SE to see just what it’s like using one in 2019.

[…]

On the plus side, it’s so small and light that it’s easy to use one handed, something you can’t necessarily do with Apple’s biggest iPhones. With its aluminum backing, the iPhone SE is more durable than Apple’s new all-glass smartphones.

[…]

You might think it’d be noticeably slower than newer iPhones, but, surprisingly, for built-in apps it’s speedy. When using Mail, Messages, Calendar, FaceTime, and other similar built-in apps, the iPhone SE is as speedy as 2018 iPhones.

iOS 12 is impressively fast on the iPhone SE. The similar perceptible speed between the SE and late-model iPhones is notable, too. I wonder how much of that is attributable to the much higher-resolution displays of newer iPhones, and how much is simply down to hardcoded animation timing.

‘ji32k7au4a83’ Is a Remarkably Common Password

Rhett Jones, Gizmodo:

For too many people, moving the digits around in some variation of Patriots69Lover is their idea of a strong password. So you might expect something complicated like “ji32k7au4a83” would be a great password. But according to the data breach repository Have I Been Pwned (HIBP), it shows up more often than one might expect.

This interesting bit of trivia comes from self-described hardware/software engineer Robert Ou, who recently asked his Twitter followers if they could explain why this seemingly random string of numbers has been seen by HIBP over a hundred times.

This is a fantastic nugget of trivia that ought to entertain friends at your next dinner party or night out at the pub.

The Secrets of Stéphane Breitwieser, One the World’s Greatest Art Thieves

Michael Finkel, GQ:

In the annals of art crime, it’s hard to find someone who has stolen from ten different places. By the time the calendar flips to 2000, by Breitwieser’s calculations, he’s nearing 200 separate thefts and 300 stolen objects. For six years, he’s averaged one theft every two weeks. One year, he is responsible for half of all paintings stolen from French museums.

By some combination of skill and luck, Breitwieser and Kleinklaus are doing everything right to avoid capture. They constantly shift the countries they target, alternating between rural and urban locations, large museums and small, while further mixing things up by stealing from churches, auction houses, and art fairs. They don’t kick down doors or cover their faces with masks—actions that would trigger a much greater police response. Crime works best, Breitwieser believes, when no one realizes it’s being committed.

Several times, he steals while they’re on a guided tour, then casually continues the tour while holding the item. At an art fair in Holland, Breitwieser hears a shout of “Thief!” and sees security guards tackle a man. It’s another burglar. Breitwieser takes advantage of the commotion and slips a painting under his coat.

Via Michele Seiler at Coudal, naturally.

Facebook Allows Users to Look Up Others With Their Two-Factor Authentication Phone Number, With No Opt-Out

Jeremy Burge:

For years Facebook claimed the adding a phone number for 2FA was only for security. Now it can be searched and there’s no way to disable that.

Facebook 2FA numbers are also shared with Instagram which prompts you ‘is this your phone number?’ once you add to FB.

Zack Whittaker, TechCrunch:

Last year, Facebook was forced to admit that after months of pestering its users to switch on two-factor by signing up their phone number, it was also using those phone numbers to target users with ads. But some users are finding out just now that Facebook’s default setting allows everyone — with or without an account — to look up a user profile based off the same phone number previously added to their account.

This isn’t just yet another example of Facebook behaving outrageously when it comes to the company’s pathological need to slurp up everything about its users’ every living moment. It also has the potential to reduce the likelihood that users will adopt two-factor authentication. Technically-literate people have been preaching two-factor authentication for a long time, but average users have been slow to enable it; if they get the impression that it’s yet another piece of data that creepy companies can use to track them, they will be even more hesitant.

Also, I’d like to address something about two-factor authentication that’s been bugging me for a while. Ever since fears about SIM hijacking began spreading, some people have been claiming that using SMS-based two-factor authentication is worse than not using two-factor at all. I think that’s silly and myopic. It is worth noting that SIM hijacking is pretty easy for someone who has access — directly or indirectly — to a carrier’s SIM backend. But the circumstances under which someone’s phone number would be hijacked are pretty rare for the vast majority of us. People who are connected with low character count or high-valued social media accounts, higher-ranking employees, activists, journalists, wealthy individuals, and public figures are more susceptible to these kinds of attacks. Most of us, however, are not any of these things, and will likely benefit from using any kind of two-factor authentication. You should use a code generator or a hardware mechanism like a YubiKey wherever you can, but SMS authentication is not necessarily terrible, and is likely not worse than using no verification at all.

However, that is entirely theoretical, and there’s an enormous caveat you should be aware of: while you may have loads of email accounts and it’s trivial to create a throwaway one, but you probably only have one phone number. Therefore, it is critical that you only give your phone number to services and apps you really trust. Many unscrupulous apps will include your phone number in information they send to data brokers and advertising companies like Facebook. You should, therefore, be extremely careful when providing your phone number anywhere. Treat it as you would a unique personal identifier, like a Social Security Number or a Social Insurance Number. Assume it has been compromised, but protect it nevertheless.

Google Rejects Calls to Remove Absher From the Google Play Store

Bill Bostock, Business Insider:

Google has declined to remove from its app store a Saudi government app which lets men track women and control where they travel, on the grounds that it meets all their terms and conditions.

Google reviewed the app — called Absher — and concluded that it does not violate any agreements, and can therefore remain on the Google Play store.

The decision was communicated by Google to the office of Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who, with other members of Congress, wrote last week to demand they remove the service.

Apple has also, so far, not removed Absher from the App Store. I wonder if, before starting their app marketplaces, either company considered that they could trigger a diplomatic crisis if they were to remove an app.

By the way, when I checked just now to see if Absher was still available in Apple’s App Store, I noticed that it had over six hundred reviews, with an average rating of 4.9 out of 5 stars. That’s unbelievable — as in, I literally cannot believe that a paperwork utility app created and distributed by a government agency could be so beloved. Even when sorting by “most critical”, the lowest rating seems to be a mistake; every other rating is at least four stars. Looking closer, it seems that a large number of reviews seem to have been posted in the last two weeks, and many of them mention how “well developed” the app is, how “useful” it is, and how it is usedby both genders” including “female citizens”. It seems unlikely to me that lots of people spontaneously decided to review this app recently using the same words.

Electronic Frontier Foundation Calls for Apple To Allow User Encryption for iCloud Data

The Electronic Frontier Foundation yesterday launched a new initiative they’re calling Fix It Already, with demands for the resolution of what they see as critical issues with products and services from nine of the biggest tech companies. These requests are thoughtful and well-considered; it’s worth reading through them.

Of Apple, the EFF says that the company should improve the encryption of iCloud data by ensuring that users control the keys.

I am certain that this is far more difficult to implement than few people outside the iCloud team are aware of, and that there may be caveats. But now that oppressive regimes like Russia and China are demanding that cloud data for users in those countries be stored on servers located in those countries, and Australian authorities think they can get software companies to crack encryption just by asking, I think this is an increasingly pressing concern. I would like to see Apple address this.

Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus Reviews

Dan Seifert of the Verge likes Samsung’s new Galaxy S10 Plus — especially its incredibly dense and high-quality display — but isn’t a fan of its unlocking and user verification options:

The other new thing that’s embedded in the screen is the fingerprint scanner, which has been moved from the back of the phone. The S10’s scanner is ultrasonic, which is supposed to be more reliable and harder to spoof than the optical in-screen fingerprint scanners we’ve seen on the OnePlus 6T and other phones. It even works if your finger is wet.

But it’s not as fast or reliable as the traditional, capacitive fingerprint scanner on the back of the S9. The target area for the reader is rather small (though the lockscreen will show you a diagram of where to place your finger) and I had to be very deliberate with my finger placement to get it to work.

Even then, I often had to try more than once before the S10 would unlock. I’d just rather have a Face ID system that requires less work to use, or at the very least, an old-school fingerprint scanner on the back of the phone. The S10 does have a face unlock feature, but it’s just using the camera to look for your face and compare it to a previous image — there’s no 3D mapping or anything. I was actually able to unlock the S10 with a video of my face played on another phone.

For what it’s worth, Brian X. Chen of the New York Times also had trouble with the under-screen fingerprint reader, but Marques Brownlee did not. Chen spoke with a Samsung representative:

I shared my concerns with Samsung. Drew Blackard, a director of product marketing at the company, said that based on customer feedback, the fingerprint sensor was the most popular method for unlocking devices. As a result, the company focused on improving that feature.

He added that Samsung was studying face recognition and had made it more difficult to trick the scanner with a photo of a person’s face. “Is it an area that we’re continuing to look at? The answer is: Of course,” Mr. Blackard said.

I have to say Samsung’s decision to focus on fingerprint sensing instead of upgrading its face scanner is not particularly satisfying. User feedback isn’t generally an ideal way to design security features. After all, many people also enjoy using the same weak passwords across all their internet accounts.

Last year, component producers told Reuters that Apple’s Face ID system was about two years ahead of its competition; they estimated that comparable facial recognition systems would start to become available on Android devices this year. It’s hard to think that these under-screen fingerprint readers exist for any reason other than because they can’t yet compete with Face ID.

I also found this comment noteworthy in Seifert’s review:

Perhaps more interesting than the screen itself is what’s embedded in it. Though the display stretches to the very top edge of the phone, the S10 doesn’t have a notch cutout for its front facing camera. Instead, Samsung is using an offset “hole punch” design, which allows the camera to poke through the screen on the right side. On the S10 Plus, this houses two cameras: the main camera and a secondary one for depth effects and portrait mode.

This design lets Samsung avoid the oft-criticized notch look, but it also means that the battery and network indicators are awkwardly pushed off-center to the left. A notch design has similar compromises, but it’s at least symmetrical: notifications and clock are on the left, battery and network indicators are on the right. The off-center look of the hole-punch design just looks worse to me.

I’m ambivalent as to whether a notched display or a hole-punched display looks better. But one thing I have noticed on both kinds of displays is that Android manufacturers often have an option to create a blackened area to surround and hide the notch or the cutout. It never fails to look clumsy. The more I look at photos and screenshots of phones with that mode switched on, the more I think Apple was right to discourage developers from hiding the notch.

Spectre Camera

Interesting new long exposure camera app from the team behind Halide. Sebastiaan de With:

A traditional shutter takes a single photo over a long period of time, collecting light to create a singular final image.

Spectre reimagines long exposures: its intelligent shutter takes hundreds of photos during the exposure time and merges the result. That means you don’t just get a final still image, but also a video of the entire exposure as it happened.

[…]

Long exposures typically requires setting up a tripod and meticulously stabilizing your camera: but don’t fret, Spectre requires no extra equipment. Spectre’s AI stabilizes your shot for you, allowing up to 9-second long handheld long exposures.

I’ve been goofing around with Spectre all day today and, while some of my shots are blurry from camera shake, many have turned out rather well. I’ve had a lot of success simply bracing my phone flat against a vertical surface; if you’re particularly wary of scratching the back of your phone, this isn’t recommended.

The thing I like most about this app is how easy it makes long exposure photography. It has never been particularly difficult — I think it’s one of the first things people try their hand at when they discover how to change their camera’s shutter speed — but Spectre makes it far simpler. You can even do long exposures in bright daylight without mucking around with shutter speed and ISO.

This is one of those apps that, I think, is worth having around even if you use it rarely.

Cellebrite’s Smartphone Unlocking Tools Found on Secondhand Market, Some with User Data

Thomas Brewster, Forbes (and, yes, I feel terrible exposing you to the Forbes website):

Cellebrite isn’t happy about those secondhand sales. On Tuesday, two sources from the forensics industry passed Forbes a letter from Cellebrite warning customers about reselling its hugely popular hacking devices because they could be used to access individuals’ private data. Rather than return the UFEDs to Cellebrite so they can be properly decommissioned, it appears police or other individuals who’ve acquired the machines are flogging them and failing to properly wipe them. Cybersecurity researchers are now warning that valuable case data and powerful police hacking tools could have leaked as a result.

Earlier this month, Matthew Hickey, a cybersecurity researcher and cofounder of training academy Hacker House, bought a dozen UFED devices and probed them for data. He discovered that the secondhand kit contained information on what devices were searched, when they were searched and what kinds of data were removed. Mobile identifier numbers like the IMEI code were also retrievable.

Hickey believes he could have extracted more personal information, such as contact lists or chats, though he decided not to delve into such data. “I would feel a little awful if there was a picture of a crime scene or something,” he said. But using the information within a UFED, Hickey believes a malicious hacker could identify the suspects and their relevant cases.

Remember when Apple refused to build a special version of iOS for the FBI to take as many cracks at user passcodes as they’d like, so they could bypass user encryption, on the grounds that it wouldn’t just be that one phone, and they couldn’t guarantee the security of that special version of iOS? Seems prescient, doesn’t it? Apple has also been taking heat for defending end-to-end encryption in the U.K. and Australia, where a law was recently passed that would require companies to provide unspecified support to law enforcement for accessing encrypted data.

Attempts to undermine encryption are attempts to make all personal technology users less secure. While it can make law enforcement’s job harder in some investigations, it would be foolish to universally compromise security.

‘Cooler Screens’ Is a Digital Door for Supermarkets With Iris Tracking and Cameras

Last year, Cadillac Fairview was caught testing mall signage with facial recognition across Canada. Then, a week ago, Nicole Nguyen of Buzzfeed reported that Singapore Airlines and American Airlines use seatback entertainment systems with built-in cameras; both companies said that the cameras were just a component of the commodity part and had never been activated.

Now, Paul Kafasis writes about Cooler Screens’ commercial refrigerator doors. They have cameras in the bezel, and software to estimate the age and gender of anyone standing in front of it and even track that person’s irises.1

How is this sort of thing not tightly controlled, if not entirely illegal? Not every surface needs a camera or a microphone; we don’t need to be tracked everywhere, especially for silly marketing purposes. There’s also virtually no consent: if you stand in front of one of these doors, your age is being estimated and your eyes are being tracked.

There is a glimmer of hope, though. After CBC News reported the existence of Cadillac Fairview’s creepy mall directories, the company said that they would stop tracking visitors. Merely bringing to light these practices and drawing attention to them seems to trigger retailers to have some second thoughts about whether they want to use them.

But outrage isn’t enough; stronger regulation is desperately needed. Because, while Cooler Screens says that they do not retain camera recordings and the airlines say that they’re not using the cameras in every seatback, both of those situations could easily change. The absolute baseline for private businesses recording customers is that they post signs advising them that video cameras are in use. That’s simply not good enough for instances where that video may be more deeply analyzed for customer-specific marketing, shared with third parties, or when cameras are used in enclosed spaces like airplanes where there are few alternative choices.


  1. The purple prose of startups like these never fails to make me vomit a little in my mouth. Cooler Screens’ “About” page proudly proclaims that they are — emphasis mine — “technologists, designers, merchants and dreamers“. They’re building a screen into a door and pairing it with dystopian software. Gross. ↩︎

In Letter, Apple Confirms Layoffs in Autonomous Vehicle Team

Roland Li, San Francisco Chronicle:

Apple will lay off 190 employees in Santa Clara and Sunnyvale in its self-driving car division, the company said.

The layoffs were disclosed, along with new details, in a letter this month to the California Employment Development Department. CNBC reported last month that layoffs were occurring in the self-driving car division, known as Project Titan. Tom Neumayr, an Apple spokesman, confirmed that the letter to the state referenced the same layoffs.

Most of the affected employees are engineers, including 38 engineering program managers, 33 hardware engineers, 31 product design engineers and 22 software engineers. The layoffs will take effect April 16, according to the filing.

That’s awful for those employees, who I hope will quickly find work again doing something they love.

Here’s where the reporting of this breaks down for me, though:

The layoffs coincide with falling iPhone sales, with revenue dropping by 15 percent in the last three months of 2018. An economic slowdown in China is also hurting Apple’s business.

“A sudden and significant shortfall in iPhone revenue is causing a level of distress within Apple that is forcing it to make hard choices,” wrote Lynx Equity Strategies in an analyst report last month that speculated that the self-driving car division could be shut down.

What a load of nonsense. Companies that are apparently in “distress” don’t make over $23 billion in three months — profit. It is ridiculous to connect these layoffs to reduced iPhone sales, especially as the company’s research and development spending continues to climb, including $500 million more in Q1 2019 than in Q1 2018. Also, there are about 2,700 employees working on this project; laying off 7% of them, while terrible for those employees, indicates nothing specific about the health of the project itself or Apple.

The Importance of Third-Party Repair Shops

Molly McHugh, the Ringer:

Retail was supposed to be Apple’s big sell. Fashion executive Angela Ahrendts left Burberry and joined Apple in 2014 to transform the company’s retail strategy; the idea was for the brick-and-mortar shops to feel less like a store and more like a community center. Ahrendts is now departing Apple, and while certain elements of the stores have been upgraded, Genius Bars were not a primary focus. For starters, Ahrendts launched the Today in Apple series, free seminars held at Apple Stores that teach people everything from how to use the iPhone’s photo-editing tools to programming in Swift. Ahrendts also wanted to evolve the look of Apple Stores, making them more of a place to hang out and explore Apple’s products (and, you know, maybe buy one) versus getting help with them. But in reality, consumers don’t need more space to kill time and play with their iPhones — the existing Apple Stores have already filled that role very well. What is lacking and what they do need are well-trained and readily available support services to help with them. Slivka says that while Ahrendts did redesign the Genius Bar to be more physically integrated into Apple Store’s layouts, little else changed on the support side. He says he’s optimistic about what her replacement, Deirdre O’Brien, a 30-year Apple veteran, will do with the retail operations moving forward.

Dennis Sellers, Apple World Today:

I suggested this idea four years ago. It never came to fruition, but I still think it’s a timely idea: Apple should open small retail stores — Apple mini stores, if you will — in towns that are too small for the traditional, bigger Apple retail stores and Mac Specialists.

I always liked the old “mini” stores but they are clearly too small for today’s crowds.

I don’t know that Apple needs to be directly involved in operating smaller stores for repairs. If anything, I’d like to see them invest more in flagship stores and simultaneously giving greater support to the Authorized Service Provider network. These third-party shops should be able to repair common problems like broken displays and replacing old batteries, but also the more complex things that may be impeded by the T2 chip in Apple’s newest Macs. I’m not buying into the fear, uncertainty, and doubt around the T2; I just think that third-party repair shops should be afforded the opportunity to repair as many aspects of these products as possible.

Critics Are Wary of the FTC’s New Tech Antitrust Task Force

Issie Lapowsky, Wired:

While some tech critics, like former FTC chief technologist Ashkan Soltani, saw the announcement as a sign that the agency is taking antitrust issues seriously, others worried the task force amounts to little more than bureaucratic reconfiguring for FTC lawyers.

“I’m scornful of the new seating arrangements, because the FTC has consistently proven they do not want to wield power,” says Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, an antimonopoly think tank that has called for a breakup of Facebook. “They want to hold hearings. They want to get their friend economists and antitrust lawyers to fly into DC and talk to each other. They don’t want to do their No. 1 job, which is to police markets for unfair and anticompetitive behavior.”

There is lots of solid criticism of today’s news in this piece.

Karl Bode also points out that this task force explicitly targets tech companies, which ought to make ISPs very happy. I argued that Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and Whatsapp are one example of a toxic antitrust move; Comcast’s acquisition of NBCUniversal is absolutely on a similar plane, but it will escape this task force’s mandate because Comcast is a telecom company, not a tech firm.

FTC Creates Antitrust Task Force to Monitor Tech Industry

Devin Coldewey, TechCrunch:

This isn’t necessarily a precursor to some big action like breaking up a big company or imposing rules or anything like that. It seems to be more a recognition that the FTC needs to be ready to ascertain quickly and move decisively in tech matters, and a crack team of tech-savvy staff attorneys is the way to do it.

The Technology Task Force will live under the competition bureau within the FTC, the director of which, Bruce Hoffman, commented as follows in the agency’s announcement:

Technology markets, which are rapidly evolving and touch so many other sectors of the economy, raise distinct challenges for antitrust enforcement. By centralizing our expertise and attention, the new task force will be able to focus on these markets exclusively – ensuring they are operating pursuant to the antitrust laws, and taking action where they are not.

That it is under this bureau and not the bureau of consumer protection gives a good indicator of its purpose. This won’t be a way for the FTC to, for instance, more closely scrutinize Google or Facebook’s shady user data practices. That said the lawyers are stated to have expertise in “advertising, social networking, mobile operating systems and apps, and platform businesses,” which I doubt they mention for no reason.

Spencer Dailey:

Notable: the timing of Facebook recently shutting down its Onavo/”Research” efforts completely (on Android too) — if buying competition is actually going to see scrutiny, maybe collecting all internet traffic of teens with root certificates isn’t as savory, business-wise?

Hamza Shaban:

The FTC is creating a team dedicated to monitoring competition in the tech industry. What jumps out:

1) That it’s 2019 and they’re only doing this now

2) A mandate to review mergers that have already taken place — Facebook/Instagram comes to mind

I’ve long harboured a feeling that a failure to interpret antitrust law beyond the simple question of dollar cost to consumers has been among the most detrimental forces in the tech landscape. For example, Facebook’s unabated growth and acquisitions of Instagram and Whatsapp have helped it become a single company with nearly twice as many monthly active users as China has people, but it is incapable of successfully moderating its own scale despite being effectively an international lawmaker for the communications of billions of people. Another example: Amazon controls much of the infrastructure of the web, yet it also competes with its own customers; Amazon’s music and video offerings are comparable to Spotify and Netflix, both of which use Amazon Web Services for some of their hosting.

Adam Clark Estes Ditched Chrome for Safari and You Can Too

If you’re someone who has continued to use Chrome because it’s what you’re used to, I highly recommend giving Safari another go. In addition to the excellent reasons Adam Clark Estes enumerates in this piece at Gizmodo, there is also plenty of evidence that you’ll get better battery life on a laptop if you use Safari. Also, it’s worth mentioning again that a disproportionate dominance of Chrome is hurting the web.

So, unless you absolutely need a specific Chrome extension or really enjoy being tracked all over the web for some reason, consider giving Safari or Safari Technology Preview another shot.

Content Moderators Describe Traumatizing Work for Facebook and Twitter

Casey Newton of the Verge spoke with content moderators who are employed by Cognizant but working on Facebook’s behalf:

Collectively, the employees described a workplace that is perpetually teetering on the brink of chaos. It is an environment where workers cope by telling dark jokes about committing suicide, then smoke weed during breaks to numb their emotions. It’s a place where employees can be fired for making just a few errors a week — and where those who remain live in fear of the former colleagues who return seeking vengeance.

It’s a place where, in stark contrast to the perks lavished on Facebook employees, team leaders micromanage content moderators’ every bathroom and prayer break; where employees, desperate for a dopamine rush amid the misery, have been found having sex inside stairwells and a room reserved for lactating mothers; where people develop severe anxiety while still in training, and continue to struggle with trauma symptoms long after they leave; and where the counseling that Cognizant offers them ends the moment they quit — or are simply let go.

The moderators told me it’s a place where the conspiracy videos and memes that they see each day gradually lead them to embrace fringe views. One auditor walks the floor promoting the idea that the Earth is flat. A former employee told me he has begun to question certain aspects of the Holocaust. Another former employee, who told me he has mapped every escape route out of his house and sleeps with a gun at his side, said: “I no longer believe 9/11 was a terrorist attack.”

A heads-up: as you might imagine, this is a troubling read.

A couple of years ago, two filmmakers created a short documentary about moderators working in India for low wages performing the same equally-disturbing job. They’re seeing the worst things that people share online, whether that’s a post that refers to a person by a racial epithet — allowed, by the way, if the epithet is used in a positive context — to videos of murder and sexual assault. According to Newton, contractors are paid $15 per hour at Cognizant’s facility in Arizona.

Perhaps part of the blame can be assigned to Cognizant. They are, after all, the employer. But it’s entirely possible that they are just one of several bidders for a Facebook contract, and it’s plausible that offering employees a lower wage helped ensure that they got the contract. That’s a crappy reason, but it is a reason.

J. Sack shared their perspective as a former moderator at Twitter. It’s short, but it’s worth reading as well. I bet it’s just as hard at YouTube; as of four years ago, three hundred hours of video were uploaded every minute overwhelming their moderation teams at the time.

A nagging feeling that sits in my brain is that these platforms seem designed to encourage users to share lots of stuff and to share it more often, with the implicit assumption that all the baby pictures we share will drown out a small amount unsavoury and disturbing stuff that could easily be taken care of by a smaller group of staff. Facebook has over two billion active users. They’re moderating the planet; if that’s not impossible, it’s damn near close, and it is ruining the lives of the people who are doing their best.

These platforms are putting the best and worst of humanity on an equal plane, with disastrous results.

Huawei Introduces the Mate X

Vlad Savov, the Verge:

Samsung’s Galaxy Fold announcement isn’t even a week old yet, and we already have a competitor that is thinner, has a bigger screen, and folds flatter. Say hello to the Huawei Mate X. Launching this very moment at MWC 2019, the Mate X has an 8-inch wraparound OLED display, a folded thickness of a mere 11mm, and a formidable spec sheet highlighted by 5G, a 4,500mAh battery, and Huawei’s in-house Kirin 980 processor.

Nice name. Huawei really is in a class of one when it comes to lifting ideas from Apple and others to the extent that it reportedly engages in industrial espionage.

I got to see, but not touch — again, this is a theme with foldable devices so far, no touching — the Mate X up close at MWC, and the most immediately impressive thing for me was how casually the demonstrator was handling it. There was no white-gloves tenderness about his use of the device: he unfolded and folded the Mate X quickly and naturally, and I got no sense of any fragility about the slate. My overriding concern about foldables is that they’ll fail to be perfectly flat when actually opened up, but the Mate X again stands up to scrutiny. Though I can still see small bits of unevenness where the hinge resides, those don’t seem like deal breakers.

This is probably the most convincing product I’ve seen so far in this emerging category of bendy phones, but I’m still not sold. The best argument I can think of for this is the frequency with which someone uses landscape mode. If you rotate your phone sideways a lot for games and more complex apps, perhaps this is more compelling to you. I’m in the other group of users: those who have rotation lock enabled and virtually never turn it off.

Still, there’s a part of me that thinks that, so far, this is a high-tech solution searching desperately for the problems it’s trying to solve.

Om Malik Re-Embraces Flickr

Om Malik:

During the early days of Flickr, I didn’t take photos. It was a story. When Yahoo bought the company, I broke the story on my blog. It made news because the news was on a blog. Go figure. I made a mistake by hotlinking Caterina Fake’s photo. She Goatse-d me. I apologized. A friendship blossomed. Stewart Butterfield, the other Flickr co-founder, and the master of a pivot, now is the head honcho at Slack, where I am a nano-investor.

The world has moved on, but it wasn’t till this month, I started to appreciate the foresight and the specialness of Flickr, and it’s a foundational role in the history of the modern web. I am finding joy in it — and hopefully the new owner, SmugMug will be able to find ways to energize the community around it. They could start by bundling it with SmugMug Pro.

It’s shocking just how much Flickr missed out on the smartphone photo boom. Nobody used Flickr like they use Instagram or even Twitter for sharing photos now, and Yahoo just sort of let it languish. But maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe Flickr can be a fantastic smaller platform. There’s no reason it needs to compete with the biggest players so long as it can attract a great community.

I let my Flickr Pro membership lapse years ago because I wasn’t taking photos as much, so I didn’t want to pay for a photo sharing website. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been much more active with my camera, and Malik’s post has made me think harder about whether I want to buy Pro again. I still haven’t made my mind up, but it could be worth a year’s experiment to see if I really will use Flickr again.

Ad Buyers Shrug at YouTube’s Child Exploitation Crisis

Shareen Pathak And Jack Marshall, Digiday:

As a number of major brands, including Disney, Nestle, McDonald’s, AT&T and Epic Games, are pulling their ads from YouTube due to its latest brand-safety “crisis,” media buyers are largely reacting with a collective shrug.

In a poll conducted by Digiday Research on Thursday, Feb. 21, only 14 percent of 100 buyers said they expect the crisis to have any impact on long-term spending on the platform. Nearly a third of buyers said they expect any cutbacks they make to be temporary. Meanwhile, 37 percent of respondents said the crisis would not impact their advertising plans for the platform.

[…]

But for agency buyers, gathered in Nashville this week for the Digiday Media Buying Summit, this is just the latest in a long line of supposed brand-safety crises that won’t really amount to much other than a temporary pause. “It’ll never happen [that this hurts anyone]. YouTube is such a brand-unsafe environment. But it works. They give you the views, they give you the conversions,” said one C-level exec at a major agency.

This will remain a problem as long as advertising is served programmatically on under-moderated monopolistic platforms, or as long as ad buyers don’t take it seriously.

Some Apps Using Facebook’s SDK Are Sending Sensitive User Data to Facebook

Sam Schechner, Wall Street Journal (like all WSJ articles, this is paywalled, but a Twitter link is a ladder over the wall):

Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google, which operate the two dominant app stores, don’t require apps to disclose all the partners with whom data is shared. Users can decide not to grant permission for an app to access certain types of information, such as their contacts or locations. But these permissions generally don’t apply to the information users supply directly to apps, which is sometimes the most personal.

In the Journal’s testing, Instant Heart Rate: HR Monitor, the most popular heart-rate app on Apple’s iOS, made by California-based Azumio Inc., sent a user’s heart rate to Facebook immediately after it was recorded.

Flo Health Inc.’s Flo Period & Ovulation Tracker, which claims 25 million active users, told Facebook when a user was having her period or informed the app of an intention to get pregnant, the tests showed.

Real-estate app Realtor.com, owned by Move Inc., a subsidiary of Wall Street Journal parent News Corp , sent the social network the location and price of listings that a user viewed, noting which ones were marked as favorites, the tests showed.

Reckless data sharing by app developers is a recurring concern. Two years ago, Will Strafach found that the AccuWeather app was providing users’ location data to Reveal Mobile. Last year, reporters at the New York Times found that many apps were still selling users’ locations to unscrupulous analytics and adtech firms. At the time, I wrote:

App developers should, at the very least, be required to be completely forthright in their permissions request dialogs. If a developer is scooping and selling user data, they should be able to defend that practice to users in language that they can understand; if they cannot, then perhaps that’s a practice they should cease.

At an absolute minimum, users should know which companies their data may be shared with and why, in plain language terms — now more than ever. That’s the responsibility of app developers, Apple, and Google; unfortunately, users simply have very little control:

Facebook allows users to turn off the company’s ability to use the data it collects from third-party apps and websites for targeted ads. There is currently no way to stop the company from collecting the information in the first place, or using it for other purposes, such as detecting fake accounts. Germany’s top antitrust enforcer earlier this month ordered Facebook to stop using that data at all without permission, a ruling Facebook is appealing.

Vile.

Even with better disclosure rules, I think all developers should assume users don’t read privacy policies; they place their blind trust that the app will do the right thing. Developers are abusing users’ naivet&eacut;, and I think the corrosion of user trust will do long-term damage to the digital economy if it is not curtailed.

A Critique of the Presentation of ‘Classical’ Music on Apple Music

Mitchel Broussard of MacRumors interviewed Benjamin Charles and Franz Rumiz for a thoughtful critique of the way streaming services — and Apple Music, in particular — approach classical music:

In the end, Apple — and Spotify, Google, Amazon, etc. — have a tricky battle ahead of them if and when they decide to address the issue of classical music on streaming services. “It doesn’t seem to be a business priority [for Apple],” Charles admits, and in the current scheme of things, the company’s focus on pop and hip-hop in Apple Music is logical from a financial standpoint.

But that doesn’t change the fact that there are millions of classical music fans willing and ready to pay the company that can get these things right. “This is a completely untapped market,” Charles tells me. “One streaming service could completely own the classical music audience if it wanted to.”

A big point of contention is that Apple Music is designed for credited performers only, not for separate composers, performers, conductors, and soloists. This is critical for classical works, but I think an incorporation of multiple credits would also benefit pop, hip-hop, and rock genres. The producers and writers of contemporary music also deserve credit that simply isn’t surfaced in most streaming music services.

Study: Broadband ‘Zero Rating’ Actually Costs Customers More

Karl Bode, Vice:

In more recent years, ISPs have been pushing the idea of zero rating, which involves exempting select content from these arbitrary limits. AT&T, for example, now routinely exempts its own streaming content from its usage caps, yet still penalizes users should they use a competitor like Netflix. Comcast engages in the same behavior on its cable broadband network.

The anticompetitive and free speech issues with letting ISPs determine which services get an unfair advantage on the network should be fairly obvious. But broadband providers have tried to downplay those concerns by claiming that zero rating saves consumers money, and should be seen as akin to a 1-800 number for data or the bandwidth equivalent of free shipping.

Consumers, who often don’t understand that broadband usage caps are bogus cash grabs in the first place, often buy into the argument that they’re getting something for free by being allowed to bypass them.

But a new multi-year study by the non-profit Epicenter.works challenges those assumptions. The study, which took a look at wireless data prices in 30 European Union nations, found that the cost of wireless data plans were notably more expensive in countries that allowed zero rating as opposed to those that have prohibited the practice.

This study ought to be taken seriously around the world, but particularly in the United States where the FCC has gutted net neutrality legislation. Broadband should be treated as the utility it is, especially since telecommunications companies have morphed into vertically-integrated media conglomerates. The combination of a lack of antitrust enforcement and no net neutrality rules has created opportunities for abuse, price gouging, and increasingly siloed behaviour.

An Investigation of Fake FCC Comments Ostensibly Against Net Neutrality

Dell Cameron and Jason Prechtel, Gizmodo:

In May 2017, dozens of Americans came forward with claims that their identities had been used, without their consent, in a campaign to inundate the Federal Communications Commission with public comments critical of the Obama-era policy. Some told reporters that they’d never heard of net neutrality. Twenty seven signed an open letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai demanding a response. A year on, each of their names and addresses are still displayed on the federal agency’s website, right above, as the letter puts it, “a political statement that we did not sign onto.”

What was most curious, however, is that each of these people had supposedly submitted the very same comment; a veritable word salad of telecom industry talking points. In particular, the comment was a rebuke of the Obama administration’s exercise of “unprecedented regulatory power” in pursuit of net neutrality, a policy which it accused of “smothering innovation, damaging the American economy, and obstructing job creation.”

Internal FCC logs reviewed by Gizmodo for the first time offer clues as to why the matching comments led investigators in October to the doorstep of CQ Roll Call, a company that, while running an august newsroom in the nation’s capital, is also in the business of helping lobbyists construct digital “grassroots” campaigns aimed at influencing policymakers, and specifically, those controlling the FCC’s rulemaking process.

There’s a lot in Cameron and Prechtel’s excellent investigation, but the payoff is worth it. Apparently, CQ verifies everything submitted through its API, but also emailed the FCC to ask if a rate of 250,000 submissions per day would be fine with them. Oh, and the millions of cut-and-paste comments just so happen to overlap with submissions from CQ’s API key.

It is equally astonishing how blatant this kind of arguably fraudulent astroturfing is, and how the clever use of FOIAs by hardworking journalists is able to expose it.

Ejector App for MacOS Makes the Eject Key Useful

This new single-purpose app from Dave DeLong is excellent. Apple hasn’t sold a Mac with an optical drive in years, but many of their keyboards still feature an eject key — presumably for both legacy support and because they do still sell that external SuperDrive. My dad has one; I think he’s used it once in the last five years.

Anyway, Ejector runs in the background so, when you hit the eject key on your keyboard, you get a neat little window with all of your mounted drives, and you can pick which one to eject. There’s a free seven-day trial and it’s just ten bucks.

Like its creator, I hope this gets sherlocked.

Bloomberg Reports Multistage Rollout of ‘Marzipan’ Apps to Eventually Scale From iPhone to MacOS

Mark Gurman, Bloomberg:

Apple Inc. wants to make it easier for software coders to create tools, games and other applications for its main devices in one fell swoop — an overhaul designed to encourage app development and, ultimately, boost revenue.

The aim of the multistep initiative, code-named “Marzipan,” is that by 2021, developers will be able to build an app once and have it work on the iPhone, iPad and Mac computers, people familiar with the effort said. That should spur the creation of new software, increasing the utility of the company’s gadgets.

You can tell Bloomberg is a capital-B business publication because the reporting of every Apple rumour must be justified by couching it in terms shareholders understand, like “revenue” and “gadgets”.

A three-year rollout forecast — or four-year, if you count Mojave’s superlatively sub-par collection of demo apps — seems generous, but I remain skeptical of the likelihood that any cross-platform app framework can be truly great. I get that things change, and that many Mac customers today might want to run their iOS apps across all of their Apple devices. But, man, what a pisser it would be if the Mac became a third-tier dumping ground for crappy ports.

Apple plans to hold its annual software conference from June 3 to June 7 in San Jose, California, according to permit filings reported recently by website MacRumors.

At the event, Apple also plans to debut new software features for its devices, including a dark mode for easier nighttime viewing and new productivity tools for the iPad. The company has also internally weighed previewing a new version of the high-end Mac Pro, according to people familiar with the deliberations.

The spectre of the new Mac Pro looms large over any other Mac updates this year. Even if it doesn’t ship until the end of the year, WWDC’s developers would be the perfect crowd to preview it for, as in 2012.

Samsung Announces Galaxy Fold, a Weird Folding Smartphone Available in April

Nicole Nguyen, Buzzfeed:

At an event in San Francisco on Wednesday, Samsung officially announced a name for its new foldable phone: the Galaxy Fold (lol).

It’s a mobile device that can be folded in half to fit in one hand or in your pocket, with a touchscreen that works like you’d expect a smartphone to. Then, when you need to see something in a larger format — BAM! — you can flip open the Galaxy Fold to reveal a gigantic 7.3-inch display.

Vlad Savov:

The Galaxy Fold is Samsung’s Google Glass: an exciting technical showcase that should never be released to the public, because it’ll sour everyone on the entire nascent category.

This comment probably won’t age well, but I don’t yet get the real-word allure of a device like this. Count me with Savov so far: this isn’t a great ambassador for a technology that may become spectacular, in more capable hands.

During the unveiling, Samsung emphasized the Fold’s versatility in being able to transform from an ordinary smartphone into a tablet just by opening it up. But this device — and others like it — are bad phones, and worse tablets. Every shot of the closed phone looks like it’s begging to be unfolded; its display looks narrow, uncomfortable, and cramped. It seems far better in its tablet-like configuration, but it is at best a diet version of a tablet.

I’m not down on this because it’s Samsung. I dig that this is experimental and weird. But it isn’t compelling to me as either a phone or a tablet, and it’s certainly not compelling to me as a device trying to be both.

Google Says Previously-Undisclosed Microphone in Nest Secure Devices Was ‘Never Supposed to Be a Secret’

Nick Bastone, Business Insider:

In early February, Google announced that its home security and alarm system Nest Secure would be getting an update — users could now enable its virtual assistant technology, Google Assistant.

The problem: Nest users didn’t know a microphone even existed on their security device to begin with.

The existence of a microphone on the Nest Guard (which is the alarm, keypad, and motion sensor component in the Nest Secure offering) was never disclosed in any of the product material for the device.

On Tuesday, a Google spokesperson told Business Insider the company had made an “error.”

I completely believe Google here; a deliberate failure to acknowledge an embedded microphone would be monumentally stupid to a degree they don’t usually approach. Of course, deciding which of Google and Facebook are better on privacy is a bit like trying to decide which species of flesh-eating bacteria is more wonderful to have, but Google isn’t quite the “digital gangster” that Facebook is.

Nevertheless, this is the kind of thing that makes me paranoid of smart home devices. If I owned one of these things and found out that the world’s biggest advertising company hid a microphone in my home for a year, I’d be livid. Wouldn’t anyone?

On the Timeliness of Apple’s Services Push

Steve Kovach, CNBC:

As iPhone sales continue to sink, Apple has made several key moves over the last year as it prepares new offerings to juice growth elsewhere in the business.

If you’ve been listening to CEO Tim Cook’s comments on earnings calls and in interviews recently, none of this should come as a surprise. The company has stopped reporting iPhone unit sales figures, and instead talks more about its growing base of active devices, which the company says can be used to squeeze out more revenue through its digital services like Apple Music, App Store sales and extra iCloud storage.

But it’s not just about those subscription services. Apple has made several shifts in recent months that signal its preparing to move beyond the iPhone in other ways, such as artificial intelligence, the growing smart home market and digital health monitoring.

A framing device I’ve seen a lot amongst tech analysts and journalists since Apple revised its first-quarter earnings forecast is the idea that the company’s increased push into services and other parts of its business is correlated with — or even because of — lower iPhone sales. I think this is a myopic view of the company’s products.

Let’s think about this in the inverse: I don’t see anyone seriously making the argument that Apple would not have increased their investments in services and machine learning if iPhone sales continued to grow.

More to the point, many of these service offerings were rumoured for a long time. Steve Jobs was asked about an Apple Music-like service in 2007. Apple’s apparently-forthcoming Netflix competitor has been rumoured for years. Even their long-rumoured car project was reported as being approved around the same time that the iPhone 6 was launched.

These projects all take lots of time; they are not a result of less-dramatic iPhone sales figures. Apple has been highlighting their subscription services more for a few years now and, in that time, they had their biggest-ever quarter, largely on the back of iPhone revenue. Based on all of this, the most likely reason that Apple is rumoured to be on the cusp of launching new services is simply because they’re ready now. Is this release time frame any different than it would have been if their most recent holiday quarter had surpassed expectations instead of falling short of Apple’s forecast? I don’t think there’s any evidence that supports that.

Facing Opposition, Amazon Scraps New York Office Plans

Timothy Lee, Ars Technica:

Amazon is canceling its controversial plan to build a new corporate campus in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens. The plan, which included almost $3 billion in subsidies and tax breaks, provoked a grassroots backlash.

“The commitment to build a new headquarters requires positive, collaborative relationships with state and local elected officials who will be supportive over the long-term,” Amazon said in a statement. “While polls show that 70 percent of New Yorkers support our plans and investment, a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project.”

Barry Ritholtz:

Man, so many people are getting this wrong. No, Amazon did not pull out of the NYC deal — and a lot of people have done a terrible job trying to explain this.

[…]

Amazon should have been less mercenary. The world’s wealthiest man running The world’s most valuable company does not need to have everyone else subsidize a for-profit firm.

[…]

As a fire-breathing Wall Street working capitalist, allow me to share my crazy idea:

Build your own fucking HQ on your own goddamned dime.

Vishaan Chakrabarti, in an editorial published by Buzzfeed News, was one of the few voices I saw dissenting from the widespread praise for Amazon’s decision to discontinue its New York plans:

Nobody comes out of this looking good: Amazon, city and state politicians and the deal’s proponents and opponents all could have done a better job explaining its pros and cons. But the most worrisome group — and those who now need to be held accountable — are those who simply want no growth at all, believing that New York will somehow thrive forever regardless. Many of them have benefited from the city’s booming economy or rent regulations, and now they want to shut the door behind them. Put simply, they are playing with fire, and it is the rest of us who must either collectively stand up to them, or prepare to get collectively burned.

I think Chakrabarti’s piece is worth contemplating, but I disagree with its premise. I didn’t see a lot of opposition to Amazon’s plans for a New York office strictly or even primarily based on worries about growth. However, what I did see was ample concern about the way this project was handled. Amazon’s public nationwide RFP was a cruel joke, and applicant cities pitched the company in opaque, questionable ways. And this whole process occurred as the public increasingly began to question both enormous tech companies and development incentives.

If Amazon wants to try again, they should. I bet New York would welcome their office like they have Apple’s and Google’s — both of which have expanded in the city. But they do not need a multibillion-dollar incentive package.

Matthew Gardner of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy:

The company’s newest corporate filing reveals that, far from paying the statutory 21 percent income tax rate on its U.S. income in 2018, Amazon reported a federal income tax rebate of $129 million. For those who don’t have a pocket calculator handy, that works out to a tax rate of negative 1 percent. The fine print of Amazon’s income tax disclosure shows that this achievement is partly due to various unspecified “tax credits” as well as a tax break for executive stock options.

This isn’t the first year that the cyber-retailing giant has avoided federal taxes. Last year, the company paid no federal corporate income taxes on $5.6 billion in U.S. income.

This is solely at the federal level, but it is nevertheless shameful for one of the world’s largest and richest companies.