Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Widgets in iOS 14

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch:

Despite the surprise release of iOS 14 that left app developers unprepared, an ambitious few have managed to push their way through — or even pull an all-nighter — in order to make their apps available with iOS 14 support on launch day. For the first time in years, the new version of iOS offers a new way for consumers to organize their home screens. Now, your less frequently used apps can be shuffled away to the App Library on the iPhone’s back screen, while those apps offering information and updates can feature their content through new home screen widgets.

The team at MacStories has been posting about apps with great widgets, and David Smith — known primarily for building more utilitarian apps like Workouts++ and Feed Wrangler — has gone viral on TikTok with his multipurpose arbitrary widget builder.

A home screen of something more than a grid of icons with badges has been an iOS dream basically since the iPhone’s launch. I remember having experimenting with all sorts of home screen add-on stuff on a jailbroken first-generation iPod Touch. But even though this feels like a finally moment, Apple’s implementation of widgets in iOS feels just about perfect. I love the combination of Smart Stacks and multiple instances of an app’s widget. Nate Boateng is using the latter capability to have a second home screen full of Things widgets. I have been trying a bunch of weather apps and am experimenting with a stack of small Carrot weather widgets with current conditions, upcoming conditions, and multiday forecast. The Siri Suggestions widget is also a delight when it works as designed which, to be fair, is more often than I had anticipated. Monday mornings, I get a little prompt to open Microsoft Authenticator around the time that I start my workday — it’s damn near perfect at that.

iPadOS 14 is somewhat worse off because, for some reason, widgets cannot be placed amongst home screen icons.

Regardless, credit must go to Apple for its thoughtful widget implementation, and third-party developers for creating such an exciting mix of options for users to play with.

Department of Commerce Orders Removal of TikTok and WeChat From U.S. App Stores on Sunday

Kate Cox, Ars Technica:

Consumers inside the US will no longer be allowed to download TikTok or WeChat from any US app store after Sunday, the Trump administration announced today.

Any “provision of service to distribute or maintain” the mobile applications or their “constituent code” is prohibited beginning after 11:59pm ET September 20, the Department of Commerce said this morning. That means Google Play and Apple’s App Store will have to yank their listings for the apps, and users who already have one or both apps will not be able to download updates or patches for them.

The theoretical security risks of apps involved in what Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross calls “China’s civil-military fusion” are hazy but plausible. These restrictions only apply to TikTok and WeChat, not all apps with Chinese origin. Furthermore, WeChat is effectively the default digital layer for many in China, so it is an essential app for Americans staying in touch.

So, to summarize the saga so far:

  • The capability to download WeChat and TikTok in the U.S. will stop Sunday night under the umbrella rationalization that Chinese apps are unique security threats. No other apps or devices of Chinese origin will be prohibited, and no specific security problem has been identified.

  • Software updates for those apps, including bug fixes and security patches, will also stop Sunday night for, you know, security reasons.

  • WeChat’s functionality will be kneecapped then, cutting off a popular communications bridge between the U.S. and China.

  • TikTok will continue to work until November 12 as the finer details are worked out to transfer U.S. hosting contracts from companies Donald Trump personally dislikes to one that he does.

  • Election day is November 3 and it would be politically fraught to have headlines reading Trump Bans TikTok in the coming week.

  • So far, the TikTok deal does not appear to have a meaningful impact on national security or user privacy — the two concerns that created this vortex of corruption and bullshit in the first place.

I get why China’s state-connected businesses are worrying for some Americans, but this order does almost nothing to alleviate those concerns. It adds a communications roadblock for Americans with family, friends, and coworkers in China, and it lays the groundwork to enrich a company whose executives have fundraised for the president.

The Very Colourful Apple Watch Series 6

Apple seeded review units of its new Apple Watches to traditional press and a few YouTubers, and I am struck by how colourful they are. Valentina Palladino of Engadget, Jacob Krol of CNN, and Brian Heater of TechCrunch received blue models; Marques Brownlee, Dieter Bohn of the Verge, and Caitlin McGarry of Gizmodo got the Product Red model.

The blue is pretty muted, but the red model is very red, like the iPod Nano used to be. I know it’s a lot of colour and it may not be for everyone, but I think I prefer these to the more traditional palette of silvery aluminum, stainless steel, shades of grey, and gold. Those latter materials all ape traditional watch materials, but the Apple Watch is more fun and funky. I am sure it will be harder to pair these models with clothing, but I think this represents a more honest take on an Apple Watch’s hardware. If the choice were binary, I would rather see more explorations in this direction than an attempt to make it more like a traditional wristwatch.

In TikTok Deal, Treasury Won’t Be Taking Illegal ‘Key Money’ Payment Proposed by Trump

The deadline for a deal that allows TikTok to continue operating in the United States is this Sunday. Steve Mnuchin is, therefore, trying to push through an arrangement that would give Oracle hosting rights for U.S. users, but allow ByteDance to remain involved with the company. If it looks like a disorganized rapidly-changing acquisition of uncertain bounds that carries an undertone of corruption, that’s probably because it is.

Georgia Wells, Aaron Tilley, and John D. McKinnon, Wall Street Journal:

Oracle was originally brought into the negotiations to provide an alternative to Microsoft Corp., a rival bidder with Walmart as a partner, said one person familiar with the talks. The U.S. investment firms Sequoia Capital and General Atlantic, which are existing investors in ByteDance, went in search of a tech company with close ties to the administration and settled on Oracle, the person said.

Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison hosted a fundraiser for Mr. Trump this year at his house, and Chief Executive Safra Catz also worked on the executive committee for the Trump transition team in 2016.

For Oracle, the arrangement could give a jolt to its efforts to transform its database business into a major player in cloud computing, one of the most dynamic areas in tech.

ByteDance has used Google and Amazon for its hosting needs. You will note that both companies are frequently the subject of the president’s rants, while Oracle has tight connections to the administration. It sure looks like the president is, for some reason, personally intervening in a business deal to transition a wildly popular app’s lucrative U.S. contracts from companies he doesn’t like to one that he does. At least the kickback he demanded for the U.S. Treasury won’t be happening.

Alex Sherman and Lauren Feiner, CNBC:

Trump on Wednesday also backed off his desire to demand “key money” from allowing the transaction, saying his lawyers told him it was illegal.

“Amazingly I find that you’re not allowed to do that,” Trump said. “I said, ‘What kind of a thing is this?’ If they’re willing to make big payments to the government, they’re not allowed because there’s no way of doing that from a — there’s no legal path to do that.”

This is a blatantly political business deal without any meaningful privacy or security benefit, but with all of the trappings of grift and corruption that you have come to expect from this era of American leadership.

A Visual History of System Preferences

Arun Venkatesan put together a really nice visual history of the System Preferences app, from Mac OS X 10.0 through MacOS Big Sur. I particularly appreciated this explanation of the two different dates often seen in Apple’s calendar-related icons:

Since the Public Beta, the calendar in the icon has shown an 18. 10.10 added the month of July to the icon. July 18 likely refers to the day that the Mac OS X Public Beta was first announced at Macworld New York.

In Big Sur, after 20 years of showing July 18, that icon has changed to July 17, likely to conform with the Calendar app icon. iCal, as the Calendar app was previously known, was first shown to the public on July 17, 2002.

I knew the dates had to refer to something — these things are never random — but I had no idea what. This is good trivia.

Update: Venkatesan also says that the Energy Saver preference panel is replaced with a “Battery” setting in Big Sur, but that is not the case for desktop Macs. Energy Saver retains its name and LED lightbulb icon.

Comparison of Website Speed by Core Technologies

Johannes Beus of Sistrix:

This evaluation deals with a wide variety of web technologies: from backend technologies for creating websites to JavaScript and CSS libraries for design and interaction to Google AMP.

[…]

It is noticeable that AMP is not one of the fastest technologies. Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) are a derivative of HTML mainly pushed by Google. Numerous restrictions should mean that AMP pages load significantly faster on the mobile phone than classic HTML pages.

The results are not convincing: less than 70% of the AMP domains meet the Google requirements. Google has apparently already recognised this and will in future also bequeath the AMP privileges in the Top Stories box to sites that have fast Core Web Vitals.

I missed the announcement in May that, as of 2021, Google will no longer require news sites to use its proprietary AMP technology if they want to be at the top of its search engine. Virtually all major publications have spent the past few years re-engineering their websites to support AMP so that Google will rank them, and now Google is dropping that requirement. Fantastic.

AMP is garbage and I hope it gets added to the scrapyard of Google’s bad ideas sooner rather than later.

Panic Launches Nova

I know that today in the Apple technology landscape is overwhelmingly about the new versions of mobile and television operating systems, but I would like to direct your attention to Nova from Panic. It is the successor to Coda and, in my limited use today, it seems like all of the things a good Mac app from Panic ought to be. It is fast, entirely native, has a great user interface, and will quickly nestle itself into my day-to-day work.

There are many major differences from Coda, most of which I expect my ancient web development workflow will fail to uncover. However, there are two obvious ones. First, Nova is a Mac-only app, at least for now. You can still get the “Code Editor” on your iOS and iPadOS devices until Panic releases an iOS companion app that it says will “balance […] Nova-like functionality, and Transmit-like functionality”.

The second big difference is how much it costs. Panic is switching to a blended subscription model similar to the one Sketch uses:

Nova will be $99, or $79 if you own Coda. When you buy it, you own it. Plus, your purchase includes one year of new features and fixes, released the moment they’re ready. After that, you can get another year of updates at any point — even much later — for $49/year. That’s it!

This strikes me as an agreeable balance between an outright purchase and a full subscription. I bought Coda 2 a little more than eight years ago for $49. I am not sure if that was the discounted price for upgrading from Coda 1 or if it was a student rate but, in any case, I have somehow paid just $6 per year to use Coda.

In a sense, this is how good things are supposed to work. My favourite records are, on a per-listen basis, the least-expensive albums I’ve bought; I would have a different relationship with them if I had to pay for every listen. But software is not like that. It needs constant work, and it can be difficult to patch bugs in free updates while trying to build a worthy major new version. That is especially true for a company as fastidious as Panic. And, since the App Store and Apple’s software, more generally, have eschewed the very concept of paid updates, we’re now stuck with subscriptions as a way to finance ongoing work.

Here’s the problem: a user may not have an ongoing need for a piece of software. I certainly have several Mac apps that I use only occasionally, and could never justify paying monthly or even annually. However, most of these apps have worked without updates across several MacOS versions, and I would have no problem with paying for an update if needed.

As version numbers become increasingly irrelevant in an era of ongoing patches, bug fixes, and feature updates, this pricing model seems like a fair compromise for users and for Panic.

Bundled ‘Apple One’ Subscription Announced

A bundled monthly fee for access to Apple’s growing subscription-based services has been rumoured for years now, but things seemed to coalesce in a Bloomberg article last month by Mark Gurman. Not only did Gurman get the name right, he also correctly called the idea of tiered bundles — though not the contents of those tiers.1

In linking to it, I wrote that the idea of a package deal would be compelling if it either created a steep discount or had some exclusive features. It looks like Apple went with the former.

J. Fergus, Input:

Individual Apple One plans cost $14.95, Family plans cost $19.95, and the Premier plans run $29.95. Individual plans include 50GB of iCloud storage which upgrades to 200GB on Family plans — which can be shared with up to six people. Upgrading to a Premier plan will provide an additional 2TB of iCloud storage that can also be shared with up to six people. If users are on a Family or Premier plan, they can use their separate accounts for all the included services.

[…]

The plans save subscribers anywhere from roughly $6 each month to approximately $25. Any services that users don’t already have will include a 30-day trial. As typical, for an additional kickback, using an Apple Card to pay for a subscription will yield 3 percent cashback.

A savings of $25 per month on the highest-level $30 per month plan is almost a no-brainer, especially since it can be shared amongst six users in a single family. That’s an Apple Music family plan plus two terabytes of iCloud storage plus Apple Arcade — and then you get TV Plus, News Plus, and the new Fitness Plus. If you are all-in on the Apple services ecosystem — especially as a family, but even as an individual — the highest-tier plan should be an easy sell.

But, if you’re like me and only really use Apple Music and iCloud, these plans probably aren’t a big draw — and that seems fine too. These bundles are clearly for people who are mostly or fully invested in Apple’s services and are not bothered by paying for a few other services that they may not use frequently.

I have reservations about how this will be promoted. I can see many push notifications, modal banners, and emails in my future telling me about how, for the same price I pay now, I can also have Apple Arcade. Or, for just a few dollars more, I can get News Plus and Fitness Plus. Thanks, but no thanks.


  1. It is unintentionally hilarious that there are three different ways to subscribe to Apple One. See also Nilay Patel↩︎

Apple’s New iPad Air

Today’s Apple presentation was unlike any September Apple event in the last eight years. Not only was it remote, it was the first without a new iPhone to show off. Tim Cook quashed any remaining speculation of seeing new iPhone models today in the first two minutes of his introduction, letting everyone know that today’s presentation would be entirely focused on the Apple Watch and iPad.

I don’t have a lot of thoughts on the new Apple Watch models — other than being impressed by the value of the SE and amused by some of the weirder new faces — but the new iPad Air is intriguing. A few days ago, I was idly chatting with some friends about how hard it was for me to differentiate between the 10.2-inch base model iPad and the 10.5-inch iPad Air. The Air sits in an awkward middle-grade position: better in a lot of little ways than the entry-level model, but with an older design and $499 price point that put a gaping chasm between it and the least expensive iPad Pro.

Enter this year’s iPad Air. First, the bad news: it is now $100 more expensive. But the good news, from a positioning standpoint, is that it puts more air — a word I typed, saw the pun, and didn’t feel like rephrasing — between it and the base model while bringing it closer to the Pro in every conceivable way. The iPad Air is clearly the hand-me-down iPad Pro model, and there is nothing wrong with that.

It has a chassis that is sized within tenths of a millimetre of the iPad Pro, and a display that is 10.9 inches diagonally instead of 11. Like the iPad Pro, it now has rounded corners — though, in the fine print, Apple does not refer to the display as “follow[ing] a beautiful curved design”. The new iPad Air does not have Face ID, instead being equipped with a Touch ID sensor located in the sleep/wake button. Normally, that would be less than ideal, but it seems appropriate for 2020.

There are several nitpicky ways in which the iPad Air is less good than the iPad Pro, plus one that may take the edge: the new A14 processor. But the clear message about this new Air is that it is now a more comfortable middle child in the full-size iPad family. Also, it comes in some pretty nice pastel colours.

Oracle Proposes Becoming TikTok’s U.S. ‘Trusted Tech Partner’

Georgia Wells and Aaron Tilley, Wall Street Journal:

Oracle Corp. won the bidding for the U.S. operations of the video-sharing app TikTok, people familiar with the matter said, beating out Microsoft Corp. in a high-profile deal to salvage a social-media sensation that has been caught in the middle of a geopolitical standoff.

Oracle is set to be announced as TikTok’s “trusted tech partner” in the U.S., and the deal is likely not to be structured as an outright sale, the people said.

The next step is for the White House and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. to approve the deal, said one of the people, adding that the participants believe it satisfies the concerns around data security that have been previously raised by the U.S. government.

Right now, it is unclear what describing Oracle as a “trusted tech partner” really means. It doesn’t include TikTok’s recommendation algorithm, according to Zhou Xin and Tracy Qu of the South China Morning Post:

ByteDance, the Beijing-based parent company of TikTok, will not sell or transfer the algorithm behind the popular video-sharing app in any sale or divestment deal, according to a source briefed on the Chinese company’s boardroom discussions.

With a looming US deadline for ByteDance to sell TikTok’s US operations, the source said: “The car can be sold, but not the engine.”

China’s regulators recently tightened export controls that would prevent its sale or transfer. The Journal reports that TikTok — not ByteDance — would become a U.S.-based company, according to Steve Mnuchin, but Elizabeth Nolan Brown of Reason pointed out last month that it is already headquartered in Culver City with servers in Virginia.

So if Oracle doesn’t get the algorithm and it is not actually acquiring the app, what does this accomplish as a “tech partner”?

The mysterious Kontra:

A: In addition to being a database giant and a top public sector contractor, Oracle also owns a huge set of mostly unregulated personal data collection/measurement services like BlueKai, DataLogix, Moat, AddThis, CrossWise, etc.

Q: Why pursue TikTok?

ByteDance has already committed Google’s hosting services for TikTok through 2022, according to Kevin McLaughlin and Amir Efrati of the Information, but this forced sale could require its move to Oracle’s hosting. Then it becomes a U.S.-based surveillance tool — but that does not necessarily exclude Chinese companies from scooping up plenty of user data anyhow.

And then there’s the pesky matter of whether Oracle is, you know, “trusted”. Zack Whittaker, reporting for TechCrunch just three months ago:

One of those startups, BlueKai, which Oracle bought for a little over $400 million in 2014, is barely known outside marketing circles, but it amassed one of the largest banks of web tracking data outside of the federal government.

BlueKai uses website cookies and other tracking tech to follow you around the web. By knowing which websites you visit and which emails you open, marketers can use this vast amount of tracking data to infer as much about you as possible — your income, education, political views, and interests to name a few — in order to target you with ads that should match your apparent tastes. If you click, the advertisers make money.

But for a time, that web tracking data was spilling out onto the open internet because a server was left unsecured and without a password, exposing billions of records for anyone to find.

A truly staggering display of security and privacy incompetence. Being solely concerned about surveillance of the world by authoritarian and genocidal nations means nothing without meaningful restrictions on the source of that data. Companies like Oracle are directly responsible for enabling mass surveillance, even if they frame it under the guise of “targeted advertising”.

By the way, if you’re thinking, “why Oracle?”, the answer is predictably grift-driven. Ina Fried and Kyle Daly, Axios:

Oracle’s CEO Larry Ellison is a prominent Trump supporter and the company has close ties to the administration. That could give the company an edge in trying to win White House approval for a deal that might not meet all the demands Trump has made.

The president has said that TikTok must become a fully U.S.-owned company — so the “trusted technology partner” approach may not fly.

We should know by the end of the week if this arrangement is approved — and if the president will get his “key money” to drive home the blatant corruption angle.

Be on Time for Things

Albert Burneko, writing for the recently-launched Defector:

Strive to be on time for things! Striving toward routine punctuality is the absolute bottom white-belt level of adulthood. You can be “kind of whimsical” and also strive to be on time for things. You can be “a freewheeling person” and also strive to be on time for things. You can even be “a literal cannibal” and also strive to be on time for things. Sometimes you will be late anyway, but when you are habitually late for things — moreover, when you do not even strive to be on time for things, and then further indulge yourself by socking your habitual lateness behind the cover of personal whimsy or being “a freewheeling person” — what you are expressing toward the other people around you is that you do not care all that much about them. What they will express back toward you is the middle finger, and you will deserve it.

My endorsement for this is not limited to punctuality. We should all at least try to be better about general human adult stuff more often: honesty, niceness, driving — whatever. We will all fail at these things from time to time, but that doesn’t mean we should become chronically rude liars who text and drive just because other people are.

New App Store Guidelines Clarify Rules Around Streaming Gaming Services, Add Complexity to In-App Purchasing

Kif Leswing, CNBC:

Apple revised its App Store guidelines on Friday ahead of the release of iOS 14, the latest version of the iPhone operating system, which is expected later this month.

[…]

Apple now says that game streaming services, such as Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud, are explicitly permitted. But there are conditions: Games offered in the service need to be downloaded directly from the App Store, not from an all-in-one app. App makers are permitted to release a so-called “catalog app” that links to other games in the service, but each game will need to be an individual app.

Apple’s rules mean that if a streaming game service has 100 games, then each of those games will need an individual App Store listing as well as a developer relationship with Apple. The individual games also have to have some basic functionality when they’re downloaded. All the games and the stores need to offer in-app purchase using Apple’s payment processing system, under which Apple usually takes 30% of revenue.

Many publications — the Verge, Input, and Ars Technica, to name a few well-known examples — are covering this as though Apple had previously disallowed game streaming services and now it is not. But, unless I am very mistaken, this only seems to formalize and clarify existing rules that were already in place when Microsoft attempted to launch its xCloud service on iOS last month. Microsoft’s app was allowed, provided it also submitted every game to the store individually, and that is still the case. Unsurprisingly, Microsoft still says that Apple’s rules will prohibit it from launching xCloud on iOS.

The main thing that is different is that Apple is expressly allowing a launcher-type wrapper app, something that had murky permissions before.

Apple also updated rules around in-app purchases. John Voorhees, MacStories:

Section 3.1.3(d) of the guidelines clarify that the use of In-App-Purchases is not necessary for one-to-one experiences like tutoring or fitness classes but must be used for one-to-few or one-to-many services.

Marco Arment:

If you’re selling “experiences” between people, you don’t need to use IAP.

Unless those “experiences” include three or more people, or aren’t consumed live, in which case, you are required to use only IAP.

If your purchase is for services, features, or game items, you are required to use only IAP.

Unless you operate on multiple platforms, in which case, you can also offer purchasing outside the app. But you can’t tell anyone about it.

Unless you get their contact info somewhere else, in which case, you can tell them about it, but not in the app.

Arment covers many of the confusing and conflicting rules surrounding in-app purchases and doesn’t even touch on the special deals offered only to giant companies with leverage. As a user, I get why in-app purchases are preferred: they’re trustworthy, consistent, and easy for Apple to monitor. But I do not understand how any developer is supposed to navigate these byzantine guidelines.

Amazon’s Goodreads Is a Poor Excuse for a Book-Based Social Network

Sarah Manavis, New Statesman:

With the vast amount of books and user data that Goodreads holds, it has the potential to create an algorithm so exact that it would be unstoppable, and it is hard to imagine anyone objecting to their data being used for such a purpose. Instead, it has stagnated: Amazon holds on to an effective monopoly on the discussion of new books – Goodreads is almost 40 times the size of the next biggest community, LibraryThing, which is also 40 per cent owned by Amazon – and it appears to be doing very little with it.

In an alternate universe, we could be living with a meticulous tool for finding books we would love to read, from a much wider diversity of authors. Instead we have a book tracker that, for many people, barely works.

Goodreads fails at even the most basic task of tracking read books. In its iOS app, it will prompt you with the date picker to enter the dates you started and finished reading; it is necessary to add a finished date if you’re interested in knowing how many books you read in a given year. However, there is no “save” or “done” button, so you must enter the date and then select another field to dismiss the picker, which automatically saves the date. It is unintuitive and awkward.

Manavis points to the StoryGraph as a potential Goodreads competitor, so I gave the beta site a shot. I signed up, and it walked me through exporting my Goodreads data and bringing it to StoryGraph — a good start. But Goodreads’ exported file did not contain most of the dates when I finished reading something, meaning that StoryGraph does not have a sense of what I’m reading now or have been interested in lately.

StoryGraph does seem promising. I am looking forward to trying it. Unfortunately, it means that I will need to manually enter my reading into both apps, which is pretty tedious.

The White House Insisted It Had Thousands of Social Media Bias Complaints, but the FTC Has No Record of Them

On May 28, the White House issued Executive Order 13925, “Preventing Online Censorship”. It is a load of crap but it contains one directive that intrigued me:

Sec. 4. Federal Review of Unfair or Deceptive Acts or Practices. […] (b) In May of 2019, the White House launched a Tech Bias Reporting tool to allow Americans to report incidents of online censorship. In just weeks, the White House received over 16,000 complaints of online platforms censoring or otherwise taking action against users based on their political viewpoints. The White House will submit such complaints received to the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

I have long been fascinated by the apparently thousands of complaints submitted to that reporting tool. I remember the web treating it as a bit of a joke when it was launched, and submitting all sorts of phony garbage because, well, it’s this administration and it’s an open comment form on the internet. What do you expect?

Because it was launched by the White House, nobody could submit a FOIA request to see those records. However, by turning those complaints over to the FTC and DOJ, they suddenly became FOIA-able. And you can bet a whole bunch of us started submitting requests. Unfortunately, they keep saying they don’t have them.

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

Of course, now that the White House was claiming a specific amount (over 16,000) and saying it was passing them along to the FTC, you might think it would be a new opportunity to find out about these complaints. Turns out… no. Ryan Singel filed a FOIA request for those complaints and the FTC says the White House never sent over the complaints:

The FTC has not received the aforementioned complaints. We have located 10 complaints received through the Consumer Sentinel Network that mention this topic area and they are enclosed.

As you might expect, the 10 included complaints are pretty ludicrous. To be clear, I expect that even if the White House can turn up 16,000 such complaints that they will almost all be totally ludicrous.

I have received three similar letters from the FTC claiming they don’t have the records. I have not yet received a response from the DOJ despite several attempts.

A Step Back

Let’s try something together. What do these things all have in common?

  • Photos

  • Music

  • News

  • Podcasts

  • TV

  • Stocks

  • Mac App Store

You thought they were all going to be iOS apps until I surprised you with that last one, right? These are all MacOS apps, yes, but they are not all of the same kind. Many of them are media apps, but it’s hard to think of Stocks, News, or the App Store in the same category.

Three of them — News, Podcasts, and Stocks — are Catalyst apps that were ported from their iOS equivalents. Two — Music and TV — are standard MacOS apps, but Music is built on a rickety base of code that dates back to the Clinton administration. Photos, meanwhile, is a Frankenstein’s monster of an app. It was originally built on a framework called UXKit, which appears to be some kind of cross-platform precursor to Catalyst. At some point in the last five years, obvious traces of UXKit were stripped from MacOS; alas, Photos still feels like it has one foot in iOS and the other in the Mac. The redesigned App Store introduced with Mojave is similarly confused about which platform it is supposed to belong to, but I have no clue what framework it’s built on.

The thing common to all of these apps is this — and you have to imagine that I am writing the next word with a similar tone to that which you might use in reference to a dog turd stuck to someone else’s gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe — button:

toolbar back button

This back button manifests in different ways in the apps I named above. Sometimes, it appears in the main toolbar alongside the traffic light window buttons, invisible until something happens in the app to cause it to show up. At other times — as in Music, TV, and Podcasts — the app will draw a toolbar containing only that button, usually very small and floating somewhere off to the lefthand side.

In no circumstance will it indicate where it will take you back to. Not on the button, not if you click and hold, not in a hover-activated tooltip — you get no sense of what that button will do, other than taking you back somewhere, whatever “back” and “somewhere” mean. If you click it immediately after performing an action, you probably have a good sense of what will happen. But if you search something in Music, click on a playlist in the search results, click on an artist in the playlist, play an album, and then go do another task for half an hour before returning, will you remember where that back button ought to take you? More to the point, will it take you where you might expect?

This back button does not behave like the one in any web browser which, I expect, is the back button any user is most familiar with. Trackpad gestures don’t work with it, so you cannot peek at the previous item. There are ways in which these apps try to meet in the middle ground between a standard Mac app and a web app — Apple Music is basically just a web view within Music, and you feel every aching moment of that, so the back button kind of works. Yet, the moment you get into the more Mac-like local music library section the app, the back button’s intent disintegrates. Here’s an example:

  1. Click on the Albums view of the local library.1

  2. Click on any artist name in that view. It’s grey text that doesn’t look clickable but, trust me, it will take you to a list of albums in your library from that artist.

  3. A new secondary sidebar will appear containing a list of all artists in your library. Click on another artist’s name.

  4. Click the back button.

This should, theoretically, load the most recent view — it should return you to the list of albums by the artist in step two. That’s what the back button in Finder’s column view does. But it doesn’t; it goes all the way back to your entire list of albums.

Is this a problem with Music, maybe? It’s janky as hell: it is inexplicably worse to use than iTunes despite losing the added-on cruft of TV shows, movies, iOS device management, and so on. It’s also built on decades-old code. What about something more modern — a direct iOS port, for example? What about News?

  1. From the Today view, click on any story.

  2. Swipe from right to left on your trackpad to advance to the next story.

  3. Click the back button.

Step two feels pretty much the same as something you might do in a web browser, yet the back button returns you to the Today view’s “home page”. Surprise!

Maybe you are getting the impression that, in these apps, the back button is a way of returning to the top level of a section. So let’s test that in the Mac App Store.

  1. From any of the store sections, click on an app from a well-known developer. I went with OmniGraffle from the Omni Group.

  2. Click on the developer’s name to pull up all of the apps they make, then pick another app. In this case, I picked OmniFocus.

  3. Click the back button.

Think maybe it will take you back to the top level of the store, or maybe to that first app’s page? Nope: it behaves like a standard back button and takes you to the list of developer’s apps that was previously open.

It does not even appear in all of the instances you might expect. For example, if you open an app’s page from the Discover screen of the Mac App Store, the back button appears. However, if you open one of the “editorial” stories, no back button appears at all. There is only a “Done” button that, bizarrely, sits in the upper-right corner of the App Store app instead of the back button’s upper-left positioning, requiring that you hunt for it as you vaguely recall that editorial items are somehow special or different.

The more common apps that have long featured back and forward buttons do not function in these peculiar ways. Web browsers do not; Finder doesn’t; neither does System Preferences. And, as I was writing this article, I was worried that it would be made obsolete by the forthcoming release of MacOS Big Sur, but everything is pretty much identical as of the latest beta.2 If the back buttons in the apps listed at the top of this post do not conform to the system standard in any way, the obvious question is something like: “why do these apps have a back button at all?”

In every instance, it seems to be a catch-all attempt to solve complex UI design problems. In Catalyst apps, it kind of works like the iOS system back button. In the App Store and in Music, it is a way to display web-based pages without having to implement a hierarchical navigation structure. In Photos, I suppose it is a way to reduce the amount of toolbars and buttons onscreen compared to iPhoto, and to make it conform closer to its iOS counterpart.

For completeness, I should note that iPhoto used back buttons in a handful of views. You can see one in the upper-left of the screenshot in this tutorial, but you will notice that it is labelled. When a user clicks it, they know they will be returning to the “All Events” view. The floating carets of Apple’s post-iOS 7 design language replaced contained back buttons — one of the more upsetting casualties of that redesign, I think — but MacOS still has buttons. If these back buttons were labelled, it would make them better.

I return, however, to my view from two paragraphs ago. I see these back buttons as a sort of cop-out — an easy way of covering for a lack of deeper consideration. You can see this most clearly in iTunes running on Mojave, in which there are two very different implementations of every view: the Apple Music way, and the local library way. If you open an album from the Recently Added view, it expands to reveal the track list below. If you open an album from Apple Music, you get sent to a new page, presumably because it is not possible to implement the local library style in a way that is performative or works across different platforms. It reveals the web-based underpinnings of Apple Music, it is slow, and it necessitates a back button.

In Catalina’s Music app, the two different implementations of an album view were dropped in favour of the Apple Music style. Now, it always opens an album in a separate view. As in every one of the apps I listed above, this decision makes Music feel like a semi-native wrapper around a collection of webpages, even when many parts of the app are still entirely native.

I do not think it is always wrong for an app to have a back button; it is a mechanism that works just fine in a web browser and in file managers. But I think that this new breed of apps that try to bridge the gap between MacOS and iOS use this specific implementation of the back button as a crutch. It is an inelegant way of dealing with inelegant and unique design problems. Its pervasion is a big flashing CAUTION sign that Apple’s Mac apps are not being lavished with the design attention they once were and still deserve. What bothers me more than what the button is is what it represents: it is, uncharacteristically for Apple, lazy.


  1. By the way, another casualty of the mixed MacOS and iOS metaphors is how the sidebar does not reflect the user’s behaviour in the app. For example, you can choose an artist in your local library and show their page in Apple Music. You can drill deeper, click on related artists, and do all of the Apple Music-ey things you might expect — but the sidebar will still indicate that you are in your local music library. ↩︎

  2. The sole difference in the examples I referenced here is that the App Store in Big Sur no longer has a “Done” button for editorial materials. Its toolbar has unified around the back button. ↩︎

Wildfire Smoke Conditions in California Are Too Extreme for Automatic White Balance to Accurately Represent

Victoria Song, Gizmodo:

Normally, you wouldn’t want your phone to take pictures with an overly orange cast. But, there are times when you might. Like when massive wildfires are turning the West Coast’s normally clear blue skies a violently orange-reddish hue.

[…]

The above tweet is an extreme example. Jessica Christian, a staff photographer for the San Francisco Chronicle, tweeted a similar observation about her phone trying to color correct the abnormal skies. Bloomberg’s Sarah Frier encountered the same issue and took other with and without color correction photos as well. Based on Earther’s own investigation, not every phone may color correct to this extent. That said, there’s a chance your phone camera may not capture the true color of what you’re seeing.

The photos I saw today of wildfire smoke blanketing the Bay Area are haunting. I thought I had seen intensely smokey conditions in Calgary, but it’s nothing compared to this. Halide developer Ben Sandofsky took a light metre outside and it registered just 88 lux at midmorning.

I hope those of you who are dealing with this in addition to everything else happening right now are staying healthy and safe.

See Also: Coverage by Emily Atkin and a collection of links from Jason Kottke.

The Money Store

Allow me to try summarizing the last two weeks of tedious Apple, Epic Games, and antitrust stuff:

The legal aspects of everything here will play out in court and I have no interest in playing “backseat lawyer”. But I am sort of perplexed by each company’s strategy here — particularly Apple’s.

It seems like these two corporate giants — though “giant” at different scales — are very happy to test how much they can piss off users and regulatory bodies. Epic is being belligerent in its steadfast refusal to play by the iOS App Store rules. Apple is going all-in on whatever it can get away with. Both of these angles make a bunch of Fortnite players miserable pawns in a business fight which, I recently learned, will only be interesting in film if the screenplay is written in Sorkinese.

Since Apple, as a company, is valued at a staggering amount and views its platforms as vertically-integrated units of hardware, software, and services, it has unique leverage despite not having monopoly market share in any category. If people disliked these attributes, they could simply purchase different stuff, but Apple maintains a high degree of customer loyalty across its product categories. It is reasonable to assume that users are not bothered by these qualities or perhaps even prefer them. It is also possible that users have trouble switching away but I maintain that Apple’s ecosystem has less of a lock-in quality than other major tech companies; it’s just more obvious.

Even so, the mess of lawsuits and investigations into its behaviour means that there are questions about whether it is squeezing its platforms too tightly. None of these legal cases are directly about customer experience, which has no definition in law and cannot be quantified, but they have everything to do with whether Apple is breaching the trust of its users — whether it has overextended its interpretation of its corporate rights and minimized those of its users.

One of the things I keep wondering about everything here is what it would take for Apple to change course if the law were not involved. I wonder how much control it would be able to exert before users began to switch away in large enough numbers that it would cause consternation in Cupertino. But, then, I also wonder why it would even get to that level — no company should be pushing so hard as to test customer loyalty and trust. This Fortnite thing gets awful close for some players, I imagine. Some will simply stop playing; others will play on another console. But some might decide that they no longer want to be a part of Apple’s ecosystem. You can have all of the gaming consoles you want and switch between them, but most people only have one phone.

The investigations in Australia and Italy are a little different. Australia is looking into App Store policies from users’ and developers’ perspectives, similar to the U.S. antitrust investigation, while Italy’s regulators are asking whether cloud storage services have fair user agreements.

From a gambling perspective, the certainty of maintaining similar App Store rules for twelve years with the possibility that they might be changed is, I suppose, a more logical position than making alterations with a similar uncertainty of future investigations. But it has left Apple in the difficult position of maintaining that its business practices are not unlawfully anticompetitive — and risks having them altered, possibly in unique and conflicting ways, by different regulators around the world. That seems out of character for a company as controlling as Apple.

The short and decidedly non-legal take here is that Apple’s control has frayed its relations with third-party developers and it is pushing users’ trust. So far, everything is more-or-less holding: many developers need Apple’s platforms and I doubt they are shedding users in meaningful numbers. But it is bizarre and troubling that we are having this conversation. It suggests that Apple is increasingly finding ways to financially exploit its products for self-enrichment at the expense of users and developers. From a strategy perspective, as far as I am concerned, that is not as inspiring as make great products that practically sell themselves.

David Graeber Dies Aged 59

Sian Cain, the Guardian:

David Graeber, anthropologist and anarchist author of bestselling books on bureaucracy and economics including Bullshit Jobs: A Theory and Debt: The First 5,000 Years, has died aged 59.

On Thursday Graeber’s wife, the artist and writer Nika Dubrovsky, announced on Twitter that Graeber had died in hospital in Venice the previous day. The cause of death is not yet known.

Graeber’s writing has had a formative impact on my work and, more broadly speaking, my outlook. I will miss his unique and often brilliant perspective, and savour his final book to be released next year.

Tests Show 5G Networks in U.S. Are Rarely Fast and Wildly Overhyped

Sascha Segan, PC Magazine:

We admit it, we bought into the 5G hype. Carriers, phone makers, and chip makers alike have all been selling 5G as faster and more powerful than 4G, with lower latency. So I was shocked to see that our AT&T 5G results, especially, were slower than 4G results on the same network.

This is a crisis for marketing, not for performance. All three US carriers showed significantly higher download speeds and better broadband reliability than they did in our 2019 tests. It’s just that these gains, particularly on AT&T, are largely because of improvements in 4G, not 5G networks.

[…]

It’s worth mentioning that neither AT&T’s nor T-Mobile’s 5G networks are faster than the Bell and Telus 4G networks in Canada. Bell and Telus were able to outpace our 5G technologies without a lick of 5G.

Beaten by Canadians — ouch.

Geoffrey A. Fowler, Washington Post:

Apple is expected to unveil its first 5G-enabled iPhones at an event on Sept. 15. Samsung’s entire flagship lineup is now 5G-equipped. So these 2020 models are going to really fly, right?

Well, hold on just a minute. 5G may hold promise for the years ahead — but across most of America in 2020, a 5G phone does diddly squat. Testing 5G phones, I’ve been clocking download speeds that are roughly the same as on 4G LTE ones. And in some places, like inside my house and along the California highway, my 5G phones actually have been slower.

The on-page headline of Fowler’s article may be “The 5G lie: The network of the future is still slow”, but the title tag says that “Apple’s September event will bring a 5G iPhone”. However, Mark Gurman says that it will not, and Apple previously said that new iPhones would be available a “few weeks” later than in years past. For these and other reasons, I’m inclined to side against Fowler’s prediction despite its confidence.

At any rate, do not be surprised if only one iPhone model is 5G-capable. The usual suspects will say that this puts Apple at a severe competitive disadvantage despite 5G having zero measurable impact on the livelihood of Americans. It’s like LTE all over again.

With the Departure of the Williamses, There Are No More Family-Run Formula One Teams

Elizabeth Blackstock, Jalopnik:

There was a point in time when plenty of Formula One teams were owned by either families or single people. Brabham, Tyrrell, Hesketh, Hill, Jordan, Surtees—all were teams that were once owned or run by either one person or their family unit. Even McLaren has long since been owned by anyone with the eponymous last name. With Frank and Claire Williams stepping down from their team after being bought out by Dorilton Capital, the end of an era is upon us.

If you haven’t caught the news, Frank and Claire Williams will no longer be involved with its namesake team after the Italian Grand Prix now that it has been bought out by someone else. Dorilton reportedly wanted the family to remain involved, but Claire Williams “felt it was the right choice for me to step away.”

Formula One has long been a festival of sponsorship, but there was something delightful about family-run teams crossing the start line of every race alongside cars from corporate giants. I will miss the Williams family’s involvement.

Consumer Reports Reviews Tesla’s ‘Full Self-Driving Capability’

Mike Monticello, Consumer Reports:

We assessed the Full Self-Driving Capability features on Tesla vehicles we previously purchased for our regular testing program. The features, each designed to work only in certain situations, such as in a private parking lot or during highway driving, can be turned on and off by the driver. We put each feature in the suite to the test, and the results, detailed below, were mixed, to say the least.

[…]

Navigate on Autopilot, when activated, allows a Tesla traveling on the highway to autonomously take on- and off-ramps and make lane changes as long as a destination has been programmed into the navigation system. We found the performance to be inconsistent, with the system sometimes ignoring exit ramps on the set route, driving in the carpool lane, and staying in the passing lane for long periods of time. The feature also would completely disengage at times for no apparent reason.

Traffic Light and Stop Sign Control is designed to come to a complete stop at all stoplights, even when they are green, unless the driver overrides the system. We found several problems with this system, including the basic idea that it goes against normal driving practice for a car to start slowing to a stop for a green light. At times, it also drove through stop signs, slammed on the brakes for yield signs even when the merge was clear, and stopped at every exit while going around a traffic circle.

Given the unpredictable, unreliable, and distracting nature of these features, I think it is irresponsible for Tesla to be shipping them to drivers in their current guise. The general public, in the form of owners and everyone around them, should not be at risk because Tesla wants to run its beta testing program in the real world.

The Wildest Insurance Fraud Scheme Texas Has Ever Seen

It’s a Friday before a long weekend and I kind of unloaded in the two earlier posts today. Sorry about that. Here’s something a bit lighter, from Katy Vine in Texas Monthly:

Agent Reed didn’t know what to make of Fosdick and T. R.: First these two guys crash into the Gulf of Mexico together, then each flies into this tiny airport within days of each other, and two weeks later, T. R.’s jet bursts into flames. The more Reed dug, the more certain he became that the Citation fire was just one piece of a grand scheme.

The T.R. character in this article seemed to model his life on James Bond, but I think he comes across more like Sterling Archer. Just, you know, not nearly as funny. A remarkable story for your weekend read.

Apple Publishes Document Outlining Its ‘Commitment to Human Rights’ After Criticism of Actions in China

Patrick McGee, Financial Times:

Apple has for the first time published a human rights policy that commits to respecting “freedom of information and expression”, following years of criticism that it bows to demands from Beijing and carries out censorship in mainland China, Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

[…]

But it does not mention any particular country, nor does it refer to high-profile dilemmas like what to do when China, the world’s largest smartphone market, asks it to ban apps that help users evade censorship and surveillance.

The Apple policy merely states: “Where national law and international human rights standards differ, we follow the higher standard. Where they are in conflict, we respect national law while seeking to respect the principles of internationally recognised human rights.” 

Apple’s policy (PDF) is short — just four pages — and easily readable. Here’s the salient paragraph on handling conflicts between human rights and local laws that infringe upon them:

We work every day to make quality products, including content and services, available to our users in a way that respects their human rights. We’re required to comply with local laws, and at times there are complex issues about which we may disagree with governments and other stakeholders on the right path forward. With dialogue, and a belief in the power of engagement, we try to find the solution that best serves our users — their privacy, their ability to express themselves, and their access to reliable information and helpful technology.

A report last month by Wayne Ma for the Information explored a number of ways Apple has managed to work around the legal requirements imposed by, in particular, the Chinese government. The App Store has generally been allowed more leash and less scrutiny than other app marketplaces; iMessage and FaceTime are allowed to operate encrypted and without government interference; Apple has not made its source code available to authorities. Ma also noted a number of instances where Apple has responded to Chinese government enforcement by disabling a feature or shutting down a store rather than complying.

However, the best summary of that report is not so much that Apple is carefully negotiating its position in China as it is that these are exemptions that the government is eager to crack down on. That is certainly made much easier thanks to Apple’s centralized approach. At the same time, that approach potentially gives it increased leverage against measures with which it disagrees.

Twitter and Facebook Wrestle With Handling the U.S. President’s Encouragement of Voter Fraud

Molly Blackall, the Guardian:

Good morning. Donald Trump suggested on Wednesday that people in North Carolina should vote twice in the November election, casting ballots both in person and by mail, despite this being a crime. When asked about the security of mail-in votes in an interview with WECT-TV, Trump said: “Let them send it in and let them go vote. And if the system is as good as they say it is then obviously they won’t be able to vote” in person.

Taylor Hatmaker, TechCrunch:

President Trump’s recent suggestion that North Carolina voters should cast multiple ballots has run afoul of Twitter’s election integrity rules. In a series of tweets Thursday morning, the president elaborated on previous statements in which he encouraged Americans to vote twice to “check” vote-by-mail systems.

[…]

Twitter added a “public interest notice” to two tweets related to those comments Thursday, citing its rules around civic and election integrity. The tweets violated the rules “specifically for encouraging people to engage in a behavior that could undermine the integrity of their individual vote,” according to Twitter spokesperson Nick Pacilio. Twitter has limited the reach of those tweets and restricted its likes, replies and retweets without comment.

[…]

Facebook added its own fact-checking notice to the same statement that Twitter deemed in violation of that platform’s rules. Now, a label at the bottom of Trump’s Facebook post contradicts the president’s suggestion that Americans try to vote twice to make sure “the mail in system worked properly.”

Charlie Warzel, New York Times:

Reading Mr. Zuckerberg’s election security blog post reminded me of a line from a seminal 2017 article by the journalist Max Read. Three years ago, Mr. Read was struck by a similar pledge from Mr. Zuckerberg to “ensure the integrity” of the German elections. The commitment was admirable, he wrote, but also a tacit admission of Facebook’s immense power. “It’s a declaration that Facebook is assuming a level of power at once of the state and beyond it, as a sovereign, self-regulating, suprastate entity within which states themselves operate.”

[…]

But what does it say that one of those institutions charged with protecting democracy is, itself, structured more like a dictatorship?

One of the unique traits of this era of history that I am not entirely thrilled about is that the prospect of entrusting the electoral integrity of a superpower, in part, to the corporate guidance of a thirty-six-year-old guy keeping in check the deranged mouth farts of an ascended reality television host who is desperate to distract from the one thousand Americans dying daily from a pandemic that, while not by any means resolved anywhere, has at least been taken seriously by world leaders who value human life more than, say, their golf game.

No matter how much the leadership at Facebook and Twitter relishes their global influence, I am sure that there is a small part of the minds of Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey that wishes things were simpler — that they could rewind to ten years ago, when the biggest Facebook controversy was how much work time was being wasted playing Farmville. That sure would be easier than figuring out how to handle the conspiracy theories of the U.S. president. I sure hope that both companies have plans in place for various election day situations. It seems pretty likely that, regardless of the result, this president will not be clear, direct, or honest. Why would he start now?

For Sale: Millions of Back Doors

There is a remarkable series of stories that Joseph Cox of Motherboard has been reporting over the past couple of months, describing the ways location data, IP addresses, and other private information is being sold to vendors and, eventually, law enforcement. I think these articles are best presented together, for the fullest context.

Here’s the first — police are purchasing illegally-obtained website data through intermediaries:

Hackers break into websites, steal information, and then publish that data all the time, with other hackers or scammers then using it for their own ends. But breached data now has another customer: law enforcement.

Some companies are selling government agencies access to data stolen from websites in the hope that it can generate investigative leads, with the data including passwords, email addresses, IP addresses, and more.

Motherboard obtained webinar slides by a company called SpyCloud presented to prospective customers. In that webinar, the company claimed to “empower investigators from law enforcement agencies and enterprises around the world to more quickly and efficiently bring malicious actors to justice.” The slides were shared by a source who was concerned about law enforcement agencies buying access to hacked data. SpyCloud confirmed the slides were authentic to Motherboard.

Here’s another — the United States Secret Service purchased a license to Babel Street’s Locate X. You may remember that name from a story that appeared in the Wall Street Journal last month, which I covered, that showed multiple U.S. government agencies had contracts with private location tracking companies. Cox:

The Secret Service paid for a product that gives the agency access to location data generated by ordinary apps installed on peoples’ smartphones, an internal Secret Service document confirms.

The sale highlights the issue of law enforcement agencies buying information, and in particular location data, that they would ordinarily need a warrant or court order to obtain. This contract relates to the sale of Locate X, a product from a company called Babel Street.

Finally, published yesterday, a story about a private spy company that buys location data:

A threat intelligence firm called HYAS, a private company that tries to prevent or investigates hacks against its clients, is buying location data harvested from ordinary apps installed on peoples’ phones around the world, and using it to unmask hackers. The company is a business, not a law enforcement agency, and claims to be able to track people to their “doorstep.”

[…]

Motherboard found several location data companies that list HYAS in their privacy policies. One of those is X-Mode, a company that plants its own code into ordinary smartphone apps to then harvest location information. An X-Mode spokesperson told Motherboard in an email that the company’s data collecting code, or software development kit (SDK), is in over 400 apps and gathers information on 60 million global monthly users on average. X-Mode also develops some of its own apps which use location data, including parental monitoring app PlanC and fitness tracker Burn App.

Many of these apps are distributed by a developer called Launch LLC. So you think you’re downloading a simple app from some no-name developer, and it’s actually from this X-Mode data brokerage company that sells your data to HYAS which, in turn, distributes it to law enforcement and intelligence agencies to mine without a warrant.

The fact that these marketplaces are even possible is absurd and outrageous. A lack of strict regulations for the collection and use of personal data — particularly in the United States, given the number of tech companies based there — puts everyone at risk.

Just a couple of months ago, a massive Oracle BlueKai database was found to be leaking data from an estimated 1% of all traffic on the web. A report released last week indicated that just a handful of often-visited websites are needed to reliably “fingerprint” someone, and dozens of companies have the potential to do so.

We constantly generate so much private data on the smartphones we carry everywhere. Yet the collection, use, and resale of that data is basically unregulated. The scale of it is unknown, since many of the organizations responsible go out of their way to hide their activities. I am sure that all of this has the potential to catch criminals, but at what cost?

Yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unanimously confirmed that the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records was illegal, and found no evidence that it ever found or convicted a single terrorist. But, even if it had helped, the program would still have been illegal because bulk surveillance is antithetical to a healthy democracy. If anything, this decision demonstrated that federal agencies are more constrained than private companies in their ability to collect information like this. That makes sense — the state should not be spying on citizens — but Cox’s reporting shows that the private sector has provided a convenient workaround.

Perhaps it is possible to update the law to require a warrant for surveillance by proxy, and for it to be more targeted, but it is highly unethical to be collecting this much information in the first place for the purposes of stockpiling and bulk sales. This circumstance should not be possible — even in theory. That is not for the purposes of making legitimate investigations harder, but to ensure privacy and security for everyone. The software we use should not be snitching our location to some two-bit private intelligence firm for resale to whomever they determine to be an agreeable customer. You might be comfortable with the U.S. Secret Service buying access to your location; maybe you’re fine with other law enforcement agencies and private companies that may have similar contracts. But, sooner or later, I am certain we will find out that some disagreeable entity — maybe a company that behaves unethically, or maybe some authoritarian state — also tracks people around the world. Then what? Stopping this data brokerage industry is not paranoia, it is pragmatic.

On Twitter Usernames and ‘Bots’

Darius Kazemi (via Andy Baio):

There’s a common belief that Twitter accounts with usernames like @jsmith12345678 must be bots, or trolls, or otherwise nefarious actors.

The thing is, since at least as far back as December 2017, the Twitter signup process has not allowed you to choose your own username! It instead gives you a name based on your first and last name, plus eight numbers on the end. You aren’t prompted to pick a more distinctive username after that, and you can change it but you need to figure out how to do it yourself.

One of the great mysteries of the last four years is how eager Twitter users are to call each other a “bot”. Another mystery is how robot-like many of the accounts on Twitter appear to be. There are common traits: they react almost impossibly quickly to tweets from politicians and journalists alike, they use loads of emoji in their screen name, and stuff their bios full of hashtags and the phrase “no DMs”. They often ride dangerously close to a parody of whatever party line they toe and, consequently, post nothing of substance. They also tend to swarm hashtags and specific phrases in order to get topics to trend.

So, I have to wonder: are these accounts truly some form of scripted entity, or are they just morons with fast fingers? It sure is hard to tell.

Update: Kylie Brakeman’s take is far better than mine.

Sandboxing and Default URL Handlers

Brent Simmons:

NetNewsWire lets you set the default RSS reader to itself or any other RSS reader. It’s an important feature.

Now that we’re sandboxing the app, we’re losing that feature, as LSSetDefaultHandlerForURLScheme is apparently disallowed for sandboxed apps.

Michael Tsai:

This is a good example of how the sandbox still feels half-baked. 9 years later, it’s not documented that this function doesn’t work in sandboxed apps. There’s no replacement API, e.g. that asks the user whether it’s OK to change the URL handler. The system UI for setting the preferred RSS app has been removed, so the user can’t do it manually.

This limitation kind of makes sense if you squint a bit: sandboxing puts a wall around what an app knows about its external environment, and an app ignorant of everything else it shares a processor with cannot possibly configure defaults for the rest of the machine. Some of the people replying to Simmons suggest creating a utility “helper” app, distributed separately, to set a default URL handler for feed URL schemes — an almost comically inefficient workaround. I like sandboxing in principle, but stuff like this makes its MacOS implementation feel thoughtless and shallow.

Ad Platforms, Like Those From Facebook and Twitter, Avoid Apple’s Thirty Percent Commission

Oliver Reichenstein, writing on the iA blog:

Ads are digital goods. What else are ads? Spiritual goods? They are the digital good. They are what is driving the digital economy in the first place! And, yes, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and so on do have direct transactions built into the apps. And, no, they do not pay any fees to Apple for these in-app transactions.

Apple keeps repeating that the rules are the same for all, but they are not. The top ten apps do sell digital goods and only two of the top ten apps pay Apple. Netflix and Amazon. Netflix and Amazon have found a backdoor to avoid the 30% tax. One difference between the big apps and those who pay Apple is that they charge consumers. The top 5 apps are ad-based, feed on our privacy, and charge companies for it. You may have noticed that the big ones who are charged, companies like Netflix, Amazon, and Spotify also happen to be direct competitors of Apple.

Apple also has a small ads business with the App Store, thereby kind-of-sort-of competing with Google — but point taken.

This is not in strict opposition to the App Store guidelines. Buying ads does not “unlock features or functionality within [an] app” any more than, say, using a banking app to send or receive money. Neither uses in-app purchases because it would not make sense. But that is an awful thin line that, as Reichenstein writes, benefits ad-supported anti-privacy apps over those that have a one-time or monthly cost.

Facebook Here — May We Interest You in Some Transparency?

Whitney Kimball, Gizmodo:

If you haven’t been on the receiving end of updates from Facebook comms, then you’re lucky to have avoided the equivalent of a weekly robocall pitching you new and exciting offerings. We got another one today, this time on the subject of “Recommendation Guidelines.”

These crumbs always seem to appear around when Facebook is implicated in something awful. In this case, it was leaving up the “Kenosha Guard” vigilante page which 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse was part of, despite over 450 user reports. Rittenhouse is charged with two counts of homicide and one of attempted homicide after opening fire with an illegally-owned gun into a crowd of protesters. Leaving the page up was an “operational mistake” according to Mark Zuckerberg.

Anyway, here’s some transparency!

Kimball explains that these guidelines are not new. Facebook is merely making them public and spinning that for some positive coverage since, day after month after year, reporting has revealed how shitty Facebook seems to be at, well, everything.

Can Duruk:

With all the negative press around, you might think they are not doing a good job at avoiding criticism, but consider the alternative that they’ve been able to weather all this because they’ve been able to deflect the criticism and avoid scrutiny and accountability. I know this all sounds pretty unhinged right now, but, stay with me. This is a company who hires conservative politicians to its highest ranks in multiple countries, while maintaining a veneer of political neutrality. The same company pretends its not the arbiter of truth while employing tens of thousands of people to do exactly that. Ask yourselves: What has changed at Facebook?

[…]

At some point, the multi-dimensional reality will clash with the supposed two-dimensional narrative. The cute catchphrases and the sober speeches will no longer be able to act as the glue between what the company thinks it is, and what it really is. You can also wrap together so much PR ganache over what is a pile of turd. And who knows, maybe they are not even that good at that either. This, after all, is a company that once thought comparing itself to a chair was a good idea.

Facebook controls the news that billions of people around the world see every day but, along the lines of Duruk’s piece, it still seems to be responding to moderation failures by smoothing over public relations instead of, like, changing. Sure is easy to move fast and break things when you can claim that you know nothing about the mess and it is, in fact, not a mess but an opportunity — or whatever.

Apple Notarized Commonly-Used MacOS Malware

Lily Hay Newman, Wired:

College student Peter Dantini discovered the notarized version of Shlayer while navigating to the homepage of the popular open source Mac development tool Homebrew. Dantini accidentally typed something slightly different than brew.sh, the correct URL. The page he landed on redirected a number of times to a fake Adobe Flash update page. Curious about what malware he might find, Dantini downloaded it on purpose. To his surprise, macOS popped up its standard warning about programs downloaded from the internet, but didn’t block him from running the program. When Dantini confirmed that it was notarized, he sent the information on to longtime macOS security researcher Patrick Wardle.

“I had been expecting that if someone were to abuse the notarization system it would be something more sophisticated or complex,” says Wardle, principal security researcher at the Mac management firm Jamf. “But in a way I’m not surprised that it was adware that did it first. Adware developers are very innovative and constantly evolving, because they stand to lose a ton of money if they can’t get around new defenses. And notarization is a death knell for a lot of these standard ad campaigns, because even if the users are tricked into clicking and trying to run the software, macOS will block it now.”

The good news is that Apple was able to revoke the app’s notarization the same day this was reported, so any copies in the wild have now been rendered inoperable.

The bad news is that this is evidence that notarization is not as sufficient a prophylactic as I had hoped. It is unclear that notarization offers improvements for disabling malicious software over Apple’s existing mechanisms.

Perhaps it is the case that the notarization process really is restricting the spread of malware and helping ensure the safety of Mac users. But, as this process is entirely opaque and it failed to recognize a common type of malicious software, it seems like an extraneous step.

‘A Travelogue of Monopoly’

Asher Schechter, of ProMarket, interviewed David Dayen about monopoly power and antitrust regulation:

Q: The contrast between ordinary people and the experts is at the heart of your book. The people you interview (and polls show that most Americans as well) seem to have at least an intuitive understanding that competition is waning, yet at least until very recently, most antitrust experts were very opposed to this notion. How do you explain this disconnect?

You have to give the American people a little bit of credit here. They don’t sit there and study the changes in antitrust doctrine and how it has moved from a story of anticompetitive harms to a story about consumer welfare. That’s not how they live their lives.

They don’t just see themselves as consumers. They are workers. They are members of the community. They are, in some cases, small businesses and entrepreneurs. They are all citizens.

They see the infringement on their liberty as such, in all of those different contexts. They see themselves that we are more than our Amazon Prime accounts. We’re more well-rounded than that. The antitrust doctrine that we’ve seen over the last 40 years simply does not match the lived experience of people.

One of the unique characteristics of this laissez-faire approach to antitrust regulation in the United States is how it affects global trade. It’s sort of the opposite of Boeing and Airbus each accuse the other of improper government subsidization; the effect of lax regulation is like having a thumb unfairly lifted off the scale.

The Room

Paul Ford, in an essay for the Message in 2014:

The curtains are drawn. Some light comes through, casting a small glow on the top left of the air conditioner. It’s daytime. The wall is an undecorated slab of beige. That is the American room.

[…]

It’s a standardized room. Like Diet Coke or iPhones, American rooms are a kind of product, built as quickly and cheaply as possible to a standardized specification. Here are Benjamin Moore’s best-selling shades of white. Look familiar?

I live in a 1970s apartment building; my walls are a predictable off-white with eight foot ceilings. It is not ideal. Working from home has required me to make the most of this limited canvas. I have framed and hung many pictures, including stored artworks and some photos I have taken.

Amanda Hess, writing earlier this year in the New York Times:

Imagine that you are a member of the expert class — the kind of person invited to pontificate on television news programs. Under normal circumstances, your expertise might be signaled to the public by a gaudy photograph of skyscrapers superimposed behind your head. But now the formalities of the broadcast studio are a distant memory, and the only tools to convey that you truly belong on television are the objects within your own home. There’s only one move: You talk in front of a bookcase.

The Times separately reported on the conspicuous placement of Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker” on bookshelves of what it calls the “political class”.

I also recommend Andrew Ishak’s tutorial on making a room look more “professorial” for remote instruction.

Apple Once Again Rumoured to Be Working on a Web Search Engine

Jon Henshaw (via MacRumors):

Regulatory pressure, a contentious relationship with Google, and the maturation of Apple’s Siri and iCloud are presenting an opportunity for Apple to create and launch a search engine. There are several signs right now that indicate Apple may be doing just that.

[…]

Based on Apple’s numerous search engineer job descriptions, and the continued consolidation of web and app results in Spotlight Search, an Apple search engine will likely function as a highly personalized data hub. It will be similar to Google Assistant on Android, but different since it (initially) won’t have ads, will be completely private, and have significantly deeper integrations with the OS.

An Apple web search engine to rival Google has been rumoured for years: I found stories from 2018, 2015, 2010, and 2008. My instincts — and the multibillion-dollar contract it has with Google — tell me that I should add this to the trash heap of forgotten Apple rumours and call it a day.

After all, it isn’t like Apple doesn’t have a search engine — it does, but it is only accessible from its own products. Does it make sense for it to be more widely available on the web? Apple has been offering more web apps and services recently, so it feels more plausible. Add regulatory pressure on default search engines and it transforms this story, in my head, from unlikely to strong maybe.

Also — and this is a complete guess — it feels like a good opportunity for Apple to repurpose its siri.com domain, doesn’t it?

Uber and Lyft Are Counting on Automation

Aaron Benanav, the Guardian:

One might assume that misclassifying drivers as independent contractors enables rideshare companies such as Uber to make exorbitant profits. The reality is far weirder. In fact, Uber and Lyft are not making any profits at all. On the contrary, the companies have been haemorrhaging cash for years, undercharging users for rides in a bid to aggressively expand their market shares worldwide. Squeezing drivers’ salaries is not their main strategy for becoming profitable. Doing so merely slows the speed at which they burn through money.

The truth is that Uber and Lyft exist largely as the embodiments of Wall Street-funded bets on automation, which have failed to come to fruition. These companies are trying to survive legal challenges to their illegal hiring practices, while waiting for driverless-car technologies to improve. The advent of the autonomous car would allow Uber and Lyft to fire their drivers. Having already acquired a position of dominance with the rideshare market, these companies would then reap major monopoly profits. There is simply no world in which paying drivers a living wage would become part of Uber and Lyft’s long-term business plans.

I’m not sure about you, but I find it pretty revolting that a bunch of venture capital dorks gave bottomless funding refills to these companies as they illegally expanded operations and blew up the livelihoods of drivers around the world on the off chance they can build cars that drive themselves and, until they can figure out how to do that, exploit drivers — some of whom used to be taxi drivers that they put out of work — by often paying less than minimum wage.

First Impressions of the Microsoft Surface Duo Hardware

After being announced last year, U.S. preorders for Microsoft’s Surface Duo began earlier this month, with devices shipping to users in just a couple of weeks. Right on cue, Microsoft has begun seeding members of the press with review units — though, so far, the software remains embargoed. That means they are only allowed to show hardware, and that means quality videos like those created by Marques Brownlee and Justine Ezarik are the best demonstration vehicles.

So, what did we learn? Well, it appears to be very thin and very well constructed — particularly the hinge, which appears to be smooth and sounds sturdy. I have no idea when I might be able to try one of these things in person, but it appears to be impressive from a hardware engineering perspective.

Both videos also give us an idea of the retail packaging. There’s a giant box in both that seems to be only for reviewers, but it contains boxes for a Surface Duo and a set of earbuds. I know it’s a cliché to point out stuff like this, but it’s kind of funny how similar the Surface Duo — along with many other Android phones — is to the iPhone’s packaging.

Brownlee compares the Surface Duo to Samsung’s Galaxy Fold in his video. The Galaxy has always looked like a janky prototype and, in comparison to the Surface, it looks even worse. There’s still no chance that I would drop nearly $2,000 Canadian on any folding phone right now, but at least Microsoft’s attempt looks like a real product.

Unredacted Suit Shows Google’s Own Engineers Were Confused by Privacy Settings

In 2018, Ryan Nakashima of the Associated Press reported that some Google apps and services recorded locations over time even when users had the “Location History” option switched off. This wasn’t a bug; it was a product of Google’s confusing privacy options.

Kate Cox, Ars Technica:

Newly unsealed and partially unredacted documents from a consumer fraud suit the state of Arizona filed against Google show that company employees knew and discussed among themselves that the company’s location privacy settings were confusing and potentially misleading.

[…]

“Speaking as a user, WTF?” another employee said, in additional documentation obtained by the Arizona Mirror. “More specifically I **thought** I had location tracking turned off on my phone. So our messaging around this is enough to confuse a privacy focused (Google software engineer). That’s not good.”

I don’t think comments like these are worrying. It is good that Google’s own staff is self-critical and effectively treated Nakashima’s reporting as a bug report. Nor do I believe that the cynical view that Google deliberately made these preferences hard to figure out for its advantage. The correct take is far more mundane: contrary to popular belief, Google just isn’t very good at design.

Uber and Lyft’s AB-5 Fight Reveals Their Reliance on Full-Time Drivers

Tyler Sonnemaker, Business Insider:

“As these companies went to IPO, they used drivers as the bank account … so that they could look better for investors,” Nicole Moore, a part-time Lyft driver (pre-pandemic) and volunteer organizer for Rideshare Drivers United. “We lost 25% to 40% of our income last year, and we’re way below minimum wage.”

There have been clear beneficiaries of that approach: Uber and Lyft founders, early investors, executives, riders, and to a certain extent, part-time drivers who have made some side-income through the apps.

However, by building a business model around skirting labor costs for a significant number of drivers who are effectively working full-time, the companies have passed those costs to taxpayers, pensioners (whose investments in Uber and Lyft stock made private investors enormously wealthy), and other companies who do pay into social safety net programs like unemployment insurance.

Ride sharing companies created two primary innovations: they made getting a taxicab seamless for users, and they offloaded costs to a staggering degree to create the illusion of lower prices. We should encourage the first, but it does not require the second. Ride sharing companies shouldn’t get to lose billions of dollars of venture capital funds in predatory pricing schemes while under-compensating drivers and having the rest of society pick up the tab. That isn’t innovation; it’s exploitation.

App Store Desire Paths

A few years ago, the construction of a particular office tower in Calgary closed a sidewalk for several months. I promise this will be relevant. Signage directed pedestrians to use the sidewalk on the other side of the street. However, this construction site happened to be adjacent to a train platform in the downtown business district, and many people needed to get to offices that would be easier to access if the sidewalk were open. So, they walked in the road — a sort of desire path that has already been paved.

At some point, the police got involved. They hid behind the barricade of the construction site and ticketed passing pedestrians walking in the street. There was legal justification for this: the foot traffic often held up a lane of vehicles in a way that jeopardized the pedestrian’s safety, and caused increased risk of accidents due to cars, buses, and cyclists dodging them. But the number of people who risked their safety — and a ticket — indicated that there were fundamental problems with the way the construction site was built. The sidewalk should not have been entirely closed due to the heavy foot traffic, and pedestrians should have been accommodated in a way that would require minimal detouring.

I thought of this incident in light of recent App Store matters: first it was Hey, and then WordPress, Charlie Monroe’s mistaken account suspension, and — of course — Epic Games’ lawsuit joined the mix of confusing App Store policing. In the cases of WordPress and Monroe, Apple said that it had made mistakes in communication and that Monroe’s account should not have been suspended. Both Hey and WordPress had to make modifications to conform to unclear rules. Epic, meanwhile, is singlehandedly attempting to change the App Store business model.

It would be unwise to speak to the legal aspects of these cases, so let’s think about this more conceptually. Apple undoubtably has what it believes are many great reasons for cracking down on apps like Hey and WordPress, which it sees as attempting to work around its in-app purchase model by only allowing registrations outside of each app. Many other apps offer similar behaviour — Netflix, Bloomberg’s mobile terminal, and Amazon Drive, to name just a few, are useless without signing in, offer no way to create an account from within the app, and have no in-app purchases to subscribe or change tiers. I understand why developers dislike the in-app purchase requirement: a thirty percent haircut off every purchase adds up to a lot of money, and some developers have legitimate reasons for wanting to more directly manage customer relations.

As a privacy-conscious user, I am less enthused about these tradeoffs. I prefer using the in-app purchase sheet as I know that an app has no access to my credit card details. I also don’t know anything about the developers in the store, so I would rather they did not have my contact details. I agreed to Apple’s terms of use, not those of third party developers.

A reasonable counterargument to what I see as benefits of the current model is that Apple should be more selective of the developers it allows into the store in the first place instead of their apps. But this potentially creates a system where it is difficult for new developers to become successful — even more so than it is today.

Then there’s the case of Epic, which wants iPhones and iPads to be smaller Macs with similar capabilities. According to the email its CEO sent to several members of Apple’s executive team, it feels as though it should have native access to app installation and management, and it should be able to run basically whatever code the user agrees to. Unsurprisingly, Apple’s legal team sent a six-page letter that can be summarized as uh, no. As a result, Epic is suing to permit its vision of the iPhone as a developer platform.

Alas, I am getting lost in the marsh and bogs of App Store policy. These individual cases are not as important as the overall picture they paint: Apple’s vision for the App Store is unclear, and developers often find themselves at odds with inconsistently-enforced policy.

I think the latter conundrum often and rightfully gets all of the attention, so I’d like to focus on the former: how do these policies create the ideal App Store as Apple sees it? Its talking points of quality, security, and privacy are pretty consistent, but its enforcement of these policies is unequal and clumsy, with account creation and in-app purchase requirements often becoming specific points of contention.

I do not think it would be helpful for me — some guy in Canada — to propose ideas for what Apple ought to do. That is a waste of everyone’s time. Purely as an observer and user, it seems that Apple’s current enforcement of App Store policies has made them the police officers hiding behind the construction site barricade ticketing pedestrians instead of trying to figure out why so many tickets are being written in the first place. Surely it more desirable to think less about what is legally possible and more about what is best.

This is not an argument for Apple to abandon all control over iOS and bend to the demands of every developer. It is only an observation that the attempts at policy circumvention and aggressive enforcement actions are not sustainable for a healthy developer ecosystem. It has been a long time since Apple was a company that prioritized developer needs, but there is a big difference between being standoffish and hostile — and the latter is increasingly an apt way to describe building apps for the iPhone and iPad.

One final thought: imagine for a second that iOS is a platform with a Mac-like policy of allowing apps to be downloaded and run from anywhere. Apps may use any in-app payment mechanism, too. What if the App Store and native in-app purchase API were actually preferred by most developers? That is, what if developers could use anything, but they usually chose Apple’s because it was the best option? The way these things are set up today seems to rely on developers having little other choice if they wish to have a native iOS app. What if they were, instead, a truly great choice — even if Apple still doesn’t allow any other choices?

Trade Organization Representing American Press Pushes for Same App Store Rate as Amazon

Benjamin Mullin, Wall Street Journal:

In a letter to Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook on Thursday, a trade body representing the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and other publishers said the outlets want to know what it would take for them to get better deal terms—which would allow them to keep more money from digital subscriptions sold through Apple’s app store.

App developers, including news publishers, pay Apple 30% of the revenue from first-time subscriptions made through iOS apps; that commission is reduced to 15% after the subscriber’s first year. Apple says the revenue split is similar to other app marketplaces and allows the company to cover the app store’s operating expenses.

Apple has repeatedly claimed that all developers are treated the same under its App Store rules. For example, Tim Cook testified (PDF) that “[the] App Store guidelines […] are transparent and applied equally to developers of all sizes and in all categories”. But the Congressional investigation into antitrust matters uncovered an email (PDF) from Eddy Cue to Jeff Bezos, in which Cue confirms the details of an earlier private discussion:

  • Amazon Prime Video app in iOS and Apple TV

  • 15% rev share for customers that signup using the app (uses our payment); no rev share for customers that already subscribe

  • content meta-data is provided for Siri and Spotlight search

  • support “Watch [showname]” in Siri which will launch your app to the show page

  • support new TV app so that shows/episodes being watched are shown and link directly to your app

  • upsell streaming services (e.g. Showtime) in your app – pay 15% only when its a subscriber that originally signed up through us

  • understanding any tax issue is an open question – ready to have our tax team engage in discussions

In its letter to Apple (PDF), Digital Content Next, the media trade organization, cites this email and asks that Apple “clearly define the conditions that Amazon satisfied” to be given this favourable treatment.

Apple set this trap for itself. It could have been honest and admitted that bigger companies are treated differently, or its payment mechanism could have been an equalizer. Instead, it made a deal with Amazon — or deals, plural, as we learned of a similar arrangement earlier this year for its Apple TV app — that it would comprehensively support system features in exchange for paying half the commission rate.

Apple’s credibility on the fairness of its application of App Store policies is increasingly tattered by cutting special deals like these. It is widely rumoured that a similar agreement existed for Netflix as well. If Apple is going to open the door to half-rate commission for some, I say kudos to any developer demanding similar treatment.

Apple Disabled a Long-Time Developer’s Account and Remotely Nuked His Apps

Charlie Monroe:

On Aug 4, 2020 I woke up to a slightly different world – I had lost my business as it seemed. Full inbox of reports about my apps not launching (crashing on launch) and after not too long I found out that when I sign into my Apple developer account I can no longer see that I would be enrolled into Apple’s developer program – au contraire – it shows a button for me to enroll, which I tried clicking, but only got a message that I can’t do that.

After more investigation, I found out that the distribution certificates were revoked. Each macOS app these days needs to be codesigned using an Apple-issued certificate so that the app will flawlessly work on all computers. When Apple revokes the certificate, it’s generally a remote kill-switch for the apps.

[…]

Fortunately, possibly thanks to the traction the story got and all the support I received from everyone (for which I am infinitely grateful), after almost 24 hours after 10PM, I got my account re-instated. Apple has called and apologized for the complications. The issue was caused by my account being erroneously flagged by automated processes as malicious and the account was put on hold.

It is shocking that a developer’s livelihood and reputation can be put on the line by automatic means. How was any of this possible? Sure, Monroe’s account could have been flagged for some reason, but many human beings should have had to look at it before taking any action. The responsibility of holding this power cannot be automated.

Apple said in an apology email to Monroe that it is “taking action to make sure this doesn’t happen in the future”, but what does that mean? Why isn’t this being communicated more broadly to developers who might reasonably be spooked by this incident?

See also Michael Tsai’s roundup of commentary.

Instagram Rolls Out Suggested Posts to Create an Infinite Feed

Ashley Carman, the Verge:

Instagram is expanding its feed today with the launch of “suggested posts.” These posts, from accounts you don’t follow, will show up after you’ve reached the end of your feed and give you the option to keep scrolling with Instagram’s suggestions. Up until now, the feed has been entirely determined by users’ preferences and the people they follow.

Instagram has been testing this for a while; suggested posts began showing up in my feed earlier this year. It tried something similar about two years ago, but stopped after some time.

This time, the change seems permanent, and irritates me so much that it singularly caused me to abandon Instagram. I signed up days after it launched, and posted often. I love the creativity that it encouraged. But I do not want to see photos in my feed from accounts I do not follow, and there is no way to turn this off. This is a purely business decision — a way for Facebook to juice the amount of time people spend using Instagram, and a way to keep serving advertising — that comes at the expense of the product’s integrity. The Facebook-ification of Instagram has taken some time, but it has fully arrived now.

Longplay, a Music App for Complete Albums

Adrian Schönig:

Longplay is a music player for anyone who enjoy listening to entire albums start-to-finish. It digs through your Apple Music or iTunes library – that might have grown over the years or decades and is full of a mix of individual songs, partial albums, complete albums and playlists – to identify just those complete albums and gives you quick access to play them.

It provides a beautiful view of all your album artwork, and lets you explore your albums (or playlists) by various sort options. A unique one is Negligence which combines how highly you’ve ranked an album and when you last listened it, to let you rediscover forgotten favourites. Brightness sorts the albums by their primary colour for an interesting visual take on your albums collection.

This is one of those charming little utility apps that I am going to use all the time. The “Negligence” option is something I didn’t know I needed until I tried it. Just a few bucks in the App Store, too. If you like spending your time with the full albums in your library, I think you will like this app a lot. (Via Marco Arment.)

Uber and Lyft Consider Becoming Transportation Businesses for Real

Kate Conger, New York Times:1

Uber and Lyft, which are facing mounting pressure to classify their freelance drivers as employees in California, are looking for another way.

One option that both companies are seriously discussing is licensing their brands to operators of vehicle fleets in California, according to three people with knowledge of the plans. The change would resemble an independently operated franchise, allowing Uber and Lyft to keep an arms-length association with drivers so that the companies would not need to employ them and pay their benefits.

The idea would effectively be a return to the days of how groups of black cars were run. Lyft has presented the plan to its board of directors, one person said. Uber, which already works with fleet operators in Germany and Spain, is also familiar with the business model.

I know it’s a bummer that the cost of taking an Uber or a Lyft will likely increase as a result of this legislation, but the deal users get on those platforms is an illusion. It is the result of grotesque labour exploitation by companies that somehow still manage to lose billions of dollars every year.

It may also become harder to be an occasional driver — but perhaps rules around transportation companies were in place for a reason. The medallion system is awful, but replacing it with a free-for-all model doesn’t make sense either if it means that gig economy drivers and taxi drivers alike can no longer earn a living.


  1. A local news aside: there is a photograph in this article that includes a billboard for a company called “Brex”. In Calgary, those four letters will forever be tied to the Bre-X scandal, which brought down a huge mining company that grossly exaggerated the amount of gold it found in Indonesia. ↩︎

Apple Says Epic Games’ Developer Account Will Be Terminated in Two Weeks, Threatening the Viability of Games Built on Unreal Engine

Do I have to write about gigantic companies battling in a way that is shitty for everyone? I suppose I don’t — I am my own editor, for better and for worse, and it bums me out. Forgive me for not being invested in the plight of companies that make more money every day than I will see in my lifetime. But I am interested in its effects, and it is capital-i Important so here, begrudgingly, is the latest development.

Kate Cox, Ars Technica:

The new legal battle between game developer Epic and iPhone-maker Apple continues to heat up, as Epic says Apple will be cutting it off from the developer platform for Mac and iOS before the end of this month.

Epic wrote in a court filing (PDF) that Apple said its membership in the Developer Program will be terminated as of August 28. According to Epic, Apple’s move threatens not only Fortnite but also every game that uses Unreal Engine: “By August 28, Apple will cut off Epic’s access to all development tools necessary to create software for Apple’s platforms — including for the Unreal Engine Epic offers to third-party developers, which Apple has never claimed violated any Apple policy,” Epic said.

This sounds extraordinary — the Verge highlighted the word “catastrophic” in its headline — but, so far, it seems by the book:

  • Given that Apple is having a dispute with the way payments are implemented in Fortnite and has no problem with Unreal Engine, there seems to be some confusion about why the latter would be affected by this dispute. It seems likely that both are managed under the same developer account, so if that account is terminated, it would lose the ability to sign anything.

  • The letter Apple sent Epic Games, which begins on page number 51 of the copy of the filing Cox posted, is not exactly a form letter, but similar wording can be found in other cases across the web. A fourteen-day timeframe to comply or appeal is typical for flagrant and repeated disregard of App Store policies. Apple has said that it treats all developers the same, though we know that is not strictly true. But, in this case, Apple’s ultimatum is in line with precedent.

  • Apple lays out explicitly prohibited behaviours for its App Store. Epic Games knowingly violated those terms. Apple responded as it would if any developer submitted an app that, after approval, enabled a workaround for Apple’s in-app payment mechanism. Now we’re all supposed to be upset?

If anything, this teaches us that those who run platforms ought to behave responsibly. That goes for Apple; it is also true for Epic Games, as it decided to embark on this public relations battle and lawsuit with little regard for all of the developers that rely on Unreal Engine.

So, is all of this to say that Apple is the hero in this situation? Oh hell no; on a PR basis alone this is a terrible move. Epic Games is portraying it as the nuclear option in the filing, though it should be noted that it carefully avoids saying that it could simply resubmit its app in a way that follows the rules.

Those rules are what is at stake here. So far, my argument that Apple was playing by the book is based on the notion that the book is accurate and can be trusted. Epic is arguing that these rules are deeply flawed and, to prove it, it is possible that it was forced to break the rules. That doesn’t absolve the company of rule-breaking; it’s just that none of the effects of the last several days should be a surprise. Epic is probably right that Apple should have changed the App Store rules. What surprises me is that a company as notoriously controlling as Apple might be required to let lawyers and judges make those changes instead of doing so of its own volition.

The Truth Is Paywalled but the Lies Are Free

One more to make a hat trick of commentary about media income strategies and related topics. Nathan J. Robinson, Current Affairs:

Paywalls are justified, even though they are annoying. It costs money to produce good writing, to run a website, to license photographs. A lot of money, if you want quality. Asking people for a fee to access content is therefore very reasonable. You don’t expect to get a print subscription to the newspaper gratis, why would a website be different? I try not to grumble about having to pay for online content, because I run a magazine and I know how difficult it is to pay writers what they deserve.

But let us also notice something: the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the New Republic, New York, Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, the Financial Times, and the London Times all have paywalls. Breitbart, Fox News, the Daily Wire, the Federalist, the Washington Examiner, InfoWars: free!

Robinson points to academic journals and the U.S. Courts system as more examples of places where getting accurate information costs money. But I will note that you can go to YouTube and watch a conspiracy-minded grifter explain these documents badly for free. It is true that there are also people and organizations out there that offer honest work for free. But the stratification of access to knowledge makes it far less likely that anyone will read source materials that cost money when they are able to get a diluted version that rewards their biases for free.

The Cult of the Free

Speaking of free, here’s Peter-Paul Koch writing about the knock-on effect of layoffs at Mozilla:

This brings us to the core point I’d like to make: the culture of volunteering in web development, and especially within the Mozilla segments of our community. To my mind it’s not only outdated and should be replaced, it should never have been allowed to take root in the first place.

I see the cult of the free as the web’s original sin. To my mind it’s an essentially random historical development that could have gone quite differently, but, once the idea of everything on the web being free took root, became a cultural touch point that is almost impossible to dislodge.

Granted, the cult of the free also has its positive points. But today I’m focusing on the negative ones that, to my mind, outweigh the positivity by a rather large margin. If we continue to give everything away for free, the big companies will win.

Koch argues that Mozilla ought to add the option to donate from within Firefox — he argues the same for those who provide their writing for free on the web — but that seems like a mediocre solution for ongoing support. From Armin Vit’s post introducing the paywall at Brand New:

We considered this and there is the potential of that we would be amazed by your generosity but, at best, donations solve our problem this year and we are left wondering what happens the year after that and the year after that. At worst, we do not get enough donations and we need to keep asking you all to donate while adding hours of effort into doing those asks on a consistent basis. At this point, our goal is to build a consistent, long-term solution that not only keeps Brand New going but gives us the foundation to keep building on it.

I know there are some people who make a decent living from pledged supporters on Patreon, and organizations like PBS and CKUA are able to keep the lights on through donor support, but it does not seem like a scalable model to turn the web into interactive cable TV channels, either.

Brand New Will Shift to a Subscription Model

Armin Vit:

For the past ten years, when anyone has asked us about going into a subscription model, we have proudly said that it’s not something we need, have, or want to do because the Brand New Conference has been a way of monetizing the blog since the audience for that conference lives here so the effort and time spent on the blog pays off in the form of conference attendance. In the past two years, this nice feeling of being able to keep Brand New free was enhanced by the introduction of First Round, which gave us another source of income. This was going so well that, as some of you know, our business plan for 2020 revolved around nine in-person events which are not happening anymore and, to be honest, for the first time in months we are questioning if they will happen at all… ever again.

We still have a sliver of hope — because there is literally nothing we love to do more — that we will be able to do our 2020 events in 2021 and that we will be able to get back on track with in-person events as our main source of income but, from the tone of this post, you might be able to gather that we are not fully optimistic of that.

Two bucks a month or twenty dollars a year for one of the best branding and design resources around is shockingly cheap as far as I’m concerned. The bad news is that it’s a hard paywall, not a metered one — as of Monday next week, non-subscribers will only see the before and after image. The good news is that those who really cannot afford a subscription can request a free account.

I suppose the other bad news is that this is another nail in the coffin for the expectations of a free — as in beer — and discoverable web. If you’re a student or you’re just casually interested in design, you’re now either committed to paying for Brand New or it’s off-limits. It’s almost like the web is now part of the real world or something. It would be cool if the web were more like a library; but, of course, physical libraries themselves are seen as radical and potentially unviable in the current financialized climate.

As CRTC Reassesses Wholesale Broadband Rates, Federal Cabinet Puts Its Thumb on the Scale

Alexandra Posadzki, the Globe and Mail:

The federal cabinet says the new, lower rates that Canada’s large phone and cable companies were ordered to charge smaller internet providers for access to their networks could stifle investment in telecom infrastructure.

However, cabinet declined to overturn the August, 2019, ruling that reduced wholesale broadband rates or send it back to Canada’s telecom regulator for reconsideration, saying it would be premature to do so because the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is already in the midst of reviewing its decision.

“We will continue to monitor the CRTC proceedings closely,” Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, said in a statement Saturday.

Canadian broadband rates are already among the world’s highest, and an increase in wholesale fees will only cement the exploitative reputation of our ISPs.

Despite Similar Platform Restrictions, Epic Games Is Not Suing the Makers of Game Consoles

Kyle Orland, Ars Technica:

Most if not all of the complaints Epic makes against Apple and Google seem to apply to Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo in the console space as well. All three console makers also take a 30-percent cut of all microtransaction sales on their platforms, for example.

This DLC fee represents a big chunk of those console makers’ revenues, too. “Add-on content” was a full 41 percent of Sony’s Game and Network revenue in the latest completed fiscal quarter. Microsoft saw a 39-percent increase in gaming revenue the quarter after Fortnite was released, too, coyly attributing the bump to “third-party title strength.” And the Switch saw similar post-Fortnite digital revenue increases after Nintendo announced that fully half of all Switch owners had downloaded Fortnite.

On mobile platforms, Epic is calling the same kind of 30-percent fee “exorbitant” and says it wants to offer a more direct payment solution so it can “pass along the savings to players.” On consoles, though, Epic happily introduced a permanent 20-percent discount on all microtransaction purchases, despite there being no sign that the console makers have changed their fee structure.

My mistake was thinking that Epic Games sued Apple and Google for rational reasons. That simply is not the case.

Orland also points to a two year old article by James Batchelor at GamesIndustry.biz, quoting Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney:

“The 30 per cent store tax is a high cost in a world where game developers’ 70 per cent must cover all the cost of developing, operating, and supporting their games,” he explains.

“There’s a rationale for this on console where there’s enormous investment in hardware, often sold below cost, and marketing campaigns in broad partnership with publishers. But on open platforms, 30 per cent is disproportionate to the cost of the services these stores perform, such as payment processing, download bandwidth, and customer service.”

Tim Sweeney on Twitter:

At the most basic level, we’re fighting for the freedom of people who bought smartphones to install apps from sources of their choosing, the freedom for creators of apps to distribute them as they choose, and the freedom of both groups to do business directly.

Why only smartphones; why not game consoles? If Sweeney truly believes in entirely open distribution of apps across platforms, why not start with the even more closed distribution systems from Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft?

Perhaps there is a difference between app distribution expectations on game consoles and smartphones. In my mind, it feels like there ought to be. But I am having a difficult time articulating why that ought to be so. Perhaps it is as simple as the smartphone being a convergence device, while a game console is intended primarily as a single-purpose appliance.

Typography for the Biden-Harris Campaign

Jake Lahut, Business Insider:

The Biden campaign is rolling out two new fonts heading into the November election.

“Decimal” and “Mercury” will be tasked with evoking the 2020 presumptive Democratic nominee’s campaign ethos of “the battle for the soul of the nation,” Biden for Presiden Senior Creative Adviser Robyn Kanner told Insider.

The pair of fonts come from Hoefler & Co., a legendary typeface company behind the lettering seen in iconic American brands, such as Rolling Stone, Twitter, Tiffany & Co., the Guggenheim Museum, Condé Nast, and Nike.

There are a few more details on the Hoefler & Co. website.

Jonathan Hoefler:

I can’t remember an election in which so much attention (and speculation) has surrounded the choice of a running mate, nor having such a large field of eminently qualified candidates to choose from. A consequential decision at an unpredictable time, conducted under absolute secrecy, poses an interesting dilemma to the typographer: how do you create a logo without knowing for certain what the words will say? Logos, after all, are meaningfully informed by the shapes of their letters, and a logo designed for an EISENHOWER will hardly work for a TAFT. The solution, naturally, involves the absurd application of brute force: you just design all the logos you can think of, based on whatever public information you can gather. Every credible suggestion spotted in an op-ed was added to the list that we designers maintained, and not once did the campaign even hint at a preference for one name over another.

Last year, when there was a field of many possible Democrats vying for the 2020 nomination, Matthew Butterick reviewed their campaign typography and websites:

Presidential-campaign typography took a big step up in 2008, when Barack Obama adopted the then-new Gotham font for his campaign. (Though for his re-election campaign, he had serifs added.) This led to the rise of Gotham throughout the United States. But especially in political campaigns, where the geometric sans has become typographic shorthand for #winning.

Interestingly, one of Obama’s few bipartisan successes was inducing Republicans to use Gotham too: in 2016, it was chosen by Ted Cruz and Donald Trump (well, the no-cost Gotham knockoff Montserrat).

This is an admittedly silly little thing, but one of the casualties of the Trump administration has been the typography used on U.S. government websites. The Obama administration stuck with Hoefler & Co. beyond its use of Gotham; the White House website, for example, was typeset in Hoefler Text and Whitney. Those well-crafted faces have been replaced with free Google Fonts like Merriweather, Source Sans Pro, and the aforementioned Montserrat.

In the grand scheme of things, this is a silly thing to be writing about. Maybe it’s something you appreciate — cutting out a few hundred bucks a month in web font costs is, perhaps, a symbol of reducing tax expenditures. But it is also evocative of the kind of Overstock-grade Louis XIV furniture that dominates this president’s New York apartment: it is the impression of class, quality, and style, as filtered through the eyes of someone without any of those things.

Anyway, I intended for this post to be a bit of light Friday fare. The Biden-Harris campaign’s choice of Mercury is clean and versatile, but I especially appreciate the choice of Decimal. It has a pleasantly vintage kind of feel to it — Kanner said that it is based on something you would see on a watch. It’s kind of halfway between Gotham and Microgamma, though, and reminds me a little of a Cars or Miles Davis album cover. It’s confident, tastefully assertive, and distinctive.

Popcorn Popping in Super Slow Motion

The drama that unfolded today calls for popcorn; it, and the past few weeks, have exhausted me completely.

Anyway, here’s a Marc Maron joke: you know those kernels at the bottom of the bag that haven’t popped yet? Those are the ones with integrity.

Fortnite Was Removed From the Google Play Store, Too, So Epic Games Is Suing Google

I expected Google to follow Apple in pulling Fortnite from the Play Store and, sure enough, that was the case. What I did not anticipate was a lawsuit against Google, given that Android allows users to install apps through mechanisms other than the Play Store. But, as with Apple, Epic Games is now suing Google.

Russell Brandom, the Verge:

For years, Fortnite for Android was primarily available through this kind of sideloading. The app finally arrived on the Google Play Store in April, overcoming longstanding concerns over the Play Store policy of taking 30 percent of all in-app purchases. “After 18 months of operating Fortnite on Android outside of the Google Play Store, we’ve come to a basic realization,” the company said at the time, “Google puts software downloadable outside of Google Play at a disadvantage.”

From the suit (PDF):

Epic’s experience with one OEM, OnePlus, is illustrative. Epic struck a deal with OnePlus to make Epic games available on its phones through an Epic Games app. The Epic Games app would have allowed users to seamlessly install and update Epic games, including Fortnite, without obstacles imposed by Google’s Android OS. But Google forced OnePlus to renege on the deal, citing Google’s “particular[] concern” about Epic having the ability to install and update mobile games while “bypassing the Google Play Store”.

Another OEM, LG, told Epic that its contract with Google did not allow it to enable the direct distribution of apps, and that the OEM could not offer any functionality that would install and update Epic games except through the Google Play Store.

Pretty serious allegations against a company that promotes Android as being open and usable by any company that wants to build a phone. This whole saga has been well played by Epic Games — the story is now Apple and Google have kicked one of the world’s most popular games off their platforms.

I have not seen a similar suit filed against Sony or Microsoft regarding Fortnite on PlayStation or Xbox. Is that because it is harder to make a legal case that game consoles should be treated more like general purpose computers and less like appliances, or is it because the commission is lower on those consoles? The pricing of Fortnite’s “V-Bucks” suggests the latter.

The question of consoles and computers has been a topic of discussion on Dithering for the past week, ever since Apple provided that cryptic statement about why it wasn’t allowing Google Stadia and Xbox Game Pass into the App Store. I certainly fall on the side of considering smartphones more as general purpose computers, but the arguments Gruber has been setting up have got me thinking harder about it. It is a difficult line to draw: why should a PlayStation not be considered a computer like the one at your desk? But, also, why should an iPhone be thought of as closer to a Mac than an Apple Watch? I am not arguing that it should not — I fully believe that there are differences between all of these devices — but I have not seen a clear articulation for why that is.

Update: With my best Columbo impression, just one more thought on these two lawsuits: while there are a litany of complaints, it seems telling that both highlight the inability for Epic Games to set up its own app marketplace.

Epic Games Introduced a Direct Payment Mechanism in Fortnite, So It Was Kicked Out of the App Store

Epic Games:

Today, we’re also introducing a new way to pay on iOS and Android: Epic direct payment. When you choose to use Epic direct payments, you save up to 20% as Epic passes along payment processing savings to you.

Currently, when using Apple and Google payment options, Apple and Google collect a 30% fee, and the up to 20% price drop does not apply. If Apple or Google lower their fees on payments in the future, Epic will pass along the savings to you.

Nick Statt, the Verge:

Apple has removed Epic Games’ battle royale Fortnite from the App Store after the developer on Thursday implemented its own in-app payment system that bypassed Apple’s standard 30 percent fee. The decision marks a significant escalation in the feud between Epic and one of the most popular mobile app stores in the US, and it comes at an especially fraught time for Apple as the iPhone maker navigates antitrust concerns over its operation of its mobile marketplace and the rules it imposes on certain developers.

This is not a “significant escalation” as much as it is a significant instigation: Epic Games knew that trying to bypass Apple’s in-app payment mechanism was risky because it is not permitted, it did it anyway, and Apple responded by removing the app. You may believe, as I do, that the App Store policies need changing and that a 30% commission is probably outdated, but this is an entirely predictable consequence.

I don’t know that anything will come of this, specifically. Fortnite will probably be back in the App Store within a matter of days, sans in-app purchase bypass, and the App Store will probably keep chugging along. But something must give way when developers big and small are loudly making their dissatisfaction known.

The pot is on the stove and it is heating up. Anyone want extra butter on their popcorn?

Update: That was fast — Epic Games is suing Apple (PDF). I can’t think of another lawsuit that was marketed so well.

Reuters: ByteDance Censored Anti-China Content on BaBe News App in Indonesia

Fanny Potkin, Reuters:

Chinese tech giant ByteDance censored content it perceived as critical of the Chinese government on its news aggregator app in Indonesia from 2018 to mid-2020, six people with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

The sources said that local moderators were instructed by a team from ByteDance’s Beijing headquarters to delete articles seen as “negative” about Chinese authorities on the Baca Berita (BaBe) app.

In a statement to Reuters, BaBe said it disagreed with the claims and that it moderates content according to its community guidelines and in line with Indonesia’s local laws.

This is the kind of soft power play that is at least as concerning to me on a global scale as TikTok’s data collection, if not more so.

Bloomberg: Bundled Apple Services Are Coming Later This Year

Mark Gurman, Bloomberg:

Apple Inc. is readying a series of bundles that will let customers subscribe to several of the company’s digital services at a lower monthly price, according to people with knowledge of the effort.

The bundles, dubbed “Apple One” inside the Cupertino, California-based technology giant, are planned to launch as early as October alongside the next iPhone line, the people said. The bundles are designed to encourage customers to subscribe to more Apple services, which will generate more recurring revenue.

Giving the people what they want. This is surely an easier sell than asking users to pay a standalone fee for Apple News Plus, for example. But how does one convince someone to buy a bundle when they may only want one or two standalone services? It seems to me that either the bundle is dramatically less expensive — which has the side effect of changing the perceived value of each service individually — or it is made more compelling by offering exclusive stuff.

The company is also developing a new subscription for virtual fitness classes that can be used via an app for the iPhone, iPad and Apple TV, the people said. That service will be offered in a higher-end bundle with the rest of Apple’s services. Codenamed “Seymour,” the workout package would rival virtual classes offered by companies including Peloton Interactive Inc. and Nike Inc., according to the people.

Peloton shares slipped 4.7% in early trading Thursday after the announcement. Apple was up less than 1%.

First of all, this Gurman scoop doesn’t constitute an “announcement”.

Second, it sure doesn’t look great for this expansion of Apple’s services to be rumoured just weeks after companies like Airbnb and ClassPass complained about how they were now being asked for App Store commission after their classes went virtual. I am not saying it is not right for Apple — it charges a thirty percent commission on digital goods used within the app, so its demand here is entirely consistent with precedent. I am also not saying that this would be illegal or anticompetitive. I am only saying that it does not look great, and that regulators are likely to take notice.

Facebook Adds Speed Bump Intended to Slow Down Pandemic Post Virality

Alex Kantrowitz:

Facebook is making people pause before they share links with Covid-19 related information.

The company is adding an interstitial that will make people stop and review context about links with Covid-19 information before they share it. The move adds much-needed friction into a process that has helped Covid-19 misinformation go viral on Facebook.

This is a very good idea and something that I think could be expanded to all categories of news, not just items related to covid-19. I would like to see more platforms copy ideas like these. Even minor increases in friction can help slow the spread of outdated and potentially flawed material.

A Problem With RSS Is That It Needs Explaining

Matt Webb, via Cory Doctorow:

There’s a better way to read websites and it’s called web feeds a.k.a RSS. But web feeds are hard to get into for new users, so I decided to do something about it.

I posted about suggested improvements to RSS the other day and top of my list was onboarding: If you don’t know what RSS is, it’s really hard to start using it. This is because, unlike a social media platform, it doesn’t have a homepage. Nobody owns it. It’s nobody’s job to explain it. I’d like to see a website … which explains RSS, feeds, and readers for a general audience.

[…]

aboutfeeds.com is a single page website, for linking wherever you keep your web feed.

From that page:

Feeds put you in control. It’s like subscribing to a podcast, or following a company on Facebook. You don’t need to pay or hand over your email address. And you get the latest content without having to visit lots of sites, and without cluttering up your inbox. Had enough? Unsubscribe from the feed.

You just need a special app called a newsreader.

Gestures like this are lovely, but it is still a problem that RSS seemingly needs an explanation. There was a time when feed readers were built into email apps and web browsers, but that’s rarely the case now. I don’t know that there’s anything that will make it much easier for less technically inclined users to begin using RSS. It is a niche technology from a user’s perspective, but that is completely okay. Not everything needs to be dominant to be useful.

Layoffs at Mozilla

Mitchell Baker, Mozilla CEO:

Today we announced a significant restructuring of Mozilla Corporation. This will strengthen our ability to build and invest in products and services that will give people alternatives to conventional Big Tech. Sadly, the changes also include a significant reduction in our workforce by approximately 250 people. These are individuals of exceptional professional and personal caliber who have made outstanding contributions to who we are today. To each of them, I extend my heartfelt thanks and deepest regrets that we have come to this point. This is a humbling recognition of the realities we face, and what is needed to overcome them.

Microsoft’s Kat Marchán:

So to summarize what we know so far, the following teams at Mozilla have been either eliminated or gutted to oblivion:

* Firefox devtools

* Firefox incident/threat management team (?!)

* Servo

* MDN

* WebXR/Firefox Reality

* DevRel/Community (???)

I guess they’re giving up?

Julia Evans:

[So] upset to hear about Mozilla’s MDN team being cut, it’s my go to reference for basically everything about the web.

It has been a long time since I was a Firefox user, but I cannot imagine building stuff for the web without MDN. I feel terrible for the hundreds of people laid off, for the impact their absence will have, and for the general downfall of Mozilla as Google has become a de facto web authority.

TikTok Tracked Android Users’ MAC Addresses Without Consent

Kevin Poulsen and Robert McMillan, Wall Street Journal:

TikTok skirted a privacy safeguard in Google’s Android operating system to collect unique identifiers from millions of mobile devices, data that allows the app to track users online without allowing them to opt out, a Wall Street Journal analysis has found.

[…]

The identifiers collected by TikTok, called MAC addresses, are most commonly used for advertising purposes. The White House has said it is worried that users’ data could be obtained by the Chinese government and used to build detailed dossiers on individuals for blackmail or espionage.

Two things can be true here:

  1. This practice is not unique to TikTok. The Journal says that the method for scraping MAC addresses on Android devices is well known, but not necessarily widely used. Uber tracked iPhone serial numbers until a few years ago and hid that mechanism from App Store reviewers.

  2. It is a privacy-hostile practice that is always intolerable.

I point this out mostly because the Journal’s article is bookended by claims that this is especially concerning in TikTok’s case. However:

Apart from the MAC address, the Journal’s testing showed that TikTok wasn’t collecting an unusual amount of information for a mobile app, and it disclosed that collection in its privacy policy and in pop-ups requesting the user’s consent during installation.

Like I wrote last week, there is no difference between TikTok’s data collection behaviours and those of any other mainstream social media app. The difference is solely whether that data is easily accessible by a government, perhaps even directly.

I do not see it as outlandish to have an elevated concern about Chinese government involvement. Two years ago, Apple was compelled by local law to move Chinese users’ iCloud data to servers run by a state-connected company. This is a step beyond, say, Russian laws that require user data to be stored on servers located within the country. Apple maintains that it holds the encryption keys; subpoenas for Chinese users’ data are now handled by Chinese courts instead of American ones.

TikTok’s data collection is not particularly invasive, nor is it as all-encompassing as an iPhone backup. If you are concerned about Chinese government access of tracked data, you should be concerned about all kinds of tracking. This is not a China problem, nor is it a TikTok problem — it is a logical extension of marketers’ obsession with tracking. It should not be a surprise that this easily-deanonymized data is a gold mine for government abuse.

In MacOS Big Sur and iOS 14, Apple News Plus Subscribers See Links to Some Publishers Opening in Apple News Instead of a Web Browser

Tony Haile of Scroll:

Woah, I wonder how many publishers in Apple News+ realize that the new iOS 14 and MacOS Big Sur are by default intercepting traffic to their sites and sending it to the Apple News app instead.

Jeff Johnson:

From a privacy perspective, it would be very disturbing if Apple’s operating system were “phoning home” to Cupertino when you opened a URL to a non-Apple web site. Fortunately, this is not the case, at least on macOS Big Sur. (I haven’t installed or tested the iOS 14 beta, but I would assume it behaves the same as Big Sur in this respect.) This is easy to test yourself, if you think about it. Today I signed up for a free 1 month trial of Apple News+ (note to self: cancel in 4 weeks). Then I got the URL of an article from The Wall Street Journal, a publisher who participates in News+. I disconnected my internet by turning off my MacBook Pro’s Wi-Fi. Finally, I opened the Terminal app and entered the following command:

[…]

Same result, opens the News app! So I think we can say with confidence that Big Sur is checking an offline list of URL domains rather than checking online with Apple. Your privacy is still protected here.

It seems to me that if you pay for Apple News Plus you’d like to make full use of your subscription. If you open an article from the Wall Street Journal or the Atlantic in Safari, your visit will count against a paywall or you may not be able to view the article at all. Apple has chosen a crude way to send subscribers to Apple News — something more like an app banner would be less interruptive — but this does not appear to be as gratuitous or as privacy-invasive as it appear at first blush.

Apple’s New ‘Everything’ Gift Cards

This thankfully marks the end of mixing up iTunes gift cards and Apple Store ones. Sure would be nice if one of these “Everything Apple” gift cards could be used to subscribe to an “Everything Apple” bundle of services, though.

White House Executive Order on WeChat Risks Snarling Global Business

Zheping Huang and Vlad Savov, Bloomberg:

The White House’s vaguely worded edict left a lot of open questions about how broadly the ban would be applied and the full ramifications for Tencent Holdings Ltd. But it likely gets WeChat bumped off Apple and Google’s app stores in 45 days, which means at least suspending updates for a service vital to everything from engineers talking with iPhone assemblers to Chinese people video-chatting with family back home.

If the ban extends to a block on its use, that threatens to eventually sever those ties because WeChat is the go-to for a billion people for everything from booking movie and train tickets to shopping, and alternatives like WhatsApp are blocked in China. The potential ructions underscore Tencent’s pivotal role within the global tech and internet economies, as a juggernaut with deep investments or connections with American businesses from Activision Blizzard Inc. and Snap Inc. to the NBA.

“It would practically shut down communication between the U.S. and China,” said Graham Webster, China Digital Economy Fellow at think tank New America. “These orders just wrap the real issues up in political theater.”

WeChat is, as Ben Thompson put it, “the most important layer of the smartphone stack” in China, and it remains so for many of those with family and friends in the country. Ming-Chi Kuo, in a note to investors, estimates that iPhone shipments would drop significantly if Apple could not keep WeChat in the App Store. I’m not weeping at the thought of fewer sales; this as an indication of just how important WeChat is. At the extreme end, these clumsy executive orders could be as powerful a motivator as antitrust action for a change in how apps work on iOS.

In the short term, it means that people and businesses around the world may be cut off from family, friends, customers, and a substantial source of income.

How Pro-Trump Forces Work the Refs in Silicon Valley

Ben Smith, New York Times:

But the referees who really matter nowadays are no longer the big media companies. The new referees are the Silicon Valley giants that control what we see when we search, browse or post online. But some in the news media learned lessons from back then, ones that Silicon Valley chief executives would be wise to reflect on this election season.

The biggest one is about false balance, and false symmetry. The American right and left have never been mirror images of each other. They’re different sorts of coalitions, with different histories and strategies.

And in the Trump era, a specific kind of misinformation on social media is a central tactic of the right. President Trump says false and misleading things at a remarkable rate — more than 20,000 so far in his presidency, according to a Washington Post tracker — and a whole constellation of blogs and websites, like The Gateway Pundit, support and amplify that strategy.

Facebook, Google and Twitter are making the same mistakes the news media made decades ago, looking for balance rather than confronting the plain reality of the moment.

This entire article is very good and is worth your time, but one section in particular seems to be misinterpreted:

But “the C.E.O. of Google can’t just come out and say, ‘The signals your site is sending and fact-checks on your content have created a problem for our company, and therefore we down-rank it,’” said Joan Donovan, the research director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. “Admitting that humans are often at the helm of decisions to curate content implies they are a media company and not simply infrastructure.”

Steve Katz, publisher of Mother Jones, believes this is the case because, if Google et al. admit that they adjust ranking signals, they “are *publishers* and not platforms, [and] the entire regulatory rulebook changes”. This argument is nonsense. The sole reason Google cannot directly say that humans are involved is because it would be a public relations nightmare. But it would be the right and honest thing to do.

‘The United States Has Embroiled Itself in a War It Cannot Win and Has No Business Fighting’

Sarah Jeong, the Verge:

TikTok does gather a lot of personal data, but it’s no more than what Facebook and other social networks also gather. The difference between TikTok and Facebook is that we have a great deal of transparency into the process by which Facebook gives your information to various governments. And specifically, Facebook does not release data to the Chinese government.

When it comes down to it, the thorniest privacy dispute of 2020 isn’t about privacy or technology at all — it’s about China. The question “Is Facebook better, worse, or the same as TikTok?” is more or less the same as “Is the United States better, worse, or the same as China?”

And in 2020, this is becoming a genuinely difficult question to answer. China is detaining over a million Uighurs in internment camps, citing national security issues. The United States detains migrants in its own internment camps, even going as far as to place children in cages. China is not a democracy; the American president has proposed to unconstitutionally delay this year’s election. China brutally represses its political dissidents; in America, law enforcement in military camouflage have grabbed protesters off the streets and shoved them into unmarked vans.

This is probably the best piece I’ve read about the executive orders against WeChat and TikTok, and the so-called “Clean Network” policies that Mike Pompeo is promoting. There remain vast differences between U.S. and China policies, but the trick to maintaining the moral high ground is to not simultaneously narrow the gap, as the U.S. is presently doing.

John Giannandrea and Bob Borchers Explain Apple’s Machine Learning Strategy

Samuel Axon, Ars Technica:

In the wake of the Apple Silicon announcement, I spoke at length with John Giannandrea, Apple’s Senior Vice President for Machine Learning and AI Strategy, as well as with Bob Borchers, VP of Product Marketing. They described Apple’s AI philosophy, explained how machine learning drives certain features, and argued passionately for Apple’s on-device AI/ML strategy.

[…]

Both Giannandrea and Borchers made an impassioned case in our conversation that the features we just went over are possible because of—not in spite of—the fact that all the work is done locally on the device.

[…]

Borchers and Giannandrea both repeatedly made points about the privacy implications of doing this work in a data center, but Giannandrea said that local processing is also about performance.

If you spend your free time reading the white papers Apple prepares about various iOS and MacOS features, you probably know a fair amount of what Giannandrea and Borchers discuss in this interview. If, like me, you do not, you will likely learn from it.

One thing Axon appears not to have asked is how Apple grades the success of a machine learning model. For example, I noticed an apparent degradation in automatic typing corrections on my iPhone that coincided with switching from prioritizing nearest-neighbour keys based on dictionary likelihood to a differential privacy model in iOS 10. I have no idea if there was an actual quality reduction, nor if it was connected with the change in autocorrect engine. Perhaps it is more reliable at changing the spelling of obscure place names and public figures, for example. But it continues to bizarrely capitalize common words, and change things that I have typed several words prior when it thinks the context has changed.

Is this an actual difference? Am I misremembering the way autocorrect used to work for me? How does Apple’s machine learning team know when a change to something as crucial to the device as the keyboard is a success?

U.S. Government Contractors Embedded Software in Apps to Track Phone Locations

Byron Tau, Wall Street Journal:

Anomaly Six LLC, a Virginia-based company founded by two U.S. military veterans with a background in intelligence, said in marketing material it is able to draw location data from more than 500 mobile applications, in part through its own software development kit, or SDK, that is embedded directly in some of the apps. An SDK allows the company to obtain the phone’s location if consumers have allowed the app containing the software to access the phone’s GPS coordinates.

App publishers often allow third-party companies, for a fee, to insert SDKs into their apps. The SDK maker then sells the consumer data harvested from the app, and the app publisher gets a chunk of revenue. But consumers have no way to know whether SDKs are embedded in apps; most privacy policies don’t disclose that information. Anomaly Six says it embeds its own SDK in some apps, and in other cases gets location data from other partners.

Tau reports that Anomaly Six tracks the location of “hundreds of millions of mobile phones” but, citing the opacity of the data brokerage world, was not able to determine which apps include its SDK. Tau also reports that the founders of Anomaly Six used to work for Babel Street, which offers a similar privacy hellscape called “Locate X”:

Babel Street doesn’t publicly advertise Locate X and binds clients and users to secrecy about even its existence, according to contracts and user agreements reviewed by the Journal. Developed with input from U.S. government officials, according to court records, Locate X is widely used by military intelligence units who work on gathering “open source” intelligence, or information taken from publicly available sources. Babel Street also has contracts with the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department, and many other civilian agencies, federal contracting data shows. Babel Street didn’t respond to a request for comment.

So the U.S. government is comfy with the risk of starting another Cold War over apparent mass privacy violations by foreign actors on moral absolutist grounds, and is also content with having location back doors into hundreds of millions of phones. Got it.

The Case Against Automotive Bloat

Ryan Cooper, the Week:

This behemoth design trend — particularly the very tall, square front end seen in so many SUVs and trucks today — is both pointless and dangerous. Manufacturers have known for years that this style of vehicle is much more dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists, yet they keep making them bigger, taller, and heavier. Trucks and SUVs now make up fully 70 percent of all new cars sold in the U.S. Their bloated design is killing people, especially pedestrians.

[…]

Furthermore, the specific design trend of the massive hood sticking way out in front of the driver, with a cliff-face front grille obstructing the view several feet out in front of the wheels, is entirely a marketing gimmick. The explicit point is to create an angry, aggressive face that will intimidate others, especially pedestrians. Don’t take it from me, take it from the guy who designed the latest GM Sierra HD: “The front end was always the focal point… we spent a lot of time making sure that when you stand in front of this thing it looks like it’s going to come get you. It’s got that pissed-off feel,” he told Muscle Cars & Trucks. “The face of these trucks is where the action is,” marketing expert Mark Schirmer told the Wall Street Journal’s Dan Neil, “a Ford has to say Ford from head on, a Chevy must shout Chevy. Every pickup has become a rolling brand billboard and the billboards are big.” And as Neil discovered when he was nearly run down in a Costco parking lot, that massive grille creates a massive blind spot.

I don’t know if it’s my imagination, but the intimidation factor of cars seems to have ratcheted up in just the past few years. Take exhaust volume, too: pickup trucks are notoriously loud but, increasingly, the noise that echoes from the intersection where I live are from Audis and Mercedes-Benzes. It used to be relegated to the sportier models — the S- and RS-line Audis, for example — but it seems to have spread throughout the model lineup. I love a good six- or eight-cylinder soundtrack, but not at 7:30 on a Sunday morning and especially not constantly. I live on busy roads, I get it, but it seems to be far more interruptive than it used to be.

Cars aren’t just getting bigger and badder; they’re also getting more expensive. Erik Shilling, Jalopnik:

Now, the fact that the Honda Fit, Chevy Cruze, Chevy Sonic, Toyota Yaris, Ford Fiesta, and Mazda 2 are no longer with us or will soon be no longer with us is in many ways very explainable, in that automakers don’t make very much money on these cars, consumer preference is trending away from small cars, and because gas is cheap there’s currently less of an argument for them for new car buyers. I get it! That’s fine! I’m over it!

What actually worries me, however, is the second and third stats there, the ones that say that deliveries in the $20,000–$30,000 range are falling off a cliff and that the average price of a new car is nearly $39,000 (!). I know this has been happening for years now, but the more and more this drifts upward the more it’s hard to shake the feeling that we collectively are the proverbial frog in a pot of water slowly about to boil to death.

The thing that worries me most about this is that the number of cars sold has been dropping for years, but the average cost of a sale has been increasing. That means that, while sales of entry-level cars have disappeared, those who do purchase a new car are likely spending more than they budgeted for.

By the way, this correlates with a creeping increase in financing terms to nearly six years; in Canada, half of new car loans are for over seven years. Wages haven’t kept pace with the average price of a new car, either and, in many cities in Canada and the United States, public transit is a mess.

Sitting in a new car cloaks the driver in the pretence of dominance while they worry about their next payment, when all they really wanted was a way to commute and run errands in comfort and maybe with a bit of attitude. Whatever happened to a fun car? The U.S. and Canadian markets are so interconnected that it is nearly impossible here to get something small and inexpensive that can bring a smile to your face whenever you drive it. I do not like this SUV and truck trend at all.

The 2020 iMac and the Osborne Effect

I thought Marques Brownlee’s review of the updated iMac was a good demonstration of its new webcam and the nano-texture display. I particularly enjoyed the way he explored the wisdom of buying one, given that Apple’s first Macs based on their own processors will be announced in the coming months.

It’s a tricky question, but I say that any computer is multi-year investment. If you’re in the market for a new Mac, it is not a bad time to buy one. If I needed to replace a computer, I would pick one of these things up without hesitation. Though I am sure that Apple is planning a smooth transition and I anticipate most high-profile developers are eager to ensure the same for their customers, my risk tolerance is such that I would be wary of buying the first generation of Apple Silicon Macs. The devil you know, and all that.

U.S. ‘Clean Network’ Campaign Attempts to Wall Off Chinese Hardware, Software, and Cloud Services

Jane Li, Quartz:

Under the expanded initiative, which focuses on five areas, “untrusted” Chinese telecom carriers, apps, and cloud service providers including Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu will be prevented from storing or processing US user data, being downloaded from US app stores, or connected to the US telecom system. Moreover, Chinese smartphone makers such as Huawei will be prevented from pre-installing or offering downloads of some US or foreign apps. Undersea cables that connect the US to the global internet will also be scrutinized by the US government.

While the announcement does not give a timeline of the initiative or explain whether it is compulsory for American entities to comply, the announcement is an escalation of the country’s efforts to divide the internet between China and the US. Most recently, the US has made a series of threats to ban Chinese apps including TikTok and WeChat, citing their threats to national security. TikTok will either have to be sold to a US company such as Microsoft, or face shutting down by the Sept. 15 deadline given by the White House. A growing number of US allies are also following suit in choosing to exclude Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei from their 5G networks.

Wall Street Journal reporter Te-Ping Chen:

Wincing at the choice of language here. did we really need to use ‘clean,’ redolent as it is w/years of slurs against Chinese people as being dirty & diseased?

Rachel Lerman, Washington Post:

President Trump issued two executive orders late Thursday against China-based TikTok and messaging app WeChat, citing national security concerns in a sweeping order that could prevent the companies from doing most business in the United States.

The orders take effect in 45 days and prohibits any U.S. company or person from transacting with ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese parent company, or WeChat. While the nature of the banned transactions are not specific, it may mean the companies would not be able to appear on Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store in the United States. It also could make it illegal for U.S. companies to purchase advertising on TikTok.

But the order should not affect a deal if Microsoft or another U.S. firm manages to buy TikTok before the 45 days are up.

As Lerman reports, this order is probably a way to force a faster sale of TikTok to a U.S.-based firm. Still, that leaves in place the restrictions of the similar WeChat order. This is all very concerning, of course.

Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman, reporting for Buzzfeed News before these executive orders were issued:

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told his employees Thursday that banning TikTok in the United States would set “a really bad long-term precedent.”

[…]

While Zuckerberg noted that TikTok, banned in India in June, was being hit now, he alluded to the idea that a Facebook product could become a target for another country later. He did, however, sympathize with the Trump administration’s national security concerns.

From the text of the executive order concerning TikTok:

TikTok also reportedly censors content that the Chinese Communist Party deems politically sensitive, such as content concerning protests in Hong Kong and China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. This mobile application may also be used for disinformation campaigns that benefit the Chinese Communist Party, such as when TikTok videos spread debunked conspiracy theories about the origins of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus.

This guy is complaining about TikTok spreading pandemic conspiracy theories? This guy? This guy? This fucking guy?

If I’m reading all of this right, the U.S. government has set a forty-five day countdown on a prohibition of financial relationships with TikTok and WeChat, citing concerns about the amount of data both apps collect on their users, and theft of intellectual property. This is likely to cause retaliation, according to the chief executive of a company that just released a clone of TikTok. The U.S. government is slowly building something like an all-American Patriotic Firewall of Freedom, but is dragging its feet on any regulation of personal data collection more generally.

I don’t mean to imply that the Chinese and U.S. governments are exactly equal in their nationalist policies. Clearly, while some officials in the U.S. have newfound enthusiasm for neo-McCarthyist xenophobia, they are presently in the strongman G League compared to the actions of the Chinese government in Xinjiang and its attempts to exert power in Hong Kong. There are very real differences in the alleged mining of data by a totalitarian government, and the collection of data by private companies which sometimes hand it over to a democratic government, and they should not be falsely equivocated.

But these U.S. government actions are deeply concerning for their outward display of power, while likely having little material effect. Shoshana Wodinsky, Gizmodo:

Ironically enough, this means that, in a sense, the Trump administration’s worst nightmares about offshore data sharing are kind of reality — only it has nothing to do with whether the platform is based in the U.S. or anywhere else. The entire clusterfuck of digital dollars that fuels our internet has essentially flattened state lines by promising people that they can tap into any consumer, anywhere they want—for a price.

The layers of intermediary partners mean that even if TikTok (or Google, or any other major tech player) swears up and down that it keeps any user data here in the U.S., that point is mostly moot. As soon as a foreign intermediary gets its hands on the data, any liability — or really, any control — is largely out of a U.S.-based company’s hands. Hell, even if you try to wedge a company like Microsoft in there, the point is still moot, because it has a massive footprint in Shanghai that helps local brands use Bing to target “high-end” consumers in America and abroad.

All of this almost certainly has nothing to do with keeping U.S. users safe from whatever as-yet unproven dangers that are apparently exclusive to Chinese-made apps, and everything to do with exerting power and influence. Here’s hoping for a day sometime soon when neither country is run by people intoxicated by their own machismo.

Apple Is Prohibiting Cloud-Based Gaming Services From the App Store Because It Cannot Review or Approve Each Game

Ben Gilbert, Business Insider:

This September, Microsoft plans to launch a major coup in the video game business: The world’s first game streaming service with a built-in library, Netflix-style.

For $15 a month, you’ll be able to stream over 100 games to smartphones and tablets — but it won’t be available on Apple’s ubiquitous iPhone and iPad.

[…]

“Our customers enjoy great apps and games from millions of developers, and gaming services can absolutely launch on the App Store as long as they follow the same set of guidelines applicable to all developers, including submitting games individually for review, and appearing in charts and search,” Apple said in a statement to Business Insider. “In addition to the App Store, developers can choose to reach all iPhone and iPad users over the web through Safari and other browsers on the App Store.”

A similar service offered by Google, named Google Stadia, has also run into roadblocks with Apple’s App Store guidelines. It’s available on Android phones and tablets, but not Apple devices.

The App Store guidelines also prohibit “displaying third-party apps, extensions, or plug-ins similar to the App Store” and apps that “create alternate desktop/home screen environments”. Even if Microsoft or Google went through the trouble of submitting each game individually, it is very possible that their library app would not be permitted either — the Stadia launcher may be seen differently from a “player” or “reader” app.

Any way you cut it, this is not a great look just a week after Tim Cook testified before a U.S. government committee on allegations of antitrust behaviour.

Facebook and Twitter Moderate Trump Campaign Accounts for Posting Covid-19 Misinformation, But YouTube Does Nothing About the Source Interview

Heather Kelly, Washington Post:

Facebook and Twitter on Wednesday took extraordinary action against President Trump for spreading coronavirus misinformation after his official and campaign accounts broke their rules, respectively.

Facebook removed from Trump’s official account the post of a video clip from a Fox News interview in which he said children are “almost immune” from covid-19. Twitter required his Team Trump campaign account to delete a tweet with the same video, blocking it from tweeting in the interim.

In the removed video, President Trump can be heard in a phone interview saying schools should open. He goes on to say, “If you look at children, children are almost — and I would almost say definitely — but almost immune from this disease,” and that they have stronger immune systems.

For clarity, the lower risk of serious effects in children does not mean the same thing as “almost immune”, and there are children and adults in schools. The latter is just the president being his usual thoughtless self, but the former absolutely is bad information about disease risk coming from the loudest American voice.

PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor:

This is the first time a Trump post has been removed for COVID-19 misinformation.

Facebook has also in the past removed posts by the Trump campaign which used symbols also used by Nazis.

Evelyn Douek:

Still on YouTube. And let’s not forget — as we too often do in this context — the original was a Fox News interview.

The YouTube video doesn’t even carry the virus advisory banner that the company has been attaching to other videos on the topic.

Cutting Out the Adtech Middlemen

Gilad Edelman, Wired:

In May 2018, as the European Union’s landmark privacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation, went into effect, the main Dutch public broadcaster set in motion a grand experiment. The leadership at Nederlandse Publieke Omroep — essentially the BBC of the Netherlands — interpreted the law strictly, deciding that visitors to any of its websites would now be prompted to opt in or out of cookies, the tracking technology that enables personalized ads based on someone’s browsing history. And, unlike with most companies, who assume that anyone who skips past a privacy notice is okay with tracking, any NPO visitor who clicked past the obtrusive consent screen without making a choice would be opted out by default.

[…]

On the whole, the new tracking-free ad server was performing so well that NPO decided to abandon cookies entirely beginning in 2020. As of January, visitors aren’t even asked to opt in or out; the site simply doesn’t track anyone. The results have been striking. In January and February of this year, NPO says that its digital ad revenue was up 62 percent and 79 percent, respectively, compared to last year. Even after the coronavirus pandemic jolted the global economy and caused brands to scale advertising drastically back — and forcing many publications to implement pay cuts and layoffs — its revenues are still double-digit percentage points higher than last year.

The main explanation is simple: because the network is no longer relying on microtargeted programmatic ad tech, it now keeps what advertisers spend rather than giving a huge cut to a bunch of middlemen. A report by the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers found that fully half the money spent by advertisers was getting sucked up by various ad tech companies before it got to the publisher running the ads. Even Google publicly states that when an advertiser and publisher both use Google’s platforms to buy and sell programmatic ads, Google takes more than 30 percent of the money. That’s before factoring in other players in the hyper-complicated digital advertising world, as well as the ever-present problem of fraudulent sites sucking up money in exchange for fake clicks.

Companies that build ad targeting are surely more enthused about tracking individual users because they can get a cut of the revenue stream, not because it is actually better for anyone. It doesn’t matter to them that they are buying that cut from struggling publishers and entirely corrupting user privacy in the process. In much of the world, it is an unregulated industry that offers huge growth potential at virtually no risk of a bad reputation — there are thousands of marketing technology companies that nobody outside of the industry can name.

White House Retracts Renomination of FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly

Jon Brodkin, reporting in June for Ars Technica:

Michael O’Rielly, part of the FCC’s 3-2 Republican majority, says he has doubts about whether the FCC has authority to implement Trump’s order regarding Twitter and other online platforms. With Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr having enthusiastically endorsed Trump’s executive order and Democrats opposed to it, the views of O’Rielly and Chairman Ajit Pai will play a big role in determining the outcome.

O’Rielly discussed the topic on C-SPAN last week, saying he won’t take a position until he has researched the topic more thoroughly. “I haven’t taken a position because I have to do my homework,” O’Rielly said, adding that he has “deep reservations” that the FCC has authority to act as Trump directed.

Paul Mclane, reporting last week for Radio World:

And he opined on the First Amendment, criticizing “certain opportunists” who claim to advocate for the amendment “but who are only willing to defend it when convenient and constantly shift its meaning to fit their current political objectives.”

He said, “We should all reject demands, in the name of the First Amendment, for private actors to curate or publish speech in a certain way. I shudder to think of a day in which the Fairness Doctrine could be reincarnated by some other name, especially at the ironic behest of so-called speech ‘defenders.’”

And he said the amendment’s protections apply to corporate entities, “especially when they engage in editorial decision making. It is time to stop allowing purveyors of First Amendment gibberish to claim they support more speech, when their actions make clear that they would actually curtail it through government action.”

Tom McKay, Gizmodo:

The White House has yanked its nomination to give GOP Federal Communications Commissioner Mike O’Rielly another term at the agency, offering no explanation as to why.

[…]

Another simpler, more migraine-triggering reason, though, might be that the White House thinks O’Rielly is standing in the way of its effort to have the FCC investigate and punish tech companies for alleged discrimination against conservatives. In late May, Trump issued an executive order that would direct the FCC to look into claims tech companies are secretly plotting to deplatform and censor right-wingers — a conspiracy theory that has become one of his administration’s major talking points — and threaten those companies with the loss of key Section 230 liability protections.

This line of speculation is not outlandish; former FCC special counsel Gigi Sohn heard the same. It is also reflective of meddling in an independent body that would once be seen as scandalous and worthy of an investigation — recall, for instance, the time FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler was hauled in front of a House panel because President Obama said net neutrality was important.

Quick side note: even though this administration and its acolytes are obsessed with the delusion that conservatives are somehow treated unfairly by social media companies, they do not seem eager to prove it. Republican representatives derailed last week’s antitrust hearing and the President issued an order in May to investigate “selective censorship”, but the White House has not yet passed along the complaints it received about social media bias to the FTC, as it said it would. It has been months; how long can it possibly take to email a CSV file?

The White House is apparently so upset with O’Rielly for correctly stating that companies are allowed to moderate their platforms as they choose that it won’t give him another term, but it will not follow through with the underlying documentation to support its Executive Order.

Fellow Apple Fellows

Here’s a great story from Andy Hertzfeld:

Bill [Atkinson] explained how upset he was that he didn’t get any recognition for his work on Lisa, his voice hesitant at first, but picking up conviction as he started to get emotional. He told Steve that he was thinking about leaving Apple, because he was treated so unfairly.

[…]

The following week, Steve arranged for Bill to meet with Apple’s HR team, to discuss what was bothering him. Bill reiterated that his main complaint was getting recognition for his work. After more discussions with Steve, they came up with something that was mutually acceptable to everyone.

The solution was to appoint Bill as an Apple Fellow, in recognition for his work on the Lisa. Apple Fellow was the most prestigious technical position at Apple, awarded to only two employees so far: Steve Wozniak and Rod Holt. Now there would be two more, Bill Atkinson and Rich Page, who also made seminal contributions to Lisa. A fringe benefit of being appointed an Apple Fellow was a fresh pile of stock options, which could be quite valuable if Apple’s stock price continued to rise.

Phil Schiller is now one of very few people to have earned this internal Apple distinction — and he has absolutely earned it. Earlier today, I wrote that it is a “euphemistic way for a graceful eventual transition out of Apple” — euphemism was not exactly the right word to use. Honorary is closer.

So much for that claim a few years ago, from a former Advanced Technology Group senior manager, that “Phil is not a technology guy”.

Greg Joswiak Is Apple’s New SVP of Worldwide Marketing, While Phil Schiller Becomes an Apple Fellow

Steve Kovach, CNBC:

Apple announced on Tuesday that longtime marketing boss Phil Schiller will step down from his role and be replaced by one of his deputies, Greg Joswiak, who now has Schiller’s former title of vice president of worldwide marketing.

Schiller will continue to work at Apple as an “Apple Fellow,” the company said, and will continue his role as the boss of Apple’s App Store and company events. Schiller will also continue to report to Apple CEO Tim Cook. Schiller has worked at Apple since 1987.

This is a huge change. Joz and Schiller have each been at Apple for decades; Schiller has been at the executive level since 2002. This is a big promotion for Joz.

It is also a curious change for Schiller. Making him a Fellow seems like a euphemistic way for a graceful eventual transition out of Apple, but I used the word “curious” because Joz’s responsibilities won’t include the App Store or events. This has surely been a difficult year on both fronts — between antitrust concerns and high-profile developer problems on the App Store, and figuring out alternative arrangements for WWDC and product launches. It’s probably not the best time to hand those responsibilities off to someone else. For what it’s worth, Schiller says that he will “keep working [at Apple] as long as they will have me”.

Apple’s executive level has shifted steadily since just before Tim Cook took the reins as CEO. Aside from Cook, Jeff Williams is the only consistent headshot on the page. Eddy Cue was not a member of Apple’s leadership team until 2012, the same year Bob Mansfield announced his retirement only to un-retire as a non-executive.

Please enjoy this classic video of Schiller dropping in at Macworld 1999.

iMac Range Updated With SSDs and T2 Chips, and Faster Processors and Better Displays in the 27-Inch Models

Apple Newsroom:

Apple today announced a major update to its 27-inch iMac. By far the most powerful and capable iMac ever, it features faster Intel processors up to 10 cores, double the memory capacity, next-generation AMD graphics, superfast SSDs across the line with four times the storage capacity, a new nano-texture glass option for an even more stunning Retina 5K display, a 1080p FaceTime HD camera, higher fidelity speakers, and studio-quality mics. For the consumer using their iMac all day, every day, to the aspiring creative looking for inspiration, to the serious pro pushing the limits of their creativity, the new 27-inch iMac delivers the ultimate desktop experience that is now better in every way.

[…]

Apple today also announced that its 21.5-inch iMac will come standard with SSDs across the line for the first time. Customers can also choose to configure their 21.5-inch iMac with a Fusion Drive.

Maybe the best news here is that it is no longer possible to get a spinning hard disk in any Mac. Recent versions of MacOS, whether because of system changes or APFS, simply do not work acceptably when running on hard disks. Fusion drives are not much better, but I understand why it is an option.

The display updates sound terrific. I would love True Tone and a matte display in my iMac. The “nano-texture” display is a $500 (U.S.) extra — half the cost of the equivalent option on the Pro Display XDR.

The iMac Pro was also slightly updated:

iMac Pro now comes standard with a 10-core Intel Xeon processor. Designed for pro users who require workstation-class performance, iMac Pro features Xeon processors up to 18 cores, graphics performance up to 22 teraflops, up to 256GB quad-channel ECC memory, and a brilliant 27-inch Retina 5K display.

You cannot spec an iMac Pro with a matte display, nor does it have the better speakers and microphones of the 27-inch iMac. Who would buy one today? The only customer I can think of is someone whose workflow prioritizes as many processor cores as possible and, understandably, cannot afford a Mac Pro.

U.S. President and Wispy-Haired Bag of Angry Wasps Donald Trump Demands ‘Key Money’ Cut of Microsoft’s Proposed TikTok Acquisition

MG Siegler:

Just when you thought the TikTok situation couldn’t get anymore strange and dramatic, Microsoft publishes a corporate blog post today that is nothing short of remarkable. To be clear, the content of the post is rather bland, but the fact that it exists is fascinating. As is its framing.

Just read the thing. It’s almost like a letter of fealty. It reads like something a Chinese company might write under the Chinese government. To that end, it reads as if it was written at the behest of the government. Maybe that’s too strong. Maybe? How about: “Hey Satya, great conversation today. It sure would be nice if you could outline what we discussed publicly.” That kind of thing.

Microsoft fully appreciates the importance of addressing the President’s concerns. It is committed to acquiring TikTok subject to a complete security review and providing proper economic benefits to the United States, including the United States Treasury.

This is an actual paragraph in the post. The second paragraph, no less. What on Earth?! Is Treasury getting a finder’s fee here?

Apparently so. Fadel Allassan, Axios:

President Trump said Monday that TikTok will be shut down in the U.S. if it hasn’t been bought by Microsoft or another company by Sept. 15, and argued — without elaborating — that the U.S. Treasury should get “a very substantial portion” of the sale fee.

In the Fox News clip embedded by Allassan, Trump justifies this demand by saying that the United States government is “making it possible for this deal to happen”. That’s true, but only in the sense that TikTok scrambled to find a buyer because Trump threatened its existence in the lucrative U.S. market.

He related this to “key money” — the practice of demanding money from a tenant above their rent. In the New York market, which Trump would be most familiar with, it is legal for commercial tenants but illegal and extremely shady for residential properties.

If you would rather not listen to Trump explain this let’s-call-it-reasoning, Alex Wilhelm of TechCrunch has transcribed it.

Say Hello to the ‘Hustle Economy’

Caitlin Deweym, OneZero:

The Covid-19 pandemic crushed vast swaths of the economy, slashing consumer demand, closing businesses, and vaporizing millions of jobs. But it’s been good to the nascent sliver of the digital economy that helps people channel their existing skills into sellable services and products.

Such products range from ebooks and meal plan templates to online classes, podcasts, membership clubs, newsletters, and porn. They proliferate on platforms including Patreon, Twitch, Substack, Etsy, Teachable, Knowable, Podia, Thinkific, Supercast, Lulu, Smashwords, Outschool, OnlyFans, and Gumroad.

These platforms generally take a cut of each sale made, ranging from 5% to 50%, or charge a recurring fee to sellers for accessing their market. Tech investors have dubbed this the “passion economy,” a place where anyone can profit doing what she loves. But because that term risks both exaggerating the payoffs of this work and obscuring its ties to the gig economy, the last great labor “disruption,” we might better call it the “hustle economy:” an online labor market in which platform-dependent workers create and monetize their own digital products. Like Uber drivers or Instacart shoppers, workers in the hustle economy need a platform to succeed. But their work is individualized, self-directed, and on their own schedule — one “creator” can’t substitute for another.

I dislike the phrase “hustle economy”; hustle has taken on the unfortunate characteristics of overwork and glorified exhaustion. But, no matter what you call it, this article presents a good case for the precipitous delight that comes with having a more direct relationship between businesses and patrons.

It’s kind of personal to me, too. One of the things I have struggled with is figuring out a way to unobtrusively defer the costs of running this website, at the very least, and perhaps granting it a greater role in my life than just something I write when I am not at my day job. Many years ago, I added Carbon’s advertising to the sidebar, which does help pay the bills. Other revenue sources — referral links and the like — neither fit with the kinds of things that I write about nor pay well enough to justify the infrequency of their use. I also don’t know that sponsored posts make a lot of sense for what I do here.

A little while ago, I experimented with starting a Patreon page, where readers can give me money every month in exchange for nothing. I am truly terrible at business matters. Accordingly, I have never promoted it here aside from a link I added to the sidebar.

Here’s the pitch: I am comfortable writing this website for free. I have done so for nearly ten years now, and have no intention of paywalling it or restricting posts. I would write here forever for no readers, as it’s one way for me to organize my thoughts on a handful of industries that I have dipped my toes in. However, I am lucky enough to have caught the attention of someone like yourself with this website. If you feel like pitching a little money my way every month, please do so at Patreon. If you do want to, or are unable to, please do not feel bad or guilty. I thank everyone equally for reading, whether it is just this post or you have been a subscriber for years.

However, despite what I can only describe as overwhelming and catastrophic demand, I am not setting up an OnlyFans.

Stephen Fry’s Seven Deadly Sins

This second season of Stephen Fry’s podcast was released in January — the first was Great Leap Years — but I am only now catching up. It’s nine episodes, of about forty minutes each, containing the vibrant and engaging storytelling Fry is known for. I don’t really do recommendations here, but this is absolutely worth listening to.

Mac Catalyst 2.0: Doubling Down on the Alignment of the Mac and iPad

John Voorhees, MacStories:

2020’s Mac Catalyst story is a more complicated narrative than ‘check a box, and your iPad app becomes a Mac app,’ but it’s also one that tells a more compelling story that fits with the alignment of the Mac and iPad as mutually reinforcing systems. The same thing can be seen in the redesign of macOS. The facile view is that the Mac is being remade in the iPad’s image. However, this perspective ignores the migration of features like sidebars, Finder-like file navigation, and cursor support from the Mac to the iPad. Each is evolving based on an overarching vision of creating a familiar but platform-specific UI that helps make users comfortable on any of Apple’s devices without learning different interactions and design metaphors where they don’t serve the unique qualities of each device.

In the limited time I’ve spent with the Messages and Maps apps in Big Sur, both demonstrate that Catalyst is no longer an interesting tech demo, but something that can be used to create viable cross-platform applications. I am impressed by what I have seen, and I hope most developers take the time to create a true Mac experience if they choose to port their app using Catalyst.

I still wonder why any of these apps shipped in such a poor state in Mojave, though. What was the rush?

One Month After Being Acquired by Google, North’s Smart Glasses Will Stop Working

Brooklyn Neustaeter, CTV News:

North, which started as Thalmic Labs in 2012, announced on June 30 that it would be “winding down” production of its Focals smart glasses following the acquisition. After July 31, the “smart” element of the glasses will be unusable.

In a statement posted on the company’s website, North said Focals 1.0, its first generation of smart glasses released last year, will be discontinued. The wearables company also said it has cancelled any plans to ship its second-generation Focals 2.0.

When Apple bought Dark Sky in April, I remember a not-insignificant number of writers complaining about how unfair it was that its API and Android apps would be discontinued, even though Dark Sky and Apple provided clear timelines.

By contrast, Google was not upfront about when these glasses would be killed off; North posted a help article the same day it was acquired. I don’t imagine that the product is particularly successful but, even so, it seems like a dick move to give buyers of its $600 glasses just one month’s notice that they would entirely stop working.

Deadspin Staffers, Who Quit in Protest, Start Defector

In October last year, writers at Deadspin quit en masse after G/O Media’s private equity owners asked them to write only about sports. You would think that this ownership would be thrilled that the site was already profitable and had a dedicated following that enjoyed its unique take on everything, but c’est la vie.

Marc Tracy, New York Times:

Now Deadspin’s former writers and editors — 18 of the roughly 20 who quit last year — have reunited to start a digital media company, Defector Media, that they will own and operate themselves.

Defector Media is scheduled to start a podcast next month and roll out its website in September, its founders said. Tom Ley, a former features editor at Deadspin, will be the editor in chief. The business side will be led by Jasper Wang, a former Bain & Company employee who said he had been an avid Deadspin reader since age 19.

Defector’s founders said the company had no outside investors, and each employee has taken a stake of roughly 5 percent in the venture. Unlike Deadspin, a free site that relies on ads, Defector will offer subscriptions at $8 a month, with an annual subscription available at a discount.

I am somewhat stingy with my subscription purchases, but a year of Defector was a no-brainer — and I don’t even like sports.

Checking Up on Promises Made During Tech Company Acquisitions

Cory Doctorow, writing for the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

[…] Regulators used to go to court to block mergers to prevent companies from growing so large that they could abuse their market power. In place of blocking mergers, today’s competition regulators like to add terms and conditions to them, exacting promises from companies to behave themselves after the merger is complete. This safeguard continues to enjoy popularity with competition regulators, despite the fact that companies routinely break their public promises to safeguard users’ privacy and rarely face consequences for doing so.

Tech companies are not alone in reneging on promises like these. Telecom firms like T-Mobile and AT&T have repeatedly failed to uphold agreed-upon acquisition terms, with absolutely no consequences.

Quarterly Earnings Announcements From All Four Tech Companies Represented at Wednesday’s Antitrust Hearing

Apple PR:

Apple today announced financial results for its fiscal 2020 third quarter ended June 27, 2020. The Company posted quarterly revenue of $59.7 billion, an increase of 11 percent from the year-ago quarter, and quarterly earnings per diluted share of $2.58, up 18 percent. International sales accounted for 60 percent of the quarter’s revenue.

Ina Fried, Axios:

In a conference call following blowout earnings, CFO Luca Maestri said that supply of the new iPhones will come “a few weeks later” than last year, when the new models went on sale in late September.

Mark Gurman on Twitter:

Cook also said that the pandemic likely hurt iPhone and wearables sales, but boosted iPad and Mac purchases. Also said AppleCare and ads were impacted, but said they made record revenue for the App Store, Apple Music, video and cloud services.

Jason Snell notes that this is a record-breaking third quarter. I bet Tim Cook is relieved these results were not yet public during yesterday’s hearing, when big tech companies were accused of profiteering during the pandemic.

Emily McCormick, Yahoo:

Facebook reported second-quarter results that handily topped estimates, growing its user base and advertising business further even during the pandemic and as the social media giant came under increased scrutiny for its policies around policing harmful content on its platforms.

Shares of Facebook rose 5% in late trading to $246.83, as of 4:09 p.m. ET following results.

Casey Newton, the Verge:

The surge in Facebook usage during early shelter-in-place orders in the United States was not just a blip. Daily users of Facebook increased 12 percent year over year, to 1.79 billion. Monthly usage across its family of apps, which also include Instagram and WhatsApp, rose 14 percent, to 3.14 billion. And Facebook’s mostly ad-based based business rose along with them: the company’s revenue was up 11 percent year over year, to $18.69 billion.

It’s not just the uncertainty of the markets right now — Facebook was also ostensibly the target of an advertiser boycott. It didn’t appear to have much impact. I bet Mark Zuckerberg is relieved these results were not yet public during yesterday’s hearing, when big tech companies were accused of profiteering during the pandemic.

Annie Palmer, CNBC:

Amazon reported blowout second-quarter results on Thursday, including a huge beat on the top line and double-digit revenue growth year-over-year, helped by surging sales amid the coronavirus pandemic. The stock climbed about 5.3% after hours.

[…]

Third-party sales grew 52% year-over-year during the quarter, outpacing growth in Amazon’s first-party sales, which increased 48% year-over-year.

I bet Jeff Bezos is relieved these results were not yet public during yesterday’s hearing, when big tech companies were accused of profiteering during the pandemic.

Jennifer Elias, CNBC:

Google parent-company Alphabet beat expectations for its second quarter earnings Thursday, but marked its first revenue decline in company history as the coronavirus pandemic slowed economic growth and advertisers pulled back spending during the quarter. The company’s stock barely moved after hours.

Natalie Gagliordi, ZDNet:

Strong growth in Google’s cloud business helped buoy an otherwise challenging quarter for Alphabet, as ad revenues across Search and YouTube struggle to rebound to pre-pandemic levels.

I bet Sundar Pichai is relieved yadda yadda.

The reality is that all four of these companies are infrastructural elements of working from home — even Facebook, which provides messaging services, can be considered essential. As far as I know, none of them deliberately increased prices to reflect higher demand. Some products did see a jump on Amazon, but that was the result of gougers exploiting the platform combined with the company’s dynamic pricing; Amazon said it was trying to combat gouging. But that’s a side-effect of already-established pricing mechanisms, not an indication that Amazon was taking advantage of a pandemic.

That’s not to say that these companies are benevolent. Whether they kept prices the same out of ethical obligation or simply because it would be a public relations nightmare is up to the whims of your particular brand of cynicism. Maybe it’s a little of both. In a tumultuous economy and with record unemployment in the United States, it sure is hard to look at these numbers and see them as something to celebrate, per se. These earnings are a reflection of the outsized role played by all four companies — and Microsoft, which announced strong growth last week. Tech companies don’t need to engage in profiteering when they are already so dominant.

Antitrust Finally Gets Its Hearing

Casey Newton, the Interface:

And yet for everything there is to criticize about today’s hearing, I came away from it mostly heartened. For the first time in half a century, Congress is taking its role as antitrust regulator seriously, and has undertaken a 13-month investigation that has so far produced 1.3 million documents laden with evidence. Members of the subcommittee have largely come to believe, as I do, that tech companies have grown too powerful and are in need of regulation. Wednesday offered them a chance to show us what they have found so far — and to hint at where they might be going next.

Newton’s is the most optimistic take I’ve seen yet — including my own — with less attention given to Congressional poseurs. I admire that.

You can read a portion of the internal documents uncovered by investigators on the House Judiciary website. One thing I noticed as I was reading through them is how easy it is to become entranced by this dialogue. It’s no wonder that many executives find themselves unable to step out of this bubble.

Ben Thompson’s Questions for Tech Company CEOs

Another good piece written before Wednesday’s antitrust hearing, from Ben Thompson:

To that end, I thought it would be interesting to think about what questions I would ask each of the CEOs were I on the committee — and to be clear, not all of these questions are being antagonistic (to take one example, I actually believe that Apple is justified in not allowing side-loading); I do think they deserve greater scrutiny though. […]

The fact that Apple and Google have more questions than Amazon and Facebook is not an accident: as I detailed in that article they have much more significant antitrust issues. It will be interesting to see if that fact is recognized by the committee. I am also interested to what extent these CEOs address each other; if any one CEO does make statements about another company, I would bet on Tim Cook attempting to raise questions about privacy and data collection, and thus focus more attention on Google and Facebook. Remember, though, this is the antitrust subcommittee — I hope committee members stay focused on competition issues.

I love Thompson’s optimism here, but this panned out almost exactly opposite of how he was hoping. Apple faced the least number of questions; Facebook and Google were each questioned more than twice as often. And, no, it did not stay focused on competition.

Despite Virtual Testimony From Tech Company CEOs, It Was In-Person Congressmen Who Departed From Reality

Robin Givhan, Washington Post:

The hearing was billed as an investigation into online competition. And much of the evidence laid out before Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, speaks to ruthless business practices. Zuckerberg still doesn’t quite grasp the impact of Facebook on civic life. And most of those on the subcommittee weren’t really up to the task of questioning Cook on Apple’s business practices. Still, the voices of small-business owners whose livelihoods had been upended by Amazon were at least piped into the room.

Too many of the Republicans were focused on playing put upon and abused. They seemed more interested in Trump Jr.’s Twitter habit and throwing out accusations of anti-Americanism at the only executive of color testifying. Stifled competition and bullied employees were side notes. The event was virtual, but the disgrace was real. The titans were diminished, but far too many of the subcommittee members were the ones who looked small.

An absolutely perfect summary of an excruciating four hour grandstanding session.

Big Tech’s Power Comes Under Fire at Congressional Antitrust Hearing

Ryan Tracy, Wall Street Journal:

The chief executives of Amazon.com Inc., Facebook Inc., Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google faced relentless criticism at a congressional hearing Wednesday, with Democrats and Republicans alike challenging their business practices.

[…]

The hearing was marked by lawmakers interrupting witnesses before they finished their responses. Mr. Bezos’ video feed went out early in the session, causing Mr. Cicilline to call a recess. At the outset, instead of asking the witnesses to stand and swear to tell the truth, Mr. Cicilline had a different request: “Unmute your microphones and raise your right hands.”

This was ostensibly a hearing about antitrust violations and anti-competitive behaviour, but Republicans by and large used it as an opportunity to accuse Google and Facebook, primarily, of being biased against American conservatives. For example, here’s Florida man Greg Steube recapping some of his questioning on Twitter:

When I confronted Google’s CEO about conservative censorship, he dodged the question.

His company allows videos of violence but blocks videos of medical doctors discussing a medication to treat COVID-19. We need answers and accountability.

It is a symptom of a jaundiced political environment that medical efficacy is being used by people like Rep. Steube as a wedge in his culture war conspiracy theories. It is also completely bananas that he equates minimizing harm from the spread of unproven coronavirus miracle cures with silencing conservative voices.

Rene Ritchie:

At what point does it sink in for Zuckerberg and Pachai that the anti-trust hearings — and fates of their companies — now rest, in part, with people their own algorithms, in part, helped indoctrinate into the cockamamie conspiracy theories now being weaponized against them?

Axios reporter Sara Fischer:

Tech execs always get a free pass from being pressed on serious, substantive issues when they go to The Hill because conservatives, who should care deeply about fair competition, are too distracted by unproven allegations of political censorship.

My problem is not with conservatism more generally, or even necessarily Republicans. It is with a handful of morons — Rep. Steube, Rep. Jordan, Rep. Gaetz, and Rep. Sensenbrenner — who wasted their entire questioning by soapboxing these plainly false theories. A useful public service would be to create a copy of this hearing without their bad faith questioning and, in Rep. Jordan’s case, frequent interruptions. Their presence was an embarrassment that only served to feed the most cynical of people who believe that regulation is inherently bad.

Happily, most of the Democrats on the Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee stayed on topic and repeatedly dug into these companies’ business models, acquisition strategies, and anticompetitive practices. The Verge apparently received under embargo internal Facebook emails discussing a potential acquisition of Instagram. The story, by Casey Newton and Nilay Patel, was published concurrent with Rep. Nadler’s questioning:

It’s a combination of neutralizing a competitor and improving Facebook, Zuckerberg said in a reply. “There are network effect around social products and a finite number of different social mechanics to invent. Once someone wins at a specific mechanic, it’s difficult for others to supplant them without doing something different.”

Zuckerberg continued: “One way of looking at this is that what we’re really buying is time. Even if some new competitors springs up, buying Instagram, Path, Foursquare, etc now will give us a year or more to integrate their dynamics before anyone can get close to their scale again. Within that time, if we incorporate the social mechanics they were using, those new products won’t get much traction since we’ll already have their mechanics deployed at scale.”

Forty-five minutes later, Zuckerberg sent a carefully worded clarification to his earlier, looser remarks.

“I didn’t mean to imply that we’d be buying them to prevent them from competing with us in any way,” he wrote.

Nice save.

Tim Cook’s opening remarks, meanwhile, stuck to Apple’s current antitrust messaging, flaws and all. Rob Pegoraro, Forbes:

Cook has a stronger case with mobile apps. Installing apps on early handheld organizers was not so easy, requiring a download to a computer and then a transfer to the gadget. But by the mid 2000s, Palm OS handhelds and smartphones hosted a thriving market for third-party software.

Apple first ignored that precedent: A year before the iOS App Store’s debut, Steve Jobs told developers to content themselves with shipping web apps for the iPhone.

“The App Store certainly added efficiency and greater breadth, which I wouldn’t argue with—but that’s a function of improving technology,” emailed Mark Vena, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy (his firm also posts on Forbes).

The App Store’s exclusivity over native iOS app distribution rarely came up during today’s hearing, and Cook deftly sidestepped questions about Apple’s control over the market. At one point, when asked about control, he noted that Apple does not control web apps. That’s entirely true, but I cannot recall anyone pressing Cook on whether that’s a fair comparison. Web apps and native apps do not have all of the same capabilities,1 and there is no other avenue by which native apps may be installed on the most popular smartphone model in the United States, the most popular tablet in the United States, the most popular watch in the United States, or an Apple TV.

I wish it were not so easy for Cook to deflect.

Peter Kafka of Vox nailed it before the hearing began:

Some of you already know that congressional hearings are just that — a chance to hear from citizens and government officials. At a minimum, they are a place to get public answers on the record, like the grilling US Attorney General William Barr received from the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday over everything from his handling of the Mueller investigation to his use of federal troops to quell protests in Washington, DC, and Portland, Oregon.

And sometimes, like in Wednesday’s case, they can also be high-profile bits of theater.

Aside from the theatre, gotcha moments, and wild conspiracy theories, what this hearing demonstrated is that insipid antitrust enforcement has failed the American consumer for decades. I’m Canadian — the biggest tech companies in the world are mostly American, but I feel the side effects of a lack of regulatory responsibility.


  1. I have previously argued that this is a good thing, and I stand by that. ↩︎

A Preview of Wednesday’s Big Tech Antitrust Hearing

Om Malik:

The big tech is going through the great American ritual — the making of stars, the praise of the stars, and then the tearing down of the stars. We do it to our celebrities. We do it to our sports stars. And we do it to our technology companies. It is not a judgment on the cause or the punishment. I am merely pointing out the pattern of our media-saturated society. We may not manufacture a lot of things in America, but we produce new heroes and newer villains quite well in America.

At some point, we sour on the success we once celebrated. That is why we have this constant need for new heroes. Frankly, we could use some new heroes in technology. It is hard to romanticize the big tech. It was not always that way.

Kevin Roose:

Gotta love the ultra-earnest people who are like “I hope Congress delves into neo-Brandeisian antitrust theory during tomorrow’s Big Tech hearing.” We will be lucky if we escape without Alex Jones zoombombing in a Captain Shadowban costume.

I don’t know that I agree with Malik’s assertion that it is entirely a waste of time to bring CEOs of four of the biggest tech companies to Washington — metaphorically, if not literally — to answer questions. But he’s right: it’s a manufactured event. Everyone there is wholly aware that they are on camera, so expect the usual grandstanding and loaded questions from those with ulterior motives, mixed with tech support complaints. Maybe we will learn something from the handful of representatives who are genuinely inquisitive and attentive.

Testimony from the four CEOs is available on Congress’ website. Of them, only Sundar Pichai’s matches his company’s branding. Jeff Bezos’ is typeset in Calibri, while Mark Zuckerberg and Tim Cook chose Times. For some reason, Cook’s is a scanned copy of a printed document.

Uzi Nissan, Internet Domain Owner Who Fought Nissan in Court for a Decade, Has Died of Covid-19

Justin T. Westbrook, Jalopnik:

Uzi Nissan, the infamous owner of the nissan.com web domain who fought with the automaker of the same name for nearly a decade in court, has passed away from Covid-19 complications this month.

Please wear your mask in public and look over the Centers for Disease Control guidelines for protecting yourself and others from spreading Covid-19.

I reported on Uzi Nissan’s legacy battling the Nissan car company in court back in early 2018, as my first big assignment as a full-time writer for the website. I interviewed Uzi several times, sifting through a decade of court documents, attempting to recall one of the most inspiring and stubborn underdog stories of the internet age. The only person willing to still piece it all together for me was the man himself, Uzi Nissan.

You should read Westbrook’s report on the battle over nissan.com. It is a story of a half-triumphant, half-hollow legal victory that came at enormous financial and emotional cost.

The Icons of Big Sur

A few of these are better than the icons they replace, a few are worse — what the fuck is going on with that QuickTime icon? — but most are equivalent replacements. Many of the icons I have been ambivalent about since Yosemite I feel similarly about in Big Sur.

One weird thing about these is that Apple is now packaging the icon along with most of an app’s visual resources in the app’s Assets.car file. Back in the days when it was still called “Mac OS X”, you could open up an app’s Resources directory and take a look at all of the .png and .tif pieces that built it, but those days are numbered. If you have even a passing interest in this sort of stuff, I recommend familiarizing yourself with Bartosz Janda’s excellent acextract.

See Also: Nick Keppol’s 2014 article about Yosemite’s redesigned icons.

Reuters Interviews Phil Schiller Ahead of U.S. Antitrust Hearing

Stephen Nellis, Reuters:

“One of the things we came up with is, we’re going to treat all apps in the App Store the same – one set of rules for everybody, no special deals, no special terms, no special code, everything applies to all developers the same. That was not the case in PC software. Nobody thought like that. It was a complete flip around of how the whole system was going to work,” Schiller said.

I know I wrote this once before today, but this simply isn’t true and I don’t understand why Apple’s representatives keep repeating it when it is so easily proved false.

Peter Steinberger enumerated several entitlements given to high-profile developers in a Twitter thread:

Panic’s com.apple.developer.security.privileged-file-operations

BBEdit’s com.apple.security.automation.apple-events

Microsoft’s com.apple.security.files.user-selected.executable

com.apple.developer.passkit.pass-presentation-suppression that we didn’t get

Amazon’s com.apple.storekit.request-data to run purchases without that 30% tax.

Uber’s com.apple.private.allow-explicit-graphics-priority

These entitlements are given to apps from trusted and revered developers; I do not necessarily think that it is wrong for Apple to be selective about the use of these exemptions. But the very existence of anointed apps shows that Schiller’s claim is not accurate.

It also means that it’s harder for an ordinary developer to compete with these apps. Uber’s use of that entitlement allowed it to improve the performance of its Apple Watch app; the entitlement afforded to Panic allows a user of Transmit, purchased through the Mac App Store, to edit unowned files. Microsoft’s products have a host of entitlements that allow for a similar user experience no matter if they were purchased through the Mac App Store or separately. Normal developers, lacking access to these entitlements, may not be able to implement some features with the same experience.

Nellis, Reuters:

In the mid-2000s, software sold through physical stores involved paying for shelf space and prominence, costs that could eat 50% of the retail price, said Ben Bajarin, head of consumer technologies at Creative Strategies. Small developers could not break in.

Bajarin said the App Store’s predecessor was Handango, a service that around 2005 let developers deliver apps over cellular connections to users’ Palm and other devices for a 40% commission.

With the App Store, “Apple took that to a whole other level. And at 30%, they were a better value,” Bajarin said.

This piece of analysis is pretty generous to Apple, and Nellis does not adequately contextualize it or push back. Software differs from physical goods in that it is both pragmatic and typical for creators to sell their product directly to users. I get why the App Store is being compared to other stores and marketplaces, but it isn’t as though buying software from the developer is uncommon.

But the App Store had rules: Apple reviewed each app and mandated the use of Apple’s own billing system. Schiller said Apple executives believed users would feel more confident buying apps if they felt their payment information was in trusted hands.

“We think our customers’ privacy is protected that way. Imagine if you had to enter credit cards and payments to every app you’ve ever used,” he said.

That’s how it has been done for ages, but I think Schiller’s right — I prefer using Apple’s in-app payment mechanism. I wish it was a better solution for developers, even without considering Apple’s commission. I wish it was something developers and users got to choose rather than having it forced upon them.

Apple’s Thirty Percent Cut

Brent Simmons:

Quality costs money, and profitability is just simple arithmetic: anything that affects income — such as Apple’s cut — goes into that equation.

To put it in concrete terms: the difference between 30% and something reasonable like 10% would probably have meant some of my friends would still have their jobs at Omni, and Omni would have more resources to devote to making, testing, and supporting their apps.

Jack Nicas and David McCabe, New York Times:

ClassPass built its business on helping people book exercise classes at local gyms. So when the pandemic forced gyms across the United States to close, the company shifted to virtual classes.

Then ClassPass received a concerning message from Apple. Because the classes it sold on its iPhone app were now virtual, Apple said it was entitled to 30 percent of the sales, up from no fee previously, according to a person close to ClassPass who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting Apple. The iPhone maker said it was merely enforcing a decade-old rule.

Airbnb experienced similar demands from Apple after it began an “online experiences” business that offered virtual cooking classes, meditation sessions and drag-queen shows, augmenting the in-person experiences it started selling in 2016, according to two people familiar with the issues.

[…]

Apple said it believed that Airbnb had long intended to offer virtual experiences — not that the business was created simply because of the pandemic — and that it would continue to do so once the world has resumed to normal. Apple also pointed out that Airbnb had never paid Apple any money despite the fact that it built its multibillion-dollar business with the help of its iPhone app.

At least Apple is being consistent and not offering Airbnb and ClassPass a sweetheart deal, as it did with Hulu and Netflix on the Apple TV.

I’m not sure many people are swayed by the line Apple keeps dropping about how some developers, despite paying no more than the Apple Developer annual fee, have built successful businesses with its platforms. Developers sold software for the Mac decades before the App Store came along — it’s not like Apple got a cut of any of those purchases, but I bet it gained some lifelong customers because of some of that software.

Dieter Bohn, the Verge;

All of these arguments are old hat. And though the Netflixes, Fortnites, and Spotifys of the world are surely vexed by Apple’s policies, I think that for many smaller developers the 30-percent fee is simply not at the top of their list of concerns. Higher priorities likely include prices being driven down, market dynamics being corrupted by free-to-play games, upgrades made difficult because of limited pricing models, review-bombing over subscription fees, and just making payroll.

No matter whether the thirty percent commission is at the top of a developer’s list of priorities, it is only being scrutinized so closely because native third party apps cannot be distributed for any of Apple’s non-Mac platforms outside of the App Store. I feel like something has to give.

John Gruber:

Why not pull a Steve Jobs on the App Store? Cut the commission rate to 85/15 across the board and act like it’s innovative and something only Apple could or would do. Open up the Netflix rule to all developers — maintain the rule that if your app charges money as an in-app purchase, you must use Apple’s in-app payment system — but let any and all apps choose to do what Netflix does if they want to opt out of that, and sign up customers on their own outside the app. Just make all of this antitrust stuff disappear before it even starts by eliminating the complaints about money and maintaining what matters more to Apple: independence and control.

Matt Birchler:

This is done video games (like the Unreal Engine) and coincidentally also in payments, but Apple could have a system where you pay your $99/year to publish your app, and then you don’t pay a penny more unless you sell over X units per year. Maybe that’s 1,000, maybe it’s 10,000, but there would be some cut off where you would go from paying either nothing or a very small portion of each sale to Apple, but once you hit the big time, that percentage would go up to the standard rate.

This would benefit smaller indies who really need every penny to stay float, but it would make no difference to the bigger players, so while it would make some people in our community happy, it would do nothing for the Netflixes, Spotifys, and Amazons of the world.

I’m surprised Apple has let the App Store’s policies drag along largely unchanged for twelve years, even as momentum has built around antitrust cases. This is something Apple could have — should have, I think — dealt with as iPhone and app sales grew. The same goes for its insistence that all developers play by the same set of rules as it exempted some developers from various App Store policies.

These are both choices Apple has made, and it can change at any time. It can be more honest about the way it treats higher-profile developers, and it can modify its revenue agreement.

While it is inaccurate to call the App Store commission a “tax” and it would be inadvisable to duplicate the tax code, Apple has used the App Store’s cut in a similar way. For example, it allowed a handful of tvOS developers to use their own payment mechanisms in exchange for implementing platform features. Along similar lines, I’ve been arguing for years for a progressive fee structure which, I believe, would help independent developers in particular.

I still can’t work out why Apple — a company that notoriously loves control — is risking having its App Store policies changed by regulators.

Update: E.U. regulations took effect a couple of weeks ago that require online marketplaces, like the App Store, to disclose preferential treatment and enforces transparency around search rankings. It also requires Apple to give thirty days’ notice to developers before an app or service is removed from sale, with exceptions for scams, intellectual property infringement, and similar offences. These regulations seem not to apply to console stores, which are not being treated as marketplaces. Via Michael Tsai.

A Bloomberg Report Says That Twitter Has Struggled for Years to Control Internal Access to High-Profile Accounts

Jordan Robertson, Bloomberg:

Twitter’s oversight over the 1,500 workers who reset accounts, review user breaches and respond to potential content violations for the service’s 186 million daily users have been a source of recurring concern, the employees said. The breadth of personal data most of those workers could access is relatively limited — including such things as Internet Protocol addresses, email addresses and phone numbers — but it’s a starting point to snoop on or even hack an account, they said.

The controls were so porous that at one point in 2017 and 2018 some contractors made a kind of game out of creating bogus help-desk inquiries that allowed them to peek into celebrity accounts, including Beyonce’s, to track the stars’ personal data including their approximate locations gleaned from their devices’ IP addresses, two of the former employees said.

If you recognize the byline on this article, it might be because Robertson is one of the two reporters credited for Bloomberg’s as-yet uncorroborated 2018 report about Chinese interception of server hardware. I don’t normally have a problem with Bloomberg’s articles, its use of anonymous sources, or any specific nit to pick in this piece. But it must be read with the knowledge that its author also wrote a high-profile information security story that, nearly two years later, has not been expanded upon by Bloomberg, corroborated by another publication, or commented upon by its reporters.

For the sake of this post, I am assuming Robertson’s sources at Twitter are reliable and that he is conveying this information accurately, but it would be so much easier to read stories like this if someone — anyone — would explain what the hell happened with that “Big Hack” story.

A couple of years ago, Deepa Seetharaman reported for the Wall Street Journal about Facebook’s unfair implementation of employee access:

Facebook alerts users if they’ve been hacked by outsiders but doesn’t inform them about employees’ access. “Anyone can get alerts about unrecognized logins from other users and check for suspicious activity.” the FB spokesman said.

The ability to log into Facebook as a user without needing that person’s password is limited to a small group of security personnel and other employees. Their actions are closely monitored, current and former employees say.

[…]

Employees, though, are always notified when Facebook engineers access their accounts, even when the company is investigating a possible crime or wrongdoing, the person said.

Twitter will also show new and unrecognized logins on the Notifications page and send the user an email. I cannot think of a good reason why a similar notification should not be displayed when an engineer accesses private information in a user’s account — with the exception of criminal investigations when Twitter or Facebook would be prohibited from doing so. Ideally, employees should have to get some sort of confirmation from a user before their account is able to be accessed.

WaPo Reporter Emphasizes Nondisclosure Agreements in Article About Apple’s ‘Find My’ Spec

Reed Albergotti, Washington Post:

During Apple’s annual developers conference last month, it announced that smaller developers would finally have access to its Find My app, a move that on the surface could appease developers who have asserted that Apple has too much power.

It turns out the announcement was not what it seemed, according to a secret Apple document obtained by The Washington Post.

Apple is notorious for its control over disclosure of materials, even internally, but there is nothing especially secretive about the Find My spec. Just about all materials provided to developers are subject to a nondisclosure agreement; by that standard, they are all “secret”. Albergotti seems to find that surprising and maybe nefarious:

But the details of the announcement — kept secret by a confidentiality agreement all developers were required to sign — tell a different story. A 50-page PDF obtained by The Post shows Apple has placed strict restrictions on how consumers will be able to use the app. Apple customers who use Find My to locate a device will be barred from using other competing services simultaneously, the document says.

[…]

Before doing so, developers had to sign an additional document called the “Limited License to Find My Network Accessory Spec,” which prevented them from sharing details about the new specification. The document threatened legal action by Apple against individual developers for speaking about it, according to a developer who downloaded the document. The developer shared the details of the document and spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being sued by Apple.

That developer said the confidentiality agreement was stricter than the ones Apple sometimes distributes along with prerelease software.

If you are an Apple developer, you can find both the nondisclosure agreement and Find My spec on the developer website. And, as an Apple developer, you will likely recognize the format of the NDA as being almost identical to that of any other Apple NDA you have previously signed. Neither are marked “Apple confidential” unlike, for example, a Made for Apple contract. This arrangement is not unique to Apple, either, and Albergotti’s obsession with it has led to shocked and misleading headlines.

It also has nothing to do with the main story:

A 50-page PDF obtained by The Post shows Apple has placed strict restrictions on how consumers will be able to use the app. Apple customers who use Find My to locate a device will be barred from using other competing services simultaneously, the document says.

In the interest of accuracy, the document does not say that customers won’t be able to use competing services. As it is a developer-focused document, it says that devices made for the Find My network may not use other device finding networks. A user is able to use a Find My locating device alongside a locator supported by another service.

But that does seem limiting. It means that Tile, for example, cannot integrate with the Find My app and also use its proprietary spec. Products that do not adopt Apple’s Find My spec also do not get to take advantage of its more permissive access to background location activity. One reason for this could be that there is no reason why a third-party service could not piggyback on the always-running Find My service to get a person’s live location, creating an obvious privacy vulnerability. That’s why third-party services have restrictions on Bluetooth and location access in the first place.

Albergotti does not explore any of these avenues, opting instead to connect these restrictions to the ongoing pandemic:

The Bluetooth antenna limitation became a major issue for countries and states trying to build “contact-tracing” apps to follow the spread of the coronavirus. Because of Apple’s limitations on Bluetooth antenna use, the apps, which were meant to track when people were potentially exposed to the virus, did not work properly. Countries and states pleaded with Apple to allow full access to Bluetooth, but the company refused.

That link points readers to Albergotti’s previous reporting for the Post that misrepresented the restrictions placed on third-party users of location and Bluetooth access in Android and iOS. Perhaps it should have linked to this other Post article that explains how many contact tracing apps built outside of the framework developed jointly by Apple and Google often lack basic security protections and are sharing users’ location data without their consent. Given that, I find it much less mysterious why Apple is so strenuously guarding the use of its other always-on location-based service. Does it have a knock-on effect of disadvantaging third parties like Tile? I guess, though an Apple spokesperson told Albergotti that it offers a means of developing a locator product without having to build out a dedicated network.

This is yet another reason why strict privacy legislation is so badly needed. I don’t know that Apple would offer live location access to developers if it were confident that it wouldn’t be used in ways abusive to user privacy. I think it would; a more cynical person might think it would not. But if private user data were more strictly regulated, Apple would not have to make that choice; instead, users could decide, with less compromise.