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Archives — Pixel Envy

Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Uber and Lyft Desperately Don’t Want to Be Required to Consider Their Drivers as Employees

Hamilton Nolan, Splinter:

I sincerely hope that what I am about to say is already obvious to anyone empowered to be involved in negotiation legal, political, or labor policy, but: The one thing they don’t want to give you is the thing that you need to get. This offer from Uber and Lyft is like a kidnapper offering you a softer blanket, as long as you agree not to ever escape. No thanks. These companies know very well that once their workers become actual employees, they will get a host of benefits automatically, and they can formally unionize to win themselves many more benefits and increased pay. These companies, which have never made a dollar even while exploiting their workers, fear this. So they offer some concessions.

Uber’s S-1 filing is revealing for why they are fighting so desperately against treating drivers as employees:

If, as a result of legislation or judicial decisions, we are required to classify Drivers as employees (or as workers or quasi-employees where those statuses exist), we would incur significant additional expenses for compensating Drivers, potentially including expenses associated with the application of wage and hour laws (including minimum wage, overtime, and meal and rest period requirements), employee benefits, social security contributions, taxes, and penalties.

Meanwhile, taxicab drivers have been receiving confirmation across the United States that they are employees, not independent contractors. The U.S. Department of Labor found that Stanford Cab in San Jose misclassified drivers, and courts in California and New Jersey have ruled that taxi drivers are employees. If drivers are found to be employees, Uber and Lyft would no longer be able to undercut taxicab companies by not providing full compensation.

The New Wilderness

Maciej Cegłowski:

While people argue over the balance to strike between environmental preservation and economic activity, no one now denies that this tradeoff exists — that some technologies and ways of earning money must remain off limits because they are simply too harmful.

This regulatory project has been so successful in the First World that we risk forgetting what life was like before it. Choking smog of the kind that today kills thousands in Jakarta and Delhi was once emblematic of London. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio used to reliably catch fire. In a particularly horrific example of unforeseen consequences, tetraethyl lead added to gasoline raised violent crime rates worldwide for fifty years.

None of these harms could have been fixed by telling people to vote with their wallet, or carefully review the environmental policies of every company they gave their business to, or to stop using the technologies in question. It took coordinated, and sometimes highly technical, regulation across jurisdictional boundaries to fix them. In some cases, like the ban on commercial refrigerants that depleted the ozone layer, that regulation required a worldwide consensus.

We’re at the point where we need a similar shift in perspective in our privacy law. The infrastructure of mass surveillance is too complex, and the tech oligopoly too powerful, to make it meaningful to talk about individual consent. Even experts don’t have a full picture of the surveillance economy, in part because its beneficiaries are so secretive, and in part because the whole system is in flux. Telling people that they own their data, and should decide what to do with it, is just another way of disempowering them.

A lawyer for Facebook argued last year that users can have no expectation of privacy if they interact with the company’s products, which I think shows a callous indifference to whether users should have an expectation of privacy. It’s dismissive to the point of callousness. A lack of meaningful legislation protecting individual and collective privacy freedoms is increasingly a failure of ethics and responsibility.

Dropbox Debuts New Client, Increases Plan Prices

Dropbox announced in a 22 megabyte blog post that they are launching a new Electron-powered client with a bunch of whiz-bang features and which uses dumb amounts of resources. Michael Tsai collected some commentary about it and also the price increase that they announced last week.

All of this is starting to remind me of my ISP, which is not a great sign:

  1. I loathe my ISP.

  2. There is no easy way to increase prices, but there are plenty of wrong ways, and this feels like one of them. Dropbox used the old trick of adding a few features to justify a dramatic cost increase, to force a choice between a stripped-down plan and one that’s overkill for many individual users’ needs.

    My ISP does the same thing: you can get a pathetic 15 Mbps connection for $82 per month — eighty-two dollars per month, in 2019, for speeds that would be embarrassing on a DSL line ten years ago — or a 100 Mbps connection for $92 per month. That’s not really a choice, of course — it’s a way to get a minimum of another $120 per year from every customer.

    In much the same way, Dropbox offers users the choice between their free plan — with just 2 gigabytes of storage and syncing between only three devices — or their 2 terabyte Plus plan, which costs nearly $160 per year in Canada. Will you be having the Dom Perignon tonight or a glass of mop water?

  3. For my use, Dropbox is practically a utility. I sync some folders and share a few of them with friends. The individual users I know treat it similarly. Steve Jobs may have been overly flippant when he described Dropbox as a feature, but I don’t think he was that far off. A syncing service, much like an internet connection, is supremely useful, but not inherently interesting. My ISP tries to pretend that it’s a high-tech company by, for example, marketing its rebranded mesh WiFi routers, but I just want to pay them as little money as I can every month to have an adequate and reliable internet connection. I think of Dropbox similarly: let me pay a reasonable amount of money to sync stuff between my devices.

I suppose Dropbox’s new client is indicative of their increased emphasis on enterprise customers. It sure seems like they’re more eager to compete with Slack and Microsoft than they are to provide syncing tools to individual customers. I’ll respond accordingly by making sure no files or apps I rely upon are dependent on Dropbox.

‘The Bing of Maps’

Harsh title on this piece by Om Malik:

During the keynote at the recently concluded WWDC 2019, Apple executives made a big deal about the massive improvements in the Maps. This is a brand new Maps, Apple said. It is rebuilt and has more detailed information about everything from terrain to roads to landmarks. Apple said it drove four million miles to get better, richer data. The new Maps will also allow you to add favorite places and create a list of personal locations that can be shared with friends and family members. It will have a feature called “Look Around,” which is like Google’s Street View but with maybe slightly slicker and smoother visuals.

My reaction to Apple Maps was a shrug. So, they are finally catching up to Google — but will they ever be able to catch up with Google Maps? The WWDC hoopla around this tells me that Apple thinks of Apple Maps as an application, whereas in reality, maps are all about data — something Google understands better than anyone. Google maps are getting richer with data by the day. The more people use those maps to find locations, the deeper their data set gets. In my last visit to Old Delhi, I was able to find antique stores in back alleys with no difficulty at all. Apple Maps was nowhere close.

By the time Apple launched their maps product in 2012, Google had at least a seven year head start from the launch of Google Maps. Seven years is a hell of a long time to collect data, display it, make updates based on feedback, and establish a process for making cartographic and data changes. Coincidentally, Apple Maps is about as old now as Google Maps was when Apple launched their product.

Even so, in my area, Apple Maps has generally equalled Google Maps for my typical low-demand use. Its turn-by-turn directions are decent, its business listings are mostly fine — even though store hours are of dubious reliability — and it has the added bonus of not pestering me to log into an account. But the nature of mapping products is such that their quality is entirely location-dependent. In regions where fewer people use iPhone, the quality of Apple’s maps noticeably suffers. And if Malik’s central thesis is correct — that Apple Maps will forever be a distant second or third to Google Maps — then it is somewhat worrying if usage is as correlated with data quality as it appears to be.

Also, for what it’s worth, there’s already a Bing of maps. It’s really bad.

Update: Even though the iPhone has decent market share in Japan, map quality isn’t great there either.

The FCC Said Repealing Net Neutrality Rules Would Help Consumers, But It Hasn’t

Rob Pegoraro, Yahoo Finance:

FCC chairman Ajit Pai repeatedly emphasized that eliminating the rules would help smaller ISPs in particular bring competition to the market. “They told us that these rules prevented them from extending their service because they had to spend money on lawyers and accountants,” he said in a June 2018 statement.

A year later, the bargain looks unfulfilled. Evidence remains scant of ISPs saving money from this regulatory rollback, or working to give consumers faster or better broadband options. But they also don’t seem to be using their new power, much less abusing it.

[…]

On the other hand, we haven’t seen telco execs indulge their dreams of surcharging sites.

It’s no surprise that promises of increased investment aren’t panning out, but Pegoraro’s claim that we haven’t seen abuses of power isn’t accurate. Comcast announced that its Netflix competitor would be free of charge for TV service subscribers. AT&T is set to launch deeply creepy behavioural advertising as a direct result of the demise of net neutrality and ISP privacy laws thanks to this woeful FCC.

These moves may not exactly match that dystopian mockup of future internet plans, but they’re just as detrimental to consumer choice, cost, and privacy — AT&T and Comcast are just more subtle.

Privacy Policies Are Incomprehensible Disasters

Kevin Litman-Navarro, New York Times:

Consumers don’t need a technical understanding of data collection processes in order to protect their personal information. Instead of explaining the excruciatingly complicated inner workings of the data marketplace, privacy policies should help people decide how they want to present themselves online. We tend to go on the internet privately – on our phones or at home – which gives the impression that our activities are also private. But, often, we’re more visible than ever.

A good privacy policy would help users understand how exposed they are: Something as simple as a list of companies that might purchase and use your personal information could go a long way towards setting a new bar for privacy-conscious behavior. For example, if you know that your weather app is constantly tracking your whereabouts and selling your location data as marketing research, you might want to turn off your location services entirely, or find a new app.

Sarah Jeong:

And in all fairness, the New York Times privacy policy is slightly longer and harder to understand!

Most privacy policies are not documents that would befit their name. They are not policies that ensure the privacy of visitors, users, or customers. They are most often contracts that allow for as much freedom for the company and whatever third parties it designates and as few remedies as possible for signatories. They are terrific examples of the corruption of the definition of privacy.

Postcards From Chernobyl

You may have seen that popular tweet ostensibly showing people “flocking” to Chernobyl to post glamorous photos of themselves on Instagram. Unsurprisingly, that explanation is wildly incorrect.

Taylor Lorenz, the Atlantic:

By yesterday evening, Zupan’s tweet had been collectively shared tens of thousands of times. Even Chrissy Teigen retweeted it to her 11.2 million followers. But the viral tweet’s claim is false, and its premise — that photos at sites of tragedy are inherently self-serving and in poor taste — is misleading.

While the area surrounding the destroyed reactor has undeniably morphed into a tourist destination, and interest in the disaster has spiked since the premiere of HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl, the Instagram geotag offers zero evidence of any uptick in lifestyle influencers visiting the site. Three of the four people that Zupan chose to highlight in his tweet aren’t influencers at all.

Photos like those highlighted in the tweet have been posted on Instagram for years; I know that because I’ve been looking at them for years. I’m not interested in disaster tourism but I’ve long wanted to visit the Duga radar arrays in the Exclusion Zone.

If this silly tweet proves anything about influence, it’s that a television show can spike interest in pretty typical photographs shared on the web — albeit of a place of pain and suffering — and people might ascribe horrible motivations to their subjects.

How DRM Has Permitted Google to Have an “Open Source” Browser That Is Still Under Its Exclusive Control

Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing:

That’s where Google’s web-dominating Chrome browser (and its nominally free/open cousin, Chromium) come in: these have become the defacto standard for web browsing, serving as the core for browsers like Microsoft Edge and Opera.

And while you can use or adapt Chromium to your heart’s content, your new browser won’t work with most internet video unless you license a proprietary DRM component called Widevine from Google. The API that connects to Widevine was standardized in 2017 by the World Wide Web Consortium, whose members narrowly voted down a proposal to change the membership rules for the W3C to require members not to abuse the DMCA to prevent DRM from becoming a tool to undermine competition.

Prior to 2017, all W3C standards were free for anyone to implement, allowing free/open browser developers to create their own rivals to the big companies’ offerings. But now, a key W3C standard requires a proprietary component to be functional, and that component is under Google’s control, and the company will not authorize free/open source developers to use that component.

Reminds me a little of the efforts by Facebook and Google to disassociate privacy from common understanding. Facebook and Google do not value privacy; Google doesn’t really care about open source.

By the way, I get why Netflix and Apple Music and all the rest of these streaming media platforms use DRM, but I am discouraged by how quickly we all decided to pretend that DRM is not horrible.

New Study Shows That All This Ad Targeting Doesn’t Really Work

I’m shocked.

Meanwhile, spending on ads in podcasts just keeps growing — most of that is not targeted and only barely tracked through the use of referral or discount codes. Patience Haggin, Wall Street Journal:

U.S. advertisers spent $479.1 million advertising on podcasts in 2018, up 53% from about $313.9 million a year earlier, according to a new report from the industry group Interactive Advertising Bureau and accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers LLC.

Podcast advertising is expected to rise to $678.7 million this year, the report said.

[…]

Podcasters and their advertisers are still waiting for a standard, widely used method of measuring listens, which would provide more precise audience metrics than download counts.

Podcasts don’t need more specific numbers. Television, radio, and magazines did really well for decades on approximate audience sizes. The appearance of precision is a relatively new phenomenon for advertisers and it’s often inaccurate and, in many ways, is inherently flawed.

Also, I’d be willing to bet that podcasters and advertisers aren’t the ones pushing for more data on listeners; ad tech companies conveniently represented by the Interactive Advertising Bureau almost certainly are.

Four Links Regarding the Building Antitrust Cases Against Large Tech Companies

Assistant Attorney General of the United States Makan Delrahim delivered a speech today at the New Frontiers of Antitrust Conference in Tel Aviv:

AT&T held near-monopoly positions in its telephone equipment and its telecommunications service businesses. Its maintenance of those monopolies triggered a series of antitrust complaints. In 1974, the United States sued AT&T for monopolization and alleged a long list of restrictive practices. The company defended its practices and its “integrated” structure by arguing that it offered the public superior price, performance, and innovation. This argument was not successful. After years of litigation, the company agreed to be broken up into separate local and long-distance companies – the “baby Bells” – in 1982 by the Reagan Administration.

Delrahim’s speech can be read as a loose outline of how the Department of Justice may proceed with its investigations into Apple and Google. He references three cases in his speech; the AT&T example above is one. It is striking to me that the vertically-integrated telecom giants of today are not a part of their forthcoming investigation.

Matt Novak, Gizmodo:

President Donald Trump suggested this morning that Attorney General Bill Barr might go after the big tech companies, seeming to confirm rumors that the U.S. Justice Department would soon launch an onslaught against Silicon Valley. The DOJ is reportedly thinking about an antitrust investigation of Google but Trump’s comments today hint that “antitrust” might be a smokescreen for other motives.

[…]

What could the real reason be for Trump pursuing a case against Big Tech? Trump has previously railed against American tech giants for being “biased” against conservatives and recently called for a boycott of AT&T because the company owns CNN. Trump’s attacks on CNN are solely based on the fact that the news network will report on Trump’s various crimes against humanity without the rosy shine that viewers might see on Fox News.

Ben Thompson is skeptical of the formidability of antitrust cases against the big tech companies:

Ultimately, when it comes to antitrust actions against tech companies in the U.S., there really isn’t nearly as much there as all of the attendant fervor would suggest. Google is absolutely vulnerable, Apple somewhat less so, and it is very hard to see any sort of case against Facebook or Amazon.

The validity of these rumoured antitrust cases is something that must, of course, be judged independently of the proclivities of the stupid oaf currently spinning in his chair in the Oval Office. Whether Thompson is correct can only be evaluated in courts and through long legal proceedings. But it’s hard not to see the influence of the remarks explained by Novak above as an equal motivator in the public square of these investigations, even if they have no legal standing, and that’s an obvious worry.

Update: One more link. Victoria Song, Gizmodo:

The U.S. Justice Department recently signaled it was exploring possible antitrust investigations into Google and Apple. Leading those investigations—assuming they actually happen—would be none other than Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, a former lobbyist that presidential hopeful and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren says should recuse himself due to his history with both companies.

In a letter to Delrahim, Warren notes Google paid Delrahim about $100,000 in 2007 to lobby federal antitrust officials for the company’s acquisition of DoubleClick Inc, an online ad company. That gig paid off, as it eventually culminated in a $3.1 billion merger. As for Delrahim’s ties to Apple, Warren notes he also lobbied on behalf of the Cupertino giant regarding patent reforms. The letter further emphasizes that Delrahim worked as a corporate lobbyist until 2016, and counted Anthem, Pfizer, Qualcomm, and Caesars among his clients.

I maintain that Google’s purchase of DoubleClick must rank near the top of the list of acquisitions that should never have been allowed.

Historically Significant Master Recordings Destroyed in 2008 Fire at Universal Studios

Jody Rosen, New York Times:

The archive in Building 6197 was UMG’s main West Coast storehouse of masters, the original recordings from which all subsequent copies are derived. A master is a one-of-a-kind artifact, the irreplaceable primary source of a piece of recorded music. According to UMG documents, the vault held analog tape masters dating back as far as the late 1940s, as well as digital masters of more recent vintage. It held multitrack recordings, the raw recorded materials — each part still isolated, the drums and keyboards and strings on separate but adjacent areas of tape — from which mixed or “flat” analog masters are usually assembled. And it held session masters, recordings that were never commercially released.

UMG maintained additional tape libraries across the United States and around the world. But the label’s Vault Operations department was managed from the backlot, and the archive there housed some of UMG’s most prized material. There were recordings from dozens of record companies that had been absorbed by Universal over the years, including several of the most important labels of all time. The vault housed tape masters for Decca, the pop, jazz and classical powerhouse; it housed master tapes for the storied blues label Chess; it housed masters for Impulse, the groundbreaking jazz label. The vault held masters for the MCA, ABC, A&M, Geffen and Interscope labels. And it held masters for a host of smaller subsidiary labels. Nearly all of these masters — in some cases, the complete discographies of entire record labels — were wiped out in the fire.

This lengthy article is one gut punch after another. Some recordings that were held in Universal’s vault were never digitized; others were digitized long before there were any standards for doing so. And there’s no guarantee that the digital recordings will be adequately preserved, either. We are not great yet at preserving our greatest cultural works.

License Plate Reader Data From Perceptics and CBP Photos of Travellers Leaked in Likely Related Breaches

Thomas Claburn, reporting two weeks ago for the Register:

Tennessee-based Perceptics prides itself as “the sole provider of stationary LPRs [license plate readers] installed at all land border crossing lanes for POV [privately owned vehicle] traffic in the United States, Canada, and for the most critical lanes in Mexico.”

In fact, Perceptics recently announced, in a pact with Unisys Federal Systems, it had landed “a key contract by US Customs and Border Protection to replace existing LPR technology, and to install Perceptics next generation License Plate Readers (LPRs) at 43 US Border Patrol check point lanes in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.”

On Thursday this week, however, an individual using the pseudonym “Boris Bullet-Dodger” contacted The Register, alerting us to the hack, and provided a list of files exfiltrated from Perceptics’ corporate network as proof. We’re assuming this is the same “Boris” involved in the CityComp hack last month. Boris declined to answer our questions.

Drew Harwell and Geoffrey A. Fowler, reporting today for the Washington Post:

Customs officials said in a statement Monday that the images, which included photos of people’s faces and license plates, had been compromised as part of an attack on a federal subcontractor.

[…]

CBP would not say which subcontractor was involved. But a Microsoft Word document of CBP’s public statement, sent Monday to Washington Post reporters, included the name “Perceptics” in the title: “CBP Perceptics Public Statement.”

There’s a lot wrong with this. It’s understandable why Customs and Border Protection would have all collected data stored in connected repositories, but it is inexcusable for this data to be unencrypted.

I also get why a contractor would be involved in creating this system, but it’s outrageous that the contractor would have general access to any data after implementation.

Anyway, that’s a lot to unpack before we even get to this part of Harwell and Fowler’s report:

One U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to lack of authorization to discuss the breach, said it was being described inside CBP as a “major incident.” The official said Perceptics was attempting to use the data to refine its algorithms as part of a CBP-sanctioned pilot program to match up license plates with the faces of a car’s occupants, which the official said was outside of CBP’s sanctioned use. The official said data from travelers crossing the Canadian border was also included.

This paragraph is unclear in its specifics — how exactly can using data collected in a CPB-sanctioned program be outside of the sanctioned use of that data? I’m sure this makes sense in some way, but it isn’t explained here — but the gist of it is pretty awful. It’s one thing to collect records of individuals entering and leaving the country; it’s wildly different to train facial recognition to associate persons with vehicles and keep track of them, particularly as over half of Americans live in areas where CBP has extra authority.

My face is probably in this breach. Hooray and also sorry.

A Couple of Observations on the Availability of the New Mac Pro

Joe Rossignol, MacRumors:

Apple has since updated its website following the end of WWDC, however, revealing that the new Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR are “coming in September.” This date is listed on Apple’s homepage in an overlay that pops open after clicking on “notify me” under each product, although only in the United States.

[…]

Update: Apple’s homepage now says the new Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR are “coming this fall.” It’s unclear if the “September” timeframe was simply a mistake or prematurely-revealed information. We’ve yet to hear back from Apple.

In the keynote and the relevant press release, Apple only promised a “fall” availability which, as John Siracusa pointed out, technically gives them until December 20 to meet the self-imposed deadline.

Also, Apple’s non-American websites still show the old Mac Pro model’s marketing pages.

A Giant List of Lesser-Known New Things from WWDC 2019

WWDC this year was so big that it will easily eat the news cycle for at least part of this week as well. There’s a lot to discuss, and Patrick Balestra put together a great list of some of the things that didn’t get as much press as, say, the Pro Display XDR’s stand.

The Suddenly-Relevant-Again Mac OS X Introduction

The debuts of Project Catalyst and SwiftUI this week reminded me of the way the API layer of Mac OS X was described nearly twenty years ago. Classic was a way to run Mac OS 9 apps without modification, but also without gaining new benefits. Carbon was a way to get some new functionality but without needing too much of a rewrite. Cocoa was the fully modern object-oriented end goal for most developers. It’s unsurprising that AppKit and UIKit, Project Catalyst, and SwiftUI slot fairly well into a similar roadmap.

The biggest difference with this week’s keynote is that these evolutionary stages were, I think, more clearly and transparently described in the Mac OS X introduction.

The NeXT Era Ends, and the Swift Era Begins

Brent Simmons:

Though I don’t discount Catalyst’s usefulness — we will get lots of apps new to the Mac — the real news this week was about SwiftUI and the Combine framework. This, finally, is a new way of writing apps, and it’s based on Swift and not on Objective-C. It’s very much not from NeXT.

It’s early. It has bugs. It’s not nearly complete. Sure. But it’s also how we’re going to write apps in the future.

Craig Hockenberry:

I know a lot of developers who have been working with Apple’s products for decades.

The overwhelming consensus is that we’re seeing something that will change our lives for decades to come.

1976 -> 1984 -> 1996 -> 2008 -> 2019

If SwiftUI were the only thing at WWDC this year, it would have been a gigantic year. It only got about six minutes of stage time during the WWDC keynote; I encourage you to check out Session 204 and Session 216. SwiftUI fits the way my brain works in a way that I’ve never felt with anything other than, like, HTML.

It is impossible to overstate how important the NeXT acquisition and subsequent era was for Apple. But, now, we’re in a new generation, and I could not be more excited to see what the next twenty years is going to look like as a result of this week’s announcements.

On the Attainability of Apple’s Professional Products

Michael Simon, Macworld (content blockers required, obviously):

All said, one of each Pro product will cost you about $25,000, depending on which MacBook Pro and iPad Pro you decide to buy. And that’s the entry-level price. Over the past decade or so, Apple’s Pro products have skyrocketed in price, and now we have a gorgeous Mac Pro and display that costs more than a small sedan. That’s not an Apple tax, that’s an Apple mortgage.

I can already hear the rationalizations: the Mac Pro isn’t for you! That’s why Apple sells the iPad Air! You can buy a MacBook Air! Sure, but for the most part, Apple’s non-Pro products don’t merely represent cheaper versions of their Pro counterparts. They’re completely different machines with older tech. The iPad Air has a home button, the MacBook Air doesn’t have a Touch Bar, etc. (OK, having no Touch Bar might be a benefit, but still.) Apple products have always been luxury items, but it wasn’t that long ago when the most expensive Mac tower topped out at $3,400. Now that doesn’t even get you in the door.

I am sympathetic to arguments that Apple is charging more — and in the case of some products, a lot more — than they used to. It hasn’t gone unnoticed. But I think this article is fairly silly. For one thing, why judge the cost of pro products by adding up the cost of every pro product? Who buys an 11-inch iPad Pro and a 12.9-inch iPad Pro and a 13-inch MacBook Pro and a 15-inch MacBook Pro? What a ludicrous metric.

For another, I’m not even sure that the prices in this article are accurate. I’m not certain that the most expensive Mac tower has ever “topped out at $3,400”. I tried using the Mac Pro configurator from 2009 through the Internet Archive and just upgrading the RAM to 32 GB from the single 6 GB stick it shipped with cost a whopping $3,700.

The Pro Display XDR — for which this article contains the now legally-required amount of hand-wringing over the cost of the stand — could best be compared to the 30-inch Cinema Display. When that product shipped in 2004, it cost $3,299, and you needed to buy a $599 graphic card to run it. The inflation-adjusted cost of that display combination is just shy of $5,300 in 2019 terms.

But there are two other reasons I think this is a poor explanation of the cost of being a pro customer. The first is that some of Apple’s products have actually come down in price. In his pro products list, Simon includes to Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro X, which cost about $300 and $200, respectively. But Final Cut Studio was $1,299 and Logic Studio cost $499. These apps are much less expensive today, even if you add on the cost of Motion and Compressor, which are now sold separately.

The second is that the barrier to entry for doing professional-grade work has dropped dramatically from a technical level. Editing HD video is no longer the rarefied duty of the highest-end Macs, and it hasn’t been that way for a while; my iMac does an acceptable job of manipulating 4K video. Every developer wants their code to compile faster, and a well-specced iMac Pro [might be more apt for their needs][mn]; an even higher-end Mac may not have the right balance of cost to benefit. A machine like this might have more of a niche use. In combination with my previous argument that Apple’s pro apps have come down in price, a lower hardware barrier to entry also means that a media editing workflow including software may actually be less expensive than it used to be.

I don’t want to make this seem like an apology for Apple’s prices generally. The stuff in the $1,200 to $2,000 price bracket, or thereabouts, is of particular concern to me as I think it’s more of a mixed bag of compromises than it used to be. Putting Retina displays and SSDs in nearly every Mac results in far better but more expensive products, and the company’s reduced profit margins in recent years back that up. But I don’t think the pricing of the new Mac Pro or Apple’s pro products in general is as dire as Simon makes it out to be. It’s just reflective of a more niche customer; and, maybe an ostensibly “pro” workflow no longer requires Pro-branded hardware.

Commitments to Privacy Are Necessarily Long-Term Obligations

Casey Johnston, the Outline:

Multiple segments of Apple’s Worldwide Developers’ Conference keynote presentation today indicated that Apple is rushing into spaces where other tech companies have already deeply soured customers’ ability to trust them. The presentation doubled down on Apple’s recent privacy-themed advertising campaign, but the problem with this kind of privacy has never been company’s intentions in the moment; it’s that they appear to be unable to resist the intense pull of how lucrative customer data can be. As Apple moves into services while its hardware sales slow down, the recent betrayals of other tech companies who implicitly or explicitly promised to be careful with their users’ data loom very large.

Johnston gives examples of how Google and Facebook started out as ostensibly privacy-aware, but have caved to exploiting user data; she questions whether Apple will be different over the long term, and how we can trust them not to be. What happens if the next CEO doesn’t care at all about privacy? Surely, users are owed a deeper commitment to the privacy of their data than company culture.

I think Apple mostly gets that right by encrypting user data in ways that the company cannot decrypt — in other words, it’s only accessible by the user. Therefore, it is less necessary to trust that they will not abuse user data, as they are not collecting it in a way where they can abuse it. If you have iCloud Backups turned off, much of this data isn’t stored by Apple at all.

This article raises a really great point about privacy’s long-term commitments. Maciej Cegłowski has previously highlighted a hypothetical instance of a queer Russian blogger writing on LiveJournal before its acquisition by a Russian company; shortly thereafter, Russia passed strict homophobic laws, which could put that blogger at risk. Or consider how many apps have scooped up your contact list with your permission — who owns those lists now? What if an indie developer with your contact list in its database gets acquired by a social media giant with a pathological objection to privacy for anyone but its CEO?

It is therefore critically important that user data is encrypted in a way that is impossible for anyone else to decode. Users should be entirely in control of their own data now and forever.

The Star of WWDC Was Privacy

Michael Simon, Macworld (fire up your script blockers and get ready to enter your browser’s reader mode):

Apple’s privacy push extends to watchOS, too. One of the main features is an app called Noise, which routinely monitors background sound and alerts you when a sustained sound might be damaging to your hearing. It’s the kind of surprise-and-delight feature only Apple would think of putting in a smartwatch — let alone attempt to implement in an existing consumer product at a massive scale — but Apple also considered something most people wouldn’t think of: All of Noise’s audio processing are done in real time, and Apple doesn’t record or save any of the sounds it hears.

For any other company, that’s not a day one feature. It’s something that’s added following an apology when someone uncovers a secret trove of audio recordings on a server. Or even worse, after said recordings are stolen as part of a hack. The Noise app announcement could have came and went without a promise of privacy and no one would have questioned it. No one would have even thought of it.

Andy Greenberg, Wired:

In upcoming versions of iOS and macOS, the new Find My feature will broadcast Bluetooth signals from Apple devices even when they’re offline, allowing nearby Apple devices to relay their location to the cloud. That should help you locate your stolen laptop even when it’s sleeping in a thief’s bag. And it turns out that Apple’s elaborate encryption scheme is also designed not only to prevent interlopers from identifying or tracking an iDevice from its Bluetooth signal, but also to keep Apple itself from learning device locations, even as it allows you to pinpoint yours.

There’s a lot to like about WWDC this year, as Apple has meaningfully iterated on every single one of its platforms in a big way. But preserving user privacy from design through implementation has been a central theme this year, as well as in years past. And it’s paying off: both Facebook and Google made a show of being privacy-conscious at their respective developer events this year, though neither has proposed altering a surveillance-based business model.

Privacy is rapidly becoming a requirement from the perspective of users as well as the law, and companies that have banked on being able to collect whatever data they want are going to find it hard to adapt. Apple already assumes that you don’t want them to surveil you.

If ‘Big Tech’ Is a Huge Antitrust Problem, Why Are We Ignoring Telecom?

Karl Bode, for Techdirt, reacting to the coming antitrust investigations into big tech companies:

Oddly missing from coverage from these probes is the fact that much of this behavior by the Trump administration may (*gasp*) not be driven by a genuine interest in protecting markets and consumer welfare. For one, it’s hard to believe that an administration that has shown it’s little more than a rubber stamp for sectors like telecom is seriously worried about monopoly power. Two, it’s hard to believe an administration obsessed with nonexistent censorship is going to come at these inquiries with integrity, and not, say, as a vessel to pursue a pointed partisan persecution complex.

[…]

Yet again, notice how telecom gets a free pass by the Trump administration? Notice how Silicon Valley is demonized, but telecom’s surveillance and anti-competitive gambits see zero backlash? I don’t think it’s happenstance that this new Trump “big tech” antitrust push comes as big telecom has asked for just such a push to aid its own competitive agenda. A lot of folks on both sides of the political aisle who’d like to see more done to rein in “big tech” seem a touch oblivious to the possibility that this new antitrust push may not be entirely in good faith.

Even if you give this administration a benefit of doubt that it does not deserve, and you assume that the coming antitrust investigations into tech companies will be in good faith and not be driven by a perverse desire to be unabashedly cruel, there is no possible circumstance under which these companies should be investigated and telecom giants should not.

The Talk Show Live From WWDC 2019

This year’s interview with Greg Jozwiak and Craig Federighi is the best one yet — not just the interview itself, but in video and audio quality as well. A few choice items of interest to me:

  • Contrary to rumours, the TV app that ships with MacOS Catalina is not a Catalyst app. Of the three media apps that iTunes has been split into, only Podcasts is a Catalyst app.

  • Federighi explained the company’s thoughts behind the hard-to-discover gestural elements of the iPad’s user interface. He compared the new three finger pinches for cut, copy, and paste to the keyboard shortcuts on MacOS for the same commands. I’m still not sure I buy the argument that this core functionality is adequately discoverable, but his explanation that the new gestures are more easily remembered and repeated than keyboard shortcuts passes the sniff test.

  • Federighi is the company’s fastest presenter “by far”, according to Joz. He did not disclose the slowest presenter.

Apple Posts Support Document on Transitioning Away From iTunes in MacOS 10.15 Catalina

If you, as I, are dependent on iTunes, you’ll be pleased to know that Music in MacOS Catalina is, as rumoured, a light re-skin rather than a wholly new app. The preferences window is still modal; you can still burn discs with it. And, while I know it’s still months from release, it’s still the same app showing the same Apple Music browser and iTunes Store in a janky web view. It is the iTunes you know, just with better organization and fewer non-music features.

If you wanted Apple to truly dump iTunes in favour of the Music app on iOS, this news will probably be disappointing.

Via Stephen Hackett.

Apple’s Global Accessibility Head on the New Features in iOS 13 and MacOS 10.15

Steven Aquino, TechCrunch:

[Sarah Herrlinger, director of Global Accessibility Policy & Initiatives at Apple] demoed Voice Control to me, and it works as advertised despite our setting containing a lot of ambient noise. The gist of it is simple enough: You give your MacBook or iMac commands, such as “Open Mail” or “Tell Mary ‘Happy Birthday’ ” in Messages. Beyond the basic syntax, however, there are elements of Voice Control that make dictating to your Mac (or iOS device) easier. For example, Herrlinger explained how you can say “show numbers” in Safari’s Favorites view and little numbers, corresponding to the number of favorites you have, show up beside a website’s favicon. Say TechCrunch is No. 2 in your list of favorites. If the glyph is hard to make out visually, saying “open 2” will prompt Voice Control to launch TechCrunch’s page. Likewise, you can say “show grid” and a grid will appear so you perform actions such as clicking, tapping or pinching-and-zooming.

I was blown away by the demo of Voice Control during the Platforms State of the Union presentation and, having had the opportunity to try it myself, it works pretty much as advertised. It’s shockingly good, almost to the extent that I was considering keeping it on so I could use my iPad while I’m cooking, for example, but I worry about its impact on battery life. Happily, you can switch it on temporarily with a simple “Hey, Siri” request. This is one of the most impressive tech things I’ve seen anywhere, and it’s worth trying out even if you don’t need it for using your device.

At WWDC, Apple Furthers Its Privacy Lead

April Glaser, Slate:

To use the internet is to constantly slam into locked doors. Want to watch a video? Please sign in. Care to comment? You’ll need to remember your password. Want to keep reading an article? Create an account. Many of us manage these password requests by using our login credentials from Google and Facebook to register with other websites. Clicking on “Sign in with Facebook” and “Sign in with Google” isn’t exactly frictionless, but it’s close.

[…]

Enter Apple. At its annual developer conference on Monday, the company unveiled a new “Sign in with Apple” button for Apple device users to create new logins on websites and apps. It’s the same idea as those Google and Facebook buttons but from a company that’s known to be far more trustworthy with customer data—and that has been emphasizing its privacy bona fides as the other tech companies have come under scrutiny. But Apple isn’t just offering a third option. Users who opt to create new accounts with Apple can also choose to use a randomly generated email address that forwards messages to their actual inbox, preserving customer privacy even further by allowing users to keep their email addresses to themselves without sharing them with another company. […]

Apple:

Please note these summaries of the latest changes and see the App Store Review Guidelines for full details. All guidelines are now enforced for new and existing apps, unless otherwise indicated.

  • Guidelines 1.3 and 5.1.4. In order to help keep kids’ data private, apps in the kids category and apps intended for kids cannot include third-party advertising or analytics software and may not transmit data to third parties. This guideline is now enforced for new apps. Existing apps must follow this guideline by September 3, 2019.

[…]

  • Guideline 5.1.1(vii) (New). Apps that compile information from any source that is not directly from the user or without the user’s explicit consent, even public databases, are not permitted on the App Store.

  • Guideline 5.1.1(i). Apps must get consent for data collection, even if the data is considered anonymous at the time of or immediately following collection.

[…]

Sign In with Apple will be available for beta testing this summer. It will be required as an option for users in apps that support third-party sign-in when it is commercially available later this year.

Victoria Song, Gizmodo:

If you’ve ever hunted for a period tracking app, you know there’s a crapton of them in the App Store—and not all of them are good. With Cycles, Apple is adding female health tracking to its Apple Watch. Users will be able to log symptoms, as well as receive notifications of upcoming periods and fertile windows. It’ll also be available for non-watch users via the Health app.

The big thing to note here is Apple’s emphasis on privacy. Flo, Glow, Clue, and Ovia are all big-name women’s health apps that have had some not-so-great press regarding what they do with sensitive data. And better yet, integrating it into the main Health app means you don’t have to do any research or pay fees for a basic tracker.

Apple has continued to emphasize the ways in which they do not track you and are not interested in collecting individual user data — instead, preferring to do as much as possible on users’ devices.1 This is great news for the billion or so people who use Apple’s products, and it puts pressure on others to do better. In some cases, that pressure comes as a result of consumer awareness; in others — as with Apple’s requirement that apps which implement buttons to sign in with Google or Facebook also add a Sign In with Apple button2 — it’s more forceful.

As I’ve written previously, though, it remains bizarre to me that this is an argument that Apple can reasonably make: we build products that do not surveil you or allow advertisers to exploit your private data. That shouldn’t be a marketing statement; that should be a baseline requirement for any service, app, or product. I get the frequent framing of these decisions as a luxury only enjoyed by consumers of pricier electronics, but I think that frustration is misplaced. That privacy is somehow not seen as a fundamental right or worthy of strict legal protections is deeply concerning.


  1. To such an extent that, during the live WWDC recording of John Gruber’s podcast, Craig Federighi flipped the script on the common complaint that Apple is ostensibly catching up to Google, et al. on machine learning, according to Chance Miller’s recap:

    In fact, if you watch recent events from the other guys, you’d be surprised to see they’ve started to say on-device machine learning. They’re actually seeing the light on that topic. I think they’re disadvantaged because part of what makes this possible is building this great hardware and the integration of hardware and software. Pulling this off between a random fleet of devices, it’s really just impossible.

    I think Apple’s long-term bet on privacy is starting to become noticeable for the public. ↩︎

  2. Think Google or Facebook themselves will add this option to their apps, or even be required to do so? ↩︎

The New Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR

From the Apple newsroom:

Apple today introduced the all-new Mac Pro, a completely redesigned, breakthrough workstation for pros who push the limits of what a Mac can do, and unveiled Apple Pro Display XDR, the world’s best pro display. Designed for maximum performance, expansion and configurability, the all-new Mac Pro features workstation-class Xeon processors up to 28 cores, a high-performance memory system with a massive 1.5TB capacity, eight PCIe expansion slots and a graphics architecture featuring the world’s most powerful graphics card. It also introduces Apple Afterburner, a game-changing accelerator card that enables playback of three streams of 8K ProRes RAW video simultaneously.

Pro Display XDR features a massive 32-inch Retina 6K display with gorgeous P3 wide and 10-bit color, an extreme 1,600 nits of peak brightness, an incredible 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio and a superwide viewing angle, all at a breakthrough price point. Together, the new Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR are the most powerful tools Apple has ever put in the hands of pro customers and will change pro workflows forever.

Both of these new products are wild, yet largely predictable in a very good way. The Mac Pro’s form factor is a return to the classic professional Mac tower, with a case that can be removed and plenty of easily-accessible slots for upgrades. Fully-loaded, the numbers on Apple’s marketing page speak for themselves: this is a Mac for the highest-end of professional customers. That’s a single-digit percentage of total Mac users, according to Phil Schiller speaking to a small group of reporters in 2017:

First of all, when we talk about pro customers, it’s important to be clear that there isn’t one prototypical pro customer. Pro is such a broad term, and it covers many many categories of customers. And we care about all of these categories, and there’s a variety of different products those customers want.

There’s music creators, there’s video editors, there’s graphic designers — a really great segment with the Mac. There’s scientists, engineers, architects, software programmers — increasingly growing, particularly our App development in the app store. So there are many, many things and people called pros, pro workflows, so we should be careful not to over simplify and say ‘pros want this’ or ‘don’t want that’; it’s much more complex than that.

The segmentation of what Apple thinks of as a “pro” user is fairly recent, and it’s enabled by hardware capabilities that have often outstripped user needs. For example, shipping solid state storage in nearly every Mac means that you can edit RAW photos or HD video on, say, a MacBook Air. It’s not ideal, but it’s not dreadful.

When Apple shipped a new Mac Mini last year, they repositioned it as being capable of pro applications — a sort of entry level pro product. The iMac Pro that was released at the end of 2017 serves the mid-range of pro applications. This Mac Pro is the top end. And, of course, its price matches that. It starts at $6,000 in the United States, and that’s with 256 GB of storage and 32 GB of RAM. Of course, those things can be upgraded by end users, and I would anticipate the highest-spec built-to-order option to come in at well over $30,000.

Then there’s the display, which is equally top-end, and has a bothersome name: “Pro Display XDR”. Why not just “Pro Display”? Its specs are jaw-dropping and, accordingly, so is its price: $5,200 with a VESA mount, or $6,000 with a stand. Or you can buy the display without any kind of mounting option for $5,000, but I don’t know why you would want to do that. Tack on another thousand dollars if you want Apple’s special matte glass instead of a glossy display.1

Apple’s positioning of the display is interesting to me. They compared it against a Sony reference display similar to this one designed for production environments. That was a shrewd move; those monitors are often over $30,000. But even though Apple’s display is calibrated and has different reference modes, I question whether it will be adequate for production environments. I bet footage will still have to be passed through one of those Sony monitors before it reaches theatres or television screens.

These prices and the ridiculous capabilities of these products are exclusive in the truest definition of that word. They exclude huge numbers of customers who either cannot afford to spend over $12,000 on a new computer and display, or do not need such high-end capabilities. I think that’s okay. The iMac Pro remains a very capable machine for all but the most demanding users.

For those users, Apple appears to have delivered in a huge way.

See Also: Ina Fried of Axios explained that she and the rest of the journalists who met for the roundtable two years ago received an in-depth briefing after the keynote.


  1. In my WWDC prelude piece, I wrote that I hoped to see a spiritual successor to the 30-inch Cinema Display. I think we got it. ↩︎

FTC and DOJ to Split Antitrust Investigations Into Major Tech Companies

Diane Bartz and Jan Wolfe, Reuters:

The Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice, which jointly enforce antitrust laws in the United States, have divided oversight over the four companies, two sources said, with Amazon and Facebook under the watch of the FTC, and Apple and Google under the Justice Department.

[…]

The four technology companies, all with market values in the hundreds of billions of dollars, have drawn scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers around the world over aspects of their business practices, although it was not clear what the U.S. Justice Department or FTC were planning to look at, if anything.

I think it is absolutely worth having an antitrust investigation and discussion around big tech firms; but, not one of the reports around these investigations mentions any investigation into the practices of telecom conglomerates. For Americans, they absolutely amount to having a similar level of power and invasiveness. Broaden the investigation and include them, too.

SF Symbols

iOS 13, WatchOS 6, and tvOS 13 include support for this nice standardized set of symbols from Apple. It’s not a symbol font — though there is a font fallback — but it is designed to work perfectly with Apple’s San Francisco system font. Oddly, MacOS is not supported.

Uber’s Path of Destruction

Hubert Horan, American Affairs Journal:

Above all, Uber argued that its business model and technology were so innovative that it had created an entirely new industry (“ridesharing”) based on entirely new business concepts (the “sharing economy”). It insisted that it was a “tech company” selling sophisticated software, and could not possibly be compared to taxi companies. In fact, however, Uber carries people from point A to point B, just like taxis have for a hundred years. The “tech company” claim was really an attempt to get people to ignore its huge losses, since tech companies like Facebook had quickly grown into profitability. The “software” claim was designed to justify preventing its drivers from getting the labor law protections employees are entitled to, based on the argument that they were totally independent entrepreneurs who had freely chosen to purchase Uber’s superi or software products. Furthermore, nothing in Uber’s business mod el is actually being shared. The only meaningful economic dis tinction between “taxis” and “ridesharing” is that the latter avoids regulations that traditional taxis must still obey and depends on billions in predatory investor subsidies.

Uber’s claim that its growth resulted from customers freely choosing its superior service in competitive markets is fundamentally false. Competitive markets use price and profit signals to help allocate resources to more efficient uses. Uber grew because its years of billion-dollar subsidies totally distorted those signals, and allowed it to drive more efficient producers out of business.

About a year and a half ago, I linked to a couple of pieces arguing that Uber’s most impressive revolutionary gesture would be if the company functioned as a long-term business. They have lost — and I’m going to write this out in full and italicize it — fourteen billion dollars in the last four years. Horan’s analysis of Uber’s performance to date is second-to-none, and he’s reasonably skeptical of attempts to distract from the company’s mismanagement and losses through the invocation of autonomous vehicles.

An Error Occurred

Allen Pike (via Michael Tsai):

But if the rumour and leak mill is to be believed, iTunes’ end is finally nigh. In macOS 10.15 we will finally see a Music.app for Mac. Surprisingly, this new app is said to be based not on the iOS app or a new codebase, but on the venerable iTunes itself.

There will surely be naysayers that claim iTunes should have been tossed entirely. And admittely, if the new Music app ditches iTunes’ interface but can’t cure its deep and baffling love for obtuse modal error dialogs, I too will bemoan its preservation. But arguing for code to be rewritten just because it’s old has never been the right way to build systems that work.

As infuriating as iTunes has become over the years, it remains among the most dependable pieces of software I use. I have seen all of the error messages in Pike’s piece — I laughed pretty hard as I read this one — and preorders are still unreliable, and there’s a dozen other problems that I could list off which you’ve undoubtedly heard of, if not personally experienced. Apple Music support, in particular, is awful. It’s so transparently a webpage that it feels like using an Electron app.

But, even so, I still use iTunes: I still listen to a local library, I still buy music, and I still sync music to my phone with a physical cable like our ancestors once did. I have already expressed my reservations about migrating to anything that is not iTunes; I’m encouraged by the latest rumours that Music for Mac may simply be a re-skinned iTunes without support for non-music things and, hopefully, way better integration of Apple Music.

And if they can clean up the code base at the same time, that would be appreciated, too.

Qualcomm’s Twenty-Year Shakedown

Timothy B. Lee, Ars Technica:

Last week, a California federal judge provided the FTC and Apple with sweet vindication. In a scathing 233-page opinion [PDF], Judge Lucy Koh ruled that Qualcomm’s aggressive licensing tactics had violated American antitrust law.

I read every word of Judge Koh’s book-length opinion, which portrays Qualcomm as a ruthless monopolist. The legal document outlines a nearly 20-year history of overcharging smartphone makers for cellular chips. Qualcomm structured its contracts with smartphone makers in ways that made it almost impossible for other chipmakers to challenge Qualcomm’s dominance. Customers who didn’t go along with Qualcomm’s one-sided terms were threatened with an abrupt and crippling loss of access to modem chips.

Daniel Nazer:

Good piece. You [left] out the part where Judge Koh says that she didn’t credit any of the Qualcomm witness testimony because it was not consistent with the contemporaneous documents (i.e. they were all a pack of liars).

Unsurprisingly, Qualcomm disagrees with Judge Koh’s opinion.

This is just a devastating read of the extortionate terms by which Qualcomm operated its FRAND patent portfolio. If this decision withstands Qualcomm’s appeal, it will basically birth a real market for competing cellular chipsets.

Vice Visits Huawei’s Campus

“Does this remind you of anything?” Vice reporter William Turton asked in one of Huawei’s retail locations, all of which are blatant knockoffs of Apple Stores, just after visiting Huawei’s campus on which there are replicas of specific European castles and chateaus. Apparently, Huawei invited lots of news organizations, but only Vice showed up, and it was very, very weird. Turton:

While in Hangzhou, we got a text in our WeChat group message at 3AM from a Huawei PR person that said just “help”.

I’m not sure what to make of this, other than that Huawei is very comfortable with their own absurdity and nonsense.

Apple Expected to Remove 3D Touch in Future iPhone Models

3D Touch is a wonderful idea executed poorly, and its replacement on the iPhone XR — what Apple calls “Haptic Touch”, which only works in some of the places 3D Touch does and which is just a standard long press with a bit of haptic feedback — is a muddied and hollow replacement — the La Croix version of 3D Touch.

I would prefer to see improvements to 3D Touch; but, because it hasn’t changed much or been more thoroughly applied in the nearly four years since it was introduced, I think the digital scrap heap is probably best. This rumour, of course, leads to the question of what to do with its dependencies on the iPhone. The biggest question, for me, is what happens to notifications: since they were adjusted in iOS 10 to make use of 3D Touch, they’ve never felt at home on non-3D Touch devices.

Digital Music News in 2018: ‘Apple Is Shutting Down iTunes Music Downloads on March 31st, 2019’

Paul Resnikoff, Digital Music News:

Apple is now experiencing meteoric growth on its streaming music platform, Apple Music. But that growth is directly impacting Apple’s old-line downloads store, for obvious reasons. And, ultimately hastening its demise.

Just last week, Apple executive Jimmy Iovine pointed to a shutdown when ‘people stop buying’. Now, sources inside the company are pointing to a firm date for a planned shutdown of the iTunes music download store. Earlier, these same sources pointed to an ‘early 2019’ shutdown, though internal roadmaps now include a March 31st, 2019 phase-out of the service.

It is the last week of May and you can still buy music on iTunes. Shocking that this rumour didn’t pan out, I know.

I mention this not to be a jerk to Resnikoff, but because screenshots leaked to Guilherme Rambo at 9to5Mac show a Music app that, with the little bit shown, does not have a visible section for purchasing, which reminded me of this rumour. Maybe the iTunes Store will be more fully integrated within Music, so an option to buy music could appear next to the option to add it to your library; or, perhaps iTunes Store purchases are relegated to the iTunes app and it is, indeed, slowly phased out. That would be a shame for me because I am one of those weird people who likes to buy music; also, I really don’t like DRM.

But, so far, there’s little to indicate that the iTunes Store is dead, even though March came and went.

Apple Defends App Store Practices in Light of Antitrust Discourse

Ryan Christoffel, MacStories:

Apple has been in the news at several points this year due to claims that its App Store practices are monopolistic. First, Spotify filed a complaint against Apple with the European Commission, then more recently, the US Supreme Court ruled that an antitrust lawsuit against Apple could proceed, setting the stage for potential future battles in this space.

Today Apple has launched a new page on its website defending its App Store practices and sharing the values that lie at the core of the Store.

Coincidentally, Mark Gurman of Bloomberg interviewed Apple’s former senior director of app review Phillip Shoemaker for a podcast that, I’m sure, will soon be entered into evidence in Apple’s antitrust cases:

Shoemaker also spoke about Apple not approving the Google Voice calling service in the early days of the iPhone. He said there was concern inside Apple that companies like Google or Facebook could create a slew of apps that would replace core iPhone functions.

“That was a real thing. I mean the fear that somebody would come along, a Facebook, a Google, whomever and wipe off and remove all of our items,” he said. “Once they started using these other apps, they’d be thinking more about Google now.” Ultimately, Google Voice and similar third-party calling services were approved for Apple’s App Store.

Apple highlights competing apps on their new App Store principles page, but none of these apps can be set as a default.1 Another difference is that some APIs are only available to Apple. Expect to hear these and other differences as these legal cases roll on.


  1. Although, I have found that you can override some Siri commands. For example, if I ask my phone “what’s the weather like?”, Carrot will respond instead of the standard weather app — sometimes. It’s not reliable. ↩︎

The iPod Touch Now Has an A10 SoC and Up To 256 GB of Storage

That’s it; that’s the extent of the updates. It has the same display size as the iPhone 5, the same camera that was in the iPad Air 2, and comes in the same colours as it has for years.

My first assumption was that this was an easy update so that iOS 13 could phase out support for A8-equipped devices. But I’m not so sure about that, given that the iPad Mini and iPod Touch models that were shipping just a few months ago both used the A8. Mind you, if those products were updated more frequently, this wouldn’t be an issue.

Sleeping Phones Lie

Geoffrey A. Fowler, Washington Post:1

It’s 3 a.m. Do you know what your iPhone is doing?

Mine has been alarmingly busy. Even though the screen is off and I’m snoring, apps are beaming out lots of information about me to companies I’ve never heard of. Your iPhone probably is doing the same — and Apple could be doing more to stop it.

On a recent Monday night, a dozen marketing companies, research firms and other personal data guzzlers got reports from my iPhone. At 11:43 p.m., a company called Amplitude learned my phone number, email and exact location. At 3:58 a.m., another called Appboy got a digital fingerprint of my phone. At 6:25 a.m., a tracker called Demdex received a way to identify my phone and sent back a list of other trackers to pair up with.

And all night long, there was some startling behavior by a household name: Yelp. It was receiving a message that included my IP address — once every five minutes.

Of course, when you click to read this article, you’ll communicate with twenty-five other domains that will pilfer information like your full IP address and other unique identifiers, any of which can be tied back to your name or email address with little effort. If you’re using Safari, though, you’ll have some protection in the form of Intelligent Tracking Prevention; you may also use content blockers with your browser. I wish there were something like ITP across iOS. Even if Apple were to do a better job of policing the App Store and prevent unnecessary trackers in apps, many developers would find a way around those rules.

Update: This paragraph is key:

Yet very few apps I found using third-party trackers disclosed the names of those companies or how they protect my data. And what good is burying this information in privacy policies, anyway? What we need is accountability.

Adequate disclosure cannot be left up to developers, many of which will ignore that rule — either because they are bad actors deliberately exploiting users, or because they are ashamed of their anti-privacy practices. That shame, by the way, is a great indicator that bad choices are being made.

Anyway, full disclosure needs to be mandated by the system in much the same way the camera cannot be used without the user’s permission. Unfortunately, those permission dialogs are already overwhelming, and I suspect many users don’t fully read them before granting permission.


  1. Add one more onto your tally of stories about Apple and privacy that use a photo of that Las Vegas billboard from CES. ↩︎

A Look at Apple’s Privacy Approach, From Chips to Services

Apple granted Andrew Griffin of the Independent interview time with executives — including Craig Federighi — and access to their testing facilities, as they explained their privacy and security model. I appreciated Federighi’s reaction to the recent emphasis on privacy by Google and Facebook. But this, I think, is something of a dodge:

Federighi says that the location data is stored in matters less when the amount of information collected is minimised, and any that is is stored in ways that stop people from prying into it.

“Step one, of course, is the extent that all of our data minimisation techniques, and our keeping data on device and protecting devices from external access – all of these things mean that that data isn’t in any cloud in the first place to be accessed by anyone,” he says. By not collecting data, there is no data for officials in China or anywhere else to read or abuse, Apple claims.

This claim goes uncontested by Griffin, but it’s wrong. All iCloud data created by Chinese users is stored in China; even the iCloud user agreement for Chinese users is between the user and GCBD, not the user and Apple. Also, Apple’s software actively encourages customers to use iCloud services from a few moments after they power up a device for the first time. It is therefore misleading, at best, to state that Apple collects less data. The company may not collect behavioural data to the same extent as its competitors, but that does not apply to user-provided data.

The next paragraph is similarly misleading:

What’s more, Federighi argues that because the data is encrypted, even if it was intercepted – even if someone was actually holding the disk drives that store the data itself – it couldn’t be read. Only the two users sending and receiving iMessages can read them, for example, so the fact they are sent over a Chinese server should be irrelevant if the security works. All they should be able to see is a garbled message that needs a special key to be unlocked.

End-to-end encryption that allows decryption only by the sending and receiving parties is not universally applied to data stored in iCloud. While iCloud data is stored in encrypted formats, the vast majority of the keys are held by Apple and those files can be decrypted by request. Again, this claim is not subjected to further questioning in this story.

Update: After re-reading this, it’s clear that my disputes are with the reporter’s explanations, not Federighi’s. For example, in the second quote, there is no quote from anyone at Apple, and Griffin seems confused by the different kinds of encryption that are possible. In the first quote, Griffin is overly reductive.

A Year After GDPR, Google and Facebook Are Less Impacted Than Smaller Companies

Mark Scott, Laurens Cerulus, and Steven Overly, Politico:

Big fines and sweeping enforcement actions have been largely absent, as under-resourced European regulators struggle to define their mission — and take time to build investigations that will likely end up in court.

New forms of data collection, including Facebook’s reintroduction of its facial recognition technology in Europe and Google’s efforts to harvest information on third-party websites, have been given new leases on life under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR.

Smaller firms — whose fortunes were of special concern to the framers of the region’s privacy revamp — also have suffered from the relatively high compliance costs and the perception, at least among some investors, that they can’t compete with Silicon Valley’s biggest names.

I’m not surprised by this, and I don’t view this as an indication that GDPR is unsuccessful. For one thing, establishing cases against larger and more complex tech firms is necessarily going to take more time. For another, it isn’t a bad thing that smaller companies are collecting less data as a result of compliance costs. Just because they’re not Google or Facebook, that doesn’t mean that a smaller company should be collecting huge data profiles on individuals. It is, of course, worrying that the side effect of this is to concentrate data collection with the biggest and most influential players; but, then, we circle back to the first point that it takes more time to build cases against bigger players.

The most alarming aspect of GDPR is, weirdly enough, the effect it’s having in the United States. Mark Scott on Twitter:

But what I find the most fascinating is what happened in Washington State. There, rules that specifically name-checked Europe’s [privacy] stance narrowly failed to pass in late April, despite heavy lobbying by industry (@microsoft, ahem) in favor of them.

US tech companies in favor of European-style privacy rules? I hear you ask. Well, yes. But it’s more complicated — and shows both how Europe’s standards are both now global and the straw man used to hobble other privacy efforts.

Whereas in Europe, [people] are automatically opted out of their data being collected unless they give consent, the Washington State rules, by default, gave companies the right to collect such digital information — remember, these rules supposedly were copied from those of the EU.

This isn’t the fault of GDPR rules, but the way that they have been manipulated by tech companies wary of other governments mandating opt-in consent. By that metric, then, GDPR has been quite effective: the idea that it could be a worldwide model scares the shit out of big industry players, and they’re doing everything they can to combat opt-in requirements.

iFixit Dissects a New MacBook Pro

The new nylon switch covers are curious, but I’m particularly interested in the apparent difference in the metal dome switches in this model. It would make sense that they could be a primary culprit for the failures in previous models: they physically activate the key press, which would correlate with a higher failure rate for keys pressed more often.

Of course, that doesn’t resolve dust ingress issues that are directly related to the low travel distance for these keys. But at least a materials failure may no longer be an issue. If I were in the market for a new computer, I’m still not sure I’d trust these. Including them in the keyboard repair program — which is basically four years of AppleCare solely for the keyboard — is a comforting measure that, yes, you can buy these Macs without worrying that you’ll have to pay $800 in a year for a full top case replacement because your space bar is stuck. Still, a no-cost repair is no replacement for a reliable keyboard.

AT&T Explains Its Surveillance Advertising Hellscape

Geoff Colvin, in a longform profile of AT&T and its CEO Randall Stephenson for Fortune:

The grand vision begins with combining all the major elements of the media and telecom businesses, which no company has ever done before. Time Warner’s film and TV studios make some of the most successful and honored entertainment anywhere. Its cable networks — including TBS, TNT, CNN, Cartoon Network, and Turner Classic Movies — are distribution powerhouses. DirecTV carries those networks and others into homes through its satellite system. Add in AT&T’s wireless and landline customers, and Stephenson boasts that AT&T has “170 million distribution points we can push this through.”

With such a combination of media ­assets, the theory goes, AT&T can achieve unprecedented advantages. It can differentiate its fast-commoditizing wireless network by offering customers deals on its proprietary content. It can expose its content to vast audiences through all its networks. Because it collects staggering volumes of customer data through its wired, wireless, and satellite networks, it can enable advertisers to target their messages with new precision and, in some cases, even track customers who have seen specific ads and thus gauge how the ads performed — services for which advertisers will gladly pay a big premium.

The immediate next step in the transformation, likely the biggest and most visible step, will be to introduce a video-on-demand Internet streaming service — a Netflix competitor — in this year’s fourth quarter. AT&T says the new service eventually will include original content, HBO, movies from multiple studios, and library content from HBO and Warner Bros.

Who, apart from AT&T shareholders and executives, finds this advantageous? The company’s deep vertical integration and sheer scale are a monument to ineffectual and consumer-unfriendly American antitrust laws. And that’s without getting to the wildly invasive advertising plan:

Adding strength to the whole proposition is AT&T’s unique aggregate customer data trove and its value in addressable advertising over DirecTV and AT&T’s direct-to-consumer streaming services; ads can also be directed less precisely through the former Turner networks. “Say you and your neighbor are both DirecTV customers and you’re watching the same live program at the same time,” says Brian Lesser, who oversees the vast data-crunching operation that supports this kind of advertising at AT&T. “We can now dynamically change the advertising. Maybe your neighbor’s in the market for a vacation, so they get a vacation ad. You’re in the market for a car, you get a car ad. If you’re watching on your phone, and you’re not at home, we can customize that and maybe you get an ad specific to a car retailer in that location.”

This is very creepy. It’s at least as invasive as what big tech companies like Google and Facebook do, but telecom conglomerates like AT&T aren’t getting the same negative press. They’re only allowed to do this because the Republican-led FCC, in 2017, struck down reasonable privacy restrictions that were to be enforced on telecom firms — companies like AT&T and Verizon are uniquely positioned to have what is likely the most comprehensive picture of users’ digital lives.

Nilay Patel, the Verge:

If this was a story about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, this scheme would cause a week-long outrage cycle. It is outrageous, especially when you consider that AT&T also routinely hands over customer information to the government, is under investigation for illegally selling customer location data to shady third parties, and is generally about as protective of your data as a hotel front desk guarding a bowl of mints.

AT&T can claim up and down that it’s asked for permission to use customer information to do this, but there is simply no possible way the average customer has ever even read their AT&T contracts, let alone puzzled out that they’re signing up to be permanently tracked and influenced by targeted media in this way. People are already convinced that Facebook is secretly listening to them through their phones; if you explicitly offered them the choice of AT&T tracking everything they watch and everywhere they go, it’s a safe bet that they would say no.

I would bet that as well; but, I also have a nagging worry that many consumers are becoming nihilistic about their privacy. People care, but I don’t think they feel like they have any control. Weak regulators are enabling this disconcerting direction.

Techdirt Settles with Shiva Ayyadurai and Documents History of Email in Subsequent Post

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

As you may have seen, last week we settled the lawsuit that Shiva Ayyadurai filed against us in early 2017. No money exchanged hands, but we did agree to post a link at the top of the 14 articles that he sued over. The text of that link says, “Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai’s Response to this Article and Statement on the Invention of Email.” You can read his link, and you can read our articles. As I’ve said in the past, I urge you to read both and make up your own mind.

Nothing in our settlement stops us from continuing to report on Shiva Ayyadurai’s claims to have invented email, and given that Ayyadurai has now fashioned himself a First Amendment freedom fighter, I am hopeful that he will be supportive of our use of our free expression rights to respond to his “response.”

What follows is a several-thousand word document on the history of email and its inventors. Masnick’s research indicates that Ayyadurai’s own recounting is internally flawed, and that no part of his claim to be the “inventor of email” withstands scrutiny.

By the way, Google still pretends that Ayyadurai invented email.

Panic Announces Playdate

From the press release:

Today, after more than four years of work by a small and talented team, Panic is extremely excited to introduce Playdate, a brand new handheld gaming system.

Playdate is both very familiar, and totally new. It’s yellow, and fits perfectly in a pocket. It has a black-and-white screen with high reflectivity, a crystal-clear image, and no backlight. And of course, it has Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, USB-C, and a headphone jack. But it also has a crank. Yes, a crank: a cute, rotating analog controller that flips out from the side. It’s literally revolutionary.

There’s more: Playdate includes games — a full season of them. The games will be delivered over-the-air, once a week for 12 weeks, and they’ll be a surprise: when the new game light flashes, you’ll never know what you’re about to play. Panic recruited some of the world’s best game designers — some well known; others under the radar — to make games exclusively for our system. Playdate isn’t just hardware: it’s a complete experience.

This looks completely wonderful and very, very Panic. They’re releasing it early next year for $149 USD. I’ve never had a handheld gaming system before — other than, like, an iOS device — but I think I might now.

Facebook Provides Sensitive User Data to Corporate Partners

Sam Biddle, the Intercept:

The source, who discussed Actionable Insights on the condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to speak to the press, explained that Facebook has offered the service to carriers and phone makers ostensibly of free charge, with access to Actionable Insights granted as a sweetener for advertising relationships. According to the source, the underlying value of granting such gratis access to Actionable Insights in these cases isn’t simply to help better service cell customers with weak signals, but also to ensure that telecoms and phone makers keep buying more and more carefully targeted Facebook ads. It’s exactly this sort of quasi-transactional data access that’s become a hallmark of Facebook’s business, allowing the company to plausibly deny that it ever sells your data while still leveraging it for revenue. Facebook may not be “selling” data through Actionable Insights in the most baldly literal sense of the word — there’s no briefcase filled with hard drives being swapped for one containing cash — but the relationship based on spending and monetization certainly fits the spirit of a sale. A Facebook spokesperson declined to answer whether the company charges for Actionable Insights access.

The confidential Facebook document provides an overview of Actionable Insights and espouses its benefits to potential corporate users. It shows how the program, ostensibly created to help improve underserved cellular customers, is pulling in far more data than how many bars you’re getting. According to one portion of the presentation, the Facebook mobile app harvests and packages eight different categories of information for use by over 100 different telecom companies in over 50 different countries around the world, including usage data from the phones of children as young as 13. These categories include use of video, demographics, location, use of Wi-Fi and cellular networks, personal interests, device information, and friend homophily, an academic term of art. A 2017 article on social media friendship from the Journal of the Society of Multivariate Experimental Psychology defined “homophily” in this context as “the tendency of nodes to form relations with those who are similar to themselves.” In other words, Facebook is using your phone to not only provide behavioral data about you to cellphone carriers, but about your friends as well.

Among the most vastly underreported stories in tech is Facebook’s unique ability to create deep associative data between users and those who did not consent to their privacy-invasive practices. It doesn’t matter if you do not use Facebook’s products; if any of your friends do, Facebook still knows a lot about you.

The Start-Ups Building ‘Dark Kitchens’ for Delivery-Only Restaurants

Tim Bradshaw, Financial Times:

“The success of Uber Eats, DoorDash and others suggests there is a demographic shift towards consumption of prepared meals at home,” said Michael Ronen, managing partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers. “The time is now to try and stand up supply that is more efficient against that demand.”

Venture capitalists have all aligned on the best solution: kitchens that only serve delivery customers, known as “cloud”, “ghost” or “dark” kitchens, that use a combination of advanced food preparation, underused real estate and algorithm-driven optimisation to lower overheads and increase output.

There are companies that build these ghost kitchens, but they can spring up anywhere. A single storefront in strip mall here in Calgary is the address of thirteen restaurants, none of which you can actually eat at.

It is worth questioning, then, just what a restaurant is. Is it merely a kitchen with some chairs and tables attached to it, or is it more than that? Delivery-only restaurants are not a new thing, but they’re easier to promote as the use of food delivery apps increases.

I don’t think these restaurants replace sit-in dining. There will always be a market for a more formal dining room. And I don’t think they replace fast food restaurants, either, which serve impulse buys in person — something which these faceless kitchens can’t support. The optimistic result is that these restaurants will continue to rise and be an alternative as we increasingly treat cooking as a service. I worry, though, that the more likely scenario is that companies like Uber and Doordash will compete with restaurants directly.

See Also: Alexis C. Madrigal writing earlier this year in the Atlantic about the servant economy.

Reading the Room

MG Siegler:

When I look at Apple’s recent stumbles — things like the aforementioned HomePod, the Mac Pro, the education market, the Airport, the Apple Stores, the strange recent events, the Apple TV, the Touch Bar, the entire line of new MacBook keyboards, and so on, I see a company that is failing to read the room. Again, a company that is directionally misguided in some areas, and the products (or lack thereof) simply showcase this.

My favourite products and services that Apple has done all sort of boil down to a single idea: they resolve the most complex near-universal frustrations through simplicity, elegance, and refinement. That sounds more hoity-toity than I intended, but it’s pretty accurate. You can associate this with the iPhone or the Mac or any of the other painfully trite examples, but I have my own pet favourite thing they’ve done in the last few years. They’ve practically gotten rid of passwords in two ways:

  1. Your face, fingerprint, or device proximity is used to determine your identity. Rather than something you know, it’s something you are. If you use a recent Mac, iOS device, or Apple Watch, you can go password-free to unlock.

  2. Apple can’t unilaterally replace passwords for the web and in apps, so they’ve done the next best thing by generating secure passwords, storing them, syncing them between devices, and making it all work with the face and fingerprint stuff above.1

This is reading the room perfectly. Not only does it resolve something irritating and complex, it does it in a near-seamless way and it encourages people to buy more Apple hardware, which ought to make the company’s stockholders very happy.

Many of the products that Siegler lists off don’t really do any of this. Not everything they release needs to be iPhone-calibre because I don’t think there’s likely to be another product of the iPhone’s calibre. It is likely the most successful manufactured good of all time.

The room is excited about Macs that are powerful and have bulletproof reliability. The room has been asking for a better Apple Store servicing experience. The room is looking for a sense that these products add up to something. There are indications that sometimes make me question what room Apple believes they are in.


  1. Apple was not the first company to have a fingerprint scanner, nor a facial recognition system, nor a password manager. But they were likely the first and have done the best at integrating all of these things at the system level across multiple platforms. ↩︎

The News Is That They Mentioned the Keyboard’s Reliability at All

John Gruber:

But of course the biggest issue with these keyboards is reliability. Will this updated mechanism fix or at least greatly reduce the number of reliability problems? Only time will tell, but I’m cautiously optimistic. Apple didn’t have to say anything at all about this mechanical tweak. I mean, if they hadn’t said anything at all about the keyboards, we’d all be asking about it, but Apple often ignores questions it doesn’t want to answer. The folks I spoke to today seem confident these updated keyboards will prove significantly more reliable.

I’ve given this thing a little more thought because, as I wrote earlier, the only thing that gives us any indication that Apple has fixed the keyboard this time is their word. But that, I think, is itself newsworthy.

When Apple made keyboard tweaks last year, they insisted that the new silicone layer underneath all the keys was merely to make for quieter typing and had nothing to do with reliability. It doesn’t matter that their own servicing manual gave up its intended purpose; publicly, their stance was only that it was a quieter keyboard. This year, however, Apple directly addressed keyboard reliability in their conversations with media. Even though they didn’t mention keyboards at all in their press release, I still see it as a noteworthy acknowledgement.

Thoughts on NIST’s New Privacy Framework

Bruce Potter, writing on the Expel blog:

Many companies are only starting to come to grips with privacy thanks to new privacy regimes like the EU’s GDPR and California’s CCPA. And when you come to grips with a regulation, it typically looks a lot like compliance. “What boxes do I need to check in order to be compliant?” you might ask yourself. And once you’re compliant, you’re Good Enough™ and you move onto the next problem.

While taking a compliance-driven approach might feel like the equivalent of hitting an “easy” button, there’s one big problem: It leaves gaps in your org’s privacy posture that you’re probably not even aware of. The “compliance = security” mindset has been a problem for years, and industry analysts and journalists love reminding us after every breach that simply being compliant isn’t enough.

Turns out that privacy is no different.

NIST has made the current draft available (PDF) for feedback. It isn’t the easiest document to read, but it transforms the thinking around privacy from compliance to risk management. That’s a fundamental and critical shift that ought to encourage a greater appreciation by small- and medium-sized companies when it comes to privacy.

Apple Announces New MacBook Pro Models With, Yes, Updated Keyboards

Jason Snell was briefed on the new MacBook Pro models, which feature some nice spec bumps and, more importantly, enhancements to the keyboards:

Apple says these new models also feature a fourth version of the butterfly keyboard design, in response to customer complaints that the keyboard would end up in a sad state where key presses were ignored or doubled. While Apple is quick to say that the vast majority of MacBook Pro customers haven’t experienced any keyboard issues, the company still keeps tweaking this design. It claims that the change made in these new MacBook Pro models will substantially reduce the incidence of ignored or doubled characters.

A post earlier this month from a Reddit user claiming to be an Apple authorized technician said that only some of the failures they were seeing were dust-related. They said that failures were more frequently found on computers belonging to heavy keyboard users — programmers, journalists, and students — and that failures were more frequently found with the space bar and vowel keys.

That all suggests that dust ingress was something Apple tried to rule out last year with the silicone membrane, and that it was ineffective because it was likely a fragility issue with the keyboards’ construction or materials. Dieter Bohn of the Verge says that Apple told them that they had, indeed, changed the keyboard’s build.

Snell:

Beyond that, Apple is also seeking to reassure its customers that they shouldn’t avoid buying a Mac laptop out of fear of having keyboard problems. As was reported last month, Apple is working to shorten the time it takes to repair keyboards in Apple Store. And today it’s extending its Keyboard Service Program to cover all laptops with butterfly keyboards, including not just these new MacBook Pros, but also all of its laptops released in 2018, including the new MacBook Air. That program is separate from the standard Apple warranty and covers keyboard repairs for four years after the first retail sale of the laptop.

Bohn:

Some current MacBook Pro 13-inch with Touch Bar and 15-inch customers that bring in their keyboards for repair will actually have their keyboards replaced with ones that have these new materials, Apple says. That will only happen for MacBooks that have the third-generation butterfly keyboard today: the 2018 models of the MacBook Pro and the new MacBook Air.

These are promising steps towards rebuilding trust that Apple actually cares about the time, cost, and effort incurred by customers to fix their laptops. Of course, I have little reason beyond Apple’s word to believe that this time these keyboards do not suck. We will see, of course, and I’m sure that anyone with a 2018 MacBook Pro or Air is probably breathing a sigh of relief that their keyboards will be replaced the revised design if and when they break.

Yet, these actions are no substitute for having a reliable keyboard. As far as I can tell, it is less a question of if and more a question of when any of Apple’s computers equipped with the “butterfly” keyboards will break.

Also, even though this keyboard can be substituted into Apple’s 2018 models, there’s no indication today that they’re shipping newly-built units from the factory with the new keyboard. Nor, it should be said, have the 13-inch non-Touch Bar model of the MacBook Pro or the 12-inch MacBook been updated with even the membrane-equipped keyboard.

In a nut, it is comforting to see that they appear to be taking seriously the repairs needed for butterfly keyboard-equipped MacBooks, and have updated the design to try to make the new ones more reliable. But that’s not enough. It isn’t too much to expect that the keyboard in a computer should not have design flaws that cause it to be likely unreliable over a multiyear lifespan of heavy use, and the MacBook line will not have a good keyboard until that baseline is reached.

Update: Apple has also started a service program for MacBook Pro models exhibiting the so-called “stage light” or “flexgate” — ugh — issue. Oddly, even though reports said that this issue could impact any 2016 or 2017 MacBook Pro model, Apple’s service program is only for 2016 13-inch units. If you’ve already paid for a repair, you can enquire about a refund.

WWDC 2019 Prelude

I’m not a developer for any of Apple’s software platforms; and, so, WWDC usually comes every year as a welcome annual indication of where their platforms are headed, but I’m not compelled to fly down to San Jose, book a hotel room, and file for bankruptcy. This year, though, I’m getting the feeling that I should be there. I don’t know why, but there’s something in the air this year that seems just a little different — and I like it.

For old times’ sake, I wanted to put together one of those part-retrospective part-speculative pieces where I point out some of the new things I’d like to see this year. Maybe some of these things will be introduced, and that would be cool; I wouldn’t bet on too much of this list, though. These are just a few things that have been swirling in my head.

iOS, Visually

Here’s something remarkable: the design language that emerged from the iOS 7 upheaval has now been with us for the same amount of time as its glossier and more colourful predecessor on iOS. Of course, that alone should not dictate whether it is time for a new coat of paint — to my eyes, this aesthetic is holding up far better than the last one at about the same time in its life.1 In part, that’s because Apple has done a good job updating it in the intervening years: switching to their custom San Francisco typeface, for example, and introducing some big, bold typography in iOS 11. Since iOS 7’s ship date, there’s nothing in the system that has felt so instantly tacky as, say, the metallic action buttons in the iOS 6 sharing sheet.

Yet, for everything that iOS 7 did right in setting Apple up for creating software that looks and works like it matches their hardware, there are some things that have never sat right with me. I don’t think shapeless buttons have ever been a good idea. They look unfinished, unanchored, and uncharacteristically sloppy; I am dismayed that they have stayed virtually the same for six years. I’ve also never been fond of any of the glyph-on-a-white-background icons that shipped in iOS 7, save for Photos. That is a beautiful illustration. The rest — Music, Reminders, Home, Calendar, Files, Health, Find My iPhone, and (if we’re being generous with the definition of “white background”) Calculator — are drab things that I have mostly buried in assorted folders on the second through fourth pages of my iPhone’s home screen.

I also think this would be a great time to revisit some of the more delightful spit-and-polish qualities of visual interface design. I was thinking recently about Time Machine — more on that below. Backing up a computer is a mundane task; finding and restoring a deleted file can be very stressful, particularly if it’s an important document. Time Machine somehow made this dreadful part of computing enjoyable. But, not everything about Time Machine was good. I remember my irritation any time I accidentally clicked on its Dock icon and watching helplessly as my entire computer — a mid-2007 MacBook Pro; so, brand new when Leopard shipped — ground to a halt to render some stars over a swirling nebula backdrop.

So, while I am not necessarily eager to return to an era of photorealistically-rendered window textures and glossy everything, I would love to see a middle ground. The “card” that pops up when you connect your AirPods or share a WiFi network’s password is, I think, very elegant, particularly on my iPhone X where the corner radius is matched to the screen’s, making it feel like an extension of the phone itself. I do wish the button were a gorgeous saturated blue, though. The revised design of Wallet in iOS 12.2 is also very nice; I welcome the return of enclosed cells in table views. Refinement throughout the system to add a little more colour and visual cues would also be delightful. The “Backup and Restore” section of Apple’s iCloud marketing webpage includes screenshots of some of the most dreary visual patterns in iOS. More spit-and-polish, better use of colour, and more elegance will always be welcomed in visual design.

I’d also like to see more attention to detail in not allowing obvious sloppiness to be shipped.

We’ve had an era of sorely needed recalibration from excessive and overwrought visual design patterns. Let’s inject a feeling of craft and beauty back into the software we use, though. Apps like Things illustrate a fantastic interpretation of how a less decorative design language can still be lively and tactile.

iOS, Functionally

Beyond the more surface-level stuff, there are some functional changes I’d like to see in iOS. More specifically, I have different hopes for each the iPhone and the iPad.

First, a quick observation: it’s remarkable just how much Apple got completely right with the first iPhone’s user interface. The tab bar that runs across the bottom of many apps is, I think, a brilliant piece of foresight. From the 3.5-inch displays of the first four generations of iPhone to the windowpane of glass that is the iPhone XS Max, it has scaled beautifully.

But the stuff at the top of the display — app toolbars, notifications, Notification Centre, and Control Centre — is something I think sorely needs reconsidering. There have been moves made to this effect for several years. Keen observers of third-party app design trends on iOS will remember that the downfall of the then-ubiquitous “hamburger” menu began around the time that Plus-model iPhones became popular. iOS 7 also launched a universal gesture for paging back by swiping from the left edge of the screen, which became immensely useful on larger-screened iPhones.

But that still leaves a few remaining gestures that require a telescopic thumb. And, I should point out, I still think it’s ridiculous that notifications are positioned to overlap the upper toolbar of pretty much every app. On a semi-frequent basis, my thumb will go to hit some control at the top of the display only to have a notification pop in, so when my thumb contacts the display, I get whisked off to some other app. It’s not a very good game.

On the bigger side of the iOS device spectrum, I am anticipating improvements to the iPad’s home screen and its multitasking capabilities. As was reported early last year by Mark Gurman — and which I have heard separately as well — the iPad improvements that were supposed to debut with iOS 12 were bumped as a result of that update’s increased focus on stability and speed. With another year of polish, I’m looking forward to seeing what may be in store.

Perhaps better indication of which app in a split view is foregrounded, particularly when an external keyboard is used.

Maybe the home screen will have more flexibility in what can be placed on it and how those items can be arranged.

Or maybe it will soon be possible to run more than one instance of an app, so you can pull up a couple of Pages documents side-by-side to more easily work with both of them. Even having more complex layouts like that which recently debuted in Fiery Feeds would be a boon.

This would be really a great year for Siri, Notification Centre, and Control Centre to stop taking over the entire display when invoked, and the same for the whole-screen dominance of an incoming phone call. Hey, a guy can dream.

Overall, I’d like to see great understanding that a single task often requires referencing multiple things across several apps. Part of that can be resolved through UI changes. However, I’d also like the system to do a better job of holding multiple apps in memory. iOS, as I understand it, has a far more limited virtual memory system than MacOS. That, combined with less RAM, means that apps in the background are frequently kicked out of memory and must be reloaded. This can be deeply interruptive when working in multiple apps at once, and it’s something I’ve never seen on MacOS. It’s so interruptive to me that I will often be working on something on my iPad only to find it has, once again, kicked all my Safari tabs out of memory after I checked my email or responded to a text; at that point, I find it easier to simply switch to my Mac.

The Mac

The biggest Mac news of WWDC this year will almost certainly be a new Mac Pro. It makes total sense to introduce it to a developer audience, even if it isn’t available soon after — though I hope it is. While I doubt they will acknowledge the failure of the last Mac Pro, I hope to hear Apple make the case for the feasibility of updating the new one more frequently than once every seven years.

I am also looking forward to the display that it will reportedly be paired with. Fifteen years ago, Apple defined what a professional-grade desktop display ought to be with the 30-inch Cinema Display. I would not be disappointed if the new display is a 5K 27-inch model — there is certainly a dearth of those — but I would love to be surprised by a product that’s the spiritual successor of the 30-inch Cinema Display: some gigantic, high-resolution thing with that isn’t available anywhere else. Technology permitting, of course.

It’s unlikely, but I would also like to see an acknowledgement of the failure of their “butterfly” keyboard design that is currently shipping in every portable Mac they make. These keyboards are terrible. I’ve seen frustration with these keyboards referenced increasingly in non-tech circles, so news is spreading that Apple’s laptops aren’t fully reliable.

On the software front, I am mostly concerned about the next stage of the so-called “Marzipan” apps. The four apps that have been released so far are not good, and are poor examples for the developer community. I am cautiously optimistic about what we could see this year, though. These apps were clearly stopgap proofs-of-concept that, arguably, shouldn’t have shipped, and my hope is that we’ll see truly Mac-like iterations of these and other apps this year. I don’t want iOS apps running with a MacOS title bar to be the new standard.

That’s not to say that all things from iOS do not or could not work on the Mac. In particular, the effects introduced in Messages and FaceTime on iOS should absolutely be brought to the Mac as well. I get why Animoji and Memoji can’t be on the Mac — yet — but surely I should be able to send and receive messages with the laser effect, or use some goofy FaceTime filters.

From a services perspective, I hope this is the year that we see an iCloud-powered Time Machine backup option. It has always struck me as very odd how Apple banged the drum for years about how easy backups are on the Mac with Time Machine, but never evolved it. Even if you count document versioning as an update to Time Machine, there have been virtually no updates to it since the version that shipped with Lion eight years ago. In that time, the biggest Time Machine-related news was the discontinuation of the Time Capsule a couple of years back. That means that users of Apple’s notebooks either need to remember to plug in a hard drive, or they need to know about Backblaze or another third-party remote backup service. Yet, Apple sells iCloud plans offering up to two terabytes of storage, and recommends switching on iCloud backups for iOS devices when they are set up. I want the same thing for my Mac.

Finally, there are still features that haven’t made their way into iCloud despite being available in Apple’s previous online subscription services. Because I now have two Macs, it would be great to be able to sync everything from app preferences to my Dock layout between both machines. These are things that don’t often change but, when they do, it’s likely that I want that setting applied on both. iCloud is most of the way there already, with features like Documents and Desktop syncing, iCloud Keychain, and automatic downloads from Apple’s stores — I’d just like to see a last push.

Apple TV, HomePod, and More

Something I’m aching for with my Apple TV is better support for multiple users. I know this has been a perennial request by owners of family-used iPads, but I think it makes even more sense on the Apple TV and, presumably, HomePod, as they are inherently communal devices. The Apple TV in our house is signed into my Apple ID because it was the one with the Apple Music subscription before we sorted all that out. Both my partner and I play music with the Apple Music app and, while we have similar tastes in a lot of areas, her picks have definitely skewed my recommendations a little.

Netflix solves this by allowing one account to have several profiles. I wish Apple’s apps would allow switching between accounts in the same iCloud Family.

I also think Apple could do a better job of defining what makes a great app for tvOS. I’ve previously complained about the YouTube app and I still feel very strongly that it is a bad app. But so, too, is Music in its own way: when it resumes, it bumps whatever album was last playing to the front of your Recently Played list, even if that album is paused or stopped; the For You page reloads as you move around; the entire app is slow and navigating it is poor.

Finally, one thing I’d like to see more generally is a greater focus on unification of product and service availability no matter where users live. I recognize that there are regulatory hurdles and licensing restrictions that make this difficult — if not impossible — but, as a non-American, this is important to me.


  1. A caveat: the original iPhone UI was clearly a descendent of the Aqua design language that was Apple’s standard since Mac OS X debuted in 2001. So perhaps it’s a bit premature to declare the iOS 7 visual language the same age; but, on the iPhone, it is. Also, the iOS 7 language was never named. ↩︎

On the Apparently Unmoving FCC Investigation Into Phone Carriers Selling Subscriber Location Data

Dell Cameron, Gizmodo:

How the intimate data exchanging hands in these back-alley deals compares in size and scale to, say, what Cambridge Analytica acquired on Facebook users in 2016 is ultimately made irrelevant by the fact that it’s a thousand times more sensitive. This is data meant for hunting people down. In the most outrageous case documented by the press so far, a Motherboard reporter managed to pay a bounty hunter $300 to put a trace on a cellphone in New York. The coordinates he received provided accurate up to around a quarter mile. As one Democrat on the FCC put it, the trade in Americans’ location data is “a personal and national security issue that affects every American with a cell phone.”

There’s little evidence that it’s being treated as such. Lawmakers on Wednesday openly scolded [FCC Chairman Ajit] Pai over his handling of the investigation, which is thought to be nearing the end of its first year. (It remains unclear when the investigation was actually started.) During questioning, he refused outright to say whether he’d share basic information about the investigation with the FCC’s two Democratic commissioners, Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks.

Who knows? This could all be nothing; Pai’s office could just be bad at email. In that case, I sympathize.

But if this is a case of what appears to be partisan nonsense, it’s deeply troubling. These carriers were providing third parties access to customers’ real-time location data. That’s an unconscionable violation of privacy; I don’t think anyone would disagree. It would be an egregious breach of duty for the FCC investigate this without urgency or priority.

Of course, this is the Republican Party serving the doctrine of Donald Trump, so there are always gratuitous conflicts of interest or the potential for grift:

Statutorily, the FCC has one year in most cases from the date of a violation to issue a notice of apparent liability. Neither commissioner can say whether the statute of limitation has expired on any particular infraction. But notably, more than a year has passed since Senator Ron Wyden first wrote to the FCC demanding this investigation take place. A New York Times expose about a business that sold phone-tracking services to state law enforcement officials without a warrant turned a year old last week. (Pai, incidentally, represented that business — Securus Technologies — seven years ago, while working in private practice.)

Shocking.

A Report From the AMP Advisory Committee Meeting

Terence Eden:

I don’t like AMP. I think that Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages are a bad idea, poorly executed, and almost-certainly anti-competitive.

So, I decided to join the AC (Advisory Committee) for AMP. I don’t want them surrounded with sycophants and yes-men. A few weeks ago, a bunch of the AC met in London for our first physical meeting after several exploratory video calls.

I maintain that AMP is antithetical to the open web, and a stealthy anticompetitive threat. If Google did not restrict the top “carousel” of news results on mobile to AMP pages, I doubt it would have ever caught on. It has few merits of its own and is popular solely because it has been given undue weight due to Google’s influence.

Scrap it. Take what good albeit obvious lessons have been learned from AMP — limits on asset size, no arbitrary scripts, simpler page structures — and sink its corpse to the seabed of our collective conscience.

The Night the Lights Went Out

Drew Magary, Deadspin:

I remember hosting the Deadspin Awards in New York the night of December 5th and then heading over to a karaoke bar for a staff after-party, where I ate some pizza, drank a beer, sang one song (Tom Petty’s “You Got Lucky,” which would soon prove either fitting or ironic, depending upon your perspective), and that’s it. After that comes a great void. I don’t remember inexplicably collapsing in a hallway, fracturing my skull because I had no way to brace myself for the impact. I don’t remember sitting up after that, my co-workers alarmed at the sight of blood trickling out of the back of my head. I don’t remember puking all over Barry Petchesky’s pants, vomit being one of many fun side effects of your brain exploding, as he held my head upright to keep me from choking on my own barf. I don’t remember Kiran Chitanvis quickly calling 911 to get me help. I don’t remember getting into an ambulance with Victor Jeffreys and riding to an uptown hospital, with Victor begging me for the passcode to my phone so that he could call my wife. He says I made an honest effort to help, but my circuits had already shorted out and I ended up giving him sequences of four digits that had NOTHING to do with the code. Flustered, he asked me for my wife’s phone number outright. Instead, I unwittingly gave him a series of 10 digits unrelated to the number he sought.

I don’t remember that. I don’t remember bosswoman Megan Greenwell trailing behind the ambulance in a cab with her husband and staying at the hospital ALL NIGHT to plead with them to give me a closer look (at first, the staff thought I was simply inebriated; my injury had left me incoherent enough to pass as loaded) because she suspected, rightly, that something was very wrong with me. I don’t remember doctors finally determining that I had suffered a subdural hematoma, or a severe brain bleed: A pool of blood had collected in my brain and was pressing against my brain stem. I was then rushed to another hospital for surgery, where doctors removed a piece of my skull, drained the rogue blood, implanted a small galaxy in my brain to make sure my opinions remain suitably vast, put the hunk of skull back in, and also drilled a hole in the TOP of my head to relieve the pressure. They also pried my eyes open and peeled the contact lenses off my eyeballs. They then put me into a medically-induced coma (SO METAL) so that my brain could rest and heal without Awake Drew barging in and fucking everything up.

I don’t remember any of that. I told you I wouldn’t be a very reliable narrator.

This is many things. It is gutting, inspiring, saddening, frustrating, at times very funny because Drew Magary wrote it so of course it is, illuminating, and moving. But, as a piece of writing, it’s perfect. Put this on your reading list for the weekend, or read it now. I don’t care which; it’s worth your time.

A History of Data Collection in Mobile Games

Kaitlyn Tiffany, Vox:

So what do these third-party advertisers do that’s so bad? A study conducted last year by security researchers at UC Berkeley gives us some insight.

The study focused on children’s privacy and resettable advertising IDs —the string of numbers and letters that identify you and keep a log of your clicks, searches, purchases, and sometimes geographic location as you move through various apps — in contrast with non-resettable, persistent identifiers. Phone security experts recommend regularly resetting it to limit advertisers’ ability to track you. (You can do that in the Advertising section at the bottom of the Privacy settings on an iPhone, or in the Ads menu in the Services section of an Android device’s settings.)

The study found something alarming: Of 3,454 children’s apps that share resettable advertising IDs, 66 percent were sharing persistent identifiers as well. You could reset the advertising ID every 20 minutes on the device your child is using, if you wanted to, but it wouldn’t do anything to clear their history. The only way to reset that device ID is by factory-resetting the phone or tablet and starting from scratch. More importantly, the study found that 19 percent of children’s apps contained ad-targeting software with terms of service so predatory that they’re not even legal to include in apps designed for children. Kids under 13 aren’t supposed to be tracked between apps at all, especially for advertising purposes, and especially as part of a permanent history of their digital lives.

This is the kind of thing that I would like to see sifted out of apps before they make it into the App Store. There are honest justifications for developers to use an analytics framework to sort out bugs within their apps or figure out how often a feature is being used. Still, I would like to see more limitations placed on the monetization of data collected from app usage, and on persistent identifiers — particularly when they’re operated by a third party and can therefore be used to track users across multiple apps and even across devices.

By the way, do yourself a favour and opt out of ad targeting on your iOS devices.

Consistently Stupid U.S. Administration Solicits Complaints of ‘Bias’ by Websites

Tony Romm, Washington Post:

The White House on Wednesday escalated its war against Silicon Valley when it announced an unprecedented campaign asking Internet users to share if they had been censored on Facebook, Google and Twitter, tapping into President Trump’s long-running claim that tech giants are biased against conservatives.

The effort, which the White House said on Twitter was directed at users “no matter your views,” seeks to collect names, contact information and other details from Americans. The survey asks whether they have encountered problems on Facebook, Instagram, Google-owned YouTube, Twitter or other social media sites — companies the president frequently takes aim at for alleged political censorship.

This, on the very same day that the Trump administration announced it would not sign a statement pledging to take action to combat and avoid amplifying violent extremist rhetoric on what is ostensibly First Amendment grounds. I’m not saying that they should necessarily sign such a statement as I understand the free speech concerns — though the pledge does not require that government signatories do anything that would curtail freedom of expression — but the contrast is notable.

It’s horseshit anyway because this is pretty obviously a means to build the Trump 2020 campaign’s email list. Also, the U.S. government can’t require private companies to change how they moderate user behaviour because that would be a violation of the First Amendment — but you knew that.

Update: Casey Newton:

In the meantime, “bias” is defined ever downward. In conservative parlance, it now refers to any instance in which the user of a social platform did not have a desired outcome. You didn’t appear high enough in search results? Your video wasn’t promoted by an algorithm? You were suspended for threatening to kill someone? It’s all just “bias” now.

Far enough down the conspiracy hole, everything has meaning, which means nothing really does.

Recent Actions by Adobe Are a Case Study in Why Customers Don’t Like Subscriptions

A neat thing about the software-as-a-service model — which, by the way, is a loathsome phrase — is that you get updates to your apps all the time.

On the other hand, you must install those updates; many of these apps don’t even give you a choice. So if a feature no longer behaves as it used to, or it’s buggy, or a crucial option is dropped, you’re out of luck.

Throw Your Laptop Into the Sea, but the Surveillance Economy Will Still Win

Maciej Cegłowski:

In the regulatory context, discussion of privacy invariably means data privacy—the idea of protecting designated sensitive material from unauthorized access.

[…]

But there is a second, more fundamental sense of the word privacy, one which until recently was so common and unremarkable that it would have made no sense to try to describe it.

That is the idea that there exists a sphere of life that should remain outside public scrutiny, in which we can be sure that our words, actions, thoughts and feelings are not being indelibly recorded. This includes not only intimate spaces like the home, but also the many semi-private places where people gather and engage with one another in the common activities of daily life—the workplace, church, club or union hall. As these interactions move online, our privacy in this deeper sense withers away.

Young people already understand this second definition very well. They have separate private accounts on social networks, and they’re more careful about what they share online than many older people give them credit for.

Charlie Warzel, New York Times:

I called up Ceglowski after his trip to Washington to inquire about the experience and what he thinks we can do to make opting out less of a pipe dream. Like anyone with a decent understanding of how the web works, he has a healthy skepticism that we’ll rein in privacy violations, but his one potential area of optimism really stuck with me. It’s the concept of positive regulation.

[…]

Over the phone, he explained that, while it might seem small, if real people on the internet vote with their wallets to use privacy-focused services over big data-sucking platforms like Facebook and Google, the effect could be profound. He cited the telemarketing wars of the early 2000s as an example.

“When telemarketers were fighting the ‘do not call’ list they argued that people loved having the opportunity to hear about great deals and products via phone during dinner time,” he said. “But once the regulation passed, everyone signed up for that list and it became obvious that the industry’s argument was laughable.”

After years of relentless scandals driven by the surveillance economy,1 I think there are plenty of users out there who would be interested enough in greater privacy to pay for it. But that’s only likely to be successful if the purveyors of privacy-robbing services are held accountable for their behaviour. So far, that just isn’t happening.


  1. Many of which, by the way, were reported in stories published on websites like the New York Times’, which share visitor data with Facebook and Google, as well as lots of other third-party tracking and advertising vendors.

    For example, if I visit Warzel’s article with my content blockers turned off, over fifty more HTTP requests are made and it takes three times as long to load the page. The additional requests include trackers from Optimizely, Scorecard Research, Oracle, and ChartBeat; there are also several advertising scripts which are loaded from several vendors, and they also function as trackers.

    I’m not innocent of this either. If you’re reading this on the web — as opposed to, say, in a feed reader — there’s an analytics script running on this page and an ad in the righthand column. In my pathetic defence, my analytics script does not share anything with third parties, it minimizes information collection and fuzzes IP addresses, and you can entirely opt out of it. As far as the ad goes, it is not behavioural, my Content Security Policy prevents any extra scripts or images of unknown origin from loading — like a Google tracking pixel, for instance — and it’s my understanding that the ad network does not collect any information from my readers unless the ad is clicked. ↩︎

Reuters Source: Facebook Facing 20-Year FTC Privacy Consent Agreement

Just a reminder that every Facebook privacy scandal you’ve heard about for the past seven years — Cambridge Analytica, passwords stored in plain text, that thing where they were demanding email account passwords, using two-factor phone numbers for user account lookup, the private data sent to Facebook by developers using the company’s SDK, and so on; I could do this all day — was committed while the company was already promising the FTC to not violate users’ privacy.

Why I (Still) Love Tech

This essay by Paul Ford, published in Wired, is magnificent. I’ve been letting it stew all day, re-reading it a couple of times here and there. It’s beautiful, haunting, gutting, and romantic. Two excerpts from a dozen or more I could have picked to share here. First:

I keep meeting people out in the world who want to get into this industry. Some have even gone to coding boot camp. They did all the exercises. They tell me about their React apps and their Rails APIs and their page design skills. They’ve spent their money and time to gain access to the global economy in short order, and often it hasn’t worked.

I offer my card, promise to answer their emails. It is my responsibility. We need to get more people into this industry.

But I also see them asking, with their eyes, “Why not me?”

And here I squirm and twist. Because— because we have judged you and found you wanting. Because you do not speak with a confident cadence, because you cannot show us how to balance a binary tree on a whiteboard, because you overlabored the difference between UI and UX, because you do not light up in the way that we light up when hearing about some obscure bug, some bad button, the latest bit of outrageousness on Hacker News. Because the things you learned are already, six months later, not exactly what we need. Because the industry is still overlorded by people like me, who were lucky enough to have learned the etiquette early, to even know there was an etiquette.

Tech is, of course, not the sole industry with an insular and specific culture; but, it is something that can be changed by readers of websites like this one, or Wired. Technology has been commoditized so that you see people of every age, race, gender, and personality walking around with a smartphone or a DSLR or a smartwatch or wireless headphones, but the creation of these things haven’t followed suit at the same rate.

The second excerpt:

I have no desire to retreat to the woods and hear the bark of the fox. I like selling, hustling, and making new digital things. I like ordering hard drives in the mail. But I also increasingly enjoy the regular old networks: school, PTA, the neighbors who gave us their kids’ old bikes. The bikes represent a global supply chain; when I touch them, I can feel the hum of enterprise resource planning software, millions of lines of logistics code executed on a global scale, bringing the handlebars together with the brakes and the saddle onto its post. Then two kids ride in circles in the supermarket parking lot, yawping in delight. I have no desire to disrupt these platforms. I owe my neighbors a nice bottle of wine for the bikes. My children don’t seem to love computers as I do, and I doubt they will in the same way, because computers are everywhere, and nearly free. They will ride on different waves. Software has eaten the world, and yet the world remains.

This sounds dour and miserable but it isn’t all that — I promise. As much as Ford examines the failings of the industry in this essay, there’s an undercurrent of optimism.

In some ways, Ford’s piece reminds me of Frank Chimero’s 2018 essay about how web development is increasingly like building software instead of just writing a document. I remember when I learned that I could view the source of a webpage, and that’s how I began to learn how to build stuff for the web. That foundation drove my career and a passion for learning how things are made. Things are different now, of course. Common toolchains now generate gnarly HTML and indecipherable CSS; the web is less elegant and human-driven. But I’m not sure that different and harder are necessarily worse.

Thinking more comprehensively about Ford’s essay, perhaps there’s a new perspective that can be brought only by those new to tech. After growing up with the stratospheric rise of the industry and seeing how it has strained, maybe that context will inform how they read this piece.

AT&T to Pull WarnerMedia Shows from Competing Streaming Services

Melissa Repko, Dallas News:

AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson said Tuesday that the company will pull popular TV shows and movies from streaming rivals and “bring that content back into the fold” as it launches its own Netflix-like video service.

AT&T “will be bringing a lot of these media rights, licensing rights back to ourselves to put on our own SVOD (subscription video-on-demand) product,” Stephenson said Tuesday morning at the JPMorgan Global Technology, Media and Communications Conference in Boston.

AT&T’s new subscription video service is expected to launch in late 2019. It will be anchored by HBO TV shows and movies, along with content from Warner Bros. studios and Turner Networks. AT&T became the owner of the valuable entertainment library last June when it bought Time Warner in a deal valued at about $108.7 billion, including debt.

This new era of media conglomerates is dismal for American consumers who will have fewer choices and greater opportunity for exploitation. There is a conscious push to move away from the channel-free future that was hoped for in favour of more expensive siloed options.

Leonid Bershidsky Wrote Maybe the Dumbest Take on This WhatsApp Spyware Story

Leonid Bershidsky, writing for Bloomberg because of course a horrible infosec article will be published by Bloomberg:

The discovery that hackers could snoop on WhatsApp should alert users of supposedly secure messaging apps to an uncomfortable truth: “End-to-end encryption” sounds nice — but if anyone can get into your phone’s operating system, they will be able to read your messages without having to decrypt them.

In related news, your text messages are also less private if someone is looking at your screen over your shoulder.

These are merely applications running on top of an operating system, and once a piece of malware gets into the latter it can control the device in a multitude of ways. With a keylogger, a hacker can see only one side of a conversation. Add the ability to capture a user’s screen, and they can see the full discussion regardless of what security precautions are built into the app you are using.

“End-to-end encryption” is a marketing device used by companies such as Facebook to lull consumers wary about cyber-surveillance into a false sense of security.

End-to-end encryption is not mere marketing; everyone knows this, and it’s a jackass move to suggest otherwise. Vulnerabilities that are able to gain system-wide access, like those used by NSO Group, are exceedingly rare. It is far more likely that data can be intercepted in transit. Encrypting anything as it travels across the world is not lip service or marketing — it’s good sense.

It’s foolish for Bershidsky to have written this terrible article, and it beggars belief that any editor who has the first inkling of knowledge about encryption or information security would choose to run it. Alas, this is Bloomberg.

WhatsApp Voice Calls Used to Inject NSO Group Spyware on Phones

Mehul Srivastava, Financial Times:

WhatsApp, which is used by 1.5bn people worldwide, discovered in early May that attackers were able to install surveillance software on to both iPhones and Android phones by ringing up targets using the app’s phone call function. 

The malicious code, developed by the secretive Israeli company NSO Group, could be transmitted even if users did not answer their phones, and the calls often disappeared from call logs, said the spyware dealer, who was recently briefed on the WhatsApp hack.

This vulnerability feels a little like an echo of Apple’s FaceTime bug from earlier this year, except it’s much, much worse. All a recipient needed to do was to have WhatsApp installed and connected to their phone number; with just those factors, according to this report, an attacker could remotely install NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware.

The good news is that unless you’re a journalist, an activist, or a tech CEO exposing corruption in Saudi Arabia, in particular, you likely won’t be targeted with Pegasus spyware. Still, keep your devices up to date; Apple released iOS 12.3 today with a bunch of security fixes.

Update: The Dumpster Fire on Twitter:

So, Saudi Arabia has and has used the WhatsApp malware — which spies on phones, can even record audio and video — and Trump’s senior advisor/son-in-law Jared Kushner uses the app to communicate with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia… cool cool cool

Neat.

Lawsuit Targeting Apple’s 30% App Store Levy Is Allowed to Proceed, U.S. Supreme Court Rules

Bill Chappell and Nina Totenberg, NPR:

The theory of the lawsuit is that Apple’s 30% commission charge to app developers is often passed on to consumers — creating a higher-than-competitive price — and that competitors are shut out because Apple prevents iPhone owners from buying apps anywhere other than its App Store.

Apple sought to block the lawsuit, asserting that it had not set the prices on the apps and thus the iPhone owners had no standing to sue.

But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Apple, and on Monday the Supreme Court agreed.

This one is worth keeping an eye on, particularly as the E.U. also begins its examination into Spotify’s claims alleging anticompetitive behaviours.

Questions About 5G Safety Are Being Politicized

Parked atop the New York Times’ homepage right now — arguably one of the most influential positions in English-language media for any news story — is this story by William J. Broad about the framing by RT America of questions about the safety of 5G networking. Here’s a taste:

The Russian network RT America aired the segment, titled “A Dangerous ‘Experiment on Humanity,’” in covering what its guest experts call 5G’s dire health threats. U.S. intelligence agencies identified the network as a principal meddler in the 2016 presidential election. Now, it is linking 5G signals to brain cancer, infertility, autism, heart tumors and Alzheimer’s disease — claims that lack scientific support.

Yet even as RT America, the cat’s paw of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has been doing its best to stoke the fears of American viewers, Mr. Putin, on Feb. 20, ordered the launch of Russian 5G networks in a tone evoking optimism rather than doom.

[…]

Hundreds of blogs and websites appear to be picking up the network’s 5G alarms, seldom if ever noting the Russian origins. Analysts call it a treacherous fog.

This story is right in claiming that RT’s let’s-call-it-reporting vastly overstates any known concerns about 5G networking. It’s fair to assume that RT, owing to its Kremlin connection and eagerness to hype conspiracy theories, is happy to exploit scientific illiteracy as a way to stoke fear. Broad explains the loaded terminology used by the network, and cites good sources and knowledgeable individuals that see little health concern in the frequencies used by 5G.

However, this article also gets carried away in definitively stating the safety of 5G by too readily ascribing concerns to Russian propaganda.

An article published last month in Computer Weekly by a coalition of investigative journalists cited several scientific bodies and research institutes that have questions about the safety of 5G. They also quote David Carpenter who, as the Times explained, is an inaccurate alarmist. Susan Crawford, in a piece for Wired, pointed out that the FCC’s health testing standards are possibly outdated, being based on thirty year old German research; but, she also uses the “some say” weasel words to insinuate connections between the telecom industry and the German research institute. An article by Mark Hertsgaard and Mark Dowie, published by the Nation last year, explored the wireless industry’s successful lobbying efforts.

Meanwhile, the source for Broad’s claim that RT’s propaganda is being widely circulated is a Google search for "RT America" "5G". Yeah, really. The way that sentence is phrased, you’d think that RT citations are appearing in loads of mainstream blogs. But, right now, that Google search is returning results for: this Times story; a bunch of stories and videos from RT America, of course; and several conspiracy websites. No mainstream blog or website that I can find has so far decided to use RT as a source for questions about 5G safety. On the contrary, bigger publications are asking scientists and industry representatives for their thoughts, as is responsible. The fact that RT’s stories are being circulated by idiots who would trust the network if it reported that the Pacific and Atlantic oceans had swapped places is not indicative of a successful propaganda campaign.

All of this is not to say that the Times’ story is wrong. Nor is it to establish false equivalency — there are not two equal sides here. There are thousands of scientists working around the world to try to answer the questions of whether wireless networking has any health risks, and whether 5G has any specific concerns. But the headline used by the Times — “Your 5G Phone Won’t Hurt You. But Russia Wants You to Think Otherwise.” — is another entry in a series of headlines that oversimplify a nuanced story, and the article itself and its push notification are too quick to blame questions about 5G’s safety on Russian propaganda.

It’s Not Enough to Break Up Tech Giants

Here’s something that rarely happens: I agree with Alex Stamos. Or, at least, I agree with his argument that we should not consider a breakup of Facebook as a panacea to its ills.

Facebook’s market domination is dangerous from a privacy perspective — in as much as it collects a lot of data about a lot of people — and it is ultimately helpful for the company for its size to be inherently influential when it attempts to push the limits of what is socially acceptable.

Trevor Callaghan on Twitter:

I’ve always taken the view that access to information is the key power dynamic. [Facebook, Google, Amazon] and others all have unique, entirely proprietary stores of information that they use. On the one hand, you can (and should) regulate that where it intersects with privacy.

On the other, continue to be concerned about that information only being processed/controlled by those entities. If we really want to break control then you can certainly regulate use, but you ultimately need to either take control back entirely to the individual, or find a way to make those assets non-rivalrous. This is often dismissed as an extremist position, but think about what would happen if, for example, any other company (with your consent) could build a product with the social graph and interests [Facebook] have for you or a search engine tailored to your interests from [Google] data, but on a web index that was part of a data commons?

I think this is a fascinating idea worth discussing, but I also think that there’s a simpler option already available: interpret antitrust laws that are already on the books with more than the financial cost of goods and services in mind. Consider user data and anti-privacy business models as costs, as well. Google and Facebook already do.

Google’s New Privacy Features Put the Responsibility on Users

Lauren Goode, Wired:

But as Google increases the number of privacy features — part of an attempt to scrub its reputation clean of data-tracking dirt — the setup of the settings, toggles, and dashboards within its apps seems to put more responsibility on the individual user rather than the platform. As Pichai himself said, Google aims to give people “choices.” So it’s your choice if you want to take the time to adjust, monitor, take out, or toggle something off. Just like it’s Google’s choice to not change its fundamental approach to gathering data to help better target advertising and thus make heaps of money.

Google is fully aware that most people will not choose to go spelunking around their privacy settings to get things configured just so. Most people are just going to stick with the defaults. And those defaults will, for the foreseeable future, be skewed to protect Google’s data collection interests.

Taking Stock of Subscriptions

Joanna Stern, writing in the Wall Street Journal which, yes, you need a subscription to read:

The technology industry loves the term SaaS, or Software as a Service. It’s the idea that software isn’t just bought once and installed, but rather is subscribed to and always updating. Microsoft Office 365? SaaS. Google Drive? SaaS. Your kid’s coding app? SaaS again.

There’s also CaaS, Content as a Service. Netflix ? Hulu? Spotify? Apple News+? All CaaS. And then there’s HaaS, hardware as a service. Your connected door lock, thermostat, security camera, maybe even your car or your toothbrush, now come with subscriptions.

Throw it all into one basket and call it Everything as a Service or — don’t hate me — “EaaS.”

I completely get the short-term allure of this from the perspective of platforms and accountants. It’s a steady, predictable, easy revenue stream — particularly if users are locked into year-long contracts.

But, especially over the long term, I think users will find it fatiguing — at best — to live in a world where we pay hundreds of dollars a month to listen to music, use software, and store files. There are advantages: we can listen to most music of our choosing on demand; our software is constantly up to date and regularly has new features; the files we store are synced across our devices.

Extrapolated over a longer term, however, these niceties start to feel like lock-in. What if your music listening habits don’t change all that much? What if you don’t really need all those new features, or you’re frustrated that you feel forced to relearn a piece of software you’ve relied upon for years because an update changed the UI dramatically? What if you only edit most of your files from the same device?

There are records that I’ve listened to a hundred times that I paid for once. That’s amazing to me. So is the fact that I paid for a license for Photoshop eight years ago and have consistently used it over that time. Now, it’s a subscription product.

More than anything, I submit to you that the things we are obligated to pay for on a set date every month are generally the things that we are least excited to spend our money on. Rent, utilities, insurance — these are things we need, but do not do anything themselves. An apartment is least exciting for what it is on its own; it’s only made interesting by how we use it and make it our home. An internet connection is just a wire to some panel somewhere until we start using it for other stuff.

I get excited when I sit down to listen to a new record or use new software. I’m not excited to pay bills.

See Also:Hi, it’s me, the app you’ve never used that’s still billing you”.

Update: Matt Roszak received an email from Adobe stating that they’re discontinuing the older version of Animate — formerly Flash CC — that he uses. They have informed him that if he continues to use it, it is a violation of their terms and he could be sued.

Chris Hughes, a Facebook Co-Founder, Argues for the Breakup of Facebook

Chris Hughes in an op-ed for the New York Times:

Facebook’s dominance is not an accident of history. The company’s strategy was to beat every competitor in plain view, and regulators and the government tacitly — and at times explicitly — approved. In one of the government’s few attempts to rein in the company, the F.T.C. in 2011 issued a consent decree that Facebook not share any private information beyond what users already agreed to. Facebook largely ignored the decree. Last month, the day after the company predicted in an earnings call that it would need to pay up to $5 billion as a penalty for its negligence — a slap on the wrist — Facebook’s shares surged 7 percent, adding $30 billion to its value, six times the size of the fine.

The F.T.C.’s biggest mistake was to allow Facebook to acquire Instagram and WhatsApp. In 2012, the newer platforms were nipping at Facebook’s heels because they had been built for the smartphone, where Facebook was still struggling to gain traction. Mark responded by buying them, and the F.T.C. approved.

[…]

The alternative is bleak. If we do not take action, Facebook’s monopoly will become even more entrenched. With much of the world’s personal communications in hand, it can mine that data for patterns and trends, giving it an advantage over competitors for decades to come.

Mike Masnick of Techdirt wrote a counterargument to this piece which, I think, rather misses the point while pointing out many of the errors in Hughes’ piece. Yes, Hughes mixes up patents and copyright infringement, and he employs flawed readings of CDA 230 and the First Amendment.

But the bulk of Hughes’ argument is strong: Facebook grew by acquiring competitors to establish an enormous user base over which it wields control of communications to an unprecedented degree. Breaking the company into greater subsidiary companies would allow users to join multiple platforms if they’d like, remain on a single one if that’s what pleases them, and prevent a mass singular collection of data.

Facebook spokesperson and former Deputy Prime Minister of the U.K. Nick Clegg read Hughes’ editorial and responded predictably. Of course Facebook wants to muddy the waters by positioning themselves as just another tech company because, if all “big tech” companies are treated the same and Facebook gets to help write the rules on that, they can give themselves an advantage.

Driving Change

M. R. O’Connor, for in the New Yorker, reviewed the idea of living in a shifting era of what it means to be a driver (the Roy here is Alex Roy, who you may know for his Polizei 144 antics or for driving across the United States in just over 31 hours):

Finally, Roy points out that many of the problems autonomous cars promise to solve also have simpler, non-technological solutions. (This is true, of course, only if one assumes that driving isn’t a problem in itself.) To reduce traffic, governments can invest in mass-transit and road infrastructure. To diminish pollution, they can build bike lanes and encourage the adoption of electric cars. In Roy’s opinion, the best way to make driving safer has nothing to do with technology: it’s to raise licensing standards and improve driver education. Over lunch — a Niçoise salad — Roy argued that our fixation on driverless cars flows from our civic laziness. “It’s easier to imagine that technology can solve a problem that education or regulation could also fix,” he said. In place of the driverless utopia that technologists often picture, he asked me to consider another possibility: a congested urban hellscape in which autonomous vehicles are subsidized by companies that pump them full of advertising; in exchange for free rides, companies might require you to pass by particular stores or watch commercial messages displayed on the vehicles’ windows. (A future very much like this was recently imagined by T. Coraghessan Boyle, in his short story “Asleep at the Wheel.”) In such a world, Roy said, “The joy of the ride is taken away.”

[…]

Perhaps it was inevitable that a nascent right-to-drive movement would spring up in America, where — as fervent gun-rights advocates and anti-vaccinators have shown — we seem intent on preserving freedom of choice even if it kills us. “People outside the United States look at it with bewilderment,” Toby Walsh, an Australian artificial-intelligence researcher, told me. In his book “Machines That Think: The Future of Artificial Intelligence,” from 2018, Walsh predicts that, by 2050, autonomous vehicles will be so safe that we won’t be allowed to drive our own cars. Unlike Roy, he believes that we will neither notice nor care. In Walsh’s view, a constitutional amendment protecting the right to drive would be as misguided as the Second Amendment. “We will look back on this time in fifty years and think it was the Wild West,” he went on. “The only challenge is, how do we get to zero road deaths? We’re only going to get there by removing the human.”

I would love to hear from readers around the world whether Walsh’s perspective is the case. Is the apprehension to self-driving cars or the desire to have human rights to control autonomous vehicles a mostly American stance? For what it’s worth, it was a software control that could not easily be overridden that brought down two 737 Max airplanes.

Also, I thought this was an insightful observation in the context of platform freedom, obfuscated code, and increasingly locked-down hardware:

In his book “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work,” from 2009, the political philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Matthew B. Crawford argues that manual competence — our ability to repair the machines and devices in our lives—is a kind of ethical practice. Knowing how to fix things ourselves creates opportunities for meaningful work and individual agency; it allows us to grasp more deeply the built world around us. The mass-market economy, Crawford writes, produces devices that are practically impenetrable. If we try to repair our microwaves or printers, we’ll quickly be discouraged by their complexity; many cars produced today lack even dipsticks to check their oil levels. Driving the Tesla Model 3 has been compared to using a giant iPhone: instead of controlling the car directly, one seems to pilot it by means of a user interface.

This is a great essay.

Vice Reporter Becomes a Victim of Google’s Featured Snippets

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, Vice:

This keeps happening. In the last three days, I’ve gotten more than 80 phone calls. Just today, in the span of eight minutes, I got three phone calls from people looking to talk to Facebook. I didn’t answer all of them, and some left voicemails.

Initially, I thought this was some coordinated trolling campaign. As it turns out, if you Googled “Facebook phone number” on your phone earlier this week, you would see my cellphone as the fourth result, and Google has created a “card” that pulled my number out of the article and displayed it directly on the search page in a box. The effect is that it seemed like my phone number was Facebook’s phone number, because that is how Google has trained people to think.

It’s not a stretch to think how this feature could be abused. Imagine if searching for “Microsoft phone number” produced one of those fake tech support lines. It would feel even more trustworthy because you’re calling them.

Marzipan Expectations

Craig Hockenberry of the Iconfactory:

In the early days of the iPhone, there were many apps developed by folks who brought their sensibilities from Windows or the Mac to a new platform. Those apps felt wrong and have largely disappeared because everyone has figured out that different interactions are needed for a small, handheld device. Don’t let the same thing happen when you bring your iOS expertise to a Mac.

If you’ve been developing on iOS for any period of time, you’ve probably had the “flip a switch” experience when starting an iPad app. It’s fairly easy to get things up and running, but then you realize that there are a lot of design and code changes needed for a larger screen. You’ll start reworking things with master/detail views and auto layout constraints. You might even need to adapt your app to support input from a Smart Keyboard.

Look at how many user interface idiom checks you have and you’ll start to get an idea of what lies ahead for a macOS app. If you’re someone who’s decided that an iPad version of your app is too much extra work, you’ll likely think the same thing about all the conditional checks required for a Mac.

My initial pessimism towards Marzipan’s possibilities was mostly borne of what shipped in Mojave. But, apparently, those weren’t even the best that Apple could have done with the Marzipan tools in Mojave. Again, I question why they were shipped in the first place; I don’t know that they would be greatly missed if they didn’t make the final build.

Everything I’ve read from Steve Troughton-Smith over the past couple of months suggests that we’re headed in MacOS 10.151 for a promising if incomplete step towards a full declarative UI framework. It is slowly steering my mind towards a future where developers don’t have to write two entirely separate apps if they want their software on Apple’s biggest platforms. Make no mistake — that would be great news, if it is done well. Here’s hoping.


  1. Sonara, Kelso, or Tehachapi, perhaps? ↩︎

Section 230 of the CDA Does Not Create Definitions for ‘Platforms’ or ‘Publishers’

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

This “publisher” v. “platform” concept is a totally artificial distinction that has no basis in the law. News publishers are also protected by Section 230 of the CDA. All CDA 230 does is protect a website from being held liable for user content or moderation choices. It does not cover content created by the company itself. In short, the distinction is not “platform” or “publisher” it’s “content creator” or “content intermediary.” Contrary to Coaston’s claims, Section 230 equally protects the NY Times and the Washington Post if it chooses to host and/or moderate user comments. It does not protect content produced by those companies itself, but similarly, Section 230 does not protect content produced by Facebook itself.

This is a misconception that seems to have become increasingly common as platforms grapple with moderating users’ posts. There is no legal obligation for any private website or service to be neutral, and there is — I believe — a strong moral argument for them not to be.

Unpacking Google’s Apparent Turnaround on Privacy

It looks like something spooked Facebook and Google. Instead of ignoring the privacy implications inherent to their business models, they both decided to reposition themselves as privacy-forward companies. Facebook did so by having an op-ed from its CEO published in a national newspaper, and by trying to redefine privacy itself. Google’s strategy has, so far, been similar.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai in an op-ed for the New York Times:

“For everyone” is a core philosophy for Google; it’s built into our mission to create products that are universally accessible and useful. That’s why Search works the same for everyone, whether you’re a professor at Harvard or a student in rural Indonesia. And it’s why we care just as much about the experience on low-cost phones in countries starting to come online as we do about the experience on high-end phones.

Our mission compels us to take the same approach to privacy. For us, that means privacy cannot be a luxury good offered only to people who can afford to buy premium products and services. Privacy must be equally available to everyone in the world.

That is a terrific point. I would very much like to live in a world where Apple cannot compete on privacy because every company must follow a strict set of rules governing the collection and use of private data.

But we do not live in that world, and Google has little intention of actually changing that. For example, they announced that Chrome will soon restrict third-party cookies and cross-site tracking, but John Wilander of Apple’s WebKit team says that their plan will be ineffective for privacy protection:

For a cookie policy to have meaningful effect on cross-site tracking, you also need to partition storage available to third-parties, such as LocalStorage, IndexedDB, ServiceWorkers, and cache. Safari is the only major browser to have such partitioning and we shipped it in 2013.

[…]

Safari’s default cookie policy since 10+ years is to deny third-parties to use cookies unless they have been first party at some point. This used to be “Allow cookies for sites I visit” in Safari settings. No other major browser has shipped cookie restrictions on by default yet.

For what it’s worth, it was this very setting that Google circumvented in 2012 so that they could track Safari users, a decision which resulted in a $22 million penalty.

Google also says that they’re giving users more privacy-centric options, but they couldn’t commit to not using facial recognition in their Nest products for ad personalization.

The overall picture of Google’s approach to privacy is perhaps best summarized by Ben Thompson:

At the same time, from a purely strategic perspective, the positive message makes sense. Presuming that everything about technology is bad is just as mistaken as the opposite perspective, and the fact of the matter is that lots of people like Google products, and reminding them of that fact is to Google’s long-term benefit.

Moreover, a world of assistants and machine-learning based products is very much to Google’s advantage: the argument to not simply tolerate Google’s collection of data, but to actually give them more, is less about some lame case about better-targeted ads but about making actually useful products better. The better-targeted ads are a Strategy Credit!

In short, Google’s argument is that they’re able to protect you from other companies’ privacy-rejecting technologies, but you can and should give them more of your private data. You can trust them. But, as far as I’m concerned, they haven’t yet earned that trust.

The Potential Advantages of a JavaScript Whitelist

Brent Simmons:

What I want is two related and similar things:

  • The ability to turn off JavaScript by default, and turn it on only for selected sites. (For me that would be sites like GitHub.)

  • The ability to turn off cookies by default, and, again, turn them on only for selected sites.

If it‘s the opposite — if I have to blacklist instead of whitelist — then I’d be constantly blacklisting. And, the first time I go to a site, it gets to run code before I decide to allow it.

A cookie whitelist would, I think, be frustrating to non-technical users, but it would be nice to have as an option. And, I imagine, it could be extended to allowing any kind of local storage.

But a JavaScript whitelist is something I could absolutely get behind. When you think about it, it’s pretty nuts that we allow the automatic execution of whatever code a web developer wrote. We don’t do that for anything else, really — certainly not to the same extent of possibly hundreds of webpages visited daily, each carrying a dozen or more scripts.

The openness of the web is unlike other platforms that have become more locked-down. There are few permission requests when visiting a webpage. That’s both beautiful and potentially damaging, particularly as new JavaScript functionality has been added and browsers have increasingly prioritized JavaScript execution time. New engines run scripts far closer to the metal — as they say — but these speed improvements have come with increased risks. Two examples:

  1. I had a webpage open not too long ago that, astonishingly enough, was mining cryptocurrency with JavaScript. This was something I had previously heard about in the context of malware, but this was a legitimate page that was attempting to make some extra money by maxing out my CPU when I left the tab open. I only noticed it when my iMac’s fans started whirring like I was rendering video or something.

  2. The speculative vulnerabilities in Intel CPUs, revealed last year, were exploitable through JavaScript.

It’s baffling to me that trackers, ad networks, cryptocurrency miners, and image lightboxes are all written for the web in the same language and that there is little granularity in how they’re treated. You can either turn all scripts off and lose key functionality on some websites, or you can turn everything on and accept the risk that your CPU will be monopolized in the background.

Current and Former Employees Say the Apple Store Isn’t as Good as It Once Was

Mark Gurman and Matthew Townsend, Bloomberg:

In interviews, current and former Apple employees blame a combination of factors. They say the stores have become mostly an exercise in branding and no longer do a good job serving mission shoppers like Smith. Meanwhile, they say, the quality of staff has slipped during an 18-year expansion that has seen Apple open more than 500 locations and hire 70,000 people. The Genius Bar, once renowned for its tech support, has been largely replaced with staff who roam the stores and are harder to track down. That’s a significant drawback because people are hanging onto their phones longer these days and need them repaired.

This report mirrors many of my own complaints when I’ve had to go to an Apple Store in the past couple of years, particularly for service or support:

The overhaul of the Genius Bar has been especially controversial. Customers looking for technical advice or repairs must now check in with an employee, who types their request into an iPad. Then when a Genius is free, he or she must find the customer wherever they happen to be in the store. Ahrendts was determined to get rid of lineups, but now the stores are often crowded with people waiting for their iPhones to be fixed or batteries swapped out.

The store I most frequently visit when I need support has a really strange vibe around the Genius Bar. I guess the intent is that, while you’re waiting five to forty-five minutes for your technician, you can look around for stuff to buy. But I don’t see people doing that. I see lots of people sitting awkwardly waiting at tables with lots of other people also sitting awkwardly. All of us just want our products fixed so we can go home.

The last time I went to an Apple Store was at the end of March or the beginning of April. I had picked up a pair of AirPods with a wireless charging case, and I wanted to exchange them for the model with the regular charging case. As I walked in, I was welcomed to the store and I explained that I wanted to do a product exchange. The greeter gestured me towards the rear-middle of the store, near the Genius Bar area. So I walked over there and asked someone if they could help me with exchanging a product, and they pointed me to a different person, who I once again had to explain what I wanted to do. They seemed baffled but had me wait for them to bring me a new set of AirPods which, I think, were hand-carried from the factory at that moment, all while kind of standing in the middle of where some other customers were trying to browse products.

When I brought my Thunderbolt Display in a few years ago to have the Y-cable swapped after it started getting flaky, I was told that I was better off taking it to a third-party repair facility as it would take far longer for Apple to get the part in stock. In related news, please buy my Thunderbolt Display.

I’m sure the competition is worse; but, that’s not saying much. Apple shouldn’t shoot for good enough. They certainly don’t in architectural terms.

A Crisis of Nature

Matt McGrath, BBC News:

From the bees that pollinate our crops, to the forests that hold back flood waters, the report reveals how humans are ravaging the very ecosystems that support their societies.

Three years in the making, this global assessment of nature draws on 15,000 reference materials, and has been compiled by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). It runs to 1,800 pages.

The brief, 40-page “summary for policymakers”, published today at a meeting in Paris, is perhaps the most powerful indictment of how humans have treated their only home.

It says that while the Earth has always suffered from the actions of humans through history, over the past 50 years, these scratches have become deep scars.

The report has some advice that we can individually use to try to help, but it is clear that any global problem like this one can only be addressed through far more radical policy initiatives. It is also clear that the people who can best affect change are those who care the least to do so.

Defining ‘Free’ For All

Brent Simmons wrote a piece recently that I’ve been thinking about a lot:

In a way, it feels like iOS devices are rented, not owned. This is not a criticism: I’m totally fine with that. It’s appropriate for something so very mass-market and so very much built for a networked world.

But what about Macs?

Macs carry the flame for the revolution. They’re the computers we own, right? They’re the astounding, powerful machines that we get to master.

Except that lately, it feels more and more like we’re just renting Macs too, and they’re really Apple’s machines, not ours.

With every tightened screw we have less power than we had. And doing the things — unsanctioned, unplanned-for, often unwieldy and even unwise — that computers are so wonderful for becomes ever-harder.

I don’t mean to pick on Simmons here — I’m not picking on anyone, in fact. I’ve seen a similar sentiment expressed by lots of people lately; but, in particular, due to two recent triggers: Marzipan apps, and app notarization. So that’s been rattling around my head lately.

But I’ve also been thinking about a piece by John Gruber, written between the time the iPad was unveiled and when it was made available to buy:

If you could go back and show my 10-year-old self an iPad — millions of colors, video, photographs, gorgeous typography, a touchscreen interface, networking (wirelessly!) — and offered to let me write web apps for it in exchange for my agreeing never to touch an Apple II again, I’m pretty sure I know what the answer would be.

Something important and valuable is indeed being lost as Apple shifts to this model of computing. But it’s a trade-off, because something new that is important and valuable has been gained.

Change is uncomfortable, particularly when it involves a shift in the balance of power. The things that developers can do in MacOS today are, in some ways, more limited than what was possible thirty years ago. Restricting a developer’s access to memory, for example, has likely made computers more secure and more stable, but it would not be possible without shifting control away from developers. Over the same time period, developers have been able to do far more due to greater system capabilities and easier-to-use tools.

I have not kept secret my personal feelings about the four iOS apps Apple shipped with MacOS Mojave. They are poor Mac apps. I am, therefore, more than a little apprehensive about what lurks a month away at WWDC. But I, frankly, don’t give one thought to what technologies any app is built with so long as it behaves like a Mac app. Electron-based apps, clearly, do not; neither do the apps Adobe has shipped for the Mac since, like, always. But if Panic’s next version of the-app-formerly-known-as-Coda is built with the same underlying code base for Mac and iOS devices and it feels entirely native on both, who am I to complain?

What does this say about platform freedoms and capabilities in general? Will Apple one day require all third-party Mac apps to come from the Mac App Store; or, would they consider locking down the platform entirely? I think the doom and gloom thoughts are wildly off base.1

Do I know, for certain, that Apple isn’t going to massively fuck up MacOS through its own actions and what it encourages from third-party developers? Of course not. But I think there’s a whole world of developers out there who are eager to find out what they can do once MacOS 10.15 ships because, perhaps, those things were unnecessarily complex or out of their reach. Something about that is, in its own way, freeing.


  1. A separate but related consideration is Apple’s motivation for control. There are some people who, as I see it, consider Apple fetishistic about controlling their platforms for no other reason than for its own sake. I don’t buy that. I think there are specific motivations for when Apple tightens control over something, often with security and privacy in mind. Their effectiveness at doing so is debatable, but I don’t see it as control for control’s sake. ↩︎

Facebook to Shut Down Bonfire, Its Group Video Chat App

Casey Newton, the Verge:

Facebook is shutting down a clone of the group video chat app Houseparty, The Verge has learned. Bonfire, which Facebook began testing in the summer of 2017, will stop working sometime this month. The app began testing in Denmark in the fall of 2017, but it never came to the United States.

“In May we’ll be ending support for the Bonfire tests,” Facebook said in a statement. “We’ll incorporate elements of what we learned into other current and future products.”

Josh Constine:

Houseparty’s App Store rank declined #75 a year ago to #327-> it stopped being a threat -> Fb shuts down its clone Bonfire -> group video hangouts becomes just a feature of Insta/Messenger not a new app

Video chat for groups is arguably not enough of a unique feature on which to build an entire business. But Houseparty’s implementation of that is a little different, and I think Constine has the right instincts here: Facebook’s blatant copying is an easy way to bury their competition, and their ability to monitor the success of third-party apps — until recently, through its creepy VPN apps; now, they could conceivably do the same by monitoring the use of SDKs that connect to Facebook — has given the company a unique vantage point to spot what to copy next.

The Creation and Domination of Amazon Prime, as Told by Those Who Made It Happen

Jason Del Rey of Vox — formerly Recode; I haven’t settled on an attribution format yet — interviewed a bunch of people involved in the creation and growth of Amazon Prime, and it’s a fascinating story. I found the following particularly compelling (Vijay Ravindran is the former director of ordering, and Julie Todaro is the former director of finance):

Ravindran: There was a separate set of angst for people on the business side. Shipping revenue was part of the profit margin when Amazon sold goods. If you’re a retail category manager being measured on contribution profit for the quarter, your goals are aligned against that. If only the very best customers at Amazon signed up for Prime and then they took full advantage of free two-day shipping and did not have to pay, then that was going to add up pretty quickly.

[…]

Todaro: But the lovely thing about Amazon is that it doesn’t panic and overreact in those moments. Jeff wasn’t surprised. He’s probably the smartest man in the world. So we sort of held firm and kept looking at the shopping behavior.

While it’s an unbelievably analytical company, it doesn’t live or die by what the numbers say. Jeff just saw the strategic benefit of Prime and he saw the value to customers.

Whereas, I think at some companies they would say, “Yep, customers are doing what we want, but it’s a little too expensive. So let’s kill it.”

There’s something about services that operate at the speed of Prime that is completely magical. It truly feels like a promise of the future: whatever you need, delivered in as little time as possible to your door. It is not without its problems — Del Rey cites a designer requiring 120-hour work weeks to meet Jeff Bezos’ deadline for the service, which is unconscionable. But a service like this is so good that I hope working conditions can be improved and antitrust concerns can be alleviated.

Above all, the thing that stands out most to me as captured in the above excerpt is how it’s entirely about how the service feels. It’s a long-term bet, and it sounds financially catastrophic on first blush, but I wish more companies with the ability to do so would aim for a similar feeling of doing the impossible — not just in shopping, but in everything they do.

As Apple Fights ‘Right to Repair’ Legislation, Internal Documents Show That the Company Is Capable of Fulfilling Its Goals In Part

As Apple lobbies against right to repair legislation in the United States and Canada — often with ludicrous arguments — internal documents leaked to Jason Koebler of Vice suggest that the company could make device repairs a lot better for customers:

According to the presentation, titled “Apple Genuine Parts Repair” and dated April 2018, the company has begun to give some repair companies access to Apple diagnostic software, a wide variety of genuine Apple repair parts, repair training, and notably places no restrictions on the types of repairs that independent companies are allowed to do. The presentation notes that repair companies can “keep doing what you’re doing, with … Apple genuine parts, reliable parts supply, and Apple process and training.”

This is, broadly speaking, what right to repair activists have been asking state legislators to require companies to offer for years.

Koebler’s characterization of these changes as “broadly speaking, what right to repair activists have been asking [for]” is overly generous. He’s really letting the word “broadly” take most of the weight in that sentence. The objectives of the organization that has spurred the right to repair discussion indicate that they would like equal access to repair tools, parts, and manuals for companies and end users alike. However, this presentation indicates that Apple is providing only a select group of Apple repair shops access to parts and information.

I find it frustrating that Apple — and others — are working so hard to kill legislation rather than trying to find a middle ground closer to what they’re already doing. There are certainly components in a highly-miniaturized device that would not be sensible for most users to repair or replace themselves — though I do think battery and screen replacements should be doable by customers. (And they are, by the way; I have done both for friends’ devices.) Of course, it is less freeing that so much of our computing these days is obfuscated and less welcoming to tinkering, but that may be a price we must pay to have devices that feel less like an assemblage of parts.

Still, I can see nothing but good for users in helping third parties get the right tools and parts to do these repairs. It makes sense that technicians should be trained and certified. Customers should be provided proof that can be verified with Apple that their repair was completed with genuine parts and to their specifications. But getting devices repaired should be as easy as possible for users. We rely on these products.

Giving an F

I don’t have many cohesive thoughts about Facebook’s redesign, but I do have one big question: where’s the Facebook blue? As much as UPS owns that one shade of brown, Facebook entirely owned #3c5a99. Nothing needs to last forever, but why did they get rid of what is almost certainly the most identifiable part of their identity?

Burning everything about their old identity is probably the point, of course, but Facebook is still Facebook.

Instagram and Facebook Ban InfoWars and Far-Right Extremists

Taylor Lorenz, the Atlantic:

In an effort to contain misinformation and extremism that have spread across the platforms, Instagram and its parent company, Facebook, have banned Alex Jones, Infowars, Milo Yiannopoulos, Paul Joseph Watson, Laura Loomer, and Paul Nehlen under their policies against dangerous individuals and organizations. They also banned the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has repeatedly made anti-Semitic statements.

Infowars is subject to the strictest ban. Facebook and Instagram will remove any content containing Infowars videos, radio segments, or articles (unless the post is explicitly condemning the content), and Facebook will also remove any groups set up to share Infowars content and events promoting any of the banned extremist figures, according to a company spokesperson. (Twitter, YouTube, and Apple have also banned Jones and Infowars.)

I see Facebook has found some courage — great.

This isn’t a ban on people who have argued for lower taxes or fewer government social programs. This is a ban on people who have repeatedly and consistently advocated for violence against historically persecuted groups of people. There is no reason why any social media service should feel compelled to provide a platform for viral bigotry.

Deplatforming works.

Update: Rob Price of Business Insider has a good skeptical take on this embargoed announcement:

There’s nothing unusual about media outlets agreeing to be pre-briefed on important news under “embargo”: Tech companies regularly make use of embargoes to coordinate coverage for product launches and the like. (Business Insider often agrees to embargoes from Facebook about news, though we weren’t given a heads up on this story.)

But these pre-briefings typically involve the launch of new products or business initiatives, not enforcement actions.

Thursday’s incident raises the question of why, if Facebook believed the targeted figures were promoting “hate and violence,” it took the time to organize a public relations opportunity around the bans — rather than taking action immediately.

Server Maker Super Micro to Ditch ‘Made-in-China’ Parts

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

Super Micro Computer, the California-based server maker at the heart of spy chip allegations last autumn, has told suppliers to move production out of China to address U.S. customers’ concerns about cyber espionage risks, according to industry sources familiar with the matter.

Super Micro, the world’s third-largest server maker by shipments after HP and Dell, has strongly denied allegations made last October that its Chinese made motherboards had been implanted with malignant chips to hack big tech customers such as Apple and Amazon. Independent testing showed no evidence of the claims made by Bloomberg Businessweek, the group has said.

Nevertheless, U.S. customers and especially government-related clients have asked Super Micro not to supply them with motherboards made in China because of security concerns, according to one company executive.

Decentralizing the world’s manufacturing is probably a net benefit, especially when it’s located within a totalitarian police state. It’s not a great idea for the world to base its economy and communications on a country with an appalling human rights record.

Nevertheless, it is worth reiterating that the Businessweek story that triggered this move has not been corroborated by any other news organization — even in part. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt are very powerful emotions, indeed.

Apple Is Learning to Really Sell

Jason Snell’s interpretation of Apple’s second quarter results is a must-read:

There was a time — a very long time, in fact — when Apple didn’t need to make much of an attempt to actually sell iPhones. I don’t want to imply that the act of creating new iPhone models and new versions of iOS wasn’t an enormous task — it was. My point is, after the phones arrived on the scene, people really wanted them. And Apple just needed to make as many as it could and make them available in Apple retail stores and other locations, and they’d fly off the shelves.

That era ended last fall. And as Apple CEO Tim Cook and CFO Luca Maestri made clear on Tuesday’s conference call with analysts as a part of reporting the company’s latest quarterly results, Apple is now turning around iPhone sales by being more active when it comes to selling those iPhones to customers.

It isn’t just the iPhone. Services — Apple’s other really big business — has grown in part because of how much Apple has been actively selling them to customers. Investors are loving this; I’m not sure users are enjoying this more aggressive sales effort, though.

Update: An acute correlating observation from Dr. Drang:

Apple stopped reporting unit sales last quarter, and I just don’t care as much about revenue as I do (did) about unit sales. I know they’re tied together, but the emphasis has been turned around. Unit sales are about what Apple is doing for us; revenue is about what we’re doing for Apple.

Unit sales may not be a wholly accurate metric by which to judge a new product; there are lots of reasons why sales may not go up even when the products are very good. But an increasing focus on sales of products raises questions in my head about this more forceful push.

Facebook Officially Announces Merger of Messaging Service Infrastructure

As rumoured earlier this year, Facebook will combine the chat infrastructure for Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp.

Nicole Lee, Engadget:

This interoperability is just one of many features of the new Messenger. All messages will also be end-to-end encrypted, which is part of Facebook’s recent privacy-focused mantra. Sharma said that the inter-app messaging will work similar to how people make calls on phones today. You don’t need to know if your friend is on Verizon or T-Mobile, you can just call them. It’ll be the same on any of Facebook’s messaging services — just say you’ll want to talk to your friend, and that message will get to him or her on whatever service they use.

How much of this is driven by pained users who just wish so bad that they could message a WhatsApp friend without leaving Instagram, and how much is this driven by a fear that Facebook could be required by antitrust regulators to split itself apart?

Coverage of Facebook’s F8 Conference

Casey Newton:

This year, the company sought to break with that tradition. Nearly every speaker at today’s F8 keynote, starting with Mark Zuckerberg, repeated a version of the phrase “the future is private.” Since Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s pivot toward private messaging last month, I’ve argued that the move represents a fundamental transformation of the company. On Tuesday, Zuckerberg sought to convince the world — and skeptics inside his own company — that he’s serious.

Zuckerberg took the second piece of advice given by bad public speaking teachers and led with a joke.1

His whirlwind pivot to privacy still seems like horseshit to me. This is a company founded on the basis that users who trusted Zuckerberg were “dumb fucks”, and he has broadly proved that point during his entire tenure at a company that is fundamentally untrustworthy. But perhaps this is simply because I’m relying on the common definition of privacy, not Facebook’s.

Casey Johnston, the Outline:

[…] WhatsApp messages have always been end-to-end encrypted, and Zuckerberg noted they would stay that way. He emphasized several times that Facebook will not be able to see the content of this material, saying it was private “even from us” several times about several features, and emphasizing the words “safety” and “secure.”

But what his presentation elided was the fact that Facebook does not need to see the content of what people are saying in order to advertise to them. The metadata — who, or what (as in a business), you’re talking to, and even where you are or what time the conversation is taking place as it comes together with other pieces of information — provides more than enough information to make a very educated guess about what you’re interested in, to the point that knowing specifically what you are saying adds almost nothing.

I’ve argued before that the entire tech industry is often judged monolithically by the behaviour of its worst players. Apple has sought to differentiate itself on privacy, in part through a relatively recent ad campaign. There are lots of reasons for Facebook to pretend to care about privacy now, but I think Apple’s campaign may have spooked them a bit. And what better way to try to compete on the same plane by redefining a somewhat nebulous word like privacy?


  1. Tim Cook, of course, took the first piece of advice back in March and led with a dictionary definition. Smooth. ↩︎

Recode Is Now at Vox

Ezra Klein and Kara Swisher, Vox:

Mark Zuckerberg is writing op-eds begging for regulation. President Donald Trump is summoning Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to Washington to ask why he’s losing followers. Sen. Elizabeth Warren launched her presidential campaign by calling on antitrust regulators to crack Amazon and Apple apart. The Mueller report detailed how Russia used social media platforms and malware to sow chaos in 2016. Journalism has been transformed by social platforms that are absorbing their advertisers and reshaping their audiences. Vicious attacks against Muslim mosques and Jewish synagogues found their beginnings in the dark alleyways of the internet.

The future of technology is a political story. The future of politics is a technological story. If we’re going to understand the changing world around us, the old coverage silos no longer make sense. And so we’re breaking them down. Recode and Vox are joining forces.

Maybe you feel like you’ve read this story before, and that’s because you kind of have — in a way. When Vox Media bought Recode in 2015, much of the latter’s team collaborated with the Verge, and some moved over entirely. Now, Recode is operating entirely under the Vox banner.

Bloomberg Seemingly Botches a Report on Backdoors in Chinese-Made Equipment. This Is Not a Repeat From October 2018

Daniele Lepido, Bloomberg:

Europe’s biggest phone company identified hidden backdoors in the software that could have given Huawei unauthorized access to the carrier’s fixed-line network in Italy, a system that provides internet service to millions of homes and businesses, according to Vodafone’s security briefing documents from 2009 and 2011 seen by Bloomberg, as well as people involved in the situation.

Vodafone asked Huawei to remove backdoors in home internet routers in 2011 and received assurances from the supplier that the issues were fixed, but further testing revealed that the security vulnerabilities remained, the documents show. Vodafone also identified backdoors in parts of its fixed-access network known as optical service nodes, which are responsible for transporting internet traffic over optical fibers, and other parts called broadband network gateways, which handle subscriber authentication and access to the internet, the people said. The people asked not to be identified because the matter was confidential.

Tim Culpan doubled down on this in an editorial for Bloomberg, calling it a “smoking gun”:

Having Huawei, or its compatriot ZTE Corp., taken off the tender list reduces operators’ bargaining power even if they lean toward a Western option. That’s among the reasons we’ve seen telecom executives play down the risks and even defend Huawei. Money is a powerful incentive, and a penny saved is a penny earned.

Expect Huawei proponents and telecom operators to dismiss this revelation as an aberration that proves nothing. Huawei’s newly invigorated PR machine will whip into overdrive, and Chinese authorities will spin the report as propaganda. Meanwhile, Western politicians will crow “I told you so.”

However, on a purely technical level, this report may have grossly overstated the apparent “backdoor”. Gareth Corfield, the Register:

Unfortunately for Bloomberg, Vodafone had a far less alarming explanation for the “backdoor”.

“The ‘backdoor’ that Bloomberg refers to is Telnet, which is a protocol that is commonly used by many vendors in the industry for performing diagnostic functions. It would not have been accessible from the internet,” said the telco in a statement to The Register, adding: “Bloomberg is incorrect in saying that this ‘could have given Huawei unauthorized access to the carrier’s fixed-line network in Italy’.”

It added: “The issues were identified by independent security testing, initiated by Vodafone as part of our routine security measures, and fixed at the time by Huawei.”

Bloomberg owns Businessweek, which in October published that deeply problematic story about unauthorized chips apparently being found implanted on Supermicro servers made in China for Amazon and Apple. So far, that story has not stood up to scrutiny and has remained a permanent exclusive.

Maybe that was just a one-off. After all, today’s piece is from a different writer and Vodafone’s denial is not as comprehensive as the affected companies’ responses to the Businessweek story. But Bloomberg’s history of spurious allegations of Chinese espionage has poisoned the well. I’m not naïve; I know that China, like all big nations, is probably trying to spy on communications in any way it can, and its position as the “workshop of the world” gives it unique leverage. Even so, I simply don’t know how to trust Bloomberg’s reporting on such matters.

Yet Another Entry in the Canon of Wishful Pieces About Microsoft’s Design Team

Tom Warren, the Verge:

These days, Microsoft is all about looking at the big picture — not just where one product needs to go, but how an entire ecosystem of products needs to ship, evolve, and work together over the coming years. While products in the past might have been developed in secret by separate teams, and ended up looking and feeling disparate because of it, Microsoft has scrapped that approach recently. It’s now adopted a philosophy called “open design” that’s about sharing ideas across the company, integrating products, and failing faster. The hope is that it will lead to a better combination of hardware and software that looks like it came from one company and is better for it, too.

Microsoft is a big fan of inviting journalists to chronicle their design team’s pursuit to unify the company’s notoriously disparate product lineups. Four years ago, Panos Panay made design consistency a big bullet point of the Surface strategy; two years ago, Microsoft gave a name to the design system that replaces the system formerly known as Metro. Metro itself, publicly branded Modern Design, was an attempt to unify Microsoft’s approach to design nearly ten years ago.

Yet, through all of these attempts at redesigning everything they make, Microsoft has somehow retained Settings panels in Windows 10 that, two levels deep, are basically the same as the panels in Windows 7; at three levels deep, they look exactly the same as the design language they used for Windows NT in the mid-to-late nineties. There seem to be few rules internally, and I think that reflects on third-party developers that seem to use whatever design language they feel like.

Every platform has cruft, and every redesign requires time to percolate — particularly when it’s applied across a software portfolio as gigantic as Microsoft’s. Articles like this one are a platform to show that the company’s teams are working, but it’s hard to believe that this time they’ll somehow make everything feel like it’s shipping from the same company. We’ve seen this movie before.

Overcast Adds Podcast Clip Sharing

Marco Arment:

With today’s 2019.4 update, you can now share audio or video clips, up to a minute each, from any public podcast. Simply tap the share button in the upper-right corner.

You can generate an audio clip, or portrait, landscape, or square video, using your current Overcast theme setting.

This is going to open up worlds for people. Many podcasts are an hour or two — or three — and that can be far too much investment for new listeners. Sharing just a clip is the audio equivalent of a blockquote. And because these things are generated as video clips by default, they work with Instagram and Twitter and all the other typical destinations for sharing. Brilliant.

Third-Party Parental Control Apps for iOS Devices Are Being Restricted

Jack Nicas, New York Times:

They all tell a similar story: They ran apps that helped people limit the time they and their children spent on iPhones. Then Apple created its own screen-time tracker. And then Apple made staying in business very, very difficult.

Over the past year, Apple has removed or restricted at least 11 of the 17 most downloaded screen-time and parental-control apps, according to an analysis by The New York Times and Sensor Tower, an app-data firm. Apple has also clamped down on a number of lesser-known apps.

In some cases, Apple forced companies to remove features that allowed parents to control their children’s devices or that blocked children’s access to certain apps and adult content. In other cases, it simply pulled the apps from its App Store.

The Times is eager to suggest anticompetitive behaviour by Apple, but I’m not so sure. Apps on iOS are sandboxed, which means that they’re highly restricted in how they may interact with other third-party apps on the system.

Sarah Perez first reported on Apple’s restrictions of parental control apps for TechCrunch in December:1

The impacted developers have been using a variety of methods to track screen time, as there has not been any official means of tracking this data. This included the use of background location, VPNs and MDM-based solutions, and sometimes a combination of methods.

[…]

Some of the developers, we understand, were told they were in violation of App Store developer guideline 2.5.4, which specifies when multitasking apps are allowed to use background location. Specifically, developers were told they were “misusing background location mode for purposes other than location-related features.”

Others were told their app violated developer guideline 2.5.1, which references using public APIs in an unapproved manner.

Combine this with a statement given by an Apple spokesperson to the Times that these apps are potential privacy violators, and I’m not surprised that they’re being restricted or even removed from the App Store.

What this reporting illustrates most of all is just how poor Apple’s communication with developers often continues to be. Case in point, from Nicas:

On Jan. 19, Mr. Ramasubbu received a message from Apple that said he had 30 days to change the Mobicip app or it would be removed from the App Store. “If you have any questions about this information, please reply to this message to let us know,” the note said. “Best regards, App Store Review.”

Over the next 27 days, Mr. Ramasubbu responded four times seeking more information. He eventually resubmitted the app with changes he hoped would satisfy Apple’s demands.

Then, with Mobicip’s deadline just a few days away, Apple responded three times to his earlier detailed questions — with virtually the same message: “Your app uses public A.P.I.s in an unapproved manner, which does not comply with guideline 2.5.1 of the App Store Review Guidelines.”

App Review should, at the very least, prevent rule breakers from getting into the App Store in the first place. They failed to do that by allowing high-profile parental control apps into the store that cannot work without violating their rules. But they should at least be very clear about the circumstances of rule violation, particularly when an app has already been approved.

It’s also clear that there is a demand for these apps. I think it would be great if there were APIs for Screen Time data, perhaps tied into HealthKit. Of course, it’s worth worrying about what Facebook is likely to do with that kind of information.

Update: In an email republished by MacRumors, Phil Schiller confirms that the company told developers to stop using MDM profiles as a way to monitor or limit device use in non-enterprise contexts. Also, it is notable that the Times did not publish the statement they received from Apple in full.


  1. Notably, Nicas does not cite Perez’s story in his piece, continuing the Times’ long and let’s-say-proud history of failing to credit others’ original reporting. ↩︎

Intuit and H&R Block Prevented Search Engines From Displaying Their Free Tax Filing Products

Larissa Williams:

TurboTax is setting the “free” filing page to “noindex” in the web code, making it much harder for people trying to find the page. Without a direct link, it would be VERY hard to find that page searching the internet. Shady.

Justin Elliott, ProPublica:

We found that Intuit’s smaller competitor in the market, H&R Block, also hid its H&R Block Free File product from Google using the same sort of code. An H&R Block spokeswoman said: “We are proud that we have helped millions of Americans file their returns under the Free File Alliance program. … Our Free File Alliance offering, like all other alliance partners, is presented in the IRS site and easily reachable through the IRS, on HRBlock.com, and also by googling ‘FFA H&R Block.’”

But the Google results for that search do not directly link to H&R Block’s Free File landing page.

TaxSlayer, 1040.com, and Free Tax USA also request that search engines do not index their free filing webpages.

There are other ways to access all of these companies’ free filing options; the IRS provides a list of links. But it’s not unreasonable to expect people to search “free tax filing software”, and I cannot think of a non-sleazy reason why these pages would be hidden from search engines.

Today in ‘Things Apple Must Do’: Offer a Lossless Streaming Service

Tim Ingham of Music Business Worldwide broke the news today that Amazon is preparing to offer a high-quality streaming music service:

MBW has heard this whisper from several high-placed music industry sources, who say the price of Amazon’s new tier will likely be in the region of $15 per month. It’s expected to launch before the end of 2019.

“It’s a better bit rate, better than CD quality,” said one source. “Amazon is working on it as we speak: they’re currently scoping out how much catalog they can get from everyone and how they’ll ingest it.”

Ben Lovejoy, 9to5Mac:

I argued a couple of years ago that Apple should, at the very least, offer lossless music downloads on iTunes. But now that so many of us have switched from downloads to streaming for much of our music listening, it’s really time for Apple to offer hi-res streaming music too.

There are challenges to this, of course. Hi-res music streams use more data, and as the music labels charge more for licensing, then Apple Music would have to charge more for a lossless tier.

But consumers would be able to choose their bit-rate, and the existing services have proven there’s demand at $20/month. All I’m asking is for Apple to give us the choice.

But have they, though? Tidal has claimed to have three million subscribers, but an investigation by a Norwegian newspaper found that the true number was less than half that number — and that counts every subscriber, including those at the $10 per month lossy format tier. Deezer has seven million subscribers but, again, there’s no indication of how many of those subscribe to their higher-priced lossless tier.

For comparison, Apple Music has over 50 million paying subscribers worldwide, and Spotify has 96 million. Neither one offers a lossless subscription tier. The idea that Apple “needs to” offer a higher-quality option — to summarize Lovejoy’s headline — is very silly, indeed.

Apple itself frequently makes reference to the importance of music to the company. For example, when acquiring Beats, Apple said ‘music has always held a special place in our hearts’ and Phil Schiller said ‘music is in our DNA.’ So why not give it the respect it deserves, and let us listen to it at the quality the artists intended?

I would love desperately for Apple to use its influence to help improve music quality, but allowing users to stream or purchase lossless audio — especially this idea of “better than CD quality”, which is, pragmatically, bullshit — is not the best way to do that. The most important thing is for more pressure to be put on music labels, producers, and mastering engineers to deliver well-mixed tracks with wide dynamic range. That, alone, will make music sound noticeably better than moving from 256 kbps AAC to a CD-quality file format.

Privacy Commissioner of Canada Finds Facebook Broke the Law, But Regulators Are Powerless to Act Immediately

From the OPC’s press release:

Facebook committed serious contraventions of Canadian privacy laws and failed to take responsibility for protecting the personal information of Canadians, an investigation has found.

Despite its public acknowledgement of a “major breach of trust” in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook disputes the investigation findings of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and the Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia. The company also refuses to implement recommendations to address deficiencies.

“Facebook’s refusal to act responsibly is deeply troubling given the vast amount of sensitive personal information users have entrusted to this company,” says Privacy Commissioner of Canada Daniel Therrien. “Their privacy framework was empty, and their vague terms were so elastic that they were not meaningful for privacy protection.

“The stark contradiction between Facebook’s public promises to mend its ways on privacy and its refusal to address the serious problems we’ve identified – or even acknowledge that it broke the law – is extremely concerning.”

David Carroll:

Report details use of [Facebook] Custom Audiences. This is crucial. It means illegal data models harvested from Facebook data were used to build user lists that were uploaded back into Facebook.

Michael Geist:

Facebook rejects Privacy commissioner findings it violated Canadian privacy law. Without order making power, Commissioner now has to go to the federal court to enforce the law.

The Commissioner has published its entire report, and it’s worth reading. It’s probably right for the court to decide what, if any, punishment Facebook should accept, but it’s shocking that they’re simply able to dismiss the findings of the report with no consequence.

The Information: Apple’s AWS Bill Is Falling, Not Rising

Contrary to CNBC’s story earlier this week, Amir Efrati and Kevin McLaughlin of the Information are reporting that their sources say that Apple cut spending with Amazon in 2018 compared to the previous year. And then there’s this:

In recent years, Apple has also expanded its use of Google Cloud, which the company has used, along with AWS, to power its iCloud service. But the increases in Apple’s spending with Google were slowed by the previously unreported incident involving the Google data center, according to two people briefed about the issue at Apple.

In that incident, which occurred about three years ago, a Google data center failed due to a fire, making some iCloud user data, including photos, inaccessible to users for a time, according to two people briefed about the issue at Apple. The event led to Apple discovering that Google was, in some cases, storing copies of Apple data within a single data center rather spreading them out to different locations, as Apple had expected, the two people said.

Fortunately, Apple identified the problem quickly, allowing it to recover the data, these people said. Some of the unavailable data had to be retrieved from data stored on customers’ devices, which were unaffected by the outage, one of these people said.

I’ve long been conflicted about the wisdom of storing my files with cloud services. It means losing a great deal of control over those files, for example, but it also means easier access from different devices. I’m not sure about those trade-offs. But one argument I’ve been swayed by is the assumption that data centres have better backup strategies than most of us. Efrati and McLaughlin’s report deeply undermines that assumption.

Facebook Expects to Resolve FTC Privacy Investigation for $3–5 Billion

Alex Kantrowitz and Ryan Mac, Buzzfeed News:

Facebook is setting aside $3 billion to cover the expected costs, including an anticipated fine, related to an ongoing investigation with the Federal Trade Commission over its privacy practices, the company said today. The expenses could go as high as $5 billion, Facebook said.

[…]

After announcing the anticipated settlement, Facebook’s market capitalization climbed by approximately $40 billion in just over an hour of after-hours trading.

Elizabeth Dwoskin and Tony Romm, Washington Post:

The FTC’s probe has sought to determine if Facebook’s entanglement with Cambridge Analytica violated a 2011 agreement, known as a consent decree, with the U.S. government to improve its privacy practices. Since then, the social network has acknowledged additional data mishaps, prompting federal officials to expand their inquiry, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the probe is confidential under law. The probe could also target CEO Mark Zuckerberg personally, perhaps subjecting him to new oversight of his leadership, The Post first reported.

The low value of the fine relative to Facebook’s annual income is disappointing, but not quite as disappointing as recognizing that it’s a fine for breaking a 2011 agreement between the company and the FTC — not for breaking any particular law. That agreement established no financial penalties at the time, but would subject Facebook to fines for failing to agree to it.

That is to say that Facebook may not have faced penalties for its flagrant and wilful violation of basic privacy expectations over the past eight years had they not been previously caught doing so.

Court Says Using Chalk on Tires for Parking Enforcement Is an Unlawful Search

Matthew Schwartz, NPR:

The case was brought by Alison Taylor, a Michigan woman whom the court describes as a “frequent recipient of parking tickets.” The city of Saginaw, Mich., like countless other cities around the country, uses chalk to mark the tires of cars to enforce time limits on parking.

By the time Taylor received her 15th citation in just a few years, she decided to go after the city — and specifically after parking enforcement officer Tabitha Hoskins.

Hoskins, Taylor alleged in her lawsuit, was a “prolific” chalker. Every single one of Taylor’s 15 tickets was issued by Hoskins after she marked a tire with chalk, and then circled back to see if Taylor’s car had moved. That chalking, Taylor argued, was unconstitutional.

“Trespassing upon a privately-owned vehicle parked on a public street to place a chalk mark to begin gathering information to ultimately impose a government sanction is unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment,” Taylor’s lawyer, Philip Ellison, wrote in a court filing.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit unanimously agreed. Chalking tires is a kind of trespass, Judge Bernice Donald wrote for the panel, and it requires a warrant. The decision affects the 6th Circuit, which includes Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Via Maciej Cegłowski:

It’s interesting to watch the surveillance ratchet in action. This court decision means that a simple, privacy-preserving method of parking enforcement will be replaced nationwide with photographic databases of parked cars.

This is one of those cases where the legal interpretation baffles the common sense understanding — in this case, of what constitutes a “search” or, indeed, “trespassing”. With enough time, Cegłowski’s imagined outcome seems entirely likely.

The Apple Watch Turns Four: Some Thoughts

Four years ago today, the Apple Watch went on sale. Like many of Apple’s biggest hits, it wasn’t immediately well-understood. I think that was partly because of the distraction of the solid gold Edition model, and also partly because of the way the company pitched it. Like the iPhone’s infamous iPod, phone, and internet communicator setup, the Apple Watch was three things: a precise and customizable timepiece, an intimate communications device, and a health and fitness companion. It debuted in two sizes, classified by case material into three collections, all with a bunch of different band options, and with feature-rich software and third-party app availability. In hindsight, I think the rollout of the Apple Watch was unnecessarily complicated for a first-generation product.

But several generations of Apple Watch models and WatchOS versions later, that almost doesn’t matter. The watch has been, it is safe to say, a resounding success for the company. Apple has never broken out sales figures for it, but it’s likely one of the best-selling device families they’ve ever done. From a convoluted and much-mocked start, it has grown to become an invaluable accessory for millions. One more reason it was so often misunderstood: it’s truly the kind of product that you need to use to understand it.

I bought my first shortly after Apple started shipping them in 2015; I liked my Apple Watch so much that I replaced it with a Series 1 model the same day I shattered my Sport’s display in December 2016. But despite the allure of recent models’ GPS capabilities and far nicer industrial design, I have not had the itch to upgrade.

The Apple Watch is, for me, a highly polarizing product within my own head. That is: the things I like about it I really like about it; the things that I do not are deeply frustrating. I think its small size and more limited nature concentrate and amplify its high points as much as its flaws.

I adore the activity and fitness tracking, for example. In an office job, it’s far too easy to remain seated for hours at a time, standing up only to refill a coffee cup or water bottle, or to use the restroom. Similarly, it’s not uncommon for many people to spend a majority of their day barely moving their limbs: you get in the car, you stand in an elevator, you sit at your desk, and then you get back in the elevator and get in your car to go home — and this is likely even more sedentary for those who work from home. I don’t necessarily have the most extreme version of this as I have a walking commute, but reminders to get some physical activity are welcomed, particularly on the weekend and in the winter. Because of the Apple Watch, I walk through Calgary’s excellent indoor walkway system during the winter instead of taking the train to and from work.

I also like some of the smart watch face features. It feels completely natural for me to glance at my watch to check the weather or to see what appointments or reminders I have that day. Having Siri on my wrist is also a revelation. These features combine to help create the kind of passive technology future many of us have dreamed of. If only I could tilt my wrist and see when the next bus or train is due to arrive — that would nearly complete a feeling of immersion.

And then there are some of the finer things that are made possible because the watch is persistently authenticated throughout the day. Paying with my wrist doesn’t always feel natural, but virtually every transit pass I’ve bought since Apple Pay became available in Canada was purchased from my Apple Watch. I also think the ability to automatically unlock my iMac is sublime.

But then there are the things that I feel more negative about, and which have not meaningfully changed over the past four years — the worst of which is the third-party app ecosystem on the device. Even though I have a Series 1 Apple Watch, this has little to do with speed and everything to do with functionality. It feels like third-party developers either cannot figure out what they want to do with their WatchOS apps, or they’re not able to do what they want because of API limitations.

While the fit and finish of the hardware is nice and getting nicer — and the rectangular shape is apt for the many list-based functions of the device — it’s still a little strange to see so many people wearing the exact same watch every day. Band customization only gets you so far, no matter how good the bands are — and they are very good, indeed — and how fantastic the band changing system is; it’s still the same easily-identifiable watch everyone else is wearing. And it’s a little frustrating that it has to be a watch; in the morning, it’s a choice between wearing a traditional watch or wearing my Apple Watch. Rather than augmenting what I already wear, it replaces something.

I’m also not wholly convinced that pushing notifications to my wrist is somehow beneficial for either my phone use or my attentiveness. The notifications that go to my watch are limited to messages, custom Slack notifications,1 phone calls, and activity stuff, but I still have to use my iPhone to act upon virtually all of these. Also, looking at my phone during a meeting or while talking with a friend is considered rude, and I’m not sure looking at my watch is much better. I like that I can look at my watch and make a judgement right away whether it’s something that needs my attention now, or if it’s something I can deal with later; but, because notifications are generally irritating, I’ve already limited them to things that I generally act upon immediately. In general, I still think that devices need to do a better job of managing notifications.

Finally, there’s something about wearing an Apple Watch with my AirPods in my ears while looking at an iPhone that makes me feel, well, a little bit dorky. I don’t want to make a big deal out of this; I’m sure it’s just elevated levels of self-consciousness that are more indicative of who I am than of the device. This is almost certainly a me problem. But, still.


The Apple Watch has been on my mind lately for a couple of reasons, but one main one: my Series 1 is rapidly giving up the ghost. The first release of WatchOS 5.2 made its battery drain by early afternoon every day. And, even though recent beta seeds have restored its all-day battery life, I haven’t stopped thinking about what I would replace it with. Apple still offers the Series 3 which would give me plenty of new features at an affordable price, yet it’s in the same chunky case as the watch I have now. Spending over $500 in Canada would get me the Series 4 with its far nicer industrial design, and I’m just not sure it’s worth the cost for how I use it.

So, I dug out my old Boccia that I haven’t worn much since I got my first Apple Watch. It doesn’t have the same fit and finish as my Apple Watch; its band is not as easily swapped. It does not display the weather. It does not tell me when I should get some exercise. But it feels nice. It’s coincidental that the battery I needed for it arrived yesterday, but I’ve been wearing it all day, and I really like it. And this is not an expensive watch; if I were to spend $500 on a new watch, that would buy a pretty nice timepiece. It’s not Tudor or Omega money, but it would get me a decent Seiko or Citizen. Or I can leave it in the bank and add to it for a watch that’s far more like a piece of jewellery than it is a wrist computer. Even the nicest stainless steel Apple Watch is still identifiable primarily as a device.

Like I said, it’s a complete coincidence that all of this discovery happened around the fourth anniversary of the Apple Watch’s launch; but, this fortuitous timing gives me the opportunity to assess how it has built upon the first-generation product’s three pillars:

  • A precise and customizable timepiece: All computer clocks are precise; nobody expected the Apple Watch to struggle to keep time. This seemed like a silly and hyperbolic factor against which the Apple Watch should be judged. As far as customizability is concerned, case colours and different bands only get you so far; its hardware still screams “Apple Watch”.2 However, WatchOS updates have made it far more personalized with features like the Siri watch face and better third-party app integration.

  • An intimate communications device: I now know a lot of people with an Apple Watch, but I don’t know anyone who uses Digital Touch, shares their heartbeat, or even responds to texts with their watch. These features have not changed much over time, and the device’s size dictates its often awkward interaction mechanisms. Perhaps you frequently take calls on your watch or respond to texts with your voice, and that’s fine; it’s just not something I’ve seen a lot of people doing, even while they’re working out.

  • A health and fitness companion: This is, by far, the area where I think the Apple Watch has succeeded the most, and Apple has demonstrated this year after year by adding health features. The Workout app has come a long way since its launch, with new categories of workouts, workout detection, and a far simpler design. Newer generations of Apple Watch have added fall notification and an ECG, which I still think is wildly impressive. This is where I see myself continuing to use my Apple Watch in a more limited capacity, as it’s what I’ve been using it primarily for every day since I got it: taking my Apple Watch off broke my 379 day streak of closing all my rings. I’m a little bummed about that.

The Apple Watch seems to be excelling in one of its three pillars, doing fine in another, and totally missing the mark on the third. Apple is clearly learning what people use their Apple Watch for and adjusting accordingly, investing most heavily in its fitness and health features.

I have also learned something over the last four years that I’ve used an Apple Watch: I learned that my hesitance to upgrade is not from a lack of new features — there are plenty of those — but almost the opposite. I don’t know that I want more of anything happening on my wrist; I guess I just want less.


  1. I have a Slack workspace all for myself with some custom news alerts and push notifications set up. It’s kind of like a roll-your-own notification service for stuff that I care about. It’s quite silly, granted, but it works for me. ↩︎

  2. The Apple Watch’s hardware is notable for introducing three interaction mechanisms: Force Touch, the Taptic Engine, and the Digital Crown.

    Force Touch has been applied across Apple’s product line: it’s used for trackpads on the Mac, and its general principles were brought to the iPhone with 3D Touch. But its role on the Apple Watch has been scaled back since the first release of WatchOS, and 3D Touch is a mixed bag. Maybe the best current implementation of Force Touch is with the nearly solid-state trackpads in Apple’s current notebook lineup and in the second-generation Magic Trackpad, but I don’t use any of the Force Touch stuff in MacOS.

    The Digital Crown continues to baffle me. It’s a smart way to use the language of a knob that’s present on pretty much all watches. But so much of the interaction in WatchOS remains screen-dependent, which means that I often see people touching their Apple Watch screens instead of using the Digital Crown.

    The Taptic Engine has been a resounding success, as far as I’m concerned. It is among the finest physical interaction methods I’ve used on any device, particularly in its iPhone implementation. The vibration motors in most phones suck; some phones still ship with shitty buzzy vibrator mechanisms in 2019. The Taptic Engine in the Apple Watch is equally great; its strong pulses on the wrist feel sophisticated, not obtrusive. ↩︎

Regarding Animoji in Messages and FaceTime, Again

Earlier today, Jack Purcher of Patently Apple published this piece where he claims to have discovered Apple’s “next generation” Animoji software in a patent filing:

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office officially published a series of 54 newly granted patents for Apple Inc. today. In this particular report we briefly cover a single granted patent that takes Animojis to the next level by allowing a user to replace their head and face with an Animoji character while the user’s body and movements are naturally from the user. Who says you can’t stay young forever?

[…]

In Patent FIG. 6F below the user chooses the robot Animoji head and in 6H the TrueDepth camera (the creative camera) will advise the user to keep their head within a frame. Next-Gen Animojis will allow the user to keep their own bodies while presenting an Animoji face.

Far from a “next-gen” system, this, to me, looks and sounds exactly like the camera effects in Messages and FaceTime introduced in iOS 12. This is not the first time Patently Apple has misread patent drawings or misinterpreted intellectual property filings.

But I also don’t entirely blame them. As I’ve written before, these effects are difficult to find and use, and I think this mistaken report is another indication of its flawed UI. It’s not the most pressing issue, but I hope it’s something Apple will reconsider and improve upon in iOS 13 or 14.

Who Run the World? Recommendation Algorithms

Zeynep Tufekci, writing for Wired:

What should you watch? What should you read? What’s news? What’s trending? Wherever you go online, companies have come up with very particular, imperfect ways of answering these questions. Everywhere you look, recommendation engines offer striking examples of how values and judgments become embedded in algorithms and how algorithms can be gamed by strategic actors.

Consider a common, seemingly straightforward method of making suggestions: a recommendation based on what people “like you” have read, watched, or shopped for. What exactly is a person like me? Which dimension of me? Is it someone of the same age, gender, race, or location? Do they share my interests? My eye color? My height? Or is their resemblance to me determined by a whole mess of “big data” (aka surveillance) crunched by a machine-learning algorithm?

Last year, Chris Hayes showed how quickly a YouTube search for information about the Federal Reserve turns into antisemitic conspiracy theories in just a few clicks. The exact path he cited no longer exists, but I just tried it: the first search result for “Federal Reserve” on YouTube is a video from CNN, but many of its recommendations are dubious and conspiracy-minded.

YouTube’s recommendations have long been problematic and, like all recommendation engines, they seem designed to encourage users to consume more, with profoundly differing results depending on their context. Music recommendations, for example, seem relatively benign: software can probably make some good guesses about what someone who listens to Fugazi and Bad Brains would also want to hear, even if it knows nothing else about them. But Amazon knows a lot more about its users than simply their music choices; YouTube’s metrics, meanwhile, encouraged complicity in its flaws in the pursuit of growth.