Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Link Log Archives

Remixing Old Tracks in Spatial Audio Is ‘Sacrilegious’

Bob Lefsetz:

Let’s say you have the equipment and ability to make an Atmos mix. My understanding is right now, you send the end product to Dolby and they use their special sauce to create the final product. Furthermore, they have special sauce to turn the same Atmosfied music into two track stereo. So, in a business where how it sounds is critical, Dolby is the ultimate arbiter.

The writer at the top is right. It is sacrilegious to remix/Atmosfy classic tracks. They weren’t cut that way to begin with. It even bugs me that they’re using remixed tracks from “Abbey Road” to Atmosfy, now you’re multiple steps from the original.

No matter how good I thought Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” sounded in Atmos, it is a bit like doing a 3D movie conversion on “2001: A Space Odyssey”. The person creating the remix, no matter how well-intentioned, has no idea what the original mixer or the artist would have wanted in this situation.

Just like 3D movies, Atmos mixes only really work for songs and albums recorded with it in mind. That’s why I remain surprised that a bunch of albums recorded with the intention of a surround sound mix — “Dark Side of the Moon”, “The Downward Spiral” — are not available in Atmos on Apple Music, but a cheap conversion of “What’s My Age Again” is.

Bipartisan U.S. Lawmakers Push Five Antitrust Bills Targeted at Tech Companies

Cecilia Kang, New York Times:

The bills — five in total — take direct aim at Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google and their grip on online commerce, information and entertainment. The proposals would make it easier to break up businesses that used their dominance in one area to get a stronghold in another, would create new hurdles for acquisitions of nascent rivals and would empower regulators with more funds to police companies.

The legislation could reshape the way the companies operate. Facebook and Google, for instance, could have a higher bar to prove that any mergers aren’t anticompetitive. Amazon could face more scrutiny when selling its own branded products like toilet paper and clothing. Apple could have a harder time entering new lines of business that are promoted on its App Store.

A tech industry lobbying group is simultaneously seeking to minimize what lawmakers are confronting — “[w]ith all the challenges facing our country […] some policymakers think our biggest problem worth fixing is… Amazon Basics batteries” — and exaggerate how debilitating it would be to people. Heck of a time to introduce this legislation during the same week Apple has spent telling the world how great it is that all of its platforms are so tightly integrated with unique cross-device features that it can only do because it controls the hardware, software, and services stack.

I am dying to know why tech companies have spent the past decade becoming more siloed, entrenched, and unwavering in their taunting of antitrust action instead of pulling back just a touch. Of course, I wrote that and then immediately remembered that the two biggest spenders on lobbying in the U.S. are Amazon and Facebook, so it seems unlikely that all of these bills will become law as-is. Meanwhile, Axios reports that it is Rupert Murdoch’s companies that you can thank for the Republican support of this legislation; incidentally, Murdoch also pushed for Australia’s new media law.

The Digital Garden

Maggie Appleton (via Gabe Weatherhead) writing about the practice of “Digital Gardening” — that is, personal scratchpads of ideas, links, snippets, and unfinished thoughts categorized loosely and tended to frequently:

In performance-blog-land you do that thinking and researching privately, then shove it out at the final moment. A grand flourish that hides the process.

In garden-land, that process of researching and refining happens on the open internet. You post ideas while they’re still “seedlings,” and tend them regularly until they’re fully grown, respectable opinions.

[…]

Gardens are imperfect by design. They don’t hide their rough edges or claim to be a permanent source of truth.

I love this idea, but I think assuming good faith and reckoning with bad and ill-formed ideas in public is a hard shift to make.

“Learning in public” is something I have been thinking about since my friend G. Keenan Schneider wrote about, among other things, the piling on of people on Twitter who have said something stupid. Not something racist or sexist or exclusionary or discriminatory — just something dumb and wrong.

There are certainly those who ought to know better — people with a significant public presence who elevate stupidity — but there are also plenty of people with maybe dozens or hundreds of followers who are riffing, and they get something wrong. Sometimes, people will kindly explain to them where they messed up or point them to a good resource. A lot of the time, they will quote-tweet them to shame and embarrass.

It was something I thought about when Joe Rogan said on his podcast that, in his opinion, young people did not really need to get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, and said later that he’s “not a respected source of information” so listeners should not trust his advice. Shant Mesrobian defended Rogan’s comments by saying that it merely proved that “the show is an open platform for debate and a free exchange of ideas”, a sentiment that was approvingly shared by Glenn Greenwald who commented “Rogan doesn’t feign expertise he doesn’t have. He admits what he doesn’t know.”

But there are vast gaps between all of these things. We have all been given the tools to be broadcasters, but most of us probably do not have the responsibility that entails. And, most of the time, that is fine; our sillier comments stay within a small group of people even if our accounts are public. People like Rogan are different: they have massive followings, so they have a responsibility not to workshop uninformed medical ideas before an audience. I do not think many people, if any, would be directly influenced by Rogan — I was going to get vaccinated, but then this podcast host noncommittally shrugged his shoulders so I guess I won’t now — but treating them as though they are open questions with two or more equally probable answers for which someone with millions of listeners cannot possibly find a reputable source is an abuse of that power and position, no matter how innocently- or well-intentioned.

I often wish that I could just post a link with my scratch notes; if I did, this post would have been up two hours ago. But you come here to read full sentences, so it is the least I can provide. However, it is not that simple: while I am certainly not famous, I am lucky to have an audience. It is important for me to remember that I cannot write solely for myself, since other people might read it. No matter whether it is a longer article or just a quick link, I don’t want to further the spread of something that I believe to be false or unhelpful.

Perhaps there is a place in public for loose thoughts and ignorant questions, but I am not sure what happens when that attracts attention and publicity. We have to assume good intentions in every idea and link. Yet, if there is anything we have learned in the last many years of the internet, it is that many people will abuse your trust for their gain.

On Elevated Stupidity

Dave Holmes, Esquire:

There are many voices of Elevated Stupidity but only one face, and fittingly, it is an emoji: the smug thinky guy. His round yellow face is contorted into a rictus of Deep Thought, resting on a disembodied thumb and forefinger. Let me see if I have this right, that little asshole is thinking, right next to the dumbest thoughts you’ve ever read. “Let me play devil’s advocate here,” he says, failing to notice that Satan is pretty well defended these days. […]

An eminently quotable and truly delightful piece of writing that is somehow too elegant to be a rant but just frustrated enough that it cannot simply be called a column.

How Spatial Audio Will Work With the Apple TV

Igor Bonifacic, Engadget:

[…] When you sit down to watch a movie or TV show, the included head tracking feature will lock in after it detects you’ve been looking in the same direction for a while. Once you get up to walk around, it will reactivate. […]

As long as I am pointing out when I am right, I feel like it is only fair to show you when I am wrong. Spatial audio will work with existing Apple TV models and high-end AirPods, with the assumption that a stationary position probably means you are looking directly at the screen. Simple.

Dark Sky Will Stop Working at the End of 2022

When Dark Sky was acquired by Apple last year, it promised to keep the API functioning at least until the end of 2021. As of now, developers dependent on it have about a year and a half to find another provider.

There is a WeatherKit private framework lurking in iOS 15 that does not exist in iOS 14. It currently only contains strings of different weather conditions, but perhaps it will be more substantial and not private in the future.

For what it’s worth, there is a same-named private framework in MacOS Catalina and Big Sur, but its contents are very different. It contains images of different weather conditions, and lengthier sentences like “The high will be (placeholder). (Placeholder) tonight with a low of (placeholder).” instead of the simple condition text (“sunny”, “cloudy”) in the iOS 15 framework. Therefore, I do not believe it is a mistake in copying files from a shared code base.

Apple Is Using Akamai, Cloudflare, and Fastly for iCloud Private Relay

Dan Rayburn:

On Monday, Apple announced some new privacy features in iCloud, one of which they are calling Private Relay. The way it works is that when you go to a website using Safari, iCloud Private Relay takes your IP address to connect you to the website and then encrypts the URL so that app developers, and even Apple, don’t know what website you are visiting. The IP and encrypted URL then travels to an intermediary relay station run by what Apple calls a “trusted partner”. In a media interview published yesterday, Apple would not say who the trusted partners are but I can confirm, based on public details (as shown below; Akamai on left, Fastly on the right), that Akamai, Fastly and Cloudflare are being used.

Dave Hamilton, the Mac Observer:

Apple made specific mention that while the “Ingress Proxy” servers are run by Apple, the “Egress Proxy” (aka the server which communicates with the websites you visit) is not controlled by Apple and is under the control of “a (trusted) content provider”. This means that Apple doesn’t know what site(s) you’re visiting, and the third-party content provider doesn’t know who you are.

I imagine the Oblivious DNS over HTTPS standard proposed by Apple, Cloudflare, and Fastly last year is relevant to this, and I have to wonder about this week’s Fastly outage, too.

WWDC is a Developers’ Conference After All

Apple’s relationship with the developer community has often been fractured, but I am not sure there has been such outright animosity and grief with the company as that expressed in the past year. The arguments expressed on the blogs of many developers — from Marco Arment to Becky Hansmeyer to Michael Tsai — are the norm, not the exception.

The developer community is deeply unhappy. While the opening keynote of WWDC has undoubtably become more of a consumer marketing affair, the rest of the conference is just for developers — and they have long needed to feel heard.

Dan Moren, Six Colors:

Usually, the hours before Apple’s keynote event are filled with speculation and excitement, but this year there is far more frustration and antipathy than I can remember seeing in my decade and a half covering Apple. There’s always been some degree of dissatisfaction, especially amongst developers, but it’s hard to escape that the current story about Apple is less about its products and more about its attitude.

[…]

WWDC marks Apple’s opportunity to take control of the story. Whatever its executives announce when they take the stage later today has the potential to dominate the tech news cycle for days and weeks to come.

But the real question is whether, by sheer compelling nature or simply by volume, it can drown out the existing narrative.

So, how did Apple do?

Well, that depends on which issues you would like to focus on. Fraud is a hot-button problem, with a lengthy story about App Store scams appearing in the Washington Post on Sunday.

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch:

Related to this, Apple clarified the language around App Store discovery fraud (5.6.3) to more specifically call out any type of manipulations of App Store charts, search, reviews and referrals. The former would mean to crack down on the clearly booming industry of fake App Store ratings and reviews, which can send a scam app higher in charts and search.

[…]

But a new update to these guidelines seems to be an admission that Apple may need a little help on this front. It says developers can now directly report possible violations they find in other developers’ apps. Through a new form that standardizes this sort of complaint, developers can point to guideline violations and any other trust and safety issues they discover. Often, developers notice the scammers whose apps are impacting their own business and revenue, so they’ll likely turn to this form now as a first step in getting the scammer dealt with.

This could be beneficial to developers who may stumble across fraud, but it does not users, and particularly not those who have found themselves close to becoming victims but did not fall for a scam. While I get that a reporting mechanism could introduce a new vector for misuse by less-knowledgeable users, I still cannot believe there is nowhere for an average person to say that they found a scam.

The long-requested TestFlight for Mac is finally real, as part of the new Xcode Cloud service. It will also be possible to A/B test App Store pages, something else many developers have wanted for a long time. So that’s the good news.

What about the thorny problem of some high-profile developers getting access to platform features and APIs that most do not? For example, it was possible to get a refund for Hulu and Netflix subscriptions bought through in-app purchases from within their apps — something developers are generally unable to offer. While there is a promising new beginRefundRequest method, it just displays the App Store refund request sheet within the app with the same two-day turnaround, still controlled by Apple.

I do not know that there was a single developer who expected Apple to relent on its in-app purchase policy. It remains unchanged, and likely will until lawmakers demand a different policy.

A story today by Jacob Kastrenakes, of the Verge, noted — almost as an aside — that Patreon is allowed to offer third-party payment services in its app. For example, I tried upgrading one of my subscriptions to a level that had entirely digital perks, and Patreon threw up its own payment form. I tried subscribing to a creator account and once again saw Patreon’s own form, not an in-app purchase dialog. You can try it by subscribing to my perk-less Patreon account. I am insufferable and I am sorry.

I do not know that this is enough to cool Apple’s tense relationship with developers. Judging by the number of people I saw taking issue with Apple’s annual payout slide, I doubt it. I imagine all of the presenters this year are thrilled they did not have to talk about how great the App Store is in a room full of people who resent it, but the reasons for their disdain continue.

At WWDC 2021, Apple Again Showed That Accessibility Truly Is for Everyone

Steven Aquino, Forbes:

Many of the new functionalities Apple announced this week at the company’s annual WWDC keynote have serious ramifications for accessibility. Study Apple carefully long enough and it’s not hard to understand why; not only is this a reflection of their institutional commitment to the disability community, it also underscores the idea that accessibility, conceptually and pragmatically, is not a domain solely for disabled people. Although accessibility software should (and always will) prioritize people with disabilities first and foremost, you needn’t have a disability to reap benefits from larger text on your iPhone. Accessibility is inclusive of everyone, regardless of ability.

Following last month’s unveiling of new discrete accessibility features, Apple on Monday showed off a slew of mainstream, marquee features spanning Apple’s five operating systems—iOS, iPadOS, watchOS, macOS, and tvOS—that are eminently useful as de-facto accessibility features, whether you’re disabled or not.

Great roundup of features that are unfortunately often seen as marginal ease-of-use improvements for many, but are critically important for those with accessibility needs. Live Text is one of those features that I know I am going to use often to convert written notes into digital documents.

Lossless and Spatial Audio Launch on Apple Music

Becky Roberts, What Hi-Fi?:

Last month, Apple announced that Dolby Atmos-powered spatial audio tracks would soon be coming to its music streaming service alongside CD-quality and hi-res lossless audio for no additional cost and, after a staggered rollout over the course of the day, both features are now live (at least they are for us).

Spatial audio with Dolby Atmos is designed to deliver surround sound and 3D audio via your headphones – to put “multidimensional sound and clarity” between your ears. This experience works with Apple’s AirPods, as well as any headphones. That’s right, Apple Music’s spatial audio tracks will play on all headphones (and here’s how to enable it).

You can enable spatial audio for all headphones by going to Settings, Music, and choosing “Always On” from the Dolby Atmos menu instead of the default “Automatic” setting.

Micah Singleton, of Billboard, interviewed Eddy Cue about the launch of these features:

And the analogy to that is obviously the first time you ever saw HD on television: you knew which one was better because it was obvious. And we’ve been missing that in audio for a long time. There really hasn’t been anything that’s been substantial. We’ll talk about lossless and other things, but ultimately, there’s not enough difference.

[…]

So we went after the labels and are going to the artists and educating them on [Dolby Atmos]. There’s a lot of work to be done because we have, obviously, tens of millions of songs. This is not a simple “take-the-file that you have in stereo, processes through this software application and out comes Dolby Atmos.” This requires somebody who’s a sound engineer, and the artist to sit back and listen, and really make the right calls and what the right things to do are. It’s a process that takes time, but it’s worth it.

I admire Cue’s honesty about lossless audio in this interview. I know that he’s doing so in part to market Apple’s implementation of spatial audio as a differentiator, but it really is a much bigger deal than lossless. I can tell the difference between lossy and lossless audio. If lossless audio was a more expensive Apple Music tier, I would not pay for it; I would, however, pay for spatial audio. It is really good when done well.

I was skeptical of marketing claims like these. There have been a handful of attempts at mixing music in better-than-stereo for decades, and they have all sort of failed.

A handful of records came out in quadrophonic sound in the 1970s, including Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”. In the 2000s, there was a slew of records re-released in a 5.1 surround sound mix on “super audio” CDs: Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours”, Nine Inch Nails’ “The Downward Sprial”, and Donald Fagen’s “The Nightfly”, an audiophile favourite.

As of writing, not one of those records is available in Dolby Atmos on Apple Music. I would have assumed that a conversion from surround sound to Dolby Atmos would be easier than converting from stereo, but I guess I guessed wrong.

Spatial audio reminds me more of 3D movies than it does going from SD to HD: when it is used with some finesse, it is terrific, but it can be overdone. Migos’ “Stir Fry” sounds incredible, as does YG’s “Still Brazy” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” — the song; the rest of the album has not yet been mixed in Dolby Atmos, but I cannot wait to hear “Right On” with a more spacious mix.

Other songs take it a little too far. Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Gotta Have It” is bananas in Dolby Atmos. Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” almost sounds like a different song entirely, and Disclosure’s “Latch” sounds constrained, like pressure has built up in my ears. Other tracks simply are not mixed very well; I do not think Blink 182’s “What’s My Age Again?” benefits from Atmos.

The genres that seem to gain the most from Dolby Atmos are classical and jazz recordings. This entire performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 and this one of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 are available in Atmos and they will transport you. It is incredible. I recommend them both; try toggling Atmos on and off in Settings to hear the difference.

This first batch of tracks has me excited for more. Maybe this is the year we will finally get the Nine Inch Nails’ “The Fragile” in the surround mix it deserves. I would love to hear Travis Scott’s entire psychedelic catalogue in spatial audio, too.

As the Pandemic Subsides in the U.S., Companies Subsidized by Venture Capital Are Raising Prices

Kevin Roose, New York Times:

Profits are good for investors, of course. And while it’s painful to pay subsidy-free prices for our extravagances, there’s also a certain justice to it. Hiring a private driver to shuttle you across Los Angeles during rush hour should cost more than $16, if everyone in that transaction is being fairly compensated. Getting someone to clean your house, do your laundry or deliver your dinner should be a luxury, if there’s no exploitation involved. The fact that some high-end services are no longer easily affordable by the merely semi-affluent may seem like a worrying development, but maybe it’s a sign of progress.

It is hard to see the gig economy as anything other than exploitative, but Roose is right: these services are made somewhat more affordable than concierge services for the rich by more distributed labour, but they are not the middle class perks they have positioned themselves to be. Unfortunately, while investors for Uber and Lyft have long been content to subsidize the pirate taxi industry, actual taxi drivers have found themselves struggling to make ends meet. This gambling has so distorted the market that, until pandemic restrictions began taking effect early last year, there were so many drivers for Uber and Lyft that they, too, often earned below minimum wage.

You can see similar effects across the board. Airbnb is one reason why it has become harder to find apartments for people who live in bigger cities, and its popularity is underwritten by investment money that has kept prices lower than a typical hotel room. Food delivery companies bleed small restaurants of their profit margin, take huge venture capital investments, and still manage to lose money.

All of these companies, according to Roose, have been raising their prices to match or exceed those of similar non-subsidized services, as I wrote two years ago. But that does not undo the disruption to jobs and livelihoods by venture capital subsidies that created these predatory pricing models to begin with.

Craig Federighi on the Many Privacy Features Introduced at WWDC

After a bit of a bummer post — sorry — I wanted to highlight a few things that impressed me after today’s WWDC opener, beginning with privacy features.

Shoshana Wodinsky, Gizmodo:

First up is Mail Privacy Protection, which is a new tab in Apple’s Mail app that’s meant to do what the name implies: letting users decide what data the program shares. Under this new tab, users can choose to hide their IP address and location details from email senders, not unlike the recent iOS 14 updates that keep apps from slurping up details like precise location and a phone’s mobile ad ID. As an added benefit, Apple says its new mailbox settings will keep people from tracking whether you opened the email they sent you and when that email was opened.

This is an interesting twist on the tracker blocking features of some other email apps. But instead of trying to block them, the Mail app in iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and MacOS Monterey will download everything in every message, even when you do not open a message. And it will do so indirectly, “routed through multiple proxy servers”, in Apple’s words. It appears that marketers will still get a very approximate idea of your location — Apple says that it is at a “region” level — but will not know if you did or did not open a message.

This is pretty clever. Any image can theoretically be used as a tracker, so it is a constant cat-and-mouse game for apps like Hey to find and block while still displaying relevant pictures. This is the “I am Spartacus” gambit: instead of fighting the trackers, this technique embraces them all, rendering them useless for understanding open rates or tracking any user.

Marketers, take note.

Wodinsky:

On top of the inbox updates, the company also announced new “app privacy reports,” which will surface more detailed intel about how non-Apple apps are tracking your activity across your device. Similar to Safari privacy reports, these will break down which apps on your device are accessing what kind of data, and how much of that data gets sent to specific third-party trackers. As part of that report, users will also get an overview of how often a given app accessed your microphone, camera, or precise location over the past week. Think of it as a quick list to shame the worst privacy offenders on your phone.

In a preemptive counterstrike, Facebook announced today that it would begin showing creators a breakdown of how much of their earnings from in-app purchases are going to Apple and Google. Tag, you’re it.

Wodinsky:

Apple introduced a slew of new features for iCloud on the privacy front. First, the company announced Private Relay, a new VPN service built into iCloud that will let users browsing on Safari completely encrypt their traffic. Apple says this setting ensures that “no one between the user and the website they are visiting can access and read” any data sent over Private Relay, not even Apple or the user’s network provider. […]

This comes with iCloud Plus, which is Apple’s new name for all of its paid iCloud plans. iCloud Private Relay does not allow you to pick a different country and only works in Safari; you should not think of it as a replacement for a VPN in many circumstances. As such, it should play nicely with personal and corporate VPNs.

iCloud Private Relay will not be available in several countries, including Belarus, China, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia.

Michael Grothaus of Fast Company was briefed on these features before today’s keynote, and spoke with Craig Federighi about them:

Federighi explains that governments are often reactive when it comes to technology – and there’s no way for them to get around that. At least on the consumer front, companies do most of the innovating. They’re also the ones who find new ways to exploit data. So governments can put rules around technologies or processes only after they’ve become a problem. Those rules often lag far behind the speed of such innovations. That’s why even if governments were more proactive, it would still fall on companies such as Apple to develop new privacy-enhancing technologies.

That being said, Federighi believes that “there’s absolutely a role where government can look at what companies like Apple are doing and say, ‘You know, that thing is such a universal good – such an important recognition of customer rights – and Apple has proven it’s possible. So maybe it should be something that becomes a more of a requirement.’ But that may tend to lag [Apple’s privacy] innovation and creation of some new thing that they can evaluate and decide to make essentially the law.”

I am sure regulation will not preemptively correct every privacy ill, but surely there are good reasons that the data broker industry is uniquely capable and creepy in the United States compared to other developed countries. Privacy problems are not a U.S.-only problem, but they are a U.S.-mostly problem — and, because so much personal information of users worldwide is stored on servers controlled by U.S. entities under U.S. laws, we are all sucked into the failure of the U.S. to legislate.

iOS and iPadOS 15

Let’s get something out of the way first: I am a dummy, and you should not do what I do every year and install the very first betas of the very newest operating systems on your only devices as soon as those builds are available. From six hours of use, I can assure you that these first builds of iOS and iPadOS 15 are pretty rocky and you should probably avoid them, even if you install betas every year.

So, with that done, I wanted to write a little about the first day of WWDC and, particularly, the iPad.

This year feels lower-key, but perhaps in a good way, like a Mavericks-era MacOS situation. Many of the headlining features feel like things that are “finally” here: better notifications with more granular controls, iPad multitasking that doesn’t require so many spells and incantations, FaceTime screen sharing, and last year’s iOS 14 features making their way to the iPad. I point that out not to diminish their impact. If anything, based on how often I have heard and read requests for these features, I imagine they will be important to many users. I am certainly looking forward to all of those enhancements becoming absorbed by my day-to-day use.

At the same time, the big headlining updates for iPadOS emphasize to me that it still is not a high-priority product for Apple. You can certainly see the usability enhancements in this update as progress; literally any visible onscreen elements for multitasking could be considered an improvement over the past system. But you can also see that the iPhone — and even the Apple Watch — have received meaningful changes every year, while multitasking on the iPad has been screaming for fixes the entire time with only begrudging progress. The changes this year — which involve a “⋯” menu with different windowing options, and being able to create spaces from the App Switcher, home screen, and App Library — are all steps forward, but only partially resolve its least intuitive characteristics. Or look at how widgets could be placed anywhere on the iOS 14 home screen, but it took a full year for that functionality to come to the iPad. Translate is yet another example of an app that was on the iPhone for a full year before the iPad.

Perhaps I am being especially critical because this year’s M1-powered iPad Pro and even last year’s A14-powered iPad Air suggested bigger leaps in capability than we have seen so far. There do not appear to be any features enabled by these more powerful models. Even app development in Swift Playgrounds appears to be available on older devices — I applaud device longevity, but I hope we do not have to wait four or five years for iPadOS to begin taking advantage of the power of the M1.

And perhaps I am the jerk here because, while last year’s WWDC was planned and executed remotely, the software updates that were announced were at an advanced stage of development when Apple’s developers began working from home. Development for this year’s updates was conducted almost entirely from home, so it is reasonable to think that it would be more difficult, particularly given the psychological toll of this pandemic.

I just love the iPad so much — in theory. I am writing this post on one, which is not atypical. Even after today, it continues to have groundbreaking hardware that is constrained by its software. That very same sentence has been applicable after every WWDC for years. I would not like to write it again.

Flexibility Is a Vital Component of the Future Happiness of Workers

Craig Grannell:

For Apple specifically, the company used to say ‘think different’. It could leverage that approach and lead a new way of how major corporations work rather than being so prescriptive. And while Apple shifting to three days in/two days out is a big cultural shift, it has an opportunity to do more. If your company has been by every measure a massive success during the pandemic, then it has space to be more radical, not less, regarding workers.

Retaining high-performing employees who are committed to Apple’s goals remains one of the highest-priority concerns at the company. In 2019, several notable employees exited; just this week, Bloomberg reported the departure of “several” managers of Apple’s car project to other companies. Those are just the most visible employees, too, who are less affected by a requirement to work in an office even part-time.

I do not know that there is a particular trend of Apple losing employees. I do not have any information on attrition trends. But I am hopeful that Apple — or any company — will respond quickly if it begins losing good and long-term employees purely because of what they see as a mediocre remote work arrangement.

Remote work does not come at no cost. If work-from-home arrangements for high-salary jobs like these become really popular over the next, say, five years, it seems likely that it will distort real estate markets in places with lower living costs, and not just in developed countries.

Ransomware Is Increasingly Impacting Day-to-Day Life

Heather Kelly, Washington Post:

The recent spate of high-profile ransomware incidents is exactly what cybersecurity professionals have been warning about for years. But it’s partially the impact on everyday people — far from the executive suites, cybersecurity companies, or government agencies that regularly fret about the criminal enterprise — that has made the risk more visible. The ripple effects of ransomware can result in everything from mild inconvenience to people losing their lives, and it’s only increased in frequency during the pandemic.

“It’s not only that it’s getting worse, but it’s the worst possible time for it to happen,” said Robert Lee, chief executive of Dragos, an industrial cybersecurity firm. He says on average, there are likely 20 to 30 big ransomware cases happening behind the scenes in addition to the ones making headlines.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this article is that there is only a passing mention of Bitcoin — and nothing about cryptocurrency more generally — even though these attacks are only possible because of cryptocurrency.

Stephen Diehl (at the time I am writing this, Diehl’s post is unavailable for some reason, but it is on the Wayback Machine):

The singular reason why these attacks are even possible is due entirely to rise of cryptocurrency. And is entirely enabled by this one technology, it could not exist otherwise.

[…]

Cryptocurrency is the channel by which all the illicit funds in this epidemic flow. And it is the one channel that the US Government has complete power to reign in and regulate. The free flow of money from US banks to cryptocurrency exchanges is the root cause and needs to halt. Cryptocurrencies are almost entirely used for illicit activity and investment frauds, and on the whole have no upside for society at large while also having unbounded downside and massive negative externalities.

There are good examples of cryptocurrency being used as a workaround for restrictive government policies, in much the same way as encrypted messaging. But the incentives for bad actors to abuse financial systems are so much greater.

The Apple Watch’s Place

Benjamin Clymer, founder of Hodinkee, in a column for GQ:

I have a confession to make: I, one of the foremost evangelists for mechanical watches, wear an Apple Watch. I don’t brag about it or post it on social media, but I strap on my Apple Watch three or four times a week, making it one of the most trusty pieces in my entire collection.

Interesting perspective. I wonder how many people have found the opposite to be true: the people whose first ever watch purchase or first over, say, $200, was an Apple Watch, which moved them to invest in a small collection of analogue watches.

Apple Employees Are Writing Lengthy Internal Letters That Keep Getting Leaked

Zoë Schiffer, the Verge:

A week after The Verge published the García Martínez letter, a group of Muslim employees at Apple penned a note calling for the company to release a statement in support of Palestine. When Tim Cook didn’t respond, the letter was leaked to The Verge.

It is interesting to me that these letters, and another about Apple’s back-to-office plan, were leaked specifically to the Verge. They were not sent to a labour reporter at the more aggressive Vice, or to a business publication like Bloomberg. Curious.

The two letters, and their leaks, are signs of a slow cultural shift at Apple. Employees, once tight-lipped about internal problems, are now joining a wave of public dissent that’s roiling Silicon Valley. Employees say this is partly because Apple’s typical avenues for reporting don’t work for big cultural issues. They also note the company rolled out Slack in 2019, allowing workers to find and organize with one another.

[…]

Public organizing, particularly on social media, has been enormously successful in Silicon Valley, allowing workers to wrestle power away from management. At Google, it’s led the company to end forced arbitration for all full-time employees. At Amazon, it’s spawned massive unionizing campaigns. Now, it seems to be Apple’s turn. “Suddenly at Apple, as everywhere else, managers can only stand back and watch as workers reshape the bounds of what will be permitted at work,” wrote Casey Newton, founder and editor of Platformer.

The Google and Amazon examples Schiffer cites were both truly organized in public and on social media. But all three Apple letters — so far — are ostensibly for internal audiences only, though that façade is crumbling.

I have to wonder if this recent spate of letters has actually made a difference. The one asking for a reconsideration of hiring policies cost Antonio García Martínez a job, but it is unclear whether there have been any changes to recruiting or interviewing. Apple and its leadership did not post any statements in defense of Palestine, either.

While it is too soon to know whether there will be any changes to Apple’s plan to bring employees back to the office for 60% or more of a workweek, I do not imagine this will make a dent. I know that some people will find this a bummer — the past year has proved that many people can do many jobs without being anywhere near an office. But many people were hired at Apple with the understanding that they would be working at the company’s buildings. This is not a case of Apple reducing the amount of time working from home; it is an increase from being required to be in the office full-time. This pandemic has been difficult and traumatic, but it is not a permanent state. I do not think it is realistic to expect everything to go back to the way it was before this pandemic, but it is equally unlikely that our generally rich and privileged lives will be unrecognizable because of it.

I hope this does not come across as indifferent. Many people have lost family and friends to this pandemic, and countless more have been impacted in ways little and large — including me.

Steven Aquino says that Apple has long been accommodating for people with disabilities. I have also heard several stories of Apple being surprisingly flexible for people who cannot work in Cupertino. That is clearly not the case for all people who wish to work remotely, but there are satellite Apple offices in dozens of cities that you would not immediately think of. Employees are, however, working in offices.

Apple’s arrangement is limiting, as are most jobs. There are plenty of companies that I would love to work for that would require me to relocate, and that is frustrating but fine. There are also many remote positions I could consider at other companies if I were looking for another job and wanted to work from home. If these requirements mean that Apple begins to bleed too much talent to more remote-friendly companies, it will no doubt adjust its policies. For now, so long as it is safe, this is entirely what I expected — and, I think, what most people should have anticipated.

TikTok Updates Its U.S. Privacy Policy to Begin Collecting Biometric Data

TikTok has updated its privacy policies several times already this year, with improvements for users under 16 and removing the ability to opt out of targeted advertising. But a new statement this week is particularly concerning:

We may collect biometric identifiers and biometric information as defined under US laws, such as faceprints and voiceprints, from your User Content. Where required by law, we will seek any required permissions from you prior to any such collection.

Though I imagine those who are concerned about TikTok’s connections to the Chinese government or who see it as surveillance software will find this more nefarious than, say, I do, I still think it is pretty alarming. There is no good reason — not one — for a lighthearted social media app to uniquely identify people based on unchangeable physical characteristics, even for something as apparently innocuous as tagging.

Sarah Perez of TechCrunch reports that this policy change may have a more sedate origin:

It is worth noting, however, that the new disclosure about biometric data collection follows a $92 million settlement in a class action lawsuit against TikTok, originally filed in May 2020, over the social media app’s violation of Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act. The consolidated suit included more than 20 separate cases filed against TikTok over the platform’s collection and sharing of the personal and biometric information without user consent. Specifically, this involved the use of facial filter technology for special effects.

In that context, TikTok’s legal team may have wanted to quickly cover themselves from future lawsuits by adding a clause that permits the app to collect personal biometric data.

The plaintiffs in that suit allege a creepy scheme to mine everything created through the app, including draft videos that were not published. This biometric data collection clause may be related to face mask filters and effects. But, if that is the case, why are those features available elsewhere while this clause is U.S.-only? And, given that this clause is so broad, is it reasonable to think that an ad-supported platform will continue to use it solely for fun filters in perpetuity? The answer to that last one seems obvious: rather than minimizing data collection, TikTok is giving itself latitude.

By the way, TikTok has three different privacy policies: one for the U.S., one for Switzerland, the U.K., and the European Economic Area, and one for everywhere else. Comparing these policies raises many questions. For example, the U.S. one seems to permit far greater collection than the other two. Is that because it is described more comprehensively, or is it because the U.S. has virtually none of the national privacy standards that are common elsewhere?

In the rest of the world, TikTok says it is allowed to collect many different types of behavioural information, including “app and file names and types, keystroke patterns or rhythms” in addition to things like IP addresses and device attributes, but that is not so different from many other social media apps. It also says that it collects “the existence and location within an image of face and body features and attributes” in order to, among other things, “enable special video effects”, which explains why it is able to offer face filters without collecting “biometric” data. This language does not appear in the more permissive U.S. policy; it also does not appear in the stricter policy for Europe and the U.K., but a quick scan of top British TikTok users indicates that face-based filters are available there, too.

It seems that the greater privacy protections afforded to non-U.S. countries are not prohibitive. My American readers should ask themselves why lawmakers are failing them when so many industries are eager participants in anti-privacy practices.

Twitter Launches Paid Subscription First in Canada and Australia

Sara Beykpour and Smita Mittal Gupta of Twitter:

We’ve heard from the people that use Twitter a lot, and we mean a lot, that we don’t always build power features that meet their needs. Well, that’s about to change. We took this feedback to heart, and are developing and iterating upon a solution that will give the people who use Twitter the most what they are looking for: access to exclusive features and perks that will take their experience on Twitter to the next level.

Twitter calls this tier Twitter Blue, which is a great name but with a feature set that I do not find compelling. I imagine many heavy users would pay ten bucks a month for no ads and a chronological timeline. Heck, I know many people would pay for editable tweets. Gareth suggested that it could be an identity verification mechanism, too, and better search functionality would help journalists immensely.

Alas, the initial feature set is a bit underwhelming. There are folders for bookmarks, a better thread reader, some different icons and themes — odd for a product named after a specific colour — and the closest thing to editable tweets is an undo button that disappears after a few seconds. Twitter says that it will add more features over time. I certainly hope so. I would love to pay for Twitter, but this is a surprisingly weak offering.