Google Kills FLoC, Unveils New Plan to Replace Tracking Cookies 

Paul Wagenseil, writing for Tom’s Guide:

Google has ditched its planned user-profiling system, FLoC, and is instead developing a new system called Topics, the company announced today.

Topics, described by Google Senior Director of Product Ben Galbraith as “one of the most ambitious efforts we’ve ever undertaken” during a conference call with reporters, is meant to replace third-party advertising cookies in Chrome by the end of next year. [...]

Topics seems pretty different from FLoC, which stood for Federated Learning of Cohorts. FLoC was intended to analyze your browsing data and place you in one of several thousand “cohorts” made up of Chrome users with similar interests. By comparison, Topics seems more general and should give websites and advertisers much fuzzier data about individual users.

Here’s the thing I don’t understand about this new Topics proposal: Is it baked into the browser? That’s how I’m reading it, and I suspect that means it will wind up being Chrome-only. Why would any other browser support an ad tech proposal that was designed by Google to primarily benefit Google’s own advertising needs.

What happens if a website is dependent on Topics for advertising revenue and you’re using any browser other than Chrome? Will the site try to block you and tell you to switch to Chrome, the way so many sites today try to to block you and tell you to disable your privacy tools and tracking blockers?

(If someone out there understands this proposal and it doesn’t require browsers to support it, let me know.)

German Publishers Run Crying to E.U. Regulators Over Google’s Plan to Remove Third-Party Cookies From Chrome 

Javier Espinoza, reporting for The Financial Times:

Google is facing a fresh complaint from Germany’s largest publishers and advertisers, which are demanding that the EU intervene over the search giant’s plan to stop the use of third-party cookies. Axel Springer, the publisher of titles such as Bild and Politico, is among the hundreds of publishers, advertisers and media groups that have argued to the bloc’s competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, that Google is breaking EU law with its move to phase out third-party cookies from its Chrome browser by next year.

What a pile of horseshit. Third-party cookies have proven to be a privacy disaster and other major browsers have already removed support for them — including Safari, Firefox, and Brave. Chrome is the most popular web browser in the world and thus the biggest holdout, and these clowns want the EU’s regulators — a group that would have us believe it is concerned foremost with consumers — to force Google to keep third-party cookie support enabled in Chrome. If the EU doesn’t toss this case out, it’s a joke.

The decision blocks advertisers, publishers and intermediaries from analysing users’ preferences while they browse online content — a critical blow to how the industry generates revenues.

This editorializing from the FT is simply wrong. Publishers aren’t third parties, so they’re free to analyze users’ preferences while those users are on the publishers’ own sites. But what they’re asking for here is for the EU to force Google to allow them to keep “analyzing users’ preferences” while users are anywhere and everywhere else on the web. Just because publishers have been able to profit from surveillance advertising doesn’t mean they have any entitlement whatsoever to keep profiting from it. As I quipped last year, it’s like pawn shops suing to keep the police from cracking down on a wave of burglaries.

“Publishers must remain in a position where they are allowed to ask their users for consent to process data, without Google capturing this decision. Google must respect the relationship between publishers and users without interfering,” said the document, which was also sent to the EU’s powerful competition unit.

Publishers aren’t third parties, so publishers are free to use their own cookies.

Google said: “Many other platforms and browsers have already stopped supporting third-party cookies but Google is the only one to do this openly and in consultation with technical standards bodies, regulators, and the industry, while also proposing new, alternative technologies.”

True!

Google Drops Support for the Pixel 3 

Aaron Gordon, writing for Vice:

Not quite three years ago, I bought a Pixel 3, Google’s flagship phone at the time. It has been a good phone. I like that it’s not too big. I dropped it a bunch, but it didn’t break. And the battery life has not noticeably changed since the day I got it. [...] But I have to get rid of it because Google has stopped supporting all Pixel 3s. Despite being just three years old, no Pixel 3 will ever receive another official security update. [...]

But for the past six years, Google has made the Pixel line of phones. They are Google-made phones, meaning Google can’t blame discontinuing security updates on other manufacturers, and yet, it announced that’s exactly what it would do.

As Gordon points out, iOS 15 supports iPhones back to the 6S, which debuted in September 2015, and the original SE, which shipped six months later. (Both the 6S and original SE are based on the A9 chip.)

The New York Times Is Just Fucking With Us Now 

Julie Creswell, reporting (supposedly) for The New York Times Friday in a story about inflation hitting fast food:

On a chilly Tuesday afternoon this month, James Marsh stopped by a Chipotle near his suburban Chicago home to grab something to eat.

It had been a while since Mr. Marsh had been to Chipotle — he estimated he goes five times a year — and he stopped cold when he saw the prices.

“I had been getting my usual, a steak burrito, which had been maybe in the mid-$8 range,” said Mr. Marsh, who trades stock options at his home in Hinsdale, Ill. “Now it was more than $9.”

He walked out.

“I figured I’d find something at home,” he said.

Everything about this is just pure bullshit, right down to the dramatic one-sentence-per-paragraph pacing.

NBC Will Not Broadcast This Year’s Super Bowl in 4K 

Chaim Gartenberg, writing for The Verge:

The 2022 Super Bowl won’t be broadcast or streamed in 4K again this year when the game takes place on February 13th, NBC Sports has confirmed to The Verge. The lack of a 4K stream marks the second year in a row that the big game won’t be available with the higher level of picture quality. “The game will not be in 4K,” Dan Masonson, a spokesperson for NBC Sports, told The Verge.

NBC, which is hosting the big game this year, has never actually aired an NFL game in 4K or HDR before, despite hosting the nationally televised Sunday Night Football game every week during the regular NFL season. NBC, for what it’s worth, isn’t the only network: CBS doesn’t produce any of its games in 4K (the network cited COVID-19 issues for the lack of a 4K Super Bowl in 2021), nor does ESPN with Monday Night Football.

Bonus points to any electronics retailer that runs a promotion encouraging people to buy an 8K TV in time for “The Big Game”.

Update: Samsung scores the bonus points.

Bloomberg: ‘Nvidia Quietly Prepares to Abandon $40 Billion Arm Bid’ 

Ian King, Giles Turner, and Peter Elstrom, reporting for Bloomberg:*

Nvidia Corp. is quietly preparing to abandon its purchase of Arm Ltd. from SoftBank Group Corp. after making little to no progress in winning approval for the $40 billion chip deal, according to people familiar with the matter.

Nvidia has told partners that it doesn’t expect the transaction to close, according to one person, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are private. SoftBank, meanwhile, is stepping up preparations for an Arm initial public offering as an alternative to the Nvidia takeover, another person said.

Good news for Intel, if true.

* Bloomberg, of course, is the publication that published “The Big Hack” in October 2018 — a sensational story alleging that data centers of Apple, Amazon, and dozens of other companies were compromised by China’s intelligence services. The story presented no confirmable evidence at all, was vehemently denied by all companies involved, has not been confirmed by a single other publication (despite much effort to do so), and has been largely discredited by one of Bloomberg’s own sources. By all appearances “The Big Hack” was complete bullshit. Yet Bloomberg has issued no correction or retraction, and their only ostensibly substantial follow-up contained not one shred of evidence to back up their allegations. Bloomberg seemingly hopes we’ll all just forget about it. I say we do not just forget about it. Everything they publish should be treated with skepticism until they retract “The Big Hack” or provide evidence that any of it was true.

NBA Hall of Famer John Stockton Has Lost His Mind 

Theo Lawson, writing for the Spokane Spokesman-Review, after Gonzaga revoked Stockton’s season tickets for refusing to wear a mask:

During the interview, Stockton asserted that more than 100 professional athletes have died of vaccination. He also said tens of thousands of people – perhaps millions – have died from vaccines.

“I think it’s highly recorded now, there’s 150 I believe now, it’s over 100 professional athletes dead — professional athletes — the prime of their life, dropping dead that are vaccinated, right on the pitch, right on the field, right on the court,” Stockton said in the interview.

There’s unhinged from reality, and then there’s just floating into the void like Frank Poole in 2001.

Netherlands Authority for Consumer Markets Begins Fining Apple for Non-Compliance With Dating App Rules for Third-Party Payments 

The Netherlands Authority for Consumer Markets:

Apple has failed to satisfy the requirements on several points. The most important one is that Apple has failed to adjust its conditions, as a result of which dating-app providers are still unable to use other payment systems. At the moment, dating-app providers can merely express their ‘interest’. In addition, Apple has raised several barriers for dating-app providers to the use of third-party payment systems. That, too, is at odds with ACM’s requirements. For example, Apple seemingly forces app providers to make a choice: either refer to payment systems outside of the app or to an alternative payment system. That is not allowed. Providers must be able to choose both options.

What are the next steps?

ACM has informed Apple that its statements do not satisfy the requirements laid down in the order subject to periodic penalty payments. Apple is still obligated to act in accordance with said order. If it fails to do so, Apple will have to pay each week a penalty payment of 5 million euros up to a maximum of 50 million euros.

Apple could just write them a check for €50 million now, from the company’s spare-change-under-the-sofa account. Or they could just pull dating apps from the App Store in the Netherlands. Otherwise, put their napkins on their laps and eat a Dutch shit sandwich.

Update: Francisco Tolmasky:

It must be really frustrating to roll out an entire plan only to be completely at the whim of a reviewer — err, regulator — to find out whether it sufficiently meets a set of vague criteria.

Listen Notes 

My thanks to Listen Notes for once again sponsoring Daring Fireball. As of January 2022, there are over 2,750,000 RSS-based podcasts and 123,000,000 episodes on the internet — way more podcasts than the ones you already know.

Basically, there’s a podcast for that. You can learn any topic by listening to podcasts. And it seems like every domain expert has already done some podcast interviews. Listen Notes is a search engine dedicated to podcasts. Search any topic or person at ListenNotes.com.

‘Seriously, I Could Have Done Lasso’ 

Very funny new commercial for Apple TV+: “Everyone but Jon Hamm”. But it’s funny because it’s true: there’s now quite a bit of original content on TV+, and Apple’s library continues to grow.

The knock against TV+ from the get-go is that its library was so small compared to rival services like Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, etc. “Who’s going to pay $5 a month for just a handful of shows and movies?” But Apple’s TV+ strategy is following the company’s traditional pattern of steady incremental improvement.

The Swiss site MacPrime has been counting TV+’s original content, and with the release of Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth last week, TV+ is up to 100 original movies and series, totaling over 500 hours. And they’re tracking at least 65 upcoming projects. (Safari does a remarkable job translating MacPrime’s site to English.)

Apple excels at these long run games. (See: Apple Pay.) The news media, as a general rule, has no attention span whatsoever.

‘The Sound of 007’ 

Justin Kroll, reporting last month for Deadline:

Following the success of a number of documentaries set in the music industry, Apple is now planning a doc that takes a deep dive into the music of one of the great movie franchises. Apple has announced The Sound of 007, a feature documentary about the remarkable history of six decades of James Bond music.

Brought to audiences by MGM, Eon Productions and Ventureland, the documentary will make its global debut on Apple TV+ in October to mark the 60th anniversary of the James Bond film series.

In case you missed it, back in November I linked to a delightful episode of the podcast Switched on Pop: “James Bond’s Spycraft Sound”. A documentary about the Bond franchise’s music is just what Dr. No ordered.

Twitter Announces NFT Profile Pictures 

Twitter Blue:

You asked (a lot), so we made it. Now rolling out in Labs: NFT Profile Pictures on iOS.

Such profile pictures will be identifiable by being hexagonal. (Android and web users are still locked out of Twitter Blue.)

Sam Biddle:

I predict a browser extension that auto-blocks people with hexagonal avatars would become very popular very fast.

NFTBlocker:

This is a browser plugin that blocks people who use Twitter’s NFT integration.

See also: This.

Speculating on the Prospects of the ‘Open App Markets Act’ Becoming Law 

Philip Elmer-DeWitt, quoting from a note from analyst Amit Daryanani:

Relay from Tobin Marcus, EVRISI Senior US Policy and Politics Strategist, on the bill: “I think this’ll be a big topic of discussion through Q1 and has a chance of getting done, but it still looks fairly unlikely. The 16-6 committee vote overstates the level of support for the bill. Some Democrats, including the 2 Senators from California, voted the bill out of committee in part as a courtesy to Klobuchar despite expressing significant reservations, and several other Democrats have concerns and changes they want to make. Some of the Republican support looks soft as well, and getting Senate floor time for this bill before Congress largely shuts down for the midterms will be harder than some commentators appreciate.”

In the “all politics is local” front, it strikes me as highly unlikely that either senator from California (Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla) are going to vote for a bill that specifically targets Apple and Google. But in a larger sense, the United States Senate has more important matters to address than trying to force Apple to allow sideloading on iPhones.


Leaker Sinks Peloton Stock With Confidential Information

Here’s another one for the “I’d rather be captaining The Titanic than running a publicly-held company” file. Yesterday reporter Lauren Thomas at CNBC published a rather blockbuster report under the headline “Peloton to Halt Production of Its Bikes, Treadmills as Demand Wanes”, which began:

Peloton is temporarily halting production of its connected fitness products as consumer demand wanes and the company looks to control costs, according to internal documents obtained by CNBC.

Peloton plans to pause Bike production for two months, from February to March, the documents show. It already halted production of its more expensive Bike+ in December and will do so until June. It won’t manufacture its Tread treadmill machine for six weeks, beginning next month. And it doesn’t anticipate producing any Tread+ machines in fiscal 2022, according to the documents. Peloton had previously halted Tread+ production after a safety recall last year.

The company said in a confidential presentation dated Jan. 10 that demand for its connected fitness equipment has faced a “significant reduction” around the world due to shoppers’ price sensitivity and amplified competitor activity.

Not good, to be sure. But when I saw this story drop, my first question wasn’t about demand for Peloton’s bikes and treadmills, but simply “Who leaked these documents to CNBC and why?” The obvious answer for why is that they shorted the stock before leaking the documents. That Peloton’s share price would take a dive the moment this report hit was as close to a sure thing as you can get on the stock market.

Late yesterday, Peloton co-founder and CEO John Foley released a company-wide memo:

We have always done our best to share news with you all first, before sharing with the public. This week, we’ve experienced leaks containing confidential information that have led to a flurry of speculative articles in the press. The information the media has obtained is incomplete, out of context, and not reflective of Peloton’s strategy. It has saddened me to know you read these things without the clarity and context that you deserve. Before I go on, I want all of you to know that we have identified a leaker, and we are moving forward with the appropriate legal action.

If he’s right, I think Mr. or Ms. Leaker better have a good lawyer.

Foley continues (boldface in original):

As a public company that is in a pre-earnings “Quiet Period”, we are limited in what information we can share. However, we issued a pre-earnings press release earlier this evening about our preliminary Q2 results, in order to offer an initial and more accurate picture of our business performance. [...]

Rumors that we are halting all production of bikes and Treads are false

If you think it’s a coincidence that these documents leaked during the company’s quiet period, I have an NFT for a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

Is Peloton in trouble? I don’t know. Everyone I know who has one of their bikes — including my wife, and my podcast co-host — absolutely loves the damn things. They’re good, well-made bikes, on par with gym-quality bikes, not typical (and significantly lower-priced) home equipment. Like Apple’s hardware products, Peloton’s equipment is expensive but generally not overpriced. But a subscription-based business model might not have a future in the face of competition from companies like, well, Apple — the company that makes what’s almost certainly the most popular fitness-tracking watch worn by Peloton’s existing customers (and potential future customers).

But I wouldn’t count them out yet. I like any company that’s focused on making the best, not the most. 


Netflix Is Why I’d Never Want to Run a Publicly Held Company 

Frank Pallotta, in a piece for CNN Business headlines “The Sky Is Falling for Netflix”:

It wasn’t that long ago that Netflix was a stock darling, but those days now feel like eons ago. The company’s stock peaked just south of $700 in November, but has since dropped to around $400 on Friday.

Netflix ended 2021 with 221.8 million subscribers. That’s significantly more than others in the streaming marketplace, including Disney, one of its closest competitors. Disney had 118.1 million subscribers as of October, and it grew subscriptions 60% between October 2020 and October 2021. During that same period, Netflix grew just 9%. [...]

Netflix is struggling to find more people to sign up in the markets it has been playing in the longest — particularly the United States — noted Nathanson. The company is going to have to “start aggressively going after growth in developing markets,” such as India and other Asian Pacific countries, to keep moving forward, he added.

220 million subscribers and growing (even if slowly) at $10–20 per subscriber per month is a nice business! That’s about $30 billion in revenue per year. It’s a good company with good content, good software, an iconic brand, and a loyal base of now several hundred million users (way more people use Netflix than there are paid subscribers, with shared account credentials).

I know, I know, investors don’t trade stocks based on what a company is today, they trade on what they expect it to do in the future. Was Netflix overpriced back in November? I don’t know. But is the sky fucking falling? No.

The Case for ‘Mark as Unread’ in Messages 

Matthew Bischoff:

“Mark as Unread” has been so successful and well-loved in email that it’s been copied by many messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram. And its utility in a casual messaging context is much the same in the slightly more formal email context.

As Tine Welanly put it on Quora:

Let’s say you’re riding the bus and you open a message from a friend, maybe asking you about your plans for the weekend. You have to respond to that but maybe it’s your stop already or you don’t know yet. But if you don’t say anything now, you might forget to respond and then you’ll look like a bad friend. Not to mention you might miss out on some weekend fun.

But the most popular messaging app on iOS, Messages, has never implemented “Mark as Unread” even though users have been clamoring for it for years and it’s been rumored that they tested it. What’s even wilder is that iMessage doesn’t have any other in-app way for the user to signal that they need to return to a message in order to respond to it.

A big +1 from me for this request. I love Messages. I know there are a bunch of ways Apple could and should improve it, but I can’t think any single feature that I want more than “Mark as Unread”.

A situation I run into, somewhat frequently: I get a notification from Messages and tap it. Turns out it’s a message that will require a longer reply, or some sort of action on my part that I can’t or don’t want to do right now — like something I need to do on a Mac, but I’m using my iPhone. But the message has already been marked as read.

The Verge: Google Is Building an AR Headset, Codenamed ‘Iris’ 

Alex Heath, with a scoop for The Verge:

The search giant has recently begun ramping up work on an AR headset, internally codenamed Project Iris, that it hopes to ship in 2024, according to two people familiar with the project who requested anonymity to speak without the company’s permission. Like forthcoming headsets from Meta and Apple, Google’s device uses outward-facing cameras to blend computer graphics with a video feed of the real world, creating a more immersive, mixed reality experience than existing AR glasses from the likes of Snap and Magic Leap. Early prototypes being developed at a facility in the San Francisco Bay Area resemble a pair of ski goggles and don’t require a tethered connection to an external power source.

I enjoy how the way Apple’s AR headset works is just stated as fact.


Follow-Up on Yesterday’s 1Password Item

A few quick follow-up thoughts and tweets following yesterday’s item on 1Password raising an additional $620 million in funding, as they move to the enterprise market.

First, a few readers (and Dithering co-hosts) made the argument to me that the fact that good password management is getting built into OSes and web browsers is exactly why 1Password needs to move to the enterprise. That their traditional personal/family use market is disappearing, and enterprises have needs that consumer OS and web browser feature can’t address. How, for example, does a business share passwords (and similar secrets/tokens) with dozens of employees and contractors who need access to them? Maybe that is a multi-billion dollar opportunity. Honestly, what the hell do I know about the enterprise market? (Seriously.)

But, still, whether what 1Password is doing is smart business or not, there’s no question that the longtime 1Password users I know personally are unhappy. They’re not happy that the new 1Password 8 for Mac is built on Electron. They’re not happy that 1Password is going subscription-only. They’re not happy that 1Password vaults are now only hosted by 1Password. But these are all decisions that make perfect sense for the enterprise SaaS world. It might not be feasible to move to the new model without spoiling what many 1Password users liked best about their old one.

Dieter Bohn:

I’m with @gruber here. This much investment and valuation is going to AWAKEN THE EVIL GOD OF ARPU and I fear 1Password will succumb to his demands.

(“ARPU” = Average Revenue Per User.)

1Password co-founder Roustem Karimov:

@backlon @gruber Not sure what to say… I am sorry that our team worked so hard and made 1Password too valuable?

On a plus side, the product has never been better and the new features added last year and coming later this year are great. Also, the founders are still majority owners of 1Password and we all are huge @backlon fans — there is no chance for the EVIL GOD of ARPU.

Bohn:

@roustem @gruber I will say I’ve definitely noticed in the last few months how 1PW makes the best use of what I assume are probably jank APIs in iOS and Android for autofill.

Karimov:

@backlon @gruber The new iOS Safari extension was definitely a game changer. Hope to see the brand new iOS and Android apps this year after the Mac app is updated.

We might even get @gruber to start using 1Password one day — we weren’t successful so far, no matter how much AppKit we used.

True! I never did use 1Password, personally. I’ve always thought it to be a great product from a great company, but, well, I had my own system for managing passwords from before 1Password existed (which admittedly is a long time ago: they started in 2005) and as the years have gone on, I’ve slowly moved from merely using Apple’s iCloud Keychain to depending upon it.

1Password’s transition reminds me, though, of an app I do use, previously loved, and now can’t wait to eliminate: Dropbox. Used to be just a folder that syncs, with lightweight Mac software that stayed out of the way and just did its job — keeping that one magic folder in sync. Now, well, it’s neither lightweight nor stays out of the way.

I’m rooting for the 1Password team though. If anyone can transition to a VC-backed enterprise model yet remain true to their Mac and iOS roots, maybe it’s them. Solid Safari extension support is a good sign. 


Stephen Hackett: ‘Apple Should Bring Back Dashboard’ 

Stephen Hackett, writing at 512 Pixels:

Apple killed off Dashboard at exactly the wrong time. Just one year after Catalina killed Dashboard, Apple started allowing developers to bring their iOS widgets over to the Mac in macOS Big Sur. Sadly, they all got stuffed into the slide-out Notification Center user interface.

Notification Center is a real mess. Even on a Pro Display XDR, you get three visible notifications. That’s it. Anything older is hidden behind a button, regardless of how many widgets you may have in the lower section of the Notification Center column.

Apple needs to rethink this and let this new class of widgets breathe, being able to use the entire screen like the widgets of yore could. Bringing back Dashboard is an obvious solution here, and I’d love to see it make a return.

It’s really interesting that the modern SwiftUI widgets are compatible across MacOS and both flavors of iOS (iPhone and iPad). But forcing them into Notification Center on MacOS is poorly considered. The Mac has bigger displays than any iPad, yet has less screen real estate for visible widgets than an iPhone. I also think today’s widgets are going to get more useful with each successive year (interactive elements, etc.).

Bringing back Dashboard would be one solution. Hackett links to an interesting thread on Twitter where other ideas are being tossed out, like putting them on the desktop or inside Launchpad. Apple really needs to do something on this front. Widgets are good and useful.

Apple Names Kristin Huguet Head of PR 

John Paczkowski, reporting for BuzzFeed News:

Apple has tapped a new head of PR: longtime company spokesperson Kristin Huguet. She’ll replace Stella Low, former communications chief at networking giant Cisco, who joined Apple in May 2021.

An Apple veteran, Huguet has been with the company since 2005, working under former SVPs Katie Cotton and Steve Dowling. She’s worked under CEOs Steve Jobs and Tim Cook, and her tenure has included some of the company’s most high-profile public relations challenges — a pitched battle with the FBI over iPhone encryption and, more recently, a widely publicized spat with Fortnite maker Epic Games over its App Store practices.

Huguet will report directly to Cook. Her new gig starts immediately.

I was slightly surprised they named an outsider last year. And I’m not surprised now that Low didn’t last. May to January is just 1⅓ Browetts.

‘Heat 2’ — Upcoming Novel by Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner 

I nearly plotzed yesterday when I saw Michael Mann tweet a trailer for Heat 2, but it’s a novel, not a movie. Still, an insta-buy for me.

Mike Fleming Jr., writing for Deadline:

Michael Mann is ready to rip on Heat 2, a novel he has written with Edgar-winner Meg Gardiner that expands the tapestry of his 1995 crime classic film. The surprise here: the novel coming August 9 from William Morrow through the HarperCollins-based Michael Mann Books imprint will tell an original story about the lives of the characters in that movie both before and after the events depicted in the movie.

Modular AI — New Startup Co-Founded by Chris Lattner 

I saw that Lattner left SiFive this month — was wondering what was next. (Lattner created the LLVM compiler project before joining Apple and the Swift programming language while at Apple.) From Modular AI’s home page:

The next generation of product breakthroughs will be powered by production quality infrastructure that brings together the best of compilers and runtimes, is designed for heterogeneous compute, edge to datacenter distribution, and is focused on usability. Unifying software and hardware with a “just works” approach that will save developers enormous time and increase their velocity.

We believe the fundamental research is done — but we just need a first-principles re-architecture of our systems. We need a team that is motivated to solve the “big problem” in a disciplined way and an architecture that deploys to both large and small systems alike.

Modular AI is that team - solving that problem.

Lattner, on Twitter:

After spending years working on AI/ML infrastructure, Modular AI is finally going to build it right. It is time for the best SW architects, engineers and product leaders to come together to lift the world’s ML compute.

1Password Raises $620 Million in Another Funding Round, Valuing Company at Over $6 Billion 

I know many people who are longtime 1Password users, if not evangelists. I don’t know any of them who are happy about the direction in which 1Password has gone. Going big for the enterprise might be good for the company but it sure doesn’t seem good for the consumer market that formed 1Password’s original base.

(Doesn’t seem like a good investment to me, either. Better password management is getting built into operating systems and web browsers. They’re trying to go enterprise mass market with a niche product that was beloved by nerds who really care about their passwords. As a friend just quipped to me, “Unless they’re factoring in the value of the individual passwords, $6B makes no fucking sense.”)

Eddy Cue Wanted to Bring iMessage to Android in 2013 

With all the recent hubbub about iMessage’s exclusivity, it’s worth revisiting what we know about Apple’s internal debate over whether to make iMessage cross-platform back when they might have had a chance to make it relevant on Android. Emails from April 2013, when rumors were circulating that Google might buy WhatsApp (they probably should have) came out during discovery last year in the Epic v. Apple lawsuit:

Eddy Cue:

We really need to bring iMessage to Android. I have had a couple of people investigating this but we should go full speed and make this an official project.... Do we want to lose one of the most important apps in a mobile environment to Google? They have search, mail, free video, and growing quickly in browsers. We have the best messaging app and we should make it the industry standard. I don’t know what ways we can monetize it but it doesn’t cost us a lot to run.

Craig Federighi:

Do you have any thoughts on how we would make switching to iMessage (from WhatsApp) compelling to masses of Android users who don’t have a bunch of iOS friends? iMessage is a nice app/service, but to get users to switch social networks we’d need more than a marginally better app. (This is why Google is willing to pay $1 billion — for the network, not for the app.)... In the absence of a strategy to become the primary messaging service for [the] bulk of cell phone users, I am concerned [that] iMessage on Android would simply serve to remove an obstacle to iPhone families giving their kids Android phones.

I think Federighi is right that it might have been a hard sell to Android users in 2013, but I wish Cue had gotten his way and Apple had at least tried.

Jason Snell: ‘Google Has It All Wrong. Apple’s iMessage Is Actually a Failure.’ 

Jason Snell, guns-a-blazing at Macworld:

The reason that I consider iMessage more of a failure than success is all about its slow pace of development and poor choices, especially compared with the WhatsApps and WeChats of the world.

The truth is, at some point Apple realized it was competing with those apps. The result was its introduction of the iMessage App Store, which it clearly thought would take the world by storm. It was a flop. Which, fair enough–Apple took its shot and it missed.

The old adage about Microsoft, which has a lot of truth to it, is that they’d come out with a rushed stinker of a 1.0, but doggedly stick with it and by 3.0 have something successful. (That’s 100 percent what happened with Windows, a product that has been somewhat successful for them.) Apple has a tendency to either hit home runs out of the box (iPod, iPhone, AirPods) or come out with a dud and just sweep it under the rug, like iMessage apps and stickers. They even unified Messages on a single code base last year (bringing the iOS app to MacOS 11 via Catalyst — quite successfully) but somehow still haven’t bothered to add iMessage stickers on Mac?

Snell:

But even when Apple gets a clear iMessage win, it ends up muddy. Tapbacks are a user-experience problem for people who aren’t on iMessage, one so bad that Google added Tapback translation to Android. And after introducing the feature with six possible emoji-style reactions, Apple has… never touched that feature again. Why not add more reactions? Why not let users tap back with any emoji? Or pick favorites? There’s no answer. Nobody’s home.

I’d pay an extra $5/month to Apple for iCloud if it included a middle-finger Tapback. Just that one.

WSJ Reports Activision Considered Buying Video Game News Sites 

Kirsten Grind, Cara Lombardo, and Ben Fritz, reporting for The Wall Street Journal (News+):

Mr. Kotick has been eager to change the public narrative about the company, and in recent weeks has suggested Activision Blizzard make some kind of acquisition, including of gaming-trade publications like Kotaku and PC Gamer, according to people familiar with him. The Activision spokeswoman, Ms. Klasky, disputed that Mr. Kotick wanted to make the acquisitions. A spokesman for G/O Media, the parent company of Kotaku, declined to comment. PC Gamer didn’t respond to a request for comment.

How desperate was Bobby Kotick? If there’s any truth to this, comically desperate.

Bobby Kotick Interview With VentureBeat 

Activision Blizzard CEO (until the door hits his ass on the way out) Bobby Kotick, in an interview with Dean Takahashi at VentureBeat, on why they sold to Microsoft:

And so when Phil called, it happened to be at a time where we were getting ready to start our long range planning process, and realizing that these were going to be issues and challenges. We had the discussion. Phil and I know each other well, and we have a great relationship, and the company has a great relationship. And when you start to think about all the skills we need, all the resources we need, and what they have, it made a lot of sense.

When they originally called, we said we would we think about it, and then they made this offer that was incredibly attractive at 45% premium over the stock price. And I think it just made a lot of sense. And so, the more we spent the time talking about how it would work, and what would happen, what resources were available, they clearly were the best partner.

Translation: Microsoft really had us by the balls.

Who Else Was in the Running to Buy Activision Blizzard? 

Dina Bass and Liana Baker, reporting for Bloomberg:*

Yet even as Activision fought to salvage its reputation with players and investors — the stock dropped about 15% in the month after the Wall Street Journal article — and weighed the potential takeover, Kotick and the board weren’t sold on Microsoft as the acquirer, two people familiar with the matter said. Activision made calls to try to find other interested parties, said the people, who asked not to be identified talking about private conversations. Those included Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc. and at least one other big company. But no other serious interest materialized. In an interview, Spencer declined to discuss how the deal went down. A Meta spokesperson declined to comment, and a representative for Activision didn’t return requests for comment.

I’ve been pondering this since yesterday. Who else even could have been in the running to buy Activision Blizzard? Microsoft is paying just under $69 billion in cash. What other companies have $70 billion in cash and even a vague interest in owning Activision? Apple and Google have the cash, but I can’t see how either of them would have any interest in Activision. Sony? A cursory check suggests they don’t have that much cash, and even if they could swing a $70B deal I don’t think they’d be interested in owning Activision Blizzard anyway.

That leaves Facebook as a company they could plausibly suggest having shopped themselves to. But I just don’t see Facebook having an interest either. Activision Blizzard makes games for PCs, game consoles, and mobile phones. Facebook doesn’t own any of those platforms. Facebook is, obviously, pushing to build a “metaverse” platform and has a VR platform that’s a big part of that, but Activision Blizzard doesn’t really have any major VR games. There’s talk of Microsoft’s acquisition being “metaverse” related but in this context metaverse is just a word investors think they want to hear. Neither Call of Duty nor Candy Crush seems much aligned with Facebook’s “metaverse” vision.

I really think it was Microsoft or bust. Activision knew that but doesn’t want to admit it, and Microsoft knew it and put the screws to Activision to make it happen on their terms. This deal was some Old Testament ass-kicking Microsoft. No wonder Phil Spencer got his title bumped to “Xbox CEO”.

* Given the source, take it with a “Big Hack” sized grain of salt, of course.

Opera Launches a Dedicated Crypto Browser 

S. Dent, reporting for Engadget:

Opera has launched its Web3 “Crypto Browser” into beta with features like a built-in crypto wallet, easy access to cryptocurrency/NFT exchanges, support for decentralized apps (dApps) and more. The aim is to “simplify the Web3 user experience that is often bewildering for mainstream users,” Opera EVP Jorgen Arnensen said in statement.

If it’s ever crossed your mind in recent years, *Hey, whatever happened to Opera?”, you now have your answer: cryptocurrency grift.

Supreme Court Justices Deny Spat on Gorsuch Wearing a Face Mask 

Robert Barnes, reporting for The Washington Post:

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in a statement Wednesday that she did not ask Justice Neil M. Gorsuch to wear a mask on Supreme Court bench, and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. followed up by saying he did not make such a request of their other colleagues either.

The rare statements from the justices seemed aimed at knocking down reporting that Sotomayor, who has health reasons to be especially worried about contracting Covid-19, was participating remotely in oral arguments because Gorsuch was not wearing a mask.

The statements did not directly address that, but did refute some elements of an NPR report that raised the issue.

“Reporting that Justice Sotomayor asked Justice Gorsuch to wear a mask surprised us. It is false. While we may sometimes disagree about the law, we are warm colleagues and friends,” said a joint statement from Sotomayor, one of the court’s most liberal members, and Gorsuch, one of its most conservative.

Unusual, to say the least, to directly contradict the reporting of a writer as established as Nina Totenberg at NPR.


A Five-Letter Word for ‘Rip-Off’

Whenever I write about rip-offs, there’s inevitably some amount of whataboutism in the arguments from the ripper-offer or their defenders. So it was with last week’s brouhaha over blatant Wordle rip-offs appearing in the App Store, and Zach Shakked’s shameless “Wordle - The App” in particular.

Count me firmly in the “Everything Is a Remix” camp.1 George Lucas mashed up Flash Gordon with Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, built upon VFX innovations from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and created something utterly original in Star Wars. Quentin Tarantino obviously loved and drew inspiration from Ringo Lam’s City on Fire,2 but Reservoir Dogs was anything but a rip-off. “Good artists borrow, great artists steal” — or something like that.

Some good rules of thumb, if you’re weighing whether a derivative new work crosses the threshold into ripping off the original: If the derivative steals the original’s title or name, that’s a rip-off. If the derivative is designed to confuse people into thinking it is the original — as Shakked’s Wordle clone clearly was — that’s a rip-off. If the derivative is indistinguishable from the original or brings nothing new to the table, it’s probably a rip-off.

One game that’s come up repeatedly in discussions about Wordle’s originality is Lingo, a TV game show that first ran in the U.S. in 1987,3 and versions of which remain on the air in a few countries, including the U.K. Current U.K. Lingo host Adil Ray posted this snippy tweet on January 5 — before the Wordle App Store kerfuffle:

Hey peeps, if you’re going to play a game that looks like ours, works like ours, smells like ours and basically is OURS it’s only right you give us a plug. Lingo back today @3pm @itv #lingo #Wordle 😍🤪

When last week’s controversy erupted, I watched some footage of Lingo, and rolled my eyes at the “Wordle is just a rip-off of Lingo” allegations. Yes, both games are about guessing five-letter words. But a game show where you compete against other contestants and against a clock “smells” quite different from Wordle’s solo gameplay and leisurely “take as much time as you want” pace.

Turns out Lingo isn’t just a TV game show, though. It’s an officially-licensed video game — in both the App Store and Play Store. David Barnard was the first person I saw who pointed to the official Lingo game, tweeting thus:

The OG Wordle (ahem, Lingo) app is absolutely abysmal. Same game mechanics, but with punitive free-to-play BS.

That description is generous. Lingo might not be the worst game on the App Store, but it’s the worst and most oppressively dystopic game I’ve ever played. The mechanics aren’t quite the same as Wordle either: the Lingo game is timed, like the TV show, and the keyboard, bizarrely, doesn’t tell you which letters you’ve already tried. But the official Lingo game is so much worse than that. There are 30-second unskippable video ads between levels, coins and gems to collect and of course purchase with real money,4 and, inexplicably, a mandatory bingo game between each level of the word game. Corny graphics, terrible music, and even the “how to play” onboarding is frustrating. And of course they admit to a whole slew of data tracking in their App Store metadata and ask to be permitted to track you, and if you grant Lingo permission to send you notifications they send a few per day every day reminding you to play more Lingo.

Yes, both games involve guessing five-letter words, but Josh Wardle’s Wordle is a wonderfully simple, totally free game designed only to bring people a bit of serene enjoyment for a few minutes per day. The official Lingo app is an ugly cacophonous confusing jumble of concepts intended to hook players on in-app purchases, and whose only saving grace is that it’s no fun at all to actually play and thus, although not for lack of trying, not the least bit addictive in practice.

There’s a reason you probably never heard of the official Lingo app.


A few other related games:

  • Words With Friends is a very popular Scrabble-like game, but it is not a Scrabble rip-off. There’s only one “Scrabble” in the App Store and it’s licensed from Hasbro. (“Scrubble” might be crossing the rip-off line, though.)

  • Andy Baio mentioned Jotto, a two-player paper-and-pencil secret word game from the 1950s.

  • Word Game Hero is an iOS game for iPhone and iPad by Jake Nelson. It’s a 4-to-7-letter-word guessing game, free to play with ads after a five-day trial period, and $3 for a one-time unlock for ad-free unlimited play. It’s well-made, and very iOS-y, including support for SharePlay to play with friends over FaceTime. It’s also clearly inspired by Wordle, as Nelson graciously acknowledges in the Settings screen, with links to both Wordle and Lingo. I’d say the gameplay is within shouting distance of a Wordle rip-off — the color choices and plain flat graphics are straight from Wordle, and the share-your-results text (example) is just like Wordle’s but with differently shaped emoji (which different shapes, admittedly, are more accessible) — but to my eyes it doesn’t cross the rip-off line, and more importantly, doesn’t even vaguely attempt to pass itself off as “Wordle”. It’s also doing something Wordle doesn’t want to do: let you play as many levels as you’d like. I’d say it is to Wordle as Words With Friends is to Scrabble.

  • Lastly, Saltong, a web-based game by Carl de Guia that bills itself right at the top as “A Filipino Clone of Wordle”, with 4- and 7-letter-word variants. Doesn’t pass itself off as Wordle, gives prominent and full credit to the original Wordle, and uses words from an entirely different language. Not a rip-off. 


  1. Speaking of which, you do know that Kirby Ferguson has relaunched “Everything Is a Remix” and the first two parts are already up on YouTube, right? So great. ↩︎

  2. I watched City on Fire decades ago on VHS (or maybe DVD?), and thinking about it now made me consider a re-watch. Alas, it seems unavailable to buy or stream online in the U.S. It’s bananas that it was easier to find “old” movies on physical media at my beloved local video store 20 years ago than it is today on streaming platforms and online stores. Netflix’s old model of renting discs sent through the mail offered way more movies than all streaming services combined do today. Don’t get me started on the general unavailability of James Cameron’s True Lies or The Abyss↩︎︎

  3. Fun fact: the original Lingo was hosted by Michael Reagan, whose father was at the time president of the United States. ↩︎︎

  4. Lingo’s age rating is “4+”. It strikes me as wrong that any game with in-app purchases should be rated for young children. Real-world casinos don’t have slot machines for children; the App Store shouldn’t either. ↩︎︎


Army Spouse Uses AirTag to Track Down Shady Moving Truck Driver 

David Roza, reporting for Task & Purpose:

McNulty attached the tag to a box of her son’s toys, then her family of four headed out to the east coast. She told Task & Purpose that her family had been waiting about a month for their things to arrive, which surprisingly isn’t that bad compared to what some families go through. “Some families end up waiting months upon months to receive their household goods,” she said. [...]

The mover was supposed to drop off the goods on Friday, January 7, but when that didn’t happen, the moving company told McNulty to expect the delivery on Sunday. A few hours after that call, however, the truck driver transporting their belongings called to say that he just picked up their shipment in Colorado and the earliest he could get it to them would be Monday.

McNulty knew better. Using her AirTag, she found out that the driver was not in Colorado, but only a half day’s drive south in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

“When we brought up the fact that we knew his exact location he hung up on us,” McNulty later recalled. “He then called back several minutes later and said ‘Well the earliest I can get it to you is Sunday.’”

Lost amidst the worrisome stories about AirTags being used by creeps and stalkers are tales like this one, where they’re being put to good use.

Mozilla Stops Accepting Cryptocurrency, Wikipedia May Be Next 

Brandon Vigliarolo, writing for TechRepublic:

The original tweet from Mozilla mentioned three forms of cryptocurrency: the two main players, Bitcoin and Ethereum, and Dogecoin , all three of which use a system called proof of work (PoW) in order to add an entry to their respective blockchains. It’s here we find the first big sticking point: what Zawinski describes as “planet-incinerating” levels of energy use.

The proof of work problem has been known for a while, as has the ever-increasing carbon footprint of the Bitcoin and Ethereum blockchain, the cause of which is the growing energy needs of their PoW networks.

As of this writing, a single transaction on the Bitcoin blockchain eats up the same amount of energy as the average US household in a 77.8-day, or roughly two and a half month, period. Ethereum, though nowhere near as large, still eats up the same amount of energy that a US household does in 8 days.

Such numbers seem too bad to be true, but take a look.

Do your research.”

NPR: ‘Fissures at the Supreme Court Suggest Justices Are Like a Dysfunctional Family’ 

Nina Totenberg, reporting for NPR, on discord amongst the justices on the U.S. Supreme Court:

Sotomayor has diabetes, a condition that puts her at high risk for serious illness, or even death, from COVID-19. She has been the only justice to wear a mask on the bench since last fall when, amid a marked decline in COVID-19 cases, the justices resumed in-person arguments for the first time since the onset of the pandemic.

Now, though, the situation had changed with the omicron surge, and according to court sources, Sotomayor did not feel safe in close proximity to people who were unmasked. Chief Justice John Roberts, understanding that, in some form asked the other justices to mask up.

They all did. Except Gorsuch, who, as it happens, sits next to Sotomayor on the bench. His continued refusal since then has also meant that Sotomayor has not attended the justices’ weekly conference in person, joining instead by telephone.

Gorsuch, from the beginning of his tenure, has proved a prickly justice, not exactly beloved even by his conservative soulmates on the court.

More than just prickly, he appears to be a flat-out prick.

Update: Never mind?

COVIDtests.gov: Free At-Home COVID-19 Tests 

More good news: the Biden administration’s website to get free at-home COVID tests — four tests per household — has soft-launched a day ahead of schedule. Worked like a charm for me and my extended family.

Omicron: ‘A Flash Flood More Than a Wave’ 

Josh Marshall, with some good news on the Omicron front:

New York City was one of the first parts of the United States hit by the Omicron variant. The trajectory of the city’s surge now appears remarkably similar to the pattern we saw earlier in South Africa and other countries.

Data out of South Africa showed a roughly four week interval between the start of the Omicron surge and its peak. “Peak in four weeks and precipitous decline in another two,” said Fareed Abdullah of the South African Medical Research Council. “It was a flash flood more than a wave.”

New York City numbers appear to match this pattern almost exactly.

How Omicron Symptoms Differ From Delta, Past COVID-19 Variants 

Aria Bendix and Shayanne Gal, reporting for Insider:

Almost as soon as Omicron started spreading, doctors noticed slight differences in their patients’ symptoms relative to prior variants. Mild, coldlike symptoms — such as sore throats, sneezing, and runny noses — were increasingly common. But former hallmarks of COVID-19 — such as fevers, coughs, and loss of taste or smell — had dwindled.

“The most reported symptoms of Omicron are really very much like a cold, especially in people who’ve been vaccinated,” Dr. Claire Steves, a scientist involved with the Zoe COVID Symptom Study, said in a recent video.

Listeners of Dithering are aware that I had pretty strong cold symptoms — sneezing, headache, and a very runny nose — last Thursday. I tested negative for COVID at the time, and again over the weekend, and started feeling much better the very next day. But when we recorded on Thursday night, I was still under the wrong impression that a running nose and sneezing were not common COVID symptoms. That was true with COVID classic, but it’s no longer true with Omicron. This article from Insider has good charts showing the most common Omicron symptoms and the symptomatic differences between variants.

Will the U.S. Government Approve Microsoft’s Acquisition of Activision Blizzard? 

Peter Kafka, writing for Recode:

“When we think about our vision for what a metaverse can be, we believe there won’t be a single, centralized metaverse,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said after announcing the deal on Tuesday.

You can also read that statement as a message to Lina Khan, the head of the Federal Trade Commission, along with the rest of the Biden administration’s antitrust enforcers: I know it seems like we are swallowing up a lot of the games business, but don’t think of this as consolidation in an important industry — think of it as competition against Facebook in a new industry. Competition is good, right?

This deal is certainly going to draw a lot of attention in Washington, which has been focusing on big and small deals made by most of the tech industry — but has largely left Microsoft alone until now. (The irony, of course, is that Microsoft spent a long time fighting federal antitrust charges over its web browser dominance two decades ago; the company averted a forced break-up but lost much of its mojo along the way).

Update: I don’t see why the government would block this acquisition. Some anti-capitalists will oppose it on the ideological grounds of being against big companies getting bigger, but that’s not the law, and that’s not how our system works. If Microsoft were trying to buy Nintendo or Sony, that, in my opinion, should be blocked on anti-competitive grounds, because Nintendo and Sony make platforms that very successfully compete against Xbox. But a game studio, even a big one like Activision Blizzard? No.

Back of the Envelope Math on Microsoft’s Activision Acquisition 

Phil Spencer, announcing Microsoft’s intention to buy Activision for $68.7 billion:

Until this transaction closes, Activision Blizzard and Microsoft Gaming will continue to operate independently. Once the deal is complete, the Activision Blizzard business will report to me as CEO, Microsoft Gaming.

Upon close, we will offer as many Activision Blizzard games as we can within Xbox Game Pass and PC Game Pass, both new titles and games from Activision Blizzard’s incredible catalog. We also announced today that Game Pass now has more than 25 million subscribers. As always, we look forward to continuing to add more value and more great games to Game Pass.

Game Pass subscriptions cost between $10–15 per month. Let’s just call that about $150/year per subscriber. That’s just under $4 billion per year. Assume that the Game Pass subscriber base will keep growing, and $69 billion for Activision doesn’t seem absurd as a long-term investment. And that’s just counting Game Pass subscription revenue, not traditional game sales.

Microsoft to Buy Activision Blizzard for Nearly $69 Billion 

Maddy Myers, reporting for Polygon:

Microsoft plans to acquire Activision Blizzard, publisher of some of the most popular games on the planet (from World of Warcraft to Call of Duty), as well as the studios currently embroiled in multiple lawsuits related to accusations of gender discrimination in its workplace, the company announced Tuesday. Xbox boss Phil Spencer will serve as the CEO of Microsoft Gaming and oversee Activision Blizzard once the transaction is finalized.

The deal is worth $68.7 billion, Microsoft said, the largest acquisition in the company’s history.

In a blog post about the acquisition, Spencer said that Microsoft “will offer as many Activision Blizzard games as we can within Xbox Game Pass and PC Game Pass, both new titles and games from Activision Blizzard’s incredible catalog.”

That’s a lot of money. Microsoft spent $26 billion on LinkedIn back in 2016. I’m not saying it’s too much — just that it’s indicative of how dominant video games are in today’s entertainment world. Context: Disney bought Lucasfilm — including the entire Star Wars franchise — for just $4 billion a decade ago.

From the perspective of Activision’s board, this seems like a good face-saving solution to the company’s leadership and culture problems. Let Microsoft clean house at the executive and management level. Even putting aside that Activision’s stock has dipped, I don’t think this acquisition happens if not for the recent controversies.

‘Bob Saget’s Sublime, Filthy Comedy’ 

Penn Jillette, remembering Bob Saget, in a piece for the NYT:

He had a big smile and joy for the world in “Full House” and on “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Everyone loved and trusted Bob in those roles. You wanted to hug him.

Some people are saying now that the real Bob was very different from that good-guy image, but I disagree. Offstage he was loving, kind, open, funny, a great friend and a great father. He also told filthy, disgusting, offensive jokes.

The Aristocrats — which Jillette produced — is not for everyone, that’s for sure, but I loved it.

U.K. Government Plans Publicity Campaign to Build Public Sentiment Against End-to-End Encryption 

James Ball, reporting for Rolling Stone:

The UK government is set to launch a multi-pronged publicity attack on end-to-end encryption, Rolling Stone has learned. One key objective: mobilizing public opinion against Facebook’s decision to encrypt its Messenger app.

The Home Office has hired the M&C Saatchi advertising agency — a spin-off of Saatchi and Saatchi, which made the “Labour Isn’t Working” election posters, among the most famous in UK political history — to plan the campaign, using public funds. [...]

In a lecture last November, former chief executive of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre Ciaran Martin criticized the Home Office’s rhetoric on encryption — and its broader approach. [...]

“In other words, the policy is technological ‘cakeism’ — the government is trying to eat its lawful access cake while having end-to-end encrypted protection for citizens more generally … Most experts are highly doubtful, and believe the government is searching for the digital equivalent of alchemy.”

“The digital equivalent of alchemy” — what a great turn of phrase to describe the persistent notion that it’s possible to create strong encryption with a backdoor that only “good guys” can use.

Hex 

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Seeing Green

The Wall Street Journal ran a doozy of a story by Tim Higgins last weekend: “Why Apple’s iMessage Is Winning: Teens Dread the Green Text Bubble” (News+ link). Few Americans don’t have U.S.-centric blind spots — I’m certainly guilty of that on numerous fronts — but this take is so U.S.-centric it beggars belief. The article’s subhead says it all:

The iPhone maker cultivated iMessage as a must-have texting tool for teens. Android users trigger a just-a-little-less-cool green bubble: “Ew, that’s gross.”

The article’s foundation is a handful of personal anecdotes, starting with the lede:

Soon after 19-year-old Adele Lowitz gave up her Apple iPhone 11 for an experimental go with an Android smartphone, a friend in her long-running texting group chimed in: “Who’s green?”

The reference to the color of group text messages — Android users turn Apple Inc.’s iMessage into green bubbles instead of blue — highlighted one of the challenges of her experiment. No longer did her group chats work seamlessly with other peers, almost all of whom used iPhones. FaceTime calls became more complicated and the University of Michigan sophomore’s phone didn’t show up in an app she used to find friends.

100 words in and already so much to correct. How this ran in the WSJ’s Technology section is beyond explanation. Messages is Apple’s messaging app for iOS and Mac; iMessage is Apple’s proprietary messaging platform. Messages doesn’t render texts from Android green, per se — it renders all SMS messages as green. Messages has no idea what type of device sent an SMS, it just knows it’s an SMS message. An SMS sent from an iPhone user will be green, too.

Until three months ago, FaceTime was exclusive to Apple devices. Starting in October (and announced last June at WWDC), FaceTime users can create web links that Android and Windows users can use to join calls. But yes, Apple’s proprietary voice and audio call platform works more seamlessly on their own devices. Shocker.

Find My for finding iPhone-using friends doesn’t work on Android either. Again, filed under “Duh”. The whole point of Apple — the entire company — is to offer superior products and services to customers willing to pay for them. Higgins quotes from internal emails from Craig Federighi and Phil Schiller — emails made public during discovery in last year’s Epic v. Apple lawsuit — arguing against releasing a version of iMessage for Android as though it’s scandalous, rather than obviously strategic. It’s not like iMessage was at any time cross-platform and Apple dropped Android support (which, even if it had been the case, wouldn’t necessarily be nefarious in the least) — it was conceived as a proprietary platform for iPhones, iPads, and Macs.

Back to the WSJ:

That pressure to be a part of the blue text group is the product of decisions by Apple executives starting years ago that have, with little fanfare, built iMessage into one of the world’s most widely used social networks and helped to cement the iPhone’s dominance among young smartphone users in the U.S.

As Harry McCracken quipped on Twitter, iMessage was not introduced with “little fanfare” — it was a tentpole announcement from Scott Forstall at WWDC 2011.

From the beginning, Apple got creative in its protection of iMessage’s exclusivity. It didn’t ban the exchange of traditional text messages with Android users but instead branded those messages with a different color; when an Android user is part of a group chat, the iPhone users see green bubbles rather than blue. It also withheld certain features. There is no dot-dot-dot icon to demonstrate that a non-iPhone user is typing, for example, and an iMessage heart or thumbs-up annotation has long conveyed to Android users as text instead of images.

The Messages app for iOS has always rendered SMS messages as green — going back to the first version, when the app was named “Text” and its icon had “SMS” in the bubble. The color of SMS messages on iOS was green before iMessage was introduced, and remained green after. And iMessage messages should be visually distinct from SMS — they’re different in important ways, not the least of which is that iMessage is and always has been end-to-end encrypted and SMS isn’t and never will be.

There’s no dot-dot-dot indicator for SMS because the primitive SMS protocol doesn’t support it. Android users sending SMS messages to other Android users don’t get a dot-dot-dot typing indicator either, because it’s not technically possible. Message reactions — hearts, thumbs, ha-has, !!’s, and ?’s — are sent as text via SMS because they have to be. Apple’s only other option would be not to send these reactions at all.

Apple later took other steps that enhanced the popularity of its messaging service with teens. It added popular features such as animated cartoon-like faces that create mirrors of a user’s face, to compete with messaging services from social media companies. Apple’s own survey of iPhone holders made public during the Epic Games litigation found that customers were particularly fond of replacing words with emojis and screen effects such as animated balloons and confetti. Avid teen users said in interviews with The Wall Street Journal that they also liked how they could create group chats with other Apple users that add and subtract participants without having to start a new chain.

Higgins paints these features as though they’re the digital equivalent of advertising cigarettes to children with a cartoon mascot. They’re just fun features, and there’s nothing teen-specific about them. I get confetti and balloon iMessage effects from both my mother and mother-in-law, neither of whom have been — or even lived with — teenagers for a while.

There’s nothing teen-specific about iPhone users being annoyed at Android users in group chats. In fact, such complaints might be far more common among adults, because so many teenagers have iPhones they don’t encounter it as often. Last year I linked to a story from Mirin Fader’s Giannis: The Improbable Rise of an NBA MVP that claims former Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd made the entire team run because one player had an Android phone and messed up the team’s group chat. (For what it’s worth, the player in question claims the story isn’t true. It’s the fact that the story resonated that matters.) Here’s a story from October about pro golfer (and well-known oddball) Bryson DeChambeau messing up the U.S. team’s Ryder Cup group chat because he was the lone Android user.

The cultivation of iMessage is consistent with Apple’s broader strategy to tie its hardware, software and services together in a self-reinforcing world — dubbed the walled garden — that encourages people to pay the premium for its relatively expensive gadgets and remain loyal to its brand. That strategy has drawn scrutiny from critics and lawmakers as part of a larger examination of how all tech giants operate. Their core question: Do Apple and other tech companies create products that consumers simply find indispensable, or are they building near-monopolies that unfairly stifle competition?

Putting aside broader antitrust arguments and focusing solely on messaging — the point of the WSJ’s story — it’s ridiculous to argue that Apple is in any way “stifling competition”. The complete opposite is the case: via the App Store and APIs in iOS, there is a rich and vibrant global market for messaging apps on iOS. WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook Messenger, Line, Signal, and others are all thriving and popular. For teenagers and college students, Discord is huge, and far more of a hangout than iMessage. Also, a little app called WeChat is somewhat popular in China. And they’re all cross-platform.

In fact, these third-party messaging platforms exemplify the gaping hole in the center of the WSJ’s premise: iMessage’s extraordinary popularity in the U.S. is a global outlier. This story created a stir on Twitter over the weekend, and a very common refrain from observers who live outside the U.S. was utter bafflement that iMessage was popular anywhere, because other messaging services are so dominant elsewhere — including with iPhone users. iMessage is obviously only popular where iPhones are popular, but iPhones are popular in countries around the world where iMessage (and SMS) are seldom used.

The U.S. is just different on this front. I like Ben Thompson’s simple theory why, which I’ll steal paraphrase here. Pre-iMessage, the U.S. was an outlier for SMS, because U.S. carriers made SMS text messages free, or included so many SMS monthly text messages in their plans that they were effectively free. Whereas elsewhere around the world, SMS text messages always cost at least 10 cents a pop — often more — to send, which was a big motivation to find alternative messaging services. The original point of iMessage was to make a better messaging service to replace SMS for messages between iPhone users. Apple asked, “What sucks about SMS/MMS?” and made iMessage to address those shortcomings. So it makes sense that iMessage is most popular here in the U.S., where SMS was (and remains!) widely-used, and is less popular in countries where people started moving to alternative messaging platforms before iMessage even existed.

iMessage is just one proprietary Apple nicety among hundreds for iPhone users. Is it a reason to buy and stick with an iPhone? Of course. Is it the reason, or even near the top of the list, for anyone? No.

Higgins continues:

Apple and other tech giants have long worked hard to get traction with young users, hoping to build brand habits that will extend into adulthood as they battle each other for control of everything from videogames to extended reality glasses to the metaverse.

Apple has never, and I hope will never, use the word “metaverse” in an ostensibly straight-faced manner.

Globally, Alphabet Inc.’s Android operating system is the dominant player among smartphone users, with a loyal following of people who are vocal about their support. Among U.S. consumers, 40% use iPhones, but among those aged 18 to 24, more than 70% are iPhone users, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners’s most recent survey of consumers.

That there’s a significant difference in iPhone market share between younger and older people has been widely known ever since the iPhone hit the market. Teenagers wanted (and got) iPhones then, and they want (and get) iPhones today.

The crux of Higgins’s report for the WSJ seems to be that this age discrepancy in iPhone market is largely about the color of text messages in the Messages app, and that Apple has created this culture deliberately. What a pile of clickbait horseshit.

Teenagers’ preferences and tastes are different from adults’ across the board. They watch different movies, watch different shows (teenagers watch YouTube videos; adults watch TV), listen to different music, and wear different clothes. This has been the case for everyone alive today when they themselves were teenagers.

A much simpler nutshell explanation is that teenagers have a keener sense of cool, and care more about what’s cool, than adults. And the iPhone always has been and remains today cooler than any Android phone. I don’t think that explains the entire situation very well either — it’s quite a bit dismissive of the fact that teenagers actually use the hell out of their phones and thus are perfectly positioned to want iPhones for the entirely practical and rational reason that they’re better, not just cooler — but it sure as shit is closer to the mark than talking about green vs. blue text bubbles.

If text bubble color was all that mattered, everyone could switch to Android and their SMS messages would all be blue, because most Android phone makers, including Google, have their built-in SMS messaging apps set to render SMS messages as blue, because they’re spooked by the whole green bubbles are lame thing too. It’s silly. In an alternate universe where Apple’s Messages app rendered SMS messages as blue and iMessages as green, the whole thing would be reversed and iPhone users would be looking askance at blue bubbles in their group chats. There’s nothing wrong with green. Green means go. Green is money. Green means success. Neither Mr. Pink nor Mr. Brown would’ve complained if they’d been Mr. Green. And most notably — and I’d say inexplicably — Apple’s own app icon for Messages is green:

The app icon for Messages in MacOS 12 Monterey.

The truth is, SMS sucks and iMessage has features SMS never will or could. That opens the door to the whole RCS controversy, of course, but “RCS” never even appears in the WSJ’s article, which is bizarre. It probably should have been the whole thrust of the piece, if they want to argue that there’s something nefarious about iMessage being a proprietary messaging platform that excludes Android users. That was Google exec Hiroshi Lockheimer’s hamfisted take. (If anyone knows how to make a new messaging platform, it’s Google.)

Higgins:

Yet grabbing users so early in life could pay dividends for generations for Apple, already the world’s most valuable publicly traded company. It briefly crossed $3 trillion in market value for the first time on Jan. 3. “These teenagers will continue to become consumers in the future and hopefully continue to buy phones into their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s,” said Harsh Kumar, an analyst for Piper Sandler. The firm recently found that 87% of teens surveyed last year own iPhones.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that an analyst who’s willing to project which devices today’s teenagers are going to be using 50 years from now is not an analyst you should be quoting.

87 percent of U.S. teens using iPhones, though, that’s interesting. But if you think that number would be significantly different if Apple released a Messages app for Android, or added support for RCS to iOS, you’re nuts.

The clear implication of Higgins’s piece is that teenagers’ decided preference for iPhones is entirely superficial. I posit that it’s anything but. We can argue about the merits of iMessage vs. other top-tier messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram, feature-wise and UI-wise (iMessage “replies” are rather deficient, for example), but there’s no denying that iMessage is leaps and bounds better, more useful, more reliable, more supported on non-phone devices, and profoundly more secure and private than dumb old SMS. But Higgins presents all these differences as things Apple withholds for competitive spite, and that teens are suckers, seduced by a brand, for caring about them.

What, pray tell, should Apple do or have already done differently?

Develop and support an iMessage client for Android? I’m unsurprised that Apple has seriously considered this — and when a rumor dropped in June 2016 that Apple was going to announce iMessage for Android at WWDC that year, I thought it plausible. I’m also completely unsurprised that they ultimately decided against it. iMessage isn’t a standalone service — it’s a part of iCloud, and has hooks into features built into iOS and MacOS. iMessage is a competitive advantage — not just for iPhones, but for iPads and Macs too.

Support RCS? Maybe Apple will! But I can see why they probably won’t, and also why they have remained silent on the question of whether they have any interest in supporting it. Why support a less secure, less featureful protocol than iMessage? Why support a new protocol from phone carriers? We don’t use messaging services from our cable and fiber internet providers — why should we use a messaging service tied to our cell phone providers?

Teenagers are not mindless Apple zealots. The popularity of Nintendo’s Switch, Sony’s PlayStation, Microsoft’s Xbox, and especially gaming PCs running Windows is proof otherwise. Higgins has the whole thing backwards. People — including teenagers — don’t buy iPhones because iMessage is cool or good. People use iMessage because iPhones are cool and good