Linked List: December 16, 2013

Shameless Carriers 

Jean-Louis Gassée, on the latest round of carrier executives bemoaning the prices they have to pay to Apple for iPhones:

I don’t know if Stephenson is speaking out of cultural deafness or cynicism, but he’s obscuring the point: There is no subsidy. Carriers extend a loan that users pay back as part of the monthly service payment. Like any loan shark, the carrier likes its subscriber to stay indefinitely in debt, to always come back for more, for a new phone and its ever-revolving payments stream.

When carrier executives complain about iPhone subsidies, what they are really complaining about are customers who see the iPhone as being worth a premium. If you (the carrier) don’t carry the iPhone, you will bleed customers until you do. In this scenario it should be no surprise that Apple is able to negotiate favorable terms. What the carriers pine for are the old days when nearly all customers would just come in and buy whatever phone the carrier’s own salespeople recommended.

Who Buys the iPhone 5C? 

Ben Evans, looking at device usage data from Facebook:

There are two obvious things in this chart: the 5S is selling better than the 5C (which we pretty much knew), but the 5C has far from flopped, and women like the 5C much more than men.

What About Removing App Ratings Entirely? 

Jim Biancolo:

The nag screens sure are obnoxious, but good ratings are pretty important in bringing your app to the surface in a very crowded App Store. Rather than enter the debate, I wonder why users have to explicitly rate apps at all, when they are implicitly rating them all the time?

Will Hains suggests something similar here.

Usage is hard to measure. You wouldn’t want to just measure how much time users spend in a certain app, because some apps are intended, by design, to be used occasionally and/or briefly.

What Apple needs is something akin to Google’s PageRank. Imagine a world where Google ranked web pages based on user reviews for those sites. It would not matter if the scale were 1-5 stars or thumbs-up/thumbs-down — such a system would break down almost immediately because it would be gamed and abused. That’s where we are with App Store discoverability and search rankings.

‘Apple Kicked Everybody in the Balls With This.’ 

Our old friend Dan Lyons:

In public, Apple’s rivals in the smartphone market have tried to downplay the technological advances Apple introduced in the iPhone 5s. But it turns out that one breakthrough — Apple’s speedy, 64-bit A7 microprocessor — has set off a panic inside its competitors. At chipmaker Qualcomm, which provides microprocessors for many of the Android phones that compete against the iPhone, executives have been trying to put on a brave face to the world, but internally people are freaking out, according to an insider at the company.

“The 64-bit Apple chip hit us in the gut,” says the Qualcomm employee. “Not just us, but everyone, really. We were slack-jawed, and stunned, and unprepared.”

Mugshots From the 1920s 

Gorgeous portraits.

The NSA: An Inside View 

Loren Sands-Ramshaw, who worked for the NSA for two years:

Many are concerned about the NSA listening to their phone calls and reading their email messages. I believe that most should not be very concerned because most are not sending email to intelligence targets. Email that isn’t related to intelligence is rarely viewed, and it’s even less often viewed if it’s from a US citizen. Every Agency employee goes through orientation, in which we are taught about the federal laws that govern NSA/US Cyber Command: Title 10 and Title 50. We all know that it’s illegal to look at a US citizen’s data without a court order. I use the term “look” deliberately: the Agency makes the distinction that looking at data is surveillance, while gathering it from locations outside the US is not. We gathered everything, and only looked at a tiny percentage of it. I am okay with this distinction both because I don’t mind if my emails are copied to an Agency database and likely never read and because from a technical standpoint it would seriously impair our ability to spy if we couldn’t gather everything. The Agency is an intelligence organization, not a law enforcement agency.

His is an interesting and reasonable perspective.

‘A Genius Among Geniuses’ 

Andy Greenberg, writing for Forbes:

But an NSA staffer who contacted me last month and asked not to be identified–and whose claims we checked with Snowden himself via his ACLU lawyer Ben Wizner — offered me a very different, firsthand portrait of how Snowden was seen by his colleagues in the agency’s Hawaii office: A principled and ultra-competent, if somewhat eccentric employee, and one who earned the access used to pull off his leak by impressing superiors with sheer talent.

The anonymous NSA staffer’s priority in contacting me, in fact, was to refute stories that have surfaced as the NSA and the media attempt to explain how a contractor was able to obtain and leak the tens of thousands of highly classified documents that have become the biggest public disclosure of NSA secrets in history. According to the source, Snowden didn’t dupe coworkers into handing over their passwords, as one report has claimed. Nor did Snowden fabricate SSH keys to gain unauthorized access, he or she says.

Instead, there’s little mystery as to how Snowden gained his access: It was given to him.

NSA Goes on 60 Minutes: The Facts Behind CBS’s Flawed Report 

Bizarrely one-sided report. It’s no longer surprising, but depressing nonetheless, how far 60 Minutes has fallen in recent years.

On App Ratings: Put Them In-App, and Make Them Thumbs Up/Down 

Thomas Verschoren:

The solution I propose is the following: Apple should create an official rating API and simplify the rating system. Imagine Apple changing the App Store’s rating system in a simple thumb- up, thumbs-down system. You vote the app up when you like it, down when you don’t. So far it’s pretty similar to Gruber’s suggestion in The Talk Show.

Apple could implement this as an iOS API combined with a review sheet, similar to the tweet sheet. So somewhere in the app is a rate this app button. It brings up the sheet with an up-or-down button, and a field to write your short review. You never leave the app, it’s fast and it’s controlled by Apple. Developers get their reviews, but in a controlled fashion.

Federal Judge Rules Against N.S.A. Phone Data Program 

Charlie Savage, reporting for the NYT:

In a 68-page ruling, Judge Richard J. Leon of the District of Columbia called the program’s technology “almost Orwellian” and suggested that James Madison, the author of the Constitution, would be “aghast” to learn that the government was encroaching on liberty in such a way.

“I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary’ invasion than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval,” Judge Leon wrote. “Surely, such a program infringes on ‘that degree of privacy’ that the founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment.”

Includes this statement from Edward Snowden:

“I acted on my belief that the N.S.A.’s mass surveillance programs would not withstand a constitutional challenge, and that the American public deserved a chance to see these issues determined by open courts. Today, a secret program authorized by a secret court was, when exposed to the light of day, found to violate Americans’ rights. It is the first of many.”

It is getting harder and harder to see Snowden as anything other than a hero who, at great personal risk and cost, has done a great service for our country and the world.

Degradation or Aspiration 

David Smith:

I want to believe that the App Store is a special place. I want for it to be the singularly best venue for customers to come and find innovative, well designed, quality software. Software that pushes the boundaries of what is possible and continually amazes and delights its customers. I want for there to be an aspirational pull upwards on my own development. I want to feel like I need to work extra hard to make sure my apps meet the high standards my customers have been trained to expect.

For that admittedly idealistic ambition to be a reality requires work. The natural tendency of things is to grow more and more degraded overtime, for entropy to slowly creep in and undermine even the best of intentions. It requires obvious, intentional leadership to stem the tide of mediocracy. Even more subtly, once you see this decline as inevitable you all but guarantee that reality.

It’s not just the App Store that we want to feel like a special place — it’s iOS itself. Using iOS, on both the iPhone and iPad, dozens of times every day, for stretches long and short, should feel like a platform in pursuit of perfection. Having a de facto standard practice where apps badger you at seemingly random moments with pop-up ads prompting you to rate them is in contradiction to this ideal.

Smith is right; Apple needs to do more, much more, to improve the App Store discovery and shopping experience. But flaws in the App Store do not excuse a practice that has become a blight on the everyday experience of using the platform.

The Download Hits Middle Age 

So though far from dead, digital music sales may have peaked. (Via Doug Adams.)

New iTunes-Exclusive Beyoncé Album Sells Over 800,000 Copies in First Three Days 

Selling music albums, not dead yet.

Earth Wind Map 

“A visualization of global weather conditions, forecast by supercomputers, updated every three hours.”