Category: Tech

If it’s not an RSS feed, it’s not a podcast

Recently a podcast I like “moved to Spotify,” which is the only place it can now be heard. A couple weeks ago I was recommended a podcast that sounded interesting, but it turned out to be exclusive to the Luminary “podcast network.”

These are not podcasts. It’s not a matter of being behind a paywall (though Spotify’s aren’t, as far as I know); subscription fees aren’t antithetical to podcasting (though they may be technically challenging).

A podcast is a text file, an XML or JSON outline, that points a podcast player to a list of episodes. The podcast is indifferent to the thing downloading it, and the player is indifferent to the thing hosting it. Anything else isn’t a podcast — it’s just an audio show.

The term “podcast” has long outgrown its etymology as “something you play on your iPod,” but it’s nevertheless notable that these new “podcasts” cannot even be played on an iPod, other than an iPod Touch with a WiFi connection.

If I can’t listen to it on my iPod Nano, it’s not a podcast.

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The Problem with Apple as Creator and Curator

I haven’t watched much at all of Apple TV+’s content, so this isn’t about whether their shows are good or not. Hell, they’re winning Emmys after all.

One thing I used to love about the Roku is that it had no incentive to make you watch one thing over another. There was no “Roku store,” so its makers weren’t motivated to put paid content front-and-center in the UI.

I gave that up once I switched to Apple TV, but I knew that, although Apple was incentivized to encourage me to watch things that I could buy or rent through them, at least it wasn’t directing me toward specific things for that reason; Apple doesn’t care whether I rent Barton Fink or Transformers, as long as I rent it from Apple (and their library is extensive).

I love the TV app for its “Up Next” section, reminding me what I want to watch and where I left off. I even like the remaining rows, highlighting content that is either being talked about (recent award winners, for instance, or big shows that are ending soon), or that is positively reviewed, or that is similar to things I’ve expressed interest in in the past. With so much to watch these days, it’s nice to have different ways for content to be surfaced.

On the other hand are Amazon’s and Netflix’s UIs, which lately seem to almost exclusively show you content produced by them, to encourage you to stay in their ecosystems. The “home page” of the Netflix app has got to be one of the most valuable advertising spaces on earth, and they take advantage of that. (See: Birdbox.)

But unfortunately what has tainted the Amazon and Netflix UIs is now a problem on Apple TV, for two reasons: Apple TV Channels and Apple TV+.

Because Apple TV Channels is limited to a small handful of networks — CBS, AMC, HBO, etc. — Apple is strongly incentivized to promote shows from those networks to encourage me to subscribe to them through Apple. And with original content being produced for Apple TV+, they’re also incentivized to recommend their own shows to me, sometimes with an entire row of content in the UI.

This destroys what trust I once had in the content curation. It would be naive to think the recommendations weren’t at all previously motivated by sales, but now when I see an Apple TV+ or CBS show highlighted, I know it’s effectively no different from an ad. They would recommend “The Morning Show” to me whether or not it was good.

I almost wish they had an “editorial department” who curated the contents of the TV app and were not beholden to the other teams at Apple whatsoever.

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Apple Arcade: Games That Won’t Piss You Off

This holiday I’ve been traveling to spend the week visiting some of my family, including four of my nieces and nephews. My youngest niece is 10 and I thought she’d like sitting on the couch solving some kind of puzzle-y iPad game with me. I went to Apple Arcade and downloaded Tint, which I’d never played before.

The experience of playing Tint really made apparent the difference in playing an Apple Arcade game versus virtually any other game on the App Store. Playing it was almost uncanny — the genre it represents as a geometry-based puzzle game is the kind of thing that absolutely floods the App Store and shows you unskippable 30-second ads for tower defense games between levels. Even games within this genre that do cost a buck or two up front will likely have some forms of in-app purchases, for rubies, gems, in-game hints, extra levels, etc. I kept expecting the gameplay to be interrupted by something ugly, loud, or obnoxious, but it never happened.

There are plenty of poor Apple Arcade games, but they’re poor in ways that other games in the App Store aren’t — in a shortcoming of gameplay design, artwork, or execution, rather than in a disrespect for the value of customers’ time and money. These games feel as though they were made by people, not by cheap puzzle-generating algorithms, copycats, or fly-by-night App Store flooding.

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No, your iPhone is not listening to you

There’s a lot of FUD going around about your phone listening to everything you say and selling that data to advertisers. This is wildly and irresponsibly misleading.

I can’t speak for Android phones because those things are the Wild West of APIs and outdated OSes and malware, so use Android phones at your own risk.

Here is the claim being made, in short:

Any third-party (non-Apple) app you have installed on your iPhone can record and remotely save conversations taking place within earshot of your iPhone, even when the app isn’t running (in the foreground or in the background), and even when the phone is sleeping.

This is patently false. Third-party iOS apps can only record audio when they are running in the foreground or running in the background, and only if you have given them permission to do so. And even if you have granted microphone access to the Facebook app, for instance, if you “kill” Facebook by swiping up on it in the app switcher, Facebook is quit and can no longer access the microphone in any way.

Further, when third-party apps are using the microphone, there is a big red bar with a microphone icon at the top of the screen of your phone in the status bar. There is as far as I know no way for developers to prevent this from appearing.

In other words, in order for any third-party app to “listen to you” through your iPhone:

  1. That app must be running, either in the foreground or the background.
  2. You must have explicitly granted that app permission to access your microphone.
  3. There will be a red microphone icon at the top of your screen.

If any of those three things haven’t happened or aren’t happening, then that app is not listening to you.


How do I explain, then, all the anecdotal evidence that ads for certain products show up after people start shouting about mattresses into their phones?

First, this is anecdotal and cannot be trusted. Nobody behind these articles has even tried to monitor what domains are being pinged by their router in an attempt to determine where all these recordings are secretly being sent.

Second, if you come up with a random product category, and especially if that category is mattresses (!!! The most advertised internet thing there is!), and you only start to notice ads for that product category after you’ve begun whispering the phrase, then this is likely a failing of your perception. We are all way, way more blind than we realize and filter out 99% of our surroundings. If you say “I swear I never saw an ad for t-shirts before this!,” that is a completely unreliable claim.

Third, advertisers already know tons and tons about you just from your browsing habits. They don’t need to listen through your phone’s microphone. Facebook and Google already know every site you visit as well as in what things the people in your demographic are interested and probably talking about with you and your friends.

All this anecdotal evidence is coincidental.

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That’s just not what “is the new” means

I know I’m the last and probably least significant person to weigh in on this, but this “Safari is the New IE” article that I didn’t read when it came out three months ago has been tucked away in the back of my mind since then, and I’ve finally put my finger on the simple reason it bothers me.

[M]y point was to compare Safari to IE in terms of 1) not keeping up with new standards, 2) maintaining a culture of relative secrecy, and 3) playing a monopolistic role, by not allowing other rendering engines on iOS. Those accusations are pretty undeniable.

[…]

Personally what I want out of this whole debate is for Apple to realize that the web is starting to move on without them, and that their weird isolationism and glacial release cycle are not going to win them any favors in this new, dynamic web community.

First of all, what does it mean to “be an Internet Explorer”? What did Internet Explorer represent? A monopoly, sure, to consumers and corporate attorneys from the 1990s. “A culture of relative secrecy”? Maybe, though that’s not what comes to my mind. It also had a blue icon and a six-syllable name, but these are accidents — they’re not what Internet Explorer was.

What Internet Explorer represented to web developers, the bulk of that article’s audience, is not a popular browser lagging behind modern standards, but a popular browser egregiously disobeying established standards. There is no Safari equivalent (that I know of, and almost certainly not as significant) as, say, IE’s double-margin bug. Every web developer who’s wrestled with IE has tearfully referenced Explorer Exposed! and QuirksMode for the sixth time in a week, their links in Google’s results seeming an even deeper purple than others. Every web developer has harbored a sense of looming dread as they gleefully develop in Chrome and Firefox, knowing that there will soon be the reckoning of having to fix whatever IE bugs they’re willfully ignoring, but for right now it feels so good not to have to write terrible, hacky code to support a ten-year-old browser, and maybe my boss will announce tomorrow that we officially don’t support IE 6 anymore?

This, I think, is where the backlash comes from. “Developing for Safari” is barely a thing. “Developing for IE” was hell. To see the two compared in — yes — a clickbaity way is maddening.

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A fairer, more conscientious alternative to AdBlock Plus

Having just stumbled across an article advocating against AdBlock Plus (via Lea Verou), I decided to revisit my settings for relatively nuisance-free browsing in Firefox.

For a long time I’ve done development work and writing for a site that keeps its lights on through advertising, so I sympathize with content-creators’ need for (and frustration with) ads. It’s a necessary evil, and I’ve always found it a bit disheartening to see AdBlock Plus at the top of every “Popular Plugins” list (whether for Chrome, Firefox, or Safari). Worse, there seems to be a sense of entitlement among savvy internet users, telling them that they shouldn’t have to endure ads. Commonly this might be veiled as being “anti-corporate” or some other such vague excuse, but the real reasons are usually the same as those behind piracy: it’s just nice not to have to pay for things, whether through eyeballs, bandwidth, or dollars.

(None of this is to say that I am entirely innocent on these points.)

Still, there are some troubling common practices among the more insidious of these JavaScript embeds, and I think there is some justification in circumventing them. But one doesn’t need to block every advertisement to severely diminish advertisers’ ability to, say, keep track of one’s browsing habits.

Here are the things you can do to make your browsing a little more private and safe, while still (mostly) allowing the sites you love to pay their bills. These tips will be written for Firefox users (though the equivalent plugins are readily available in Chrome and Safari), and won’t include things that readers of this site will probably already know about (e.g., avoiding “watch movies free” sites and their ilk, and disabling pop-ups).

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If Apple makes a watch

I don’t claim to be any kind of Apple pundit, but I have some hunches about what their watch will be like if and when they release one.

The two factors I see as being vital are price and simplicity.

Price

The Galaxy Gear starts at $299, which is a lot more, I think, than the average person (i.e., non-Android zealots) are willing to spend on a watch that they have to charge every night. A successful watch, one that gets into the hands of millions of people, will have to be closer to the “Apple impulse buy” price of the iPods Nano — at most $249, but I think they could do it for $199. (The Pebble E Ink watch is $150.) To reach that price point, an Apple watch will lack, for instance, a camera and a speaker, which are included in the Galaxy Gear.

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