Audacious Fox

Benjamin Mullin, Poynter:

There’s still much to be determined about WikiTribune, the as-yet unlaunched community news platform dreamed up by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales. How many stories will it publish per day? How will it decide what’s news? How will volunteers work alongside professional journalists?

But as of this morning, WikiTribune has settled on the person responsible for answering those questions. Peter Bale, who was previously chief executive officer of the Center for Public Integrity and vice president of CNN International, has been named WikiTribune’s launch editor, in charge of turning Wales’ vision for a community-driven news organization into a reality.

Wednesday, 9 August

Charlie Deets:

I wish I could rip into this system more and let you know how they could have done things better, but Nintendo really nailed so much of this interface out the gate. My main concern is what feature creep will do to this experience over time. I’ve seen the PS4 start as a fairly clean interface and become noisy and less reliable for the sake of added engagement. I hope Nintendo chooses not to go that route. Engagement doesn’t make a lot of sense in a system level games UI, since the primary purpose of the interface is navigation and control.

I’m shocked this is the same company that made the Wii U’s interface which I remember as slow, unintuitive and far less refined. They seem to have learned from experience and responded with an interface that directly combats the most obvious issues of that design and implementation.

Completely agree. The Nintendo Switch blows away the Wii U in terms of UI performance. Simplicity aside, users will put up with a lot if the system feels fast. Make it slow and every rough edge becomes a knife. Back to Mr. Deets for a note on the Switch’s UI accessibility:

They handled the problem with various display types by slightly over-scaling the whole UI. Buttons feel large on a television display, but touchable on the mobile device. Text is used minimally. The fonts are regular to medium weight, and generally legible. The interface is high contrast. There does not seem to be any accessibility settings for the type, which shows that Nintendo feels confident the UI is legible in most scenarios. The only accessibility option I have found is the ability to invert the colors or display the system in greyscale.

From a visual standpoint, again, I agree — the Switch UI looks straightforward and readable. However, being unable to remap controller buttons feels like the larger accessibility concern that should have been addressed before launch. People own gaming consoles to play games, and accessibility of the system needs to extend beyond the menus.

Tuesday, 27 June

All Ads Are Equal, but Some Ads Are More Equal Than Others

This past quarter, Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, reported revenue of over $24 billion, with nearly all of that money coming from Google search, display, and video advertising. This month, Google has announced it intends to bring native ad filtering to Chrome, the most popular browser on the planet.

Here’s Google SVP of Ads and Commerce, Sridhar Ramaswamy, in a blog post titled, “Building a better web for everyone”:

We believe online ads should be better. That’s why we joined the Coalition for Better Ads, an industry group dedicated to improving online ads. The group’s recently announced Better Ads Standards provide clear, public, data-driven guidance for how the industry can improve ads for consumers, and today I’d like to share how we plan to support it. […]

Chrome has always focused on giving you the best possible experience browsing the web. For example, it prevents pop-ups in new tabs based on the fact that they are annoying. In dialogue with the Coalition and other industry groups, we plan to have Chrome stop showing ads (including those owned or served by Google) on websites that are not compliant with the Better Ads Standards starting in early 2018.

At face value, this seems like a win for users. Many online ads are a terrible experience. By having ad filtering built-in to Chrome, my grandmother won’t need to go install a separate ad blocker just to browse the web in peace.

But this news should be met with extreme skepticism and concern, not celebration. Chrome isn’t run by the Coalition for Better Ads, it’s run by Google; a company that made over $20 billion in advertising within a single quarter. Additionally, we’re not only talking about ads. We’re talking about Google using Chrome to block web content. Ads may be a particularly annoying type of content, but they’re content all the same. By creating a precedent for filtering the web at their discretion, Google will have orchestrated a colossal change in how users view information on the internet.

Google operates the world’s #1 browser, #1 ad platform, and #1 search engine. This change to Chrome will extend Google’s influence beyond search result rankings and into every site you visit. Given Google’s market share and control in the three aforementioned areas, this news should be grounds for antitrust violation discussions.


The news regarding Chrome is only the latest in a series of steps Google’s taken to further convert the open web experience into a proprietary one.

It begins with search results. A high pagerank in Google is coveted, and being the top result can make an enormous difference in the success of your business. An entire industry exists around Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and there are countless blogs and hypotheses surrounding how to appear higher in the results particular sets of terms. However, finding a way into the top listings of a Google search doesn’t bring inherit safety with it.

In 2009, Google introduced Rich Snippets; a way of providing Google with additional data (ratings, locations, etc.) that was relevant to your page. Today, instead of asking you for additional relevant information, Google pulls this content automatically, and then displays the information in, what it calls, Featured Snippets. These snippets reside at the top of a search results page and attempt to answer questions before the user clicks on any individual result. Searching for “what temperature should turkey be cooked to?” results in a prominently displayed paragraph from Butterball’s website, without me needing to visit butterball.com.

Although this helps users get information faster, Featured Snippets have been known to surface incorrect or partial answers. Consequences are limited when you’re only getting incorrect instructions on how to caramelize onions, but when Featured Snippets relay blatant lies about political or world affairs, the ramifications can be damning. As voice-powered AI assistants like Google Home become more popular and our trust in their responses grow, the keeper of the underlying data wields a terrifying amount of influence.

This is all without mentioning the impact Featured Snippets has on the sites (like Butterball) themselves. Since the user doesn’t actually visit a webpage, the websites that created the information are robbed of page counts and ad impressions, sometimes to a disastrous degree.

Then there’s Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages, better known as AMP.

AMP attempts to deal with the issue of bloated webpages by providing publishers with a lightweight template that Google can cache and serve up nearly instantaneously through search results. Unfortunately, what using AMP actually means is that publishers cede control of the entire reading experience, down to the URL of the content.

Yet, these tradeoffs don’t seem to deter publishers. Making your content accessible via AMP page is safe way to ensure you’re doing things the Google Way™, which ultimately puts you at a lower risk of losing search traffic.

Finally, even if a user makes it to a webpage from a Google search, there’s nothing to stop them from installing their own third-party ad blocker, and many do. Adblock Plus, one of the most popular Chrome extensions, has well over 10,000,000 user installations.

However, even for a third-party ad blocker, the amount of money on the table makes it hard to remain focused on the original goal. Last year, ironically, Adblock Plus opened its own market for selling ads, which were, naturally, whitelisted for all Adblock Plus users. Ghostery, another popular ad blocker, didn’t sell its own ads, but it did sell information about which ads you blocked back to the advertisers.

Eventually, if history is any indication, even the best of ad-managing and user privacy intentions eventually soften.


Taken without historical context, the idea of building advertisement filtering into Chrome sounds like a good idea. 1 Other browser vendors are doing similar things, too. At this year’s WWDC, Apple announced new features in Safari to prevent advertisements from tracking you around the web. Mozilla and Microsoft will inevitably pursue similar features, if they haven’t started already.

However, unlike Google, these companies don’t bring in a majority of their revenue from an advertising platform they own.

Google controls the searches, the ads, and the window through which a majority of us see the internet. I find it hard to see this ad-focused change to Chrome as anything other than a gross misuse of market share and power, which will ultimately be used to help secure and protect an exceedingly profitable advertising business. In a way we haven’t seen since Microsoft in 1998, Google’s potential, resulting competitive advantage will be nearly insurmountable to any upstart or established player.

The question is no longer if Google’s monopolistic influence over the web is growing, it’s whether anyone will care enough to stop them.


  1. It’s worth noting that every major browser currently blocks one form of web content: the pop-up. I consider this a special case though, because rogue pop-ups could easily wreck and overwhelm the entire browsing experience, leaving little recourse for the user. With ads, even the in your face interstitial ones, the content is sandboxed to a single browser tab, which a user can easily dismiss.

Sunday, 11 June

H. Moser & Cie:

Looking like a smartwatch which is powered off or on standby, the Swiss Alp Watch Zzzz from H. Moser & Cie. cultivates this ambiguity in irreverent fashion. Behind its contemporary design lies a 100% mechanical watch. The black dial — stripped not just of any signature, but also of its indices — is strictly minimalist. On this model, there is no interface: the Swiss Alp Watch Zzzz is designed to display the time, something it does beautifully. Seemingly simple, it is anything but.

It looks almost exactly like an Apple Watch.

Friday, 9 June

In iOS 10, there are three options a user can select from when prompted for location access:

  • Only While Using the App
  • Always Allow
  • Don’t Allow

Most apps should only ever need the first option, and even for ride sharing or locally aware services, some users would prefer to only reveal their location at explicit times, not constantly.

Unfortunately, users currently have little choice in the matter, as any app can remove the “Only While Using the App” option from the location prompt. This essentially forces users to either grant full, 247 location access or render the app useless.

Thankfully, the current developer build of iOS 11 appears to make two key changes in this area. First, the “Only While Using the App” option is present for all location permission prompts, even if the app had previously disabled it. Second, when an app accesses your location from the background, a system-wide banner, like when you’re on a phone call, will be displayed. This banner contains the name of the app that’s using your location, and is far less subtle than the current status bar GPS icon.

Both of these changes are subject to, well, change before iOS 11 releases this Fall, but I don’t think they will, at least not drastically. Apple has repeatedly positioned themselves as staunch advocates for user privacy, whether it’s end-to-end encryption for iMessage or their approach to training photo recognition software. 1

Increasingly, it feels like a serious commitment to my privacy is included in the premium I pay for Apple products. iPhones and MacBooks can be more expensive than the competition, but I don’t trust Google or Microsoft the way I do Apple. Maybe that’s bias, but in a world of AI and machine learning, where more data is better and companies happily feed your information to their algorithms, Apple appears to be going extremely out of its way to avoid compromising my identity. And that’s something I don’t mind paying a little extra for.


  1. “Well, turns out, if you want to get pictures of mountains, you don’t need to get it out of people’s personal photo libraries.” — Craig Federighi, SVP of Software Engineering, during last year’s episode of The Talk Show Live.

Thursday, 8 June

Nick Heer, writing about the lack of an experimental, boutique market for smartphones and how Andy Rubin’s new company, Essential, and their Essential Phone might be the first to carve out a niche:

So why isn’t there a boutique manufacturer of smartphones, like there is in many other industries? Why isn’t there a company doing interesting things with the basic smartphone formula of a screen, a battery, and a cellular radio? Is there room for one in the marketplace? […]

Perhaps my expectations are too high here. Perhaps it isn’t possible to have an experimental smartphone company. Cars and fashion are symbols of power, money, prestige, and sex appeal; cameras — even digital ones — are tactile and ultimately personal objects that capture memories. But smartphones have, so far, been utilitarian objects above all else. Is it possible for a consumer tech product to rise to the level of high fashion?

I think it’s possible, but not probable. Mr. Heer’s automobile metaphor holds up well, but I think he misses pointing out an important factor: smartphones have incredibly high turnover compared to cars. Someone could own an Alfa Romeo Sedan for 10 years, but only keep their iPhone for 12-18 months. When looking at boutique markets, it’s not only “how interesting can we make the product”, but also “how often will the consumer be deciding between us and something more normal?” 1

Needing to annually, if not continually, reaffirm the uniqueness of your device puts substantial stress on companies like Essential to either make something with more mass appeal, drop prices, or slowly die. That’s not to say a market for experimental smartphones can’t exist, but there’s certainly no precedent for one or a clear path to success. Essential Phone might flourish its first year — there’s a lot of attention on Andy Rubin’s first post-Android project — but will it do well enough to survive, and meet demand, in the years that follow?


  1. As for the comparison to cameras, I think it’s important to note that normal people might own and use multiple cameras, but these same people aren’t buying and using two or three smartphones. Well, unless they’re Dave Morin.

Sunday, 4 June

AirPods

These are my first Bluetooth headphones. There are things I like about AirPods that are probably true for any wireless headphones. That said, I think AirPods distinguish themselves in two important ways: a convenient and slim charging case for when you’re on-the-go, and the best wireless pairing process I’ve ever experienced, hands-down, bar none.

Case & Charging

The case is made of smooth, white plastic, reminiscent of the plastic MacBooks or Magic Mouse. My case is starting to accumulate some scratches, but it’s held up remarkably well, considering I routinely toss it in my bag with keys and spare change. The hinge is sturdy, and once closed, the case has a low profile that’s easy to slide into your jean or coat pockets. Opening the lid reveals the AirPods and a single, pinhole-sized LED, which communicates the current charge level or pairing status. Magnets keep each AirPod securely in place and help ensure the lid stays closed.

The case also helps prevent misplacing AirPods. When I take the AirPods out of my ears, they always go straight back into the case. Apple charges $69 for lost AirPods (another $69 if you lose the case, too), and you have to supply proof of your original purchase. Cheaper than buying new, but an avoidable outcome.

Apple claims the case holds more than 24 hours of battery life, with each pod capable of running for 5 hours on its own. I’ve found that to be true, if not understated. Additionally, charging AirPods for 15 minutes equals 3 hours of battery life, which proves useful, as you can charge up in the same amount of time it takes to get ready for a run or a trip to the store. Since I’m not using my AirPods every minute of the day, I’ve found I can easily make it 3 to 5 days without needing to charge the case.

The lasts-longer-than-a-day metric is important, because it means you simply don’t think about running out of battery. AirPods last a few days between charges, which means I’m highly likely to passively plug them in during that time, which means I’m almost never caught with dead AirPods.

Unless we have some breakthrough in lithium-ion battery capacity, gadget power anxiety will be solved one of two ways: 1.) increasingly smart power management, so most devices for most people can last at least 24 hours; and 2.) charging technology that is either ubiquitous or fast. For ubiquity, we’re already seeing conductive charging stations make their way into furniture, and there’s some motion in the truly wireless charging front. For fast charging, which seems more realistically attainable, look at what Apple’s doing with AirPods, Samsung with the Galaxy line, or Tesla with their Superchargers. If you can get a full, multi-day charge in minutes, no one cares what the actual battery capacity is.

Wireless

I’ve run over 60 miles with my AirPods, and I haven’t had one problem with them falling out or jostling loose. For my ears, the fit is snug and similar to the EarPods before them. If you find EarPods comfortable, there’s little change here.

Each AirPod comes with a speaker and a mic. Having individual microphones is useful, because you can choose to use one AirPod at a time without compromising on functionally. Not true with EarPods. If you didn’t keep the right-side EarPod in, the mic and control buttons would dangle.

Wires may not be long for this world, but I liked the way a string strung between two music lovers would literally and visibly connect the two. AirPods eschew this connected metaphor, but the benefits of wireless audio simply outweigh whatever nostalgia I have.

Going wireless, in combination with each AirPod having its own microphone, opens up some new use cases I hadn’t thought of. My wife and I now have a habit of sharing AirPods during phone calls, and we particularly enjoy wandering around the grocery store, listening to the same song or podcast. At times, it can feel somewhat magical.

However, the real magic comes when you first connect AirPods to your iPhone. Whatever experiences you have in setting up Bluetooth devices, discard them immediately. The AirPods pairing process is so fast and painless that I had the same “are you shitting me” reaction from when my home upgraded dialup to broadband. It’s that good.

To pair AirPods to an iOS device:

  1. Open the AirPods case.
  2. Tap “Connect” on your iOS device.

Two seconds later — seriously — you’re done. There is no better example or encapsulation of Apple’s “it just works” philosophy than the pairing process for AirPods. Every other Bluetooth setup now looks archaic.

The reason pairing is so smooth relies entirely on a new wireless chip Apple’s engineered: the W1. Debuting in AirPods, the W1 makes Bluetooth user-friendly and fast. Aside from helping pair devices, the W1 chip also brings some smart capability to AirPods. For example, when you’re listening to music and remove one AirPod, the music pauses; when you put the AirPod back in, music resumes. These features won’t be limited to AirPods, either. Remember that tiny headphone maker Apple purchased in 2014? It’s a safe bet we’ll see the W1 work its way to other wireless devices in the coming years.

Siri & Playback

Wireless freedom is not without annoyances. Wires serve as a convenient place to put physical buttons for playback and volume, and you will absolutely miss those physical controls. AirPods have a small amount of configurability; you can set the double-tap actuation to trigger Siri, toggle playback, or disable the controls entirely. To compensate for this lack of buttons or controls, Apple excitedly directs you to control audio playback and volume with Siri.

Needing to talk to Siri as the recommended way of controlling audio playback feels like an antithesis to the reason I’m using headphones in the first place. When I have my AirPods in, I’m most likely in a quiet place with other people (library, open office) or in a loud place with lots of ambient noise (grocery store, coffee shop). In either situation, needing to say, “turn up the volume” or “go to the next track” aloud is either rude or woefully inconsistent.

Finally, although AirPods remain secure and comfortable while running, here is yet another situation where activating Siri proves problematic. I consider myself in good health, but even with lightly belabored breathing, getting Siri to register my commands mid-run is arduous or impossible.

For me, I quickly gave up on using Siri for controlling audio playback, instead opting for my iPhone’s volume rockers and onscreen UI. Pressing the volume rocker on an iPhone adjusts the current volume by 1, out of 16 possible grades. Saying “turn it up” to Siri is the equivalent to two clicks of the volume rocker, which means there are 8 volume levels Siri can set. Your ears are different than mine, but I almost always change the volume up or down by about 4 rocker presses, which means I’m activating Siri twice to accomplish the same thing.

This is more a critique of Siri than AirPods, but when Apple so tightly integrates the two, the performance or shortcomings of one implicates the other. In this case, in five months of owning AirPods, I’ve used Siri to control music playback or alter volume fewer than 10 times.

Closing

My two biggest concerns with purchasing wireless headphones were (a) dealing with batteries in yet another device and (b) working around the the inconsistencies of Bluetooth. With the AirPods’ case and W1 chip, Apple has delivered elegant solutions to both issues, in a way that makes AirPods feel like the most Apple-y device they’ve built in quite a while.

After five months of near daily usage, AirPods are still a joy to use, and I have no desire to look elsewhere.

Saturday, 3 June

Matthew Zeitlin, Buzzfeed:

For years, one of the best/worst kept secrets in media circles was a login that unlocked the Wall Street Journal’s formidable paywall. Username: media. Password: media. […]

For an industry filled with insatiable loudmouths and gossips, media-media was kept impressively quiet, shared among reporters, but not so widely that it became public knowledge. Reporters outside of the Journal’s Midtown headquarters were so tight-lipped that many WSJ reporters had no idea that media-media even existed.

Sunday, 28 May