Benedict's Newsletter: No. 341


This is a weekly newsletter of what I've seen in tech and thought was interesting.

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✏️ My essays

What comes after Zoom? Link

News by the ton: 75 years of US advertising. Link

From last year: face recognition and AI ethics. Link


🗞 News

(🍎 Somehow, this is the Apple issue - I'm sending 36 hours late to capture WWDC)

News from WWCD: Apple moves on from Intel and turns Mac into iPads. At the WWDC event yesterday Apple announced it will move the Mac from Intel CPUs to the proprietary ARM-based chip family that it already creates for iPhones and iPads - 'Apple Silicon'. Lots of layers to think about here - in reverse order of importance:

  • In the 1990s Apple picked the wrong horse, going with PowerPC CPUs instead of Intel, and in 2005 it fixed that, switching the Mac to Intel and hence switching to the ecosystem that had scale and getting the cost and performance benefits of that. But today mobile is far bigger than PCs and iOS is far bigger than the Mac, so Apple is moving to scale again. And now Apple has a world-class chip team: the iPhone/iPad CPUs are significantly ahead of the competition 
  • Mac with the new chips will ship this year, but so will Macs with Intel. Existing apps will run fine on the new chips but developers will need to convert them to get the best performance. So, this will be a multi-year transition, much like the switch to Intel. A big difference, though, is that Adobe and Microsoft have switched to subscription, so their users are paying to be up to date - last time around you had to buy the new version for $$$, so it took years to switch over
  • Last year Apple announced an API ('Catalyst') that let developers convert iOS apps to run on Macs - but since the new Macs will run the same chips as iPhones and iPads they can run any iOS app unchanged. Some of them won't work that well without a touch screen, but Apple has already added keyboard and mouse support to the iPad. 
  • Take-away 1: it seems certain Apple will add touch to the Mac. It's merging iOS into the Mac: in the future almost all Mac apps will be iOS or Catalyst and have the same sandboxed security as iOS. The Mac becomes an iPad Pro - an iPad with files and overlapping windows. 
  • Take-away 2: this is a hugely impressive technical achievement but doesn't really change the broader landscape: iOS still won the markets Apple cares about and people use Google, Facebook and WeChat on iOS devices. 
  • Takeaway 3: the future of desktop software is still the web. No-one has started a company to make a Mac or Windows productivity app in 20 years. 
  • Link: Apple's discussion

Also at WWDC, the usual flood of large and small Apple software changes. A couple of things to pick out of the firehose: 

  • Further pressure on privacy: Safari will now tell you how many trackers and cookies it's blocking on every website you visit, and apps have to publish a standardised privacy policy which will be prominent in the app store
  • Handwriting recognition on the iPad (coming to iPhone soon?). 27 years after the Newton
  • Sharable watch faces, which sounds like a small feature but might be a great way to drive app discovery - the watch is a hit but watch apps haven't really worked 
  • iOS lets you change the default email app and browser - a nod to anti-trust
  • 'App clips' - a website, QR Code or NFC tag can launch a small (10 meg) slice of an app to let you do one task without installing a full app or creating an account (just use Apple pay and Sign in with Apple). WeChat or Google would do this with HTML
  • Meta-observation: supporting all the cool stuff Apple announces is a lot of resource. That makes 'standard cross platform' visions more difficult. 
  • Link: Apple's developer updates, App Clips, Privacy

App store drama!!! Way back in 2011 Apple decided that if you made people pay to use an app you had to use their in-app payment and pay 30% commission. That sounded simple, but ever since then people have been arguing about who it should cover, and Apple has created ever more complicated and opaque rules and exceptions. Last week Basecamp, which makes a subscription email service called 'Hey', said Apple had blocked their app for not using Apple payment and called this a monopolistic shakedown. Tech twitter couldn't talk about much else for 48 hours. The underlying issues here are complicated (and I'm probably going to write something about it), but to summarise:

  • Apple's sandboxed app model has been hugely beneficial for trust, safety and privacy, and I would argue that's also true of the curation at the front end of that.
  • But, the rules and their enforcement have always been opaque, confusing, inconsistent and arbitrary for both paid and free apps. Every developer has horror stories. Hey is arguably in a grey area and the founders are well known for picking fights, but it's Apple's fault the grey area is so big.
  • Spotify is not in a grey area: Apple has a very weak case here and the EU is coming. I'd suggest Apple rewrite the rules or else lawyers who've never written a line of code or heard of 'privilege escalation' will do it for them
  • When Apple first created this rule they it had10% of the US handset base - now it has at least 50%, and 80% of US teenagers. That changes the competition law argument. 
  • The Verge wrote up the drama blow-by-blow: Link

Apple rejects Facebook’s gaming app five times. No grey area at all: Apple has always very clear that they don't want apps and app stores inside apps. Should that be their decision, though? Link

The EU versus Apple. The European Commission has launched two separate  investigations into Apple: one into in-app billing and specifically Spotify's complaint that Apple's rules force it to pay 30% of revenue from subscriptions taken out on the iPhone or not offer purchase there at all; and the other into the limited APIs around NFC and Apple Pay that mean no-one else can do a contactless card wallet on the iPhone. Apple could make a security argument around NFC, but I suspect it means to open up the APIs in due course anyway (lets see what they announce tonight). On Spotify, as above, I don't think Apple has much of a case at all and it will have to bend. I don't actually think Apple's primary motivation is to squash a competitor, but however they got here the current situation is bad for users, which is supposedly Tim Cook's 'North Star'. Links to the announcements: Apple PayApp Store Billing

Apple lobbying. Apple released a third party research report saying that the App Store drove $500bn of spending in 2019 (against maybe $15bn of App Store commission). This is transparently intended to argue that Apple is driving lots of free value for other people and that the 30% is a very small share of the overall pie - this may well be true, but this is is not how anti-trust works. The EU is going to define the relevant market as 'payment systems on iOS', announce that Apple has a monopoly, and proceed directly to the 'market abuse' and 'remedy' stages. Nice charts, though. Link

Apple/Google and COVID tracing. After much confusion, the UK has stopped trying to make a Bluetooth COVID contact tracing app that tried to work around Apple's rules and switched to using the combined Apple/Google anonymous tracing system. As I've written in previous issues, Apple and Google are making a policy decision, not a technical decision, about what national governments can do on their platforms. It might be the right decision (do health authorities really need the personal data Apple/Google are not allowing to be collected?), and driven by global considerations (what does 'tell us everyone you met in the last 14 day' mean in Iran?), but it's still a policy decision. Link, NYT Primer on the broader context and see also the editorial below. 

Apple bends again in China. A contrast to some other stories here: in China, Apple will require games on the App Store to have a local license. Not the biggest story, but instructive of power dynamics. Link


The EU versus Amazon. According to the NY Times, the EU is also planning to bring a case against Amazon for competing with the merchants in its Marketplace store, which is now 60% of volume. I think this is a category error -  this is really just normal retailing. Private label is 30-40% of sales at most big retailers and always has been, and they all use data and placement just as Amazon does (and no, Amazon doesn't have greater scale). Link

Gmail / Meet bundling. In non-Apple news, Google is trying hard to use leverage and bundling to drive adoption of Meet, its work video call app. As well as adding Meet links to meetings in Google Calendar by default (without user consent!), it's now adding a Meet tab to the mobile Gmail app. From a product perspective this doesn't make much sense to me: why do I want a tab in my email that shows some of my meetings, but only the ones with a Meet call, and not any that use any other call service? But from an anti-trust perspective, this looks like a Bat Signal summoning lawyers. Of course, Zoom's issues mean it may not be a ideal victim. Link

Cross-border digital taxes, again. The USA pulled out of a meeting to discuss how to tax businesses that operate around the world and pick and choose where to allocate profits based on the best tax rate. The basic problem here is as old as international trade (if I buy a VW in London, that was assembled in the Czech Republic with a gearbox from Spain, a German engine and components made all over Europe, where exactly is the profit to be taxed?), but it's more pressing for internet companies: if a Californian company sells billions of dollars of advertising to UK companies from a sales office in London, but books it through an Irish finance office that's a subsidiary of a Luxembourg company, what tax should it pay in the UK? Some of this conversation is nationalism, protectionism and trade policy, but most of it is about trying to solve an inconsistency. Link


🔮 Reading

A Latvian civil servant on the Apple/Google contact tracing platform: why should they decide what we can do? Link

Steven Sinofsky (ex head of Windows) comparing the app store debate with similar debates around Windows and the OEMs. Link

London Fashion Week went digital and worked ok. Link

The impact of lockdown on digital at L’Oréal. Link ($)

How Facebook uses ML to deliver ads. Link

The cult of Bang & Olufsen. Link


😮 Interesting things

How a $0-budget movie ‘topped the US box office'. Genius. Link

Kevin Twomey: photographs of mechanical computers. Link


📊 Stats

This year's Reuters global news study is out. Lots of data on consumer behaviour and attitudes. Link

Adobe on online shopping during COVID. Link

Ericsson's latest mobility report is out. Link (PDF)


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