Start Up No.935: whither Windows?, the App Store subscription scam, China’s Android schemes, the class news problem, and more


Will the new iPads have USB-C, like the MacBook series? Photo by Maurizio Pesce on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. In case you’re counting, No.1,000 comes some time in early 2019. What shall we do? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Microsoft’s problem isn’t how often it updates Windows—it’s how it develops it • Ars Technica

Peter Bright on Microsoft’s new way of looking at Windows:

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The problem with Windows as a Service is quality. Previous issues with the feature and security updates have already shaken confidence in Microsoft’s updating policy for Windows 10. While data is notably lacking, there is at the very least a popular perception that the quality of the monthly security updates has taken a dive with Windows 10 and that installation of the twice-annual feature updates as soon as they’re available is madness. These complaints are long-standing, too. The unreliable updates have been a cause for concern since shortly after Windows 10’s release.

The latest problem has brought this to a head, with commentators saying that two feature updates a year is too many and Redmond should cut back to one, and that Microsoft needs to stop developing new features and just fix bugs. Some worry that the company is dangerously close to a serious loss of trust over updates, and for some Windows users, that trust may already have been broken.

These are not the first calls for Microsoft to slow down with its feature updates—there have been concerns that there’s too much churn for both IT and consumer audiences alike to handle—but with the obvious problems of the latest update, the calls take on a new urgency.

But saying Microsoft should only produce one update a year instead of two, or criticising the very idea of Windows as a Service, is missing the point. The problem here isn’t the release frequency. It’s Microsoft’s development process.

Why is it the process, and not the timeframe, that’s the issue? On the release schedule front, we can look at what other software does to get a feel for what’s possible.

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Sneaky subscriptions are plaguing the App Store • TechCrunch

Sarah Perez:

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Subscriptions have turned into a booming business for app developers, accounting for $10.6bn in consumer spend on the App Store in 2017, and poised to grow to $75.7bn by 2022. But alongside this healthy growth, a number of scammers are now taking advantage of subscriptions in order to trick users into signing up for expensive and recurring plans. They do this by intentionally confusing users with their app’s design and flow, by making promises of “free trials” that convert after only a matter of days, and other misleading tactics.

Apple will soon have an influx of consumer complaints on its hands if it doesn’t reign in these scammers more quickly…

…How are apps like QR code readers, document scanners, translators and weather apps raking in so much money? Especially when some of their utilitarian functions can be found elsewhere for much less, or even for free?

This raises the question as to whether some app developers are trying to scam App Store users by way of subscriptions.

We’ve found that does appear to be true, in many cases.

After reading through the critical reviews across the top money-making utilities, you’ll find customers complaining that the apps are too aggressive in pushing subscriptions (e.g. via constant prompts), offer little functionality without upgrading, provide no transparency around how free trials work and make it difficult to stop subscription payments, among other things.

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There’s a scanner app which is raking in $14.3m annually by charging $4 per week, and uses a total scam to get you to sign up. Aren’t people noticing this stuff on their bills?
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For China, even a censored Google search engine would be better than Baidu • South China Morning Post

Bai Tongdong:

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As a college professor, I find Baidu’s search results on scholarly matters deeply frustrating, because they don’t lead me to the webpages I wish to find. In contrast, Google’s search results are far more useful. Thanks to my part-time employment at New York University’s law school, I can use its virtual private networks (VPN) to access Google, a benefit that I consider more valuable than the extra pay.

And it is not just terrible search results, and the lack of access to useful tools such as Google Books. Baidu’s shameless commercialisation of its search engine has been the subject of controversy. For example, companies could – and maybe still can – bid for the top spots in Baidu’s search results, and users are not warned that these results are the outcome of commercial bidding and not sorted by relevance, as is the practice with Google.

In one case that sparked a public outcry, a young man used Baidu to search for treatments and clinics for the rare form of the cancer he suffered from. The man’s family spent over 200,000 yuan (US$29,000) on an experimental treatment at one of the for-profit hospitals that topped his Baidu search, but the treatment was unsuccessful and he died. The search results could have caused him to miss potentially life-saving treatment.

Therefore, what could be at stake here is not merely the convenience that search engines offer me as a scholar, but life itself. The reason that many Americans are against Google’s return to China is their opposition to the lack of democracy and free speech in China, with Google’s censored search engine seen to be pandering to these ills. But isn’t it ironic that these Americans fail to consider how Chinese people feel?

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link to this extract


How China rips off the iPhone and reinvents Android • The Verge

Sam Byford has a deep dive on the many big Chinese companies aiming to copy Apple as fast as possible, and also attract its users in China:

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As for the camera apps, it’s really incredible how similar the vast majority are — both to each other and to Apple. Judging by the accuracy and specificity of the rip-offs, the camera app from iOS 7 has a serious claim to being one of the most influential software designs of the past decade. Just look at the picture below. Xiaomi wins an extremely low number of points for putting the modes in a lowercase blue font. But otherwise, only Huawei has succeeded in creating a genuinely new camera app design, which happens to be very good. I consider it penance for the company’s egregious and barely functional rip-off of the iOS share sheet.

“Vivo’s performance in the global market so far is the result of great effort to understand consumer behavior, and our camera UI is designed with consumers’ habits in mind,” the Vivo product manager told me. “The swipe across navigation feature allows for users to keep their current habits to access different photography mode. This is supported by our usability tests which indicated that this method has the highest efficiency and best user experience.”

This backs up the idea that attracting iPhone switchers is a serious objective for Chinese software designers. “I definitely see that there’s evidence of a number of different companies that could be seen as following Apple or trying to create a UI that’s very much iOS-like,” says Pete Lau, CEO of phone company OnePlus. “And maybe they’re doing it for reasons of thinking that it makes it easier for users to transition to their products from Apple, and find the experience to be similar.”

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link to this extract


If you’re poor in the UK you get less, worse news — especially online, new research suggests » Nieman Journalism Lab

Laura Hazard Owen:

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News is more unevenly distributed in the UK than income is, according to new research from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Antonis Kalogeropoulos and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen found that poorer people consume less news than wealthier people and that the difference is particularly pronounced online, where poorer people are less likely to go directly to news sites for content.

“Whereas higher social grade individuals and lower social grade individuals use the same number of sources offline on average, lower social grade individuals use significantly fewer online sources on average,” the authors write.

This is in the United Kingdom, land of the great equalizer the BBC, which reaches a whopping 92% of UK adults. There is no media company in the US that comes close. Income inequality is also higher in the US than in the UK. In other words: this study focuses on the UK but the problem is likely the same or worse in the US.

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You could wonder about correlation and causation. But which direction does it flow?
link to this extract


The poison on Facebook and Twitter is still spreading • The New York Times

The NYT Editorial Board (“represents the opinions of the board, its editor and the publisher, but not the newsroom or op-ed section”):

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This week, a question from The New York Times prompted Facebook to take down a network of accounts linked to the Myanmar military. Although Facebook was already aware of the problem in general, the request for comment from The Times flagged specific instances of “seemingly independent entertainment, beauty and informational pages” that were tied to a military operation that sowed the internet with anti-Rohingya sentiment.

The week before, The Times found a number of suspicious pages spreading viral misinformation about Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused Brett Kavanaugh of assault. After The Times showed Facebook some of those pages, the company said it had already been looking into the issue. Facebook took down the pages flagged by The Times, but similar pages that hadn’t yet been shown to the company stayed up.

It’s not just The Times, and it’s not just Facebook. Again and again, the act of reporting out a story gets reduced to outsourced content moderation.

“We all know that feeling,” says Charlie Warzel, a reporter at BuzzFeed who’s written about everything from viral misinformation on Twitter to exploitative child content on YouTube. “You flag a flagrant violation of terms of service and send out a request for comment. And you’re just sitting there refreshing, and then you see it come down — and afterward you get this boilerplate reply via email.”

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link to this extract


Saudis’ image makers: a troll army and a Twitter insider • The New York Times

Katie Benner, Mark Mazzetti, Ben Hubbard and Mike Isaac:

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Mr. Khashoggi’s online attackers were part of a broad effort dictated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his close advisers to silence critics both inside Saudi Arabia and abroad. Hundreds of people work at a so-called troll farm in Riyadh to smother the voices of dissidents like Mr. Khashoggi. The vigorous push also appears to include the grooming — not previously reported — of a Saudi employee at Twitter whom Western intelligence officials suspected of spying on user accounts to help the Saudi leadership.

The killing by Saudi agents of Mr. Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, has focused the world’s attention on the kingdom’s intimidation campaign against influential voices raising questions about the darker side of the crown prince. The young royal has tightened his grip on the kingdom while presenting himself in Western capitals as the man to reform the hidebound Saudi state.

This portrait of the kingdom’s image management crusade is based on interviews with seven people involved in those efforts or briefed on them; activists and experts who have studied them; and American and Saudi officials, along with messages seen by The New York Times that described the inner workings of the troll farm.

Saudi operatives have mobilized to harass critics on Twitter, a wildly popular platform for news in the kingdom since the Arab Spring uprisings began in 2010. Saud al-Qahtani, a top adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed who was fired on Saturday in the fallout from Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, was the strategist behind the operation, according to United States and Saudi officials, as well as activist organizations…

…Twitter executives first became aware of a possible plot to infiltrate user accounts at the end of 2015, when Western intelligence officials told them that the Saudis were grooming an employee, Ali Alzabarah, to spy on the accounts of dissidents and others, according to five people briefed on the matter. They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

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He was fired that December. I got a small glimpse of the Saudi attack bots when I tweeted about Khashoggi’s disappearance early on; they’re pretty stupid, and easy to mute or block, but also plentiful and relentless.
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Revealed: Israel’s cyber-spy industry helps world dictators hunt dissidents and gays • Israel News – Haaretz.com

Hagar Shezaf and Jonathan Jacobson:

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the Israeli espionage industry has become the spearhead of the global commerce in surveillance tools and communications interception. Today, every self-respecting governmental agency that has no respect for the privacy of its citizens, is equipped with spy capabilities created in Herzliya Pituah.

The reports about Pegasus prompted Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg and human rights lawyer Itay Mack to go to court in 2016 with a request to suspend NSO’s export permit. At the state’s request, however, the deliberations were held in camera and a gag order was issued on the judgment. Supreme Court President Justice Esther Hayut summed up the matter by noting, “Our economy, as it happens, rests not a little on that export.”

The Defense Ministry benefits from the news blackout. Supervision takes place far from the public eye – not even the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is privy to basic details of the lion’s share of Israel’s defense exports. Contrary to the norms that exist in other democracies, the ministry refuses to disclose the list of countries to which military exports are prohibited, or the criteria and standards that underlie its decisions.

A comprehensive investigation carried out by Haaretz, based on about 100 sources in 15 countries, had as its aim lifting the veil of secrecy from commerce based on means of espionage. The findings show that Israeli industry have not hesitated to sell offensive capabilities to many countries that lack a strong democratic tradition, even when they have no way to ascertain whether the items sold were being used to violate the rights of civilians.

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link to this extract


Another iPad Pro rumor says USB-C will replace Lightning this year • BGR

Jacob Siegal:

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As part of its coverage of the Global Source Mobile Electronics Trade Fair in Hong Kong this week, Japanese blog Macotakara reports that each and every accessory maker it spoke to claims that the next iPad Pro will feature a USB-C connector for charging and data transfer. This would mark the first time Apple has replaced the proprietary Lightning port on any of its mobile devices since the technology was introduced back in 2012.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard rumors about Apple weaning itself off of Lightning, but the number of corroborating reports claiming the next iPad Pro will be the first Apple tablet to have a USB-C port continues to grow.

Just last week, sources told 9to5Mac that the 2018 iPad Pro will be able to output 4K HDR video to external display using its new USB-C port. There will be a new panel in the Settings app specifically for controlling what users share on other screens, including resolution, brightness, turning HDR on and off, and more.

9to5Mac’s report didn’t clarify whether or not the USB-C port would replace the Lightning port altogether, but back in September, reliable Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said in a research note that Apple’s next iPad will ship with an 18W USB-C charger in the box, and that Apple is ready to start moving on to USB-C.

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Bear in mind that iPads outsell Macs by about 3:1, so if new iPads start using USB-C that could begin to make an impact. Accessory makers take note of such things because for retailers, margins on accessories are better than on the devices themselves. Though of course iPhones outsell iPads by about 4:1, and they’re pretty resolutely Lightning devices.
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Pioneer of Central Washington cryptocurrency boom falls on hard times • The Seattle Times

Paul Roberts:

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Last October, Giga Watt was on a scorching upward trajectory. With prices for bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies soaring and international investors clamoring for a piece of the digital action, the East Wenatchee-based company had expanded to 62 employees and raised tens of millions of dollars for what it hoped would be a game-changing project: a sprawling campus of 24 prefabricated buildings where would-be crypto “miners” could run their own computers and solve the complicated mathematical algorithms that yield the digital gold.

As the pods arose from a muddy site near the Douglas County airport, local government officials talked excitedly about the emergence of a new, 21st-century industry based on the complex “blockchain” technologies that enable bitcoin and other cryptocurrency. Giga Watt and its founder, a former Seattle-area programmer named Dave Carlson, saw themselves on that revolution’s cutting edge.

Now it’s a starkly different picture. Last month, beset by millions of dollars in debt, ongoing legal problems and questions about its unconventional financing, Giga Watt laid off 80% of its staff and suspended all construction. Carlson himself stepped down in August.

The moves come as the volatile sector, which ignited a small gold rush in the mid-Columbia Basin, is struggling with softening cryptocurrency prices and uncertain costs for its prime “raw material,” cheap electricity. The market correction has wiped out many small players and forced even some larger players to rewrite their plans.

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As usual, the people who reliably get rich in gold rushes are the ones selling spades – as long as they get paid for them. Contractors are owed around $5m.
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PUD Board acts to halt unauthorized bitcoin mining • Chelan Power and Utilities Department

The power department in Chelan, Washington state, a couple of hundred miles east of Seattle:

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“…we’re incensed that individuals are putting people at risk,” said Commissioner Steve McKenna. “We’re not going to tolerate it. This is a strong message, and I want to make that very clear.”

His comments came after hearing of unauthorized cryptocurrency mining discovered last week in a Wenatchee apartment, a Malaga home and Chelan mini-storage units. Each operation was using enough power to create fire risks for neighbors and damage grid equipment not sized for the load. PUD crews disconnected power for the unauthorized services. (Discussion starts at 01:00 on the meeting audio.)

Board President Dennis Bolz said these actions will not be tolerated. “This has to end,” Bolz said.

Commissioner Garry Arseneault said heightened enforcement is aimed at, “scoundrels,” who are deliberating thwarting PUD regulations. “I want to take one step back and say that users of power that have legitimate requests, and have been properly sized for the use of that power, that’s not the kind of entity we’re discussing today.

“What we’re discussing is a person who is purposely trying to slip around the end and use power in a way that a facility was not designed for and doing so in a manner where there’s been no request for service to meet that kind of demand.” He added, “I see yet, once again, a reason to support the installation of automated meters to be able to confront these scoundrels before they do burn an apartment building down and perhaps kill a family or children in the process.”

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Sounds a bit like shutting down cryptomining by, er, fiat.
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What happens when everyone in a room keeps giving dollars to random others? • Decision Science News

Annie Duke:

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When we were giving a talk at the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Northwestern we met Uri Wilensky, who shared with us a simulation he likes to assign.

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Imagine a room full of 100 people with 100 dollars each. With every tick of the clock, every person with money gives a dollar to one randomly chosen other person. After some time progresses, how will the money be distributed?

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If on quick reflection you thought “more or less equally”, you are not alone. I asked 5 super-smart PhDs this question and they all had the same initial intuition.

How does the distribution look? Play the movie above to see. [You’ll have to click through; the video doesn’t have an embed.] Here’s how it works.

The movie shows 5,000 clock ticks in less than a minute.

The Y axis shows the number of dollars each person has. It starts at 45 dollars each.

On the x-axis we have 45 people.

The red bars show the wealth of each person at each tick of the clock.

The blue bars are the same as red bars, but sorted to show how wealth is distributed. The rightmost blue bar is the height of the highest red bar, and so on down.

Don’t believe it? Play with R and tidyverse and gganimate code yourself.

Inequality can arise from seemingly innocuous policies — you need to keep an eye on it.

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Ah, hello, Mr Pareto. The penthouse suite as usual? (From Decision Science News, a once-weekly signup newsletter.) There’s more discussion here.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

4 thoughts on “Start Up No.935: whither Windows?, the App Store subscription scam, China’s Android schemes, the class news problem, and more

  1. re. Windows quality. Whats unacceptable is that MS has an extensive beta-testers pool, yet they disregarded warnings not only about features, but about bugs. I guess now that Windows brings in less money, it’s entitled to less effort. That’s an iffy proposition long-term. There’s still no sensible alternative though.

    It’s kind of weird to see nerd forums filled with “how to NOT get the update” topics.

  2. re subscriptions. I won’t subscribe to any individual app not so much because I don’t want to rent an app, but because
    a) I don’t want to rent access to my own data
    b) I don’t want to have to manage 10+ subs
    c) I don’t want ruin by a thousand cuts: subs add up.

    But why aren’t the stores offering umbrella subscriptions ? It’d make the purchasing process less friction-y, lock-in users (esp with alternative stores possibly coming up), and give a sense of freedom instead of lock-in: for $4.99/mo, sub to any 5 apps and switch at any time !

  3. the “Chinese rip off the iPhone” canard is getting less true.

    First the Chinese mostly use Android design and apps. Duh… but it bears highlighting that for example the Chinese have the wisdom and good taste to not mess with Android’s superior notifications. They’ve even been backtracking on the “no app drawer” dead-end lately.

    Second, the catch-up phase during which aiming to “be like and as good as” iPhone is over. Because R&D first manifests in flagships, this is not impacting most Chinese phones yet, but the flagships are increasingly diverging from iPhones: Xiaomi’s Mi Mix has a single small chin bezel, BBK (Oppo, Vivo, OnePlus) has a full-screen phone with a periscope cam and another one where the whole screen slides away. From afar, midrangers can be mistaken for iPhones, and that odious cutout is spreading. Not so flagships, which I think is significant of a new independence of thought.

    Third, there’s always the background issue that lots of things get attributed to the iPhone that really shouldn’t. Notch, metal unibody, TouchID, no-jack… Reciprocally, there’s barely ever a look into what Apple is copying from Chinese (or more generally Asian) OEMs. The article mentions theming, which iOS and Google-Android mostly don’t have.

    I think we’re seeing in smartphones what we saw with cars when I was young. I don’t think software is different than hardware: to go along with the stereotypes, you can make software better by focusing on quality and relentlessly iterating after user feedback. It’s been a few years since I’ve wanted to stomp on my phone because of software idiocies or bugs. And that was a Motorola.

    Also, it’s worth highlighting the the Chinese are not just doing phones, but also laptops, TV boxes and gadgets. There’s ecosystem potential, there.

  4. Actually, I got a dumb question: The Verge’s article makes a lot about the Chinese camera apps being ripped off the iPhone. Has anyone bothered to check that the iPhone’s isn’t a rip-off of another camera app ? The question bears asking because
    a) there’s a long history of stuff being credited to Apple that really shoudln’t be
    b) there’s nothing particularly earth-shattering about Apple’s photo UI, and I distinctly remember other phones (LG ? Nokia ?) being praised for their camera UI years ago.
    I coudln’t find the info.

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