Start Up No.937: Google v the ad fraudsters, Wikitribune fires its journos, Apple’s TV service coming, Oculus’s closing spiral, and more

The iPhone XR reviews are in: it’s good value. Photo by portalgda on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Portugal courts rule Google can’t remove Aptoide from users’ Android phones • Pocketnow

Jules Wang:


Portugese third-party Android app store Aptoide has claimed a major legal victory against the maker of said OS — this coming on top of Google’s recent compliance measures to the European Commission’s ruling against the bundling of its search and web clients with popular apps.

The verdict is said to ban Google’s Play Protect software, the security suite associated with the Play Store, from identifyting Aptoide as malware and removing it, occasionally without users’ consent. Aptoide must be downloaded from its site. Play Protect would show prompts urging the user to uninstall the app because it is unsafe and would prevent users from downloading any apps from the store.

Aptoide says the ruling is applicable to 82 countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and India. It hopes to recover some of the more than 2.2 million daily active users it has lost in the past 60 days. For reference, it boasts 250 million users with 6 billion total downloads.


OK, so Google can’t ban it, even if it thinks it’s malware. Got that? Now read on…
link to this extract

Apps installed on millions of Android phones tracked user behavior to execute a multimillion dollar ad fraud scheme • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman:


Last April, Steven Schoen received an email from someone named Natalie Andrea who said she worked for a company called We Purchase Apps. She wanted to buy his Android app, Emoji Switcher. But right away, something seemed off.

“I did a little bit of digging because I was a little sketched out because I couldn’t really find even that the company existed,” Schoen told BuzzFeed News.

The We Purchase Apps website listed a location in New York, but the address appeared to be a residence. “And their phone number was British. It was just all over the place,” Schoen said…

…an investigation by BuzzFeed News reveals that these seemingly separate apps and companies are today part of a massive, sophisticated digital advertising fraud scheme involving more than 125 Android apps and websites connected to a network of front and shell companies in Cyprus, Malta, British Virgin Islands, Croatia, Bulgaria, and elsewhere. More than a dozen of the affected apps are targeted at kids or teens, and a person involved in the scheme estimates it has stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from brands whose ads were shown to bots instead of actual humans. (A full list of the apps, the websites, and their associated companies connected to the scheme can be found in this spreadsheet.)

One way the fraudsters find apps for their scheme is to acquire legitimate apps through We Purchase Apps and transfer them to shell companies. They then capture the behavior of the app’s human users and program a vast network of bots to mimic it, according to analysis from Protected Media, a cybersecurity and fraud detection firm that analyzed the apps and websites at BuzzFeed News’ request.

This means a significant portion of the millions of Android phone owners who downloaded these apps were secretly tracked as they scrolled and clicked inside the application. By copying actual user behavior in the apps, the fraudsters were able to generate fake traffic that bypassed major fraud detection systems.


Worth how much? Perhaps $750 million. Targeting Android because it’s a bigger user base and has less rigorous app review. Google has taken down a ton of apps as a result.
link to this extract

Wikipedia chief’s news website axes all its journalists • The Times

Matthew Moore:


“The news is broken, but we have figured out how to fix it,” Mr Wales, 52, proclaimed in April last year, dismissing the scepticism of media academics who warned that the “wiki” model, whereby anyone can add or edit content, would not work for investigative journalism.

The site, which is based in London, has been live for 12 months but Mr Wales has now ditched the original strategy by laying off the site’s team of [17] reporters and editors. Last week Wikitribune’s online volunteers were told that they could start publishing articles on their own without them being checked by professionals.

Mr Wales said that the new approach would make the site more enjoyable to use and bring down barriers to participation. He claimed that the number of edits by members of the public had already increased as a result of the changes. “We are still working through the site and finding vestiges of the clearly wrong perception that the journalists are ‘above’ the community, supervising their work,” he wrote in a note to supporters on Sunday.

“This was never the intention and it is something we got wrong in the early design. Despite the best efforts of staff, the overall structure and design didn’t let the community genuinely flourish.” He said there had been “major personnel changes” but that the site was looking to hire a new team of journalists to work in community support roles. The site remains free to access and is funded by donations rather than advertisers.

Signs that the original approach was failing emerged in May when Mr Wales admitted that the site “didn’t get much work done”. He compared it to Nupedia, a Wikipedia predecessor he founded in 1999 but which closed in 2003, and which is seen to have failed because its rigorous quality standards discouraged public involvement.


This was predictable. Journalism isn’t brain surgery or law – it’s not a profession; it’s a trade like plumbing or carpentry. But you don’t want just anyone doing your plumbing or carpentry. And the question of how you get people to read that journalism is the problem that Wikitribune never grappled with. Wikipedia had the advantage of starting when the web wasn’t so monolithic. If it started now, how long would it last?
link to this extract

Apple to launch TV subscription service globally • The Information

Jessica Toonkel:


Apple is working to launch its new TV service in the US in the first half of next year and will make the app available globally in the following months, the people said. It will include Apple’s original programs free to Apple device owners and also will enable users to sign up for TV network subscriptions owned by other companies, just as Amazon Prime Video subscribers can do through the Amazon Channels feature in the US, UK, Germany and Japan, the people said…

…The speed at which Apple is moving shows how it is trying to catch up to rivals that have been operating video streaming services for years. Amazon Prime Video is in 200 countries while Netflix is in more than 190 countries. The head start its rivals enjoy could make it tough for Apple’s new service to take off. Another issue is that the service will only be available to owners of its devices, including Apple TVs.

Apple lags rivals in many key categories: In the first quarter of this year, for instance, Apple TV had 28% of the US market for streaming devices, behind Roku with 37%, according to Parks Associates. In smartphones globally, Apple has about 15% of the market to Android’s 85%, according to IDC.

It makes sense for Apple to position its subscription service as a way to make television viewing easier for customers, rather than try to go head-to-head with Amazon and Netflix on original programming, said Tim Nollen, an analyst at Macquarie.

This is particularly true as the number of over-the-top services continues to grow globally. “Having the ability to make life easier for consumers in this fragmented, over-the-top marketplace makes sense,” he said.


Apple isn’t going to get much value from its investment if it’s only on Apple TV and gives it away. Though it does emphasise how it sees the value of its lock-in.

link to this extract

No, AI won’t solve the fake news problem • The New York Times

Gary Marcus (a professor of psychology) and Ernest Davis (a professor of computer science):


To get a handle on what automated fake-news detection would require, consider an article posted in May on the far-right website WorldNetDaily, or WND. The article reported that a decision to admit girls, gays and lesbians to the Boy Scouts had led to a requirement that condoms be available at its “global gathering.” A key passage consists of the following four sentences:


The Boy Scouts have decided to accept people who identify as gay and lesbian among their ranks. And girls are welcome now, too, into the iconic organization, which has renamed itself Scouts BSA. So what’s next? A mandate that condoms be made available to ‘all participants’ of its global gathering.


Was this account true or false? Investigators at the fact-checking site Snopes determined that the report was “mostly false.” But determining how it went afoul is a subtle business beyond the dreams of even the best current A.I.

First of all, there is no telltale set of phrases. “Boy Scouts” and “gay and lesbian,” for example, have appeared together in many true reports before. Then there is the source: WND, though notorious for promoting conspiracy theories, publishes and aggregates legitimate news as well. Finally, sentence by sentence, there are a lot of true facts in the passage: Condoms have indeed been available at the global gathering that scouts attend, and the Boy Scouts organization has indeed come to accept girls as well as gays and lesbians into its ranks.

What makes the article “mostly false” is that it implies a causal connection that doesn’t exist. It strongly suggests that the inclusion of gays and lesbians and girls led to the condom policy (“So what’s next?”). But in truth, the condom policy originated in 1992 (or even earlier) and so had nothing to do with the inclusion of gays, lesbians or girls, which happened over just the past few years.


link to this extract

Apple iPhone XR review: better than good enough • The Verge

Nilay Patel:


Here’s a question: how much do you care about the display on your phone? Take a moment and really consider it. If you were to put a dollar amount on it, how much would having a perfect display be worth to you?

Apple has an answer, and it’s $250.

That’s the price difference between the new iPhone XR and Apple’s top-of-the-line iPhone XS. It’s the price difference between the XR’s 6.1-inch “Liquid Retina” LCD screen and the 5.8-inch OLED screen on the XS. Apart from the display, the XR and XS are far more similar than not: they share the same A12 Bionic processors, main cameras with Smart HDR, iOS 12, gesture controls, wireless charging capabilities, and even the forthcoming dual-SIM support.

There are some other subtle differences as well: the XR has a single rear camera, while the XS has a second telephoto lens. The XR is offered in just one somewhat large size, while the XS comes in smaller and larger variants. And the XR is made of aluminum instead of stainless steel, which allows it to come in a wide variety of colors, ranging from white, black, blue, coral, yellow, and red.

Those differences are interesting and worth pulling apart, but really, the simplest way to think about the iPhone XR is that it offers virtually the same experience as the iPhone XS for $250 less, but you’ll be looking at a slightly worse display.


This is the nut (as they say) for pretty much every review I’ve seen of the XR. Same CPU, slightly less RAM (but that won’t make a difference with iOS), one less back camera. If you notice the difference in display quality, you’ll go for the XS/Max (or stick with the X).

Smart of Apple to release the XS/Max a month or so ahead of the XR – which looks likely, on price and specs, to sell in huge numbers.
link to this extract

Your inner drone: the politics of the automated future • Long Reads

Nick Carr:


Many computer companies and software houses now say they’re working to make their products invisible. “I am super excited about technologies that disappear completely,” declares Jack Dorsey, a prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneur. “We’re doing this with Twitter, and we’re doing this with [the online credit-card processor] Square.” Apple has promoted the iPad as a device that “gets out of the way.” Picking up on the theme, Google markets Glass as a means of “getting technology out of the way.”

The prospect of having a complicated technology fade into the background, so it can be employed with little effort or thought, can be as appealing to those who use it as to those who sell it. “When technology gets out of the way, we are liberated from it,” the New York Times columnist Nick Bilton has written. But it’s not that simple. You don’t just flip a switch to make a technology invisible. It disappears only after a slow process of cultural and personal acclimation. As we habituate ourselves to it, the technology comes to exert more power over us, not less. We may be oblivious to the constraints it imposes on our lives, but the constraints remain. As the French sociologist Bruno Latour points out, the invisibility of a familiar technology is “a kind of optical illusion.” It obscures the way we’ve refashioned ourselves to accommodate the technology.


Carr’s pieces flow like a river, but like a river you also have to let it carry you onwards.
link to this extract

‘Tech tax’ necessary to avoid dystopia, says leading economist • The Guardian

Alex Hern:


A “tech tax” is necessary if the world is to avoid a dystopian future in which AI leads to a concentration of global wealth in the hands of a few thousand people, influential economist Dr Jeffrey Sachs has warned.

Speaking to the Guardian, Sachs backed calls for taxation aimed at the largest tech companies, arguing that new technologies were dramatically shifting the income distribution worldwide “from labour to intellectual property (IP) and other capital income.”

“So rather than cutting capital income taxation, as we’ve been doing in a race to the bottom, we ought to be finding ways to tax capital income and IP income,” Sachs added.

“Things like the proposed tech tax are actually a very good idea. The specific form of it is debatable, but the idea is that five companies are worth $3.5tn, basically because of network externalities and information monopolies, and therefore are absolutely right for efficient taxation.”

Sachs is in London to speak at an event organised by the Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s national institute for data science and artificial intelligence.


OK, so how is this tech tax going to work? Will companies be taxed on revenue? Capital value? IP value? One can imagine that there will be sneaky ways found around any method used to try to extract it. (Revenues will be dodged to offshore banks, as happens already. Companies will sell-and-lease-back property, asset-stripping themselves and turning capex into opex. IP will be undervalued.) I’m in favour of the principle; it’s the practice I wonder about.
link to this extract

Even in Indiana, new renewables are cheaper than existing coal plants • Utility Dive


Last week, Northern Indiana Public Service Co. (NIPSCO) presented analysis for its 2018 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), finding it can save customers more than $4bn over 30 years by moving from 65% coal today to 15% coal in 2023 and eliminating the resource by 2028.

To replace retiring coal, NIPSCO found that a portfolio of solar, storage, wind and demand management is the most cost effective, along with a small amount of market purchases from the Midcontinent ISO. The utility will file its IRP on Oct. 31.

NIPSCO’s upcoming IRP is more evidence that coal generation is steadily declining in the U.S. despite efforts from the Trump administration to save it.

In Indiana, as elsewhere, the issue is economics. The youngest generating units at NIPSCO’s 1900 MW Schahfer plant were built in the mid 1980s, and the utility’s analysis found that keeping them on the system would be more expensive than replacing them with new wind, solar and batteries.


Yes, you’ve noticed that it’s actually cheaper to retire *all* the coal plants, but the utility thinks that carries “unacceptable risks” to reliability. Yet even when they tried to nudge the numbers to be as coal-friendly as possible (at the urging of a trade body), renewables still won.

link to this extract

Oculus co-founder is leaving Facebook after cancellation of ‘Rift 2’ headset • TechCrunch

Lucas Matney:


Brendan Iribe, the co-founder and former CEO of Oculus, announced today that he is leaving Facebook, TechCrunch has learned.

Iribe is leaving Facebook following some internal shake-ups in the company’s virtual reality arm last week that saw the cancellation of the company’s next generation “Rift 2” PC-powered virtual reality headset, which he had been leading development of, a source close to the matter told TechCrunch.

Iribe and the Facebook executive team had “fundamentally different views on the future of Oculus that grew deeper over time,” and Iribe wasn’t interested in a “race to the bottom” in terms of performance, we are told.


A few ways to view this: 1) another Facebook purchase founder goes! 2) What’s happened to Oculus then? 3) What’s happening to VR then?

1) not that unusual. Stocks vest, people decide to move on. Or they don’t, if they’re enjoying things.
2) Facebook wants to do VR on the move, Oculus’s people wanted top-flight VR. Facebook won.
3) Nothing good.
link to this extract

Oculus Rift VOD discontinued: VR movie store shutting down • Variety

Janko Roettgers:


Facebook’s VR subsidiary Oculus is shutting down its VOD efforts on is Oculus Rift headset this week, and is reimbursing anyone who has bought titles in the past. Oculus told Rift users in an email about the changes Monday, and confirmed the move in a comment sent to Variety.

“Over the years, we’ve seen how people use VR for everything from gaming to movies, and it’s become clear that while people love to stream immersive media on other devices, Rift is used primarily for gaming,” Oculus said in its email to customers.  “These insights inform how we support new and existing features and apps across the platform.”

The movie store on Rift is shutting down Monday. Consumers who have purchased or rented movies in the past will continue to have access to them until November 20. “After this date, you will no longer be able to access any purchased or rented movies through Oculus Video, but you can continue to watch video and streams from other sources, such as Facebook 360,” the company said in its email.


Seems like the window of broader opportunity is closing again for VR; it probably won’t open again for another 10 years or so. It’s going to be a niche gaming device. And that’s it.
link to this extract

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

5 thoughts on “Start Up No.937: Google v the ad fraudsters, Wikitribune fires its journos, Apple’s TV service coming, Oculus’s closing spiral, and more

  1. Upon further investigation it seems
    a) the Aptoide app itself never contained malware
    b) apps downloaded through Aptoide did sometimes, apparently not overwhelmingly more than Apple’s AppStore or Google’s PlayStore
    c) Aptoide also distributes pirated copies of legit apps

    That’s messy. As long as Google Play Protect can audit the downloaded apps, we should be fine. Still, sideloading and rooting isn’t recommended except in life and death situations. And for Fortnite 😦

  2. And a second 2nd-gen gaming phone, after Razer’s: the Xiaomi Black Shark Helo

    I’m curious if a legitimate hardcore gaming market will develop on Mobile. The hardware seems legit (good specs, excellent cooling, credible controllers) to the point I’d even recommend the phones for some mainstream uses (excellent battery and loudspeakers, the main drawback is their looks). Sensible tweaks to the OS and experience. The big question is whether users will pay up (the hardware isn’t that overpriced, but good games cost money), and devs will follow and enable games one can’t play on regular phones. I’m doubtful: nVidia’s gaming tablet and TV box ended up being used mostly as excellent media machines.

    Of note, Samsung hasn’t released anything yet, and Huawei is kinda tweaking some phones to better support gaming, not launching dedicated models.

    A fun niche to watch.

  3. re. iPhone XR.

    I chuckled a few -too many- times at reviews calling the XR “affordable”. $750 isn’t affordable. “Affordable” is a $150 Xiaomi Redmi Note 5, and from my experience 80% of users will be delightfully served by that one. Plus $750 is right around where you should buy insurance, and AppleCare alone costs as almost twice much as the Note 5. Then tack on a few doodads (an actual fast charger for your fast-charging phone)… Also Samsung S9/S9+ (with AMOLED, dual cams…) is cheaper right now

    Apple has an awesome ability to both sell expensive devices and charge for extremely expensive extras. I’m repeatedly amazed people go for it. Their hardware and software stopped being either required or extraordinary a few years ago: cheap stuff is Good Enough for most, and other expensive stuff is better than Apple’s for the rest.

    Also, the XR does miss a few thing besides AMOLED:
    – a fast charger in the box (that’s extra)
    – 3D Touch, which apparently no longer matters now that’s it’s been used up as a PR topic
    – a second camera, which may or may not matter given that the Pixel 3 takes better pics than the XS with a single camera, but then Apple’s camera software is a far cry from Google’s.

  4. I was thinking, Chinese OEMs are a litmus test for which Apple stuff is generating pull and which isn’t. I’m not validating Apple invented or innovated most of the following stuff, but they implemented it (well !) and popularized it.

    – 3D Touch: nope. Android has had APIs for it since before Apple released it, Huawei kinda tried it. The ecosystem (users, devs, OEMs) didn’t pick it up.
    – Face ID: not really. OEMs have been adding a few lines of code to pretend to add face or retina ID to the selfie cam, but not the dedicated hardware required for Apple-level quality and security. They’re focusing on in-screen touch ID instead. General indifference.
    – dumbed-down launcher. yes. This is sad ;-p but can be fixed via 3rd-party launchers.
    – no-IO: this is schizophrenic. Chinese flagships have been getting rid of SD, jack, IR and FM like the plague, low and mid-range models have been carefully cultivating them, even adding 2SIMs+SD capability this year (instead of 1SIM + 1 SIM *or* SD).
    – cute design and “noble” materials. Yes. This is weird, even $100 phones are metal unibody. Then you put them in a case… It’ll be a long time until Apple re-re-invents plastics.
    – small phones: no. Apple had to turn around on that one.
    – Proprietary connectors: no.
    – Notch: yes. Which blows the mind, given most phones still do have a bezel. Fashion.

    There’s more, but this kind of explains why not having 3D touch on the XR isn’t a big deal. I’m curious to see if small phones and Lightning will be next to go, as the list they they should. There’s a lot of money in those though, unless they manage to upsell from SE to XS (which is 2cmx1cm bigger), and use USB-C but lock it down to MFI only.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.