Start Up No.941: why beacons died, tech giants face new UK tax, how Night Sight works, XR portraits for everything!, comments go sour (again), and more


A dork’s obsession with Mirai Nikki led to a botnet name – and his downfall. Photo by Shelling Bisetsu on Flickr.

A selection of 11 links for you. Guaranteed free of previously eradicated diseases. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Why Android Nearby, iBeacons, and Eddystone failed to gain traction • VentureBeat

Kyle Wiggers:

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It’s tough to convince customers to download a service they’ve never used, even with the promise of discounts — especially considering up to 70% haven’t heard of beacons.

Power and range limitations pose an additional challenge. Only about 40% of users in North America report using Bluetooth (though it’s worth noting that on most newer devices, Bluetooth interacts passively with BLE beacons), and Bluetooth signals are more easily obstructed by physical objects than Wi-Fi. Though they last for years in some cases, beacons’ batteries also have a finite lifespan. Deployment takes a lot of planning and testing.

Beacons tend to be spammy, too. Google cited “a significant increase in locally irrelevant … notifications” as the reason it decided to discontinue Nearby Notifications, and not without good reason. One recent study showed a 313% decline in shopping app use by customers who received more than one beacon notification in a single location.

And then there’s the matter of privacy. Few in-store apps are explicitly clear about what sort of location and behavioral information they’re collecting, which can include metrics like visits, unique visitors, new visitors, popular paths, repeat visits, retention, and more. The same goes for APIs like Google’s Nearby, which came under fire from privacy advocates concerned about how the audio component of the beacons is recorded and stored.

None of that’s to suggest beacons are entirely dead. Big-name retailers like Walmart, Rite Aid, and Target continue to trial BLE beacon-powered in-store shopping experiences; Google’s providing beacons to retailers in the US and UK; and overall annual beacon shipments are expected to hit 565 million units by 2021.

«

I’m struggling with the concept of a 313% decline in shopping app use. Did people delete the app off friends’ phones as well as their own?

But it’s another example of how you can’t force technology on people if they think it’s for someone else’s benefit, not their own. (I suspect people probably understand the tradeoff they’re making with Google and Facebook, given their rejection of beacons.)
link to this extract


Hammond targets US tech giants with ‘digital services tax’ • The Guardian

Rupert Neate:

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Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecasts suggest the tax [on profitable companies which have revenues over £500m globally] could raise just £30m each from the likes of Facebook, Amazon and Google. The levy will be charged at a rate of 2% and only apply against revenue from search engines, social media platforms and online marketplaces…

…Facebook paid £15.8m in UK tax last year despite collecting a record £1.3bn in British sales. Globally, Facebook made $20bn (£15.3bn) of profit on total sales of $40bn last year, meaning it converted half of its sales into profits. However, in the UK 5% of sales were converted into UK-taxable profits. The social media firm paid very little tax in the UK because its profits were reduced by a £444m charge for unexplained “administrative expenses”.

Margaret Hodge, a Labour MP and former chair of the public accounts committee, said it was “absolutely outrageous” how little tax US Facebook paid in the UK.

Hammond said he was “already looking forward to my call from the former leader of the Liberal Democrats”. Sir Nick Clegg, the former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister, last week started work as Facebook’s head of global policy and communications.

Clegg’s brief will include explaining to world leaders why Facebook pays so little tax outside of the US. When he was deputy prime minister Clegg spoke out against people and firms who game the international tax system, saying the public are “rightly angered” by a “wealthy elite” who paid “an army of accountants” to avoid tax.

Amazon paid £4.5m in UK tax last year, despite sales of £8.7bn. Google paid £49m on UK 2017 sales of £7.6bn. The auction site eBay paid £1.6m on sales of £1bn, but was later forced to pay an additional £6m after a review by HMRC.

Hammond made clear that the new tax would not be an online sales tax, which “would fall on consumers of those goods – that is not our intention”.

He also sought to reassure the UK’s thriving digital startup community that the tax is not designed to hinder their growth, saying it would be structured to ensure “established tech giants rather than our tech startups shoulder the burden”.

«

It doesn’t seem like a lot of money being raked in. Sure, tax is due on profits rather than revenues, but the profit-dodging really is excessive.

Side note: Neate is the “wealth correspondent”. Seems appropriate he is writing about this.
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How Google’s Night Sight works, and why it’s so good • ExtremeTech

David Cardinal:

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Google, in essence, combined these uses of multi-image capture to create better low-light images. In doing so, it is building on a series of clever innovations in imaging. It is likely that Marc Levoy’s Android app SeeInTheDark and his 2015 paper on “Extreme imaging using cell phones” were the genesis of this effort. Levoy was a pioneer in computational imaging at Stanford and is now a Distinguished Engineer working on camera technology for Google. SeeInTheDark (a follow-on to his earlier SynthCam iOS app) used a standard phone to accumulate frames, warping each frame to match the accumulated image, and then performing a variety of noise reduction and image enhancement steps to produce a remarkable final low-light image. In 2017 a Google Engineer, Florian Kanz, built on some of those concepts to show how a phone could be used to create professional-quality images even in very low light…

…Given how long image stacking has been around, and how many camera and phone makers have employed some version of it, it’s fair to ask why Google’s Night Sight seems to be so much better than anything else out there. First, even the technology in Levoy’s original paper is very complex, so the years Google has had to continue to improve on it should give them a decent head start on anyone else. But Google has also said that Night Sight uses machine learning to decide the proper colors for a scene based on content.

That’s pretty cool sounding, but also fairly vague. It isn’t clear whether it is segmenting individual objects so that it knows they should be a consistent color, or coloring well-known objects appropriately, or globally recognizing a type of scene the way intelligent autoexposure algorithms do and deciding how scenes like that should generally look (green foliage, white snow, and blue skies for example). I’m sure once the final version rolls out and photographers get more experience with the capability, we’ll learn more about this use of machine learning.

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link to this extract


Let’s talk about comments on Android Police • Android Police

The team there have noticed a new trend in vitriol:

»

It’s called discussion hijacking (which is essentially just trolling), and we’re going to be deleting comments we feel hijack the discussion from here on out. What does it mean to hijack the discussion, exactly? One example is an angry remark that, while technically “on topic,” doesn’t actually add anything to the discussion but vitriol. Replying “fuck the notch!” in all caps on any article about a phone with a notch is not helpful. And yes, someone was actually doing that.

Another example hijacking we’ve frequently seen—likely because of growing political unrest in the United States (home to over 40% of our readers)—is shifting the discussion to completely unrelated political topics. To show you what we mean, the below comment was left on a post about a Pixel 3 bug:

This commenter clearly is attempting to start a fight, not engage in a discussion of the post topic. Comments like this are no longer going to be tolerated. Another example: this comment on a post about new Android license fees in the European Union, where someone randomly decided to complain about welfare in Sweden. It’s not as obvious in its baiting as either of the first two, but the intent is clear: to hijack a discussion of the post topic and turn it into a bad faith mud-slinging match about socialism.

Finally, in case you’re thinking it doesn’t get worse than this: it does! This comment was on an article about Verizon’s Pixel 3, which actually prompted us to write this post.

Bonus: This person threatened us when we banned him.

These comments don’t contribute to the discussion at all — they hijack the discussion and (oftentimes, purposefully) attract hateful responses from people with opposing views.

«

Gee, ya think? How soon before we all just give up on internet comments? It’s increasingly hard to argue that they’re in any way better than just getting people to write an email. Or, actually, write a letter.

And while we’re on the topic of repellent content…
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Gab forced offline over apparent tie to Pittsburgh synagogue shooter • Ars Technica

Timothy Lee:

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Gab is two years old and claims around 800,000 users. As mainstream social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have cracked down on hate speech, Trump-supporting entrepreneur Andrew Torba set up Gab as a “free speech” alternative. Gab bans explicit advocacy of violence, but garden-variety hate speech is allowed on the platform. Gab’s permissive rules have attracted far-right figures like Richard Spencer and David Duke.

Gab has repeatedly clashed with major technology platforms over concerns about the extremist content on the site. Gab was forced to change domain providers in 2017 after its old provider threatened to cancel the site’s domain. Also last year, Google banned Gab’s app from the Play Store, citing the app’s lack of hate speech filtering. (Apple never allowed Gab to offer an iOS app in the first place.)

In August, Gab was nearly banned from Microsoft’s Azure platform over anti-Semitic Gab posts. Gab got a reprieve when the Gab user behind the posts agreed to take them down.

But in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, Gab has faced a lot more pressure from mainstream service providers. PayPal banned Gab over the weekend, as did payment processor Stripe. Medium and Joyent also refused service to Gab. The final straw was GoDaddy, which gave Gab 24 hours to find a new domain provider.

It’s a bit surprising that Gab wound up on GoDaddy because GoDaddy was one of the first domain providers to ban the neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer last year.

«

link to this extract


Ahead of Apple’s earnings and new kit: 14 graphs to think about • The Overspill

Apple announces its earnings to the end of September on Thursday, and new hardware today, Tuesday. So I’ve looked at what its financials to the end of June tell us about what we might expect, with graphs like this:

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We don’t know what the ASP for the Apple Watch or various doodads such as Beats headphones are, but these are the big-ticket items that Apple sells. The general story? Look at how the iPad ASP keeps getting beaten down. And look at how the iPhone ASP has looked perky in the past four quarters. Ditto for the Mac, though it’s only at the level it used to be after some years when it fell regularly. You can’t see any effect from $5,000 Mac Pros in there, can you?

«

The graph of iPad ASP v sales, and the geographical sales, tell quite the story.
link to this extract


iPhone XR: a deep dive into depth • Halide

Ben Sandofsky:

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Halide 1.11 will let you take Portrait mode photos of just about anything, not just people.

We do this by grabbing the focus pixel disparity map and running the image through our custom blur. When you open Halide on iPhone XR, simply tap ‘Depth’ to enable depth capture. Any photo you take will have a depth map, and if there’s sufficient data to determine a foreground and background, the image will get beautifully rendered bokeh, just like iPhone XS shots.

You’ll notice that enabling the Depth Capture mode does not allow you to preview Portrait blur effect or even automatically detect people. Unfortunately, the iPhone XR does not stream depth data in realtime, so we can’t do a portrait preview. You’ll have to review your portrait effects after having taken the photo, much like the Google Pixel.

Is it perfect? No — as we mentioned, the depth data is lower quality than dual-camera iPhones. But it’s good enough in many situations, and can be used to get some great shots:

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Always assuming it passes app review. Apple’s into a strange cat-and-mouse with people finding clever stuff to do with the data it provides; it certainly makes the XR an even more attractive phone.
link to this extract


Mirai co-author gets six months confinement, $8.6m in fines for Rutgers attacks • Krebs on Security

Brian Krebs:

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Paras Jha, a 22-year-old computer whiz from Fanwood, N.J., was studying computer science at Rutgers when he developed Mirai along with two other convicted co-conspirators. According to sentencing memo submitted by government prosecutors, in his freshman and sophomore years at Rutgers Jha used a collection of hacked devices to launch at least four distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against the university’s networks.

Jha told investigators he carried out the attacks not for profit but purely for personal, juvenile reasons: “He reveled in the uproar caused by the first attack, which he launched to delay upper-classmen registration for an advanced computer science class he wanted to take,” the government’s sentencing memo stated. “The second attack was launched to delay his calculus exam. The last two attacks were motivated in part by the publicity and outrage” his previous attacks had generated. Jha would later drop out of Rutgers after struggling academically.

In January 2017, almost a year before Jha’s arrest and guilty plea, KrebsOnSecurity identified Jha as the likely co-author of Mirai — which sprang to notoriety after a record-smashing Sept. 2016 attack that sidelined this Web site for nearly four days.

That story posited that Jha, operating under the pseudonyms “Ogmemes” and “OgRichardStallman,” gave interviews with a local paper in which he taunted Rutgers and encouraged the school to consider purchasing some kind of DDoS protection service to ward off future attacks. At the time, Jha was president and co-founder of ProTraf Solutions, a DDoS mitigation firm that provided just such a service.

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The case of Mirai, and Jha, is part of a chapter in my book Cyber Wars; Krebs’s detective work in piecing together the tiny clues he left (accidentally) to his online identity was outstanding. That may not have been how the FBI tracked Jha down, but after Krebs’s work it became Jha’s task to deny it, because the evidence was so overwhelming.

Of note is that prosecutors didn’t push for jail time because Jha and two co-conspirators “helped investigators with multiple other ongoing cybercrime investigations”. Jha was thus already on five years’ probation. And that $8.6m is going to be hard to find, at least legally.
link to this extract


Apple’s iconic stores struggle in China • The Information

Wayne Ma:

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Apple had to navigate a maze of government bureaucracy to obtain everything from business and tax licenses to construction, fire and customs permits for imported building materials, former employees say. The regulatory framework in China is far more complicated than in the US, with many more layers of government, these former employee say, and it’s far more opaque. Employees frequently scrambled to chase down permits and local approvals to keep store openings on track, they said.

Two former employees said it was common for Apple to receive calls from low-level government bureaucrats asking for free iPhones and other products. Apple had a zero-tolerance policy toward bribery, they said.

In addition, Apple found itself in a tug-of-war between the Beijing and Shanghai local governments over taxes, forcing it to split its retail stores in China between two legal entities to appease city officials. In Shanghai, for example, the city government wouldn’t allow Apple to build a store until it created an additional legal entity in the city, which siphoned away some of Apple’s taxes that would have gone to Beijing, according to three former employees. “It eventually became a huge operational nightmare as every vendor had to have two contracts,” one former Apple employee said…

…Apple, too, had to contend with scalpers, known as “yellow cows” in colloquial Chinese. These scalpers swarmed its stores and elbowed out other customers during product launches and in-store promotions.

In 2016, for example, Apple offered Chinese students a pair of free Beats headphones with the purchase of a laptop as part of a back-to-school sale with the goal of hooking young customers on Apple products. Instead, scalpers hijacked the promotion by organizing busloads of hired students to buy the products, according to four former Apple employees familiar with the matter.

One morning, two charter buses pulled up to an Apple store in Beijing carrying about 80 students led by a man holding a flag like a tourist guide, according to a former employee who witnessed the event. One man lined them up outside the store and assigned each student a number. A second handed them a credit card once inside. A third waited outside to collect the laptops and headphones.

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Amazed that Apple would leave itself open to such an obvious scam.
link to this extract


IBM to acquire Red Hat for about $33bn • WSJ

Robert McMillan:

»

IBM rivals Amazon.com and Microsoft have jumped ahead of it in recent years in the business of providing computing power and software for rent. But Ms. Rometty said in an interview that the market is moving into a second chapter in which customers will want to work with multiple cloud providers. That should boost interest in so-called hybrid services in which companies run programs that use computing resources from their own servers and web services from IBM and others at the same time, she said.

“This is an inflection point,” Ms. Rometty said.

Red Hat will help IBM with that effort because it is a leading provider of open-source software and services that help companies bridge different platforms, she said.

The deal comes nearly seven years into Ms. Rometty’s struggle to revamp the 107-year-old company by shrinking older, slower-growth lines of business and focusing heavily on cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence and cloud computing. That effort led to nearly six years of falling revenue, which IBM finally reversed in January with three straight quarters of growth.

But in the latest quarter IBM’s revenue dipped 2.1%, despite the booming corporate tech-buying market. IBM’s stock price is down 19% over the past year. For this year, analysts expect IBM to record $79.75bn in revenue and adjusted profits of $13.80 a share, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence. In 2011, the year before Ms. Rometty became CEO, IBM posted $106.92bn in revenue and adjusted profits of $13.44 a share.

IBM plans to pay $190 a share for Red Hat in what IBM said would be its largest acquisition ever. IBM plans to use cash and debt to make the acquisition. At the end of the third quarter, it held $14.7bn in cash.

«

Putting the acquisition into debt won’t hurt too much (debt is cheap at present; as long as you make *some* profit you can service it). IBM’s hope seems to be that it can be a provider to the properly big cloud companies, or else persuade corporations it is their real friend.

I don’t think it will work. The IBM era is really dead; this is its last gasp, a final twitch. IBM got into open source early on, so the acquisition made sense there. But it doesn’t have the lock on enterprise it used to. Younger rivals (Google! Amazon! Microsoft, 75 years younger!) have disrupted it thoroughly, and it’s not coming back from that.

Ben Thompson has what I think is the same viewpoint over at Stratechery.
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Fox News and the rest of the right-wing media can’t escape responsibility • Washington Post

Max Boot:

»

This nonstop drumbeat of over-the-top invective and irrational conspiracy theories can drive otherwise sane conservatives to extremism — and it can drive those who were already unstable to violence. The New York Times reports that until 2016, Cesar Sayoc’s Facebook page was full of “decadent meals, gym workouts, scantily clad women and sports games. . . . But that year, Mr. Sayoc’s social media presence took on a darker and more partisan tone.” That’s when he began posting “stories from Infowars, World Net Daily, Breitbart and other right-wing websites,” which “showed a fascination with Islamist terrorism, illegal immigration and anti-Clinton conspiracy theories.”

Naturally, when Sayoc sent letter bombs to Trump’s critics, the right-wing media claimed it must be a “false flag” operation. Once the preserve of the paranoid radio host Alex Jones, this lunacy is now propagated by the likes of Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Dinesh D’Souza, Frank Gaffney, Donald Trump Jr. and Michael Savage. D’Souza tweeted: “Fake sexual assault victims. Fake refugees. Now fake mail bombs. We are all learning how the media left are masters of distortion, deflection & deception.” Trump himself appeared to give winking support to this crackpot theory by referring to “this ‘Bomb’ stuff.” Even after Sayoc’s arrest, few “false flag” theorists recanted or apologized.

There is partisanship on both sides of the political spectrum, but no left-wing outlets propagate extremism as successfully or widely as conservative media do. A new study of “Network Propaganda” by three Harvard researchers notes that liberals, by and large, get their news from sources such as The Post, the Times, NPR and CNN that, regardless of any political bias, also engage in rigorous fact-checking. Conservatives, by contrast, are being brainwashed by right-wing media that are an “echo chamber” for “rumor and conspiracy theory.”

«

Boot is a former Republican who has grown sick and tired of the handwaving away of extremism by his ex-party.
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11 thoughts on “Start Up No.941: why beacons died, tech giants face new UK tax, how Night Sight works, XR portraits for everything!, comments go sour (again), and more

  1. I feel so out-of-date these days. Years ago, pundits arguing that it was possible to censor the Internet were widely regarded as reactionaries, fearful of the power of The People’s Voice. Now, it seems convention wisdom both that the Internet basically can be censored, and lack of speed in doing much more of it is often considered reactionary. Because the power of The People’s Voice is fearful. As in, just like 50% of the population is below average in intelligence, it’s a fact that 50% of the population is above average in anti-social behavior. And 10% of the population is in the top 10% of hatefulness. Nothing will change that, but the current business models aren’t helping.

    • It’s not a given that antisocial behaviour has a mathematically normal distribution. More likely it’s Poisson – very skewed. Thus if you deal with that skewed element then you actually deal with most of the problem.
      The problem is making sure they don’t come back.

      • I’m surprised there hasn’t been an attempt at a true-ID social network. The way most people around me use FB and messaging, having to register with a valid ID and address (not made public) wouldn’t be an issue, and the resulting control of spam and scams would be a huge benefit.

        It could be regulated or gov-made too. The French gov kinda tried to get everyone to get an email address from La Poste a few years back. It flopped, but at the time privacy, security, spam and scams and fake news weren’t hot topics. I’m sometimes called a socialist (which is not a dirty word in France). I don’t think I am, but I’m not opposed to the gov providing baseline services in a tax-funded, safe, orderly manner, with privacy safeguards. I trust them to invade my home if they think they have cause, I think I can trust them to handle a part of my mail, messaging, posts…

        That woudln’t solve the troll issue everywhere, but it would provide a safer place to retreat to. That would be enough for most I think.

      • The problem though is that you sort of have that in China. Do you want to be China? Or Turkey? Or Saudi Arabia? Or Brazil? Or the US? Be careful what you wish for.

      • Isn’t there a confusion between the cause and the symptoms ? Issues with True-ID are a symptom of evil government, not a cause. And an evil gov won’t be bothered by the (small) extra burden of linking devices and IPs to real IDs.

        The issue in China is that the regime is antidemocratic and authoritarian (and many other things). Their True-ID policy is a detail, fairly irrelevant: they jailed and killed and tortured people for online and offline speech before it. Actually, they jail and kill and torture pretty much at whim (less so than the US though IIRC). I’d argue that true-ID doesn’t make much of a difference; actually, it might help by ensuring people have no false sense of anonymity.

        I’m wondering about true-ID for my personal situation specifically because I trust my government do not do that. And if I didn’t, I’d have much bigger issues with it than True-ID. Also, with the anti-terrorism laws passed in the last decade or so, even in western democracies the gov. can pretty much listen in at will, so True-ID doesn’t make much of a difference.

        To me, the trade-off is putting more pressure on trolls and fake news, at the cost of making easier the job spying I trust my gov to only do with cause and that it can do already anyway with barely more effort.

        And again, I’m not saying *all* social should be true-ID. I’m saying users should have a choice. I’m not even saying the gov itself must do it, a regulated private system could certainly work also. But same as corps are proving inept at securing our data including ID and payment, they’re proving inept at fostering truthfulness and civility. Market failure -> gov intervention. Think of it as social pollution.

      • The problem is not that it *causes* bad governments, but that governments can turn bad. You trust *this* government not to do that; but lots of people in the US trusted things not to get worse. Instead…
        There are simpler ways to get rid of the trolls.

      • “There are simpler ways to get rid of trolls”.

        1- Why hasn’t it been done already then ?
        2- Is there a definition of troll ? Is banning “trolls” right or productive ? As you can well imagine, I’ve been branded a troll lots of times for my loud disagreements with Apple. And I am indeed mildly trolling about that, yet I’d argue it has some value/justification, I try to marshal facts in support, and I’ve never been the first to become incivil. Reciprocally, some wildly downvoted posts I’ve come across I found interesting, if only because they expose theories and beliefs I disagree with/oppose. The mere level and shrillness of the trollling carries a message we shouldn’t ignore. I think the calming effect of being not-anonymous allows us to keep trolls engaged instead of banning them, and there’s value in that for both.
        3- Again, if there’s a gov I don’t trust to read the posts and messages I choose to sign by my own name (which is most -all ?- of them, sorry my WordPress account and nickname predate my realization that this matters) , I’ve got much bigger issues with that gov. Again, I’m not saying all social media should be true-name, just that the option should exist, and we’ll see how it shakes out. Free market !
        4- You’re saying that I should trust Apple Google FB more than my elected gov ( intent, competence, over time…). Never have, never will, and anyone who does should reflect hard on that. I understand that’s true for a western democracy only.

        (*) I’m also occasionally trolling The Free Republic. Trying to craft a post I agree with that doesn’t get me banned but still has some content. 7 failures – 0 successes. Apple guys are way cooler ;-p

  2. 2 things puzzle me re. the Apple event:

    1- How can Apple claim “ecological awareness” when it makes PC s that are notoriously fragile (keyboard), hard to maintain, and expensive to maintain. To me, step zero in being eco-friendly and making stuff that lasts and is easy&cheap to repair, and Apple is doing the opposite. A keyboard failure on a MacBook costs hundreds and lots of materials, vs tens and a bare keyboard on a PC ? Isn’t “recycled aluminum” whitewashing since everyone uses it ‘coz it’s cheaper anyway ?

    2- How can 51% of Mac buyers be new buyers when sales are flat/down and the segment is mature ? Mustn’t that mean there’s a lot of churn ?

    • The ecological points I’ll leave to others. But it’s quite easy for 51% to be new buyers and for sales to be slow *and* for the ecosystem to grow (Apple says from 80m a couple of years ago to 100m now): people hang on to their machines for a long time. It’s the exact opposite of churn. It’s loyalty, in the marketing sense.
      On sales of ~4.5m per quarter, if half are new users, that’s 9m new users per year. Meanwhile that’s 9m replacements on a base of ~90m, or 10%, which seems quite low, but that’s what the numbers are saying.

  3. It’s really fantastic that people like Boot get to come out as anti-Trump now but where were they with Bush I, Bush II, Reagan, Ford, Nixon, etc. who all had distinctly racist, anti-semitic and sexist positions and policies. The current president is an accurate representation of the republican party and was an obvious endpoint of the decisions they had been making. Too little, too late, Boot.

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