Start Up No.1,080: Qualcomm’s 20-year industry shakedown, Google facing DOJ antitrust?, iPhone’s chatty apps, China’s tech blacklist, and more


It’s Apple’s WWDC today, and Dark Mode is expected to be announced for iOS. But is it actually good for what we do on devices? CC-licensed photo by tua ulamac on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Leading in the polls. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How Qualcomm shook down the cell phone industry for almost 20 years • Ars Technica

Timothy Lee:

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I read every word of Judge Koh’s book-length opinion, which portrays Qualcomm as a ruthless monopolist. The legal document outlines a nearly 20-year history of overcharging smartphone makers for cellular chips. Qualcomm structured its contracts with smartphone makers in ways that made it almost impossible for other chipmakers to challenge Qualcomm’s dominance. Customers who didn’t go along with Qualcomm’s one-sided terms were threatened with an abrupt and crippling loss of access to modem chips.

“Qualcomm has monopoly power over certain cell phone chips, and they use that monopoly power to charge people too much money,” says Charles Duan, a patent expert at the free-market R Street Institute. “Instead of just charging more for the chips themselves, they required people to buy a patent license and overcharged for the patent license.”

Now, all of that dominance might be coming to an end. In her ruling, Koh ordered Qualcomm to stop threatening customers with chip cutoffs. Qualcomm must now re-negotiate all of its agreements with customers and license its patents to competitors on reasonable terms. And if Koh’s ruling survives the appeals process, it could produce a truly competitive market for wireless chips for the first time in this century.

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The quotes in this article – taken from the court documents and testimony – are eye-opening. Charging not on the value of the patents, but on the retail value of the phone. An incredible scam. Now, there’s a worthwhile piece of antitrust action. Speaking of which…
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Justice Department is preparing antitrust investigation of Google • WSJ

Brent Kendall and John D. McKinnon:

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The department’s antitrust division in recent weeks has been laying the groundwork for the probe, the people said. The Federal Trade Commission, which shares antitrust authority with the department, previously conducted a broad investigation of Google but closed it in 2013 without taking action, though Google made some voluntary changes to certain business practices.

The FTC and the department have been in talks recently on who would oversee any new antitrust investigation of a leading US tech giant, and the commission agreed to give the Justice Department jurisdiction over Google, the people said.

With turf now settled, the department is preparing to closely examine Google’s business practices related to its search and other businesses, the people said.

It couldn’t immediately be learned whether Google has been contacted by the department. Third-party critics of the search giant, however, already have been in contact with Justice Department officials, some of the people familiar with the matter said.

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This story is amazingly thin on detail, which hasn’t changed through being repeated over the weekend up and down the techosphere. I doubt Google is that worried, at least existentially; the US DoJ hasn’t done nearly as many tech cases as the EU, and the big one – against Microsoft – hardly stopped it, long-term.
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The dark side of Dark Mode • TidBITS

Adam Engst:

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To summarize, a dark-on-light display like a Mac in Light Mode provides better performance in focusing of the eye, identifying letters, transcribing letters, text comprehension, reading speed, and proofreading performance, and it results in less visual fatigue and increased visual comfort. The benefits apply to both the young and the old, as that paper concludes:

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In an ageing society, age-related vision changes need to be considered when designing digital displays. Visual acuity testing and a proofreading task revealed a positive polarity advantage for younger and older adults. Dark characters on light background lead to better legibility and are strongly recommended independent of observer’s age.

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I’ve never understood the attraction of Dark Mode. I had enough years of green-on-black terminals and MS-DOS’s white-on-black to recognise that black-on-white text is how it’s meant to be. (Plus you can’t have an effective serif font in a white-on-black setting.) Engst is right. Steve Sinofsky pointed out on Twitter that the interest in Dark Mode also means two problems: it leads to new bugs through its own implementation, and the effort spent implementing it means other existing bugs don’t get fixed.
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Instagram Adam Mosseri: profile of important Facebook business leader • CNBC

Salvador Rodriguez:

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In late 2017 and early 2018, Mosseri was involved in a series of meetings about how Facebook would deal with the issue going forward, according to people with knowledge of the matter. In those sessions, Mosseri supported aggressively removing fake news across Facebook’s services, the people said.

On multiple occasions, they said, Mosseri squared off with Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of US public policy and a former member of the George W. Bush Administration who stirred controversy last year for showing up at the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Mosseri, who has donated to Democratic political campaigns in past years, advocated for completely removing fake news from the company’s News Feed, rather than simply pushing it down the rankings, the people said. He also lobbied for the removal of far right outlet Breitbart News from the list of publications that receive preferential treatment on the company’s News Feed, and opposed partnering with the Daily Caller, founded by Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, for fact-checking.

Kaplan argued that Facebook couldn’t afford to appear biased against conservative media, but Mosseri countered by focusing on the difference between showing bias and banning objectively false information. On one occasion, the debate got so heated that Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s former vice president of communications and public policy, had to calm Mosseri down, sources said.

Mosseri was ultimately unsuccessful. Breitbart still gets equal treatment with other major publications, and last month Facebook added Check Your Fact, the Daily Caller’s fact-checking site, as a partner.

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Which is just absurd. Outside the US, the Democrats look like a centre-right party, on a par with the Tories in the UK. The Republicans are far to the right, and Breitbart and Daily Caller on the wild extremes. Kaplan is a blight, and Zuckerberg’s failure to recognise that indicative of the failure of its (lack of) shareholder model.
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New Zealand’s next liberal milestone: a budget guided by ‘well-being’ • The New York Times

Charlotte Graham-McLay:

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[New Zealand] is moving away from more traditional bottom-line measures like productivity and economic growth and instead focusing on goals like community and cultural connection and equity in well-being across generations…

…Under New Zealand’s revised policy, all new spending must advance one of five government priorities: improving mental health, reducing child poverty, addressing the inequalities faced by indigenous Maori and Pacific islands people, thriving in a digital age, and transitioning to a low-emission, sustainable economy.

The government is promoting the new framework as bringing much-needed clarity to the budgeting process. In the past, individual government ministers vied for the new money available in each year’s budget, and “relatively arbitrary” decisions were made about who got what, the country’s finance minister, Grant Robertson, said in an interview.

This year, those ministers have to collaborate on funding proposals with their colleagues, and the proposals must fit the new criteria. “Governments are notorious for their silos, and so we’re actually saying, no, there’s an outcome there that we want you all working together on,” Mr. Robertson said.

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That’s radical: no more GDP growth targets, but more touchy-feely.
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iPhone privacy is broken…and apps are to blame • WSJ

Joanna Stern:

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Congratulations! You’ve bought an iPhone! You made one of the best privacy-conscious decisions… until you download an app from Apple’s App Store. Most are littered with secret trackers, slurping up your personal data and sending it to more places than you can count.

Over the last few weeks, my colleague Mark Secada and I tested 80 apps, most of which are promoted in Apple’s App Store as “Apps We Love.” All but one used third-party trackers for marketing, ads or analytics. The apps averaged four trackers apiece.

Some apps send personal data without ever informing users in their privacy policies, others just use industry-accepted—though sometimes shady—ad-tracking methods. As my colleague Sam Schechner reported a few months ago (also with Mark’s assistance), many apps send info to Facebook, even if you’re not logged into its social networks. In our new testing, we found that many also send info to other companies, including Google and mobile marketers, for reasons that are not apparent to the end user.

We focused on the iPhone in our testing—largely because of Apple’s aggressive marketing of personal privacy. However, apps in Google’s Play Store for Android use the same techniques. In some cases, when it comes to providing on-device information to developers and trackers, Android is worse. Google recently updated its app permissions and says it is taking a deeper look at how apps access personal user information.

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Stern must be furious that her former colleague Geoff Fowler, now at the Washington Post, got ahead of her with the story – his appeared a day or two before hers – but it shows that we’ve become complacent about apps, and especially the third-party trackers they tend to incorporate.
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How Nepal can address overtourism on Mount Everest • Skift

Adam Minter:

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In 2014, the government considered a plan to lease out unclimbed Himalayan peaks to private entities that would manage them and collect fees from mountaineers. The idea was to lure climbers away from Everest, boost tourism in other areas, and shift the management burden to operators with a financial incentive to keep the environment safe, clean, and friendly. Nothing came of the idea, despite support from Nepal’s mountaineering industry. That shouldn’t be the end of it. Nepal should revive the proposal and expand it to Everest and other popular peaks.

There are several ways to accomplish this. The most straightforward would be to establish concessions whereby a select group of qualified operators are offered exclusive rights to guide expeditions. A reduced number of well-qualified operators would boost climbing fees and local-government revenues while lowering numbers and boosting safety. It’s a model that has a track record of success around the world, including in the US, where the National Park Service leases multiyear concessions on some of its signature peaks, including Denali and Mount Rainier.

A more ambitious approach would be to establish private concessions for entire mountains or — more practically, in the case of Everest — base camps. For example, the Nepali government could lease out Everest Base Camp to a private operator for a royalty that’s recouped via trekking and climbing fees (permit fees for a trek to Everest Base Camp are currently less than $100, while an organized trek can cost in the thousands of dollars). In return, the private operators would be expected to meet safety, sustainability, and marketing goals.

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If you eliminate deaths from the April 2015 Base Camp avalanche that killed 19, and a similar one in 2014 higher up which killed 16, Everest had been getting safer; but even before this year there was an average of 5 deaths per year. The problem is always that bad weather followed by a good weather window means queues. The pendulum will swing again.
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China threatens sweeping blacklist of firms after Huawei ban • Bloomberg

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China will set up a mechanism listing foreign enterprises, organizations and individuals that don’t obey market rules, violate contracts and block, cut off supply for non-commercial reasons or severely damage the legitimate interests of Chinese companies, Ministry of Commerce spokesman Gao Feng said. “Necessary measures will be taken” against those on the list, he said, adding that specifics would be released soon.

The US government has moved to curb Huawei’s ability to sell equipment in the US and buy parts from American suppliers, potentially crippling one of China’s most successful – but controversial – global companies. That step has helped broaden the tariff war into a wider confrontation between China and the US, at a time when negotiations between the two sides have broken down.

The vague wording of the Chinese state media report opens the door for Beijing to target a broad swathe of the global tech industry – from US giants like Alphabet’s Google, Qualcomm and Intel to even non-American suppliers that have cut off China’s largest technology company. Those run the gamut from Japan’s Toshiba to Britain’s Arm.

Shares in Apple, Qualcomm, and Intel fell more than 1% in pre-market trading on Friday.

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China won’t ban Arm (which anyway is owned by Japan’s Softbank) – its designs power all the smartphones it makes and exports. It might choose to nick its designs, which is a different problem for Arm. Ditto Qualcomm, and to a lesser extent Intel. And Google is banned inside China; not much leverage there.

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Why Tesla’s dashboard touch screens suck • Fast Company

John Pavlus:

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Raluca Budiu, Nielsen Norman Group’s director of research, doesn’t think that touch screens in cars are a priori awful. Buried in her lengthy, technical article are a few compliments for Tesla: The huge screen makes it easy to see multiple information sources at once; it’s really good at pointing out charging stations on a map; and “the autopilot and self-navigation systems acknowledge the possibility of failure.” (Damn, that’s faint praise.) “Many of these features should make driving a safer and more comfortable activity,” she writes.

But that’s the key word: should. In reality, she argues, small but fundamental design flaws can make car touch screens overly fussy to use in cars. And when you’re traveling at 60 mph, that fussiness has a higher cost—particularly in a Tesla, which puts so much dashboard functionality in its touch screens that The Verge called the Model S a “tablet on wheels.” As Budiu puts it: “In a car, time spent with the UI is time spent ignoring the road.”

The Tesla Model S’s entire center console—the space between the two front seats that’s traditionally studded with physical knobs, buttons, and dials—is one enormous 17-inch touch screen. It looks eye-poppingly futuristic, and goes a long way toward making owners feel like they’re driving a “magical space car,” not just an automobile. But like any “pictures under glass” UI technology, Tesla’s controls require you to look directly at them in order to operate them.

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I made the same point back in January 2015, about Android Auto and Apple CarPlay: if you have to look at the screen, you’re not looking at the road. And without haptic feedback (which you get from a physical knob), you’re forced to look away.

I guess Tesla’s solution would be for everyone to be on Autopilot. But that brings other perils..
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HTTP Status Dogs

Mike Lee:

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Hypertext Transfer Protocol Response status codes. And dogs.

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Or, photos of dogs that reflect HTTP status codes. A good way to start the week. (301 and 405 are pretty fine.)
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Lithium levels in tap water and psychotic experiences in a general population of adolescents • NCBI

Shimodera S and 12 others, mostly from the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Medical Science:

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to our knowledge, no study has investigated lithium level in tap water in relation to psychotic experiences in a general population of adolescents. This is the first study to investigate this using a large dataset. Information on psychotic experiences, distress associated with these experiences, and depressive symptoms were collected in 24 public junior high schools in Kochi Prefecture in Japan. Samples were collected from sources that supplied drinking water to schools, and lithium levels were measured using atomic absorption spectrophotometry.

The association of lithium levels with psychotic experiences, considering distress as a degree of severity, was examined using an ordinal logistic regression model with schools and depressive symptoms as random effects. In total, 3040 students responded to the self-reporting questionnaire (response rate: 91.8%). Lithium levels in tap water were inversely associated with psychotic experiences (p = 0.021).

We concluded that lithium level in tap water was inversely associated with psychotic experiences among a general population of adolescents and may have a preventive effect for such experiences and distress.

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Ooooeeee. Another study in Denmark suggested that lithium in drinking water is associated with lower incidence of dementia. Fluoride for our teeth, lithium for our brains? Yet its benefits in water have been known since the 1970s – correlated with fewer suicides, homicides and rapes. (The UK has lower levels of lithium in water than many other countries, such as Japan.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,080: Qualcomm’s 20-year industry shakedown, Google facing DOJ antitrust?, iPhone’s chatty apps, China’s tech blacklist, and more

  1. re. Dark Mode. I love it, and it’s easy to understand why:
    – AMOLED eats battery per lit pixel, so dark mode = moar battery.
    – Also, AMOLED pixels get worn and torn by time spent lit, so more dark = longer life, savings, more ecological,…
    – their blurb about humans being used to dark things on a white background is funnily quaint, but ultimately stupid. Humans also used to rest in dark caves, I’d rather my computer time by restful not hunt-stressful ?
    – If we’re going for dumb analogies, having a bight light shined at one’s face is James Bond torture, not pleasant work setting.
    – Also if we’re being fake anthropological and overly literal, I’m not an Eskimo and only those are used to seeing stuff on a white background. So, blue green and brown is needed ?
    – a whole part of their argument is based on pictures processing, which nobody is arguing about. We’re arguing about text and overall screen brightness levels
    – I’m not sure how their general about claims dark-on-light apply to computer and specifically Mobile.
    – Sure, we started with dark on light writing, but that’s mostly because most of the stuff we can write on is light by default (papyrus, clay, rock, paper). Being human is all about replacing default accidental stuff with optimal stuff.

    I’ve been painstakingly handcrafting a dark mode on my devices for over a decade. It’s not an anti-Apple thing, it’s not a political thing, it’s not a religious thing, it’s not even a Vegan-like crusady/ego-defining thing (I’m fairly quiet about it), it’s just what my eyes and my brain like. There must be a reason, and looking at the comments of this story, I’m far from alone.

    Maybe it’s worth spending a lit bit of time on that issue even if you personally don’t like it, because we’re spending a whole lot of time watching screens, and eyesight is a precious thing. I’m 50 w/ most working hours spend looking at a screen, and glasses-free still, though not for long.

    In the end I’d say having control over brightness and contrast sounds like a pretty basic thing, and having a choice all the way to “reverse” sound at least harmless, probably needed.

    • More on this topic:
      – I think I’m less proselytizing on this one than on huge phones. But it’s nice to be vindicated on both counts, even if after way too many years. Next: 16:10 screen ratio for phones.
      – The one place that has consistently offered a dark mode is Ars Technica. One of the best-designed website around (incl comments and monetization). That’s called a hint.
      – Last redesign, Ars forgot dark mode. Had to roll back; bake it, re-roll. IIRC their design chief said dark mode is used by 10-20% very vocal users. Extrapolating from my own case, add a few users who’re simply running a darkening browser add-on across all websites. (golden-era Opera used to allow it simply by forcing a custom CSS)
      – I can’t help but wonder… Apple is playing catch-up on this one. Would anyone’s attitude be different if they had been initiating instead of following ? Also, does this means Apple sometimes copies, and sometimes can be wrong ? ;-p

  2. re. Tesla screen.
    Also, Tesla chose to save money and went for a screen that’s not automotive-grade. Leading to rather high failure rates, and because Tesla service ops are at least overwhelmed probably structurally sucky, months-long waits for repairs: https://www.thedrive.com/tech/27989/teslas-screen-saga-shows-why-automotive-grade-matters.
    Of course this being Tesla, this went from “free screen swap” to “expensive slow out-of-warranty repair” ;-p

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