Start Up No.1254: Reddit CEO slaps at TikTok, coronavirus roundup, a trackpad iPad?, why entering numbers on a webpage is so hard, and more


A 3D print of the coronavirus Covid-19. Try to avoid making your own. CC-licensed photo by NIAID on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Nearly there! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Reddit CEO: TikTok is ‘fundamentally parasitic’ • TechCrunch

Lucas Matney:

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The comments from Reddit CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman were some of the more controversial offered up during a panel discussion with former public policy exec Elliot Schrage and former Facebook VP of Product Sam Lessin. During a brief conversation about the feature innovations of TikTok, Huffman pushed back hard on the notion that Silicon Valley startups had something to learn from the app.

“Maybe I’m going to regret this, but I can’t even get to that level of thinking with them,” Huffman said. “Because I look at that app as so fundamentally parasitic, that it’s always listening, the fingerprinting technology they use is truly terrifying, and I could not bring myself to install an app like that on my phone.”

“I actively tell people, ‘Don’t install that spyware on your phone,'” he later added.

A TikTok spokesperson told TechCrunch: “These are baseless accusations made without a shred of evidence.”

…Huffman’s comments critiqued how TikTok tracks the actions of its users. The social media app was a hot topic of discussion throughout the event, and while Lessin asserted that the app had made a number of notable innovations, Huffman was one of the few at the event to offer deep criticisms of the app.

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Coronavirus’s genetics reveal its global travels • The Scientist Magazine®

Ashley Yeager spoke to Richard Neher, an evolutionary biologist who sequences viruses – and has applied this to the viral lineage (or heritage) of Covid-19:

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AY: Can you estimate the number of infections from the tree?

RN: Yes, if you look at the viral tree you see different sequences. And the tree will have different shapes depending on if the outbreak it’s staying the same size or growing. If it’s growing, you see many, many lineages coming together very deep in the tree, and that’s what we have here. That implies there was rapid expansion at the base of the tree that drove all of the lineages apart. You can estimate the rate of that expansion and if you know how old the outbreak is, you can estimate the number of infections.

AY: What kind of estimates do you get using this technique? 

RN: It’s a little difficult to interpret the numbers from China right now. The dynamics are changing; the cases are plateauing. We expect this to be a result of these draconian containment measures or quarantine measures that they imposed on half a billion people. There are 70,000 reported cases so the number of infections could be 200,000. It could be 500,000. We don’t know because people may be sick at home and stay home because the hospitals are overcrowded and that’s where you could get infected. I don’t think we have a good handle on how many cases there were that simply don’t show up in any statistic. I would [estimate] some three-fold underreporting at least.

AY: What can the data tell you about the virus’s origins?

RN: The first takeaway is that all these sequences are very, very similar, about eight mutations different than the root. That’s eight mutations in a 30,000-base sequence. What this tells us is that the virus came from one source, not too long ago, somewhere between mid-November and early December.

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(Thanks Nic for the link.)
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COVID-19 outbreak means 1Q20 notebook computer shipment expected to decline about 26% yoy • TrendForce

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Under the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, the notebook supply chain is facing many challenges in work resumption delays, labor shortages, material shortages, and logistic/transportation restrictions. TrendForce is hereby lowering its February notebook shipment forecast from 10.8m units previously to 5.7m units, a 47.6% decrease YoY.

During the 1Q20 period, notebook shipment is expected to take the brunt of the impact in February. Assuming that the spread of COVID-19 can be contained, notebook production volume is expected to gradually recover in March, but this may not be enough to offset significant losses in February. TrendForce is therefore further revising its 1Q20 notebook shipment forecast from the previous figure of 35 million units down to 27.5m units, a 35% decrease QoQ and 26% decrease YoY. If the COVID outbreak were to further affect Chinese notebook manufacturers and related industries, 1Q20 shipment may decrease more than current projections.

According to TrendForce, China is the main supplier of many complex parts involved in notebook manufacturing, such as PCB, batteries, hinges, polarizers, passive components, metal components, etc. In the short run, these parts cannot be easily supplied by other manufacturing regions outside of China.

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Wonder if demand will be down too, or just delayed – or perhaps lost? People and businesses put off buying by a few months, and so does everyone else, and the sales are just… lost.
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Slouching towards dystopia: the rise of surveillance capitalism and the death of privacy • New Statesman

John Naughton:

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We would really miss these services [Google, Skype, Facetime, etc] if they were one day to disappear, and this may be one reason why many politicians tip-toe round tech companies’ monopoly power. That the services are free at the point of use has undermined anti-trust thinking for decades: how do you prosecute a monopoly that is not price-gouging its users? (The answer, in the case of social media, is that users are not customers; the monopoly may well be extorting its actual customers – advertisers – but nobody seems to have inquired too deeply into that until recently.)

Another possible explanation is what one might call imaginative failure – most people simply cannot imagine the nature of the surveillance society that we are constructing, or the implications it might have for them and their grandchildren. There are only two cures for this failure: one is an existential crisis that brings home to people the catastrophic damage that technology could wreak. Imagine, for example, a more deadly strain of the coronavirus that rapidly causes a pandemic – but governments struggle to control it because official edicts are drowned out by malicious disinformation on social media. Would that make people think again about the legal immunity that social media companies enjoy from prosecution for content that they host on their servers?

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Undiscoverable UI madness • Birchtree

Matt Birchler works in an office; he went around asking various people there using Macs if they knew how to do various tasks (preview a file in the Finder, change the associated app, right-click, enable Do Not Disturb):

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I stopped there because we had to get back to work, but without even leaving the Finder and Desktop I was able to find a bunch of things that long-time Mac users had never known about because they never discovered them in their daily use.

None of this is meant to say macOS is garbage or anything like that. It’s just interesting to see when people who love the Mac and are so critical of “discoverability” on the iPad. I’m not even saying the iPad is better than the Mac here, I’m just saying that “discoverability” is one of the big things that has people in a tizzy right now about the iPad, but I think some are laying into the iPad harder than is warranted.

Another thing I can’t get out of my head is the idea that we can be power users on one platform, and casual users on another. The fact that someone is amazing with the Mac does not mean they are automatically a power user on the iPad, Windows, or Android. So when you use something casually and expect yourself to know its ins and outs as well as someone who is more invested, then you get frustrated. I sympathize with this every time I use Android; “is this bad, absent, or do I just not know my way around here as well as I do my iPhone?”

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There are tons and tons and tons of things that are effectively “hidden” on any OS. Whether you know where they’re hidden is down to how much time you’ve spent playing on them.
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Apple planning iPad keyboard with trackpad • The Information

Wayne Ma:

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Apple is planning to release an iPad keyboard accessory later this year that will include a built-in trackpad, the latest step in its effort to position the tablet device as an alternative to laptop computers, according to a person familiar with the matter. 

Apple is preparing the keyboard for mass production, and one of its main manufacturers is Foxconn Technology, the Taiwanese contractor that makes most of the world’s iPhones, the person said. The company will likely release the accessory alongside the next version of the iPad Pro expected later this year, the person added…

…There are signs that consumer demand for an iPad keyboard with a trackpad is growing. Some such third-party products have been released or announced in the past six months that have limited support for the iPad Pro. In January, iPad accessory maker Brydge announced it would be releasing a similar keyboard with trackpad later this year. Brydge’s product announcement came after it filed a patent-infringement lawsuit in New York against another company, OGadget, which launched a successful Kickstarter campaign for a trackpad-equipped iPad keyboard in 2019.

A second person familiar with the matter said Apple has been experimenting with trackpads for the iPad for a number of years. Some prototypes had capacitive keys, which mimic the response of mechanical keys but with sensors, though it isn’t clear whether this feature is in the planned product.

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Needs to get the OS sorted out, then.

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Testing a new conversational format for LinkedIn: Stories • LinkedIn

Pete Davies:

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As the head of content products at LinkedIn, my job is to make sure we’re giving professionals every format and feedback opportunity they need to make these conversations as productive as possible. Over the last few years, that’s led us to launch features including Newsletters, Live Video, Trending News, and Reactions. There are more conversations taking place in the LinkedIn feed than ever before, with a 25% year-over-year increase in engagement. We see more and more ways in which our members come together to have a conversation — from sharing and discussing the lessons learned in a job, to helping with ideas for a new purchase to a community outpouring of love following a tragedy.

We’re never done meeting our members where their voices are. Last year, we started asking ourselves what Stories might look like in a professional context. Stories first appeared on Snapchat, with other platforms like Instagram and Facebook adopting them soon after. They spread for a good reason: they offer a lightweight, fun way to share an update without it having to be perfect or attached to your profile forever…

…we’re currently testing LinkedIn Stories internally, and we can’t wait to test it with our members in the coming months. We’ve learned so much already about the unique possibilities of Stories in a professional context. For example, the sequencing of the Stories format is great for sharing key moments from work events, the full-screen narrative style makes it easy to share tips and tricks that help us work smarter, and the way Stories opens up new messaging threads makes it easier for someone to say, “and by the way… I noticed you know Linda, could you introduce me?”

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LinkedIn: doing all the rubbish things, but years after everyone else decided they were rubbish, and in an even more cringeworthy way.
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Google’s abandoned Android Authenticator app • Terence Eden’s Blog

Terence Eden (for it is he):

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The news has just broken that Google’s Authenticator App can have its codes stolen by malware. I doubt Google will ever release a fix for this issue – their 2FA app hasn’t been updated since September 2017.

For two-and-a-half years, Google hasn’t touched their 2FA app’s code. Perhaps it is perfect? Perhaps there are no more UI improvements or security enhancements that can be done? Or, more likely, it joins a long graveyard of Android apps – launched optimistically and then abandoned.

I get it, not every product you release is a winner. And some have to be shuttered gracefully. But Google Authenticator is special. It is trusted to protect users’ accounts. Not just Google accounts – thousands of providers specifically recommend it.

Sure, you and I know that any OTP app will work. But Google spend a lot of money on branding – and organisations use that to signal trust to their users.

Frankly, Android Authenticator is too important to be neglected like this.

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I stopped using Authenticator a while back, when I discovered that Authy will do the same job and also sync across multiple devices (password-protected). That guards against the perennial Catch-22 of having to set up your 2FA-protected account when the device that has Authenticator on it is stolen or broken.

The ZDNet story linked is about a new version of the Cerberus Android banking Trojan (which only appeared last summer) which claims to be able to steal Authenticator data.

More interestingly, Eden points to a list – pretty long – of Google apps that haven’t been updated in more than 12 months. A good way to evaluate where its interest don’t lie.
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Why the GOV.UK Design System team changed the input type for numbers • Technology in government

Hanna Laakso:

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It’s reasonable to assume that <input type="number"> can be used for collecting any numeric data: it contains the word “number”, after all. A note in the HTML specification states that <input type="number"> is “not appropriate for input that happens to only consist of numbers but isn’t strictly speaking a number”.

This means that <input type="number"> can only be used for incrementable numbers, such as dates or the number of people in a household. Using <input type="number"> for collecting numbers that are not incrementable can cause problems with browsers validating them in that way.

For example, browsers attempt to round large numbers when incrementing or decrementing (pressing up or down key), and in the case of very large numbers they are converted to exponential notation.


Chrome 79.0: type=number displays large numbers in exponential format if user presses the up or down arrows on their keyboard.

Once the number is parsed by the browser as an exponent, as shown above, and possibly by mistake, the action cannot be reversed by the user. This could confuse users. 

If users access your site using older versions of Safari, <input type="number"> can also be problematic when collecting values of 16 or more digits. In Safari 6, the browser rounds the number when a user leaves the field, so no mistake with up or down keys is required.


Safari 6 rounds the last digit on blur

Safari 5.1 attempts to make values with at least 16 digits more readable by inserting commas.

3. Letters 
The HTML spec states that when using <input type="number">, “user agents must not allow the user to set the value to a non-empty string that is not a valid floating-point number”. The web and Android versions of Chrome implement this by silently discarding all letter input except the letter ‘e’.

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There are so many gotchas for what you would think was a simple thing: put some numbers into a space on a browser.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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