Start Up No.908: Zuckerberg in profile, the crypto gap, how BA was hacked, why we use big phones, and more


Photo by Ryo FUKAsawa on Flickr

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A selection of 10 links for you. Anything on today? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Can Mark Zuckerberg fix Facebook before it breaks democracy? • New Yorker

Evan Osnos in a long profile of Zuckerberg’s Facebook:

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Facebook was loath to ban [Infowars’s Alex] Jones. When people complained that his rants violated rules against harassment and fake news, Facebook experimented with punishments. At first, it “reduced” him, tweaking the algorithm so that his messages would be shown to fewer people, while feeding his fans articles that fact-checked his assertions.
Then, in late July, Leonard Pozner and Veronique De La Rosa, the parents of Noah Pozner, a child killed at Sandy Hook, published an open letter addressed “Dear Mr Zuckerberg,” in which they described “living in hiding” because of death threats from conspiracy theorists, after “an almost inconceivable battle with Facebook to provide us with the most basic of protections.” In their view, Zuckerberg had “deemed that the attacks on us are immaterial, that providing assistance in removing threats is too cumbersome, and that our lives are less important than providing a safe haven for hate.”
Facebook relented, somewhat. On July 27th, it took down four of Jones’s videos and suspended him for a month. But public pressure did not let up. On August 5th, the dam broke after Apple, saying that the company “does not tolerate hate speech,” stopped distributing five podcasts associated with Jones. Facebook shut down four of Jones’s pages for “repeatedly” violating rules against hate speech and bullying. I asked Zuckerberg why Facebook had wavered in its handling of the situation. He was prickly about the suggestion: “I don’t believe that it is the right thing to ban a person for saying something that is factually incorrect.”
Jones seemed a lot more than factually incorrect, I said.
“O.K., but I think the facts here are pretty clear,” he said, homing in. “The initial questions were around misinformation.” He added, “We don’t take it down and ban people unless it’s directly inciting violence.” He told me that, after Jones was reduced, more complaints about him flooded in, alerting Facebook to older posts, and that the company was debating what to do when Apple announced its ban. Zuckerberg said, “When they moved, it was, like, O.K., we shouldn’t just be sitting on this content and these enforcement decisions. We should move on what we know violates the policy. We need to make a decision now.”
It will hardly be the last quandary of this sort.

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Long, but well worth your time; especially for Bill Gates’s Greek chorus-style interjections, and observations such as “Facebook has more adherents than Christianity”.
link to this extract


IMF advises against crypto as legal tender in Marshall Islands report • Coinbase

Wolfie Zhao:

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The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has advised against the Republic of the Marshall Islands’ plan to introduce a digital currency as a second legal tender alongside the U.S. dollar.
The Marshall Islands – a remote chain of islands in the central Pacific – passed a law on the issue in February, aiming for the planned “Sovereign” cryptocurrency to boost the local economy and counter the increasing risks of the nation becoming disconnected from the global financial system.
However, following a period of consultation with officials from the islands, the IMF published a paper on Monday advising against the move. According to the paper, the Marshall Islands economy is now “highly dependent” on external aid, as the country faces constant climate change and natural disasters.
The only domestic commercial bank in the country is now “at risk of losing its last US dollar correspondent banking relationship (CBR) with a US-based bank,” due to tightened due diligence across financial institutions in the US.
The IMF argued that the introduction of a cryptocurrency as legal tender may backfire, if a lack of comprehensive anti-money laundering measures eventually leads to the US bank cutting ties with the country.

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link to this extract


Google’s location privacy practices are under investigation in Arizona • Washington Post

Tony Romm:

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Google’s alleged practice of recording location data about Android device owners even when they believe they have opted out of such tracking has sparked an investigation in Arizona, where the state’s attorney general could potentially levy a hefty fine against the search giant.
The probe, initiated by Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich and confirmed by a person familiar with his thinking but not authorized to speak on the record, could put pressure on other states and the federal government to follow suit, consumer advocates say — although Google previously insisted it did not deceive consumers about the way it collects and taps data on their whereabouts.
The attorney general signaled his interest in the matter in a public filing that indicated the office had retained an outside law firm to assist in an investigation. The document, dated Aug. 21, said the hired lawyers would help probe an unnamed tech company and its “storage of consumer location data, tracking of consumer location, and other consumer tracking through . . . smartphone operating systems, even when consumers turn off ‘location services’ and take other steps to stop such tracking,” according to the heavily redacted public notice.

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Ooh, a fine. That’ll so hurt.
link to this extract


Benchmarking crypto valuations • Medium

Sameer Singh tries three different valuations of crypto, to see how realistic they are (NVM relies on Metcalfe’s Law, for networks):

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Facebook and Snap’s pre-IPO NVM was set between 3.5 x 10^-7 and 19.8 x 10^-7. Based on these benchmarks, token adoption would need to increase by a factor of 3000x to justify today’s prices. Again, the fact that social media is well ahead of crypto in the technology adoption curve can justify a higher valuation multiple, but not by an order of magnitude when discussing assets valued at billions.
Even after applying appropriate handicaps, token adoption and usage would need to increase between 100x to 1000x to justify today’s market cap. This provides a striking contrast with the following comment from Ethereum co-founder, Vitalik Buterin:
”The blockchain space is getting to the point where there’s a ceiling in sight. If you talk to the average educated person at this point, they probably have heard of blockchain at least once. There isn’t an opportunity for yet another 1,000-times growth in anything in the space anymore.”
Given the gap between current valuations and the level of utilitarian adoption, I politely disagree.

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Singh was a very reliable predictor in the smartphone space. So I’d lean on him being right here.
link to this extract


410 gone • Medium

Ian Betteridge on why, after being on Twitter for 11 of its 12 years, he has deactivated his account:

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The excuse that Twitter holds up a mirror to wider society is hogwash: it has consistently and with an outstanding level of ill-judgement given a platform to and cultivated people with utterly reprehensible views.
If you’re an out and out vile individual, like Alex Jones, Twitter gives you a free pass. If you’re a conspiracy theorist who wants to get traction for your lies, Twitter is your friend. If you’re a racist, Twitter will defend your “free speech rights”.
But if you’re a woman getting vile, violent and consistent abuse, Twitter will do precisely nothing to stop it.
Without Twitter, the insanity that is QAnon couldn’t have gained the traction it has. Confined to 4chan, it would have been yet another crackpot piece of tomfoolery. Amplified unchallenged by Twitter, it becomes a series of signs held up at Trump’s rallies, and a truck parked across a highway. It won’t be too long before it becomes a death.
In the end, I decided that Twitter doesn’t deserve my attention. I couldn’t, in good faith, support a service which cares so little about the culture around it, that does nothing to be a positive influence on society, which which sees the rights of little lost boys to abuse women as more important than the rights of women not to be abused.

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”410″ is web code for “not here” (but also not “moved”). I’ll miss him: he first pointed me to Horace Dediu’s work, among others.
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How Apple Watch saved my life • ZDNet

Jason Perlow:

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Like many other Apple Watch users, I got an email from the company asking if I would be willing to participate in the Apple Heart Study, a large data-gathering exercise they and Stanford University were partnered in.
Sounded right up my alley. I installed the iPhone app and then promptly forgot about it.
Then, a few days later, this happened. [The app said he had abnormal heart rhythms.]
Needless to say, I felt rather alarmed by this.
I followed the app’s instructions. When I clicked on “Call a Doctor” I was immediately patched through, via FaceTime video call, to one of Stanford’s cardiologists. We discussed the results.
While they could not be absolutely certain, there were indications I might have Atrial Fibrillation or “Afib”, which is a common form of heart arrhythmia that affects tens of millions of people.
It often goes undiagnosed, because in many cases, it is paroxysmal in nature — it comes and goes, often set off by “triggers” such as by the use of stimulants, alcohol and other substances. But sometimes it just plain happens.
It’s not the kind of thing that comes up in an EKG unless it is actually happening when the test is occurring. I’ve had EKGs a number of times, and there was never any indication anything was wrong.

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Unsurprisingly, he’s now wedded to it: the warning was correct. He lost 160lb (72kg). For most people, to lose that much weight would mean there wasn’t anything left. American diets, eh.
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The Apple Watch is getting a new feature that can monitor heart health — here’s why that matters • CNBC

Christina Farr:

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That’s according to Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who issued a research note seen by CNBC on Monday. The note said that the ECG “will attract more users.” Kuo is known for having a particularly strong track record for predicting updates for Apple products.
Assuming Kuo is correct, Apple releasing an ECG is a big deal for people with certain diseases. But it’s also complicated because the company would need to figure out how to communicate sensitive medical information to consumers without freaking them out. The last thing Apple would want to do with its device is send tens of thousands of anxious users into the emergency room thinking they’re having a life-threatening medical problem when they’re not.
So after talking to a series of health experts, including cardiologists and technologists, here are some questions we’re asking on the eve of the event:
1) Will Apple need approval from federal regulators?
It depends. If Apple shows the ECG reading to a consumer, then yes. That would make the Apple Watch a regulated medical device. But Vic Gundotra, CEO of AliveCor, a start-up making big waves in the space, sees another path. He suggests that the company could use the ECG to get more accurate heart rate data, which wouldn’t necessarily require an approval process. That’s because Apple might not want to take on the risk of providing erroneous information back to a user.
”Is Apple ready to take on that kind of liability? I doubt it,” he said.
If Apple decides to go down the regulatory route, the company faces another decision. It might need to the green light for its ECG sensor as well as the algorithms that sit on top of it that provide feedback to users (“abnormal” or “normal”, for instance). AliveCor did that, so we know it’s possible. As Gundotra recalls, the FDA approved both the algorithms and the hardware at the same time.

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Gundotra, of course, is the ex-Microsoft, ex-Google guy (famous for tweeting about Windows Phone tying up with Nokia that “two turkeys don’t make an eagle”).
Farr seems awfully confident about the ECG facility.
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IOS 12: plenty of potential for mobile journalists, but it may take time • BBC Academy

Marc Settle reviews the upcoming software, with specific application to people using iOS as a mobile workhorse:

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The best users of Shortcuts could end up doing more with their phones without being on their phones as much – leaving them with more time for the actual reporting.
One very handy Workflow I’ve been using extracts the audio from a YouTube video as an MP3 and saves it to Dropbox, which would normally be quite a cumbersome and time-consuming procedure.
All I needed to do was save it to my Workflow app (as I don’t have access to Shortcuts yet), open a YouTube video in Safari and tap to run the Workflow extension. Within seconds, the audio was sitting in my Dropbox folder ready for me to use.
And with the help of Nick Garnett, the éminence grise of mojo at the BBC, we adapted this flow so the final destination of the audio was as an M4A into the BBC’s own PNG app. Always being aware of the copyright aspects of extracting the audio from someone else’s video on YouTube, this could be fantastically useful for any mobile journalist.
You can even make your own flow of actions using the drag and drop interface but that may well be the domain of the adventurous. Some of my colleagues in the mobile journalism world are already doing this, which means that the more collaborative among us will soon be sharing our own Shortcuts to help everyone work more efficiently.
Apple’s integration of Workflow into iOS opens up possibilities which would previously have been off-limits even to the most experienced user of the app. This is because iOS can gain access to system-level processes, such as Find My iPhone, Apple Pay or Low Power Mode. With the last one, for example, there can be an action to toggle on and off.
So expect to see your apps going big on Shortcuts by offering suggestions to get the best out of the app as well as an “Add to Siri” option. It’s likely too that before long there’ll be individual apps that collect the best Shortcuts more generally.

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He’s also keen on the changes to Voice Memos, because of their applicability to journalism and recording.
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British Airways: suspect code that hacked fliers ‘found’ • BBC News

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A RiskIQ researcher analysed code from BA’s website and app around the time when the breach began, in late August.
He claimed to have discovered evidence of a “skimming” script designed to steal financial data from online payment forms.
BA said it was unable to comment.
A very similar attack, by a group dubbed Magecart, affected the Ticketmaster website recently, which RiskIQ said it also analysed in depth.
The company said the code found on the BA site was very similar, but appeared to have been modified to suit the way the airline’s site had been designed.
”This particular skimmer is very much attuned to how British Airway’s payment page is set up, which tells us that the attackers carefully considered how to target this site instead of blindly injecting the regular Magecart skimmer,” the researcher wrote in a report on the findings.
”The infrastructure used in this attack was set up with British Airways in mind and purposely targeted scripts that would blend in with normal payment processing to avoid detection.”
Hacks like this make use of an increasingly common phenomenon, in which large websites embed multiple pieces of code from other sources or third-party suppliers.

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The RiskIQ report (linked above) is well worth reading, and quite scary: this is a professional group dubbed “Magecart” that has been operating for the past three years and pulling off increasingly subtle hacks. This one injected Javascript code into BA’s system. RiskIQ says it sees similar attacks every day; just not as big.
link to this extract


Apple banks on bigger screens to drive iPhone growth • WSJ

Tripp Mickle:

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At a time when people are buying fewer new phones, bigger size brings two advantages. It helps Apple buoy prices and profit margins because it can sell larger phones at a greater markup than it pays suppliers for the larger screens. And it encourages people to use their phones more, helping momentum of Apple’s services business, which includes app-store sales and subscriptions to video services like Netflix and HBO.
Users with smartphone screens 6 in or larger, like Apple plans to launch this year, typically use twice as many apps as those with 5.5in screens, such as those on the largest versions of the iPhone 6 or 7, said Kantar Worldpanel, a market research firm. Users of the larger devices also are 62% more likely to play games, and twice as likely to watch video daily as people with smaller screens.
“The bigger the device, the more people are getting out of it, and the more opportunity there is for Apple to generate money from them,” said Jennifer Chan, analyst with Kantar Worldpanel. She added that the larger phones typically carry faster processors, more memory and better graphics than smaller devices, which also contribute to usage…
…Some 6.5in OLED devices also will be able to use two SIMs, a microchip that allows smartphone users to connect to a wireless network, allowing travelers to access overseas wireless networks more easily. The feature will allow Apple to keep pace with competitors in China, where dual-SIM phones are popular.

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The dual-SIM element is in many ways the most interesting: how will it be implemented? Physically or virtually? Also, the 6.5in screen will have more area than the Galaxy Note 9. Quite a bragging point.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified.


#cyberwars: Harry Potter and the army of hackers (or why hackers are wizards, of a sort)


Cyber Wars book cover This is the second of a series of posts about my book Cyber Wars, published May 2018 in the UK and in the US, which investigates hacking incidents such as the Sony Pictures hack, the TalkTalk hack, ransomware, the Mirai IoT botnet. It looks at how the people in those organisations responded to the hacks – and takes a look at what future hacks might look like. (The first was on phishing.)

Hermione alohomora

When I’m giving presentations about Cyber Wars, I often include this picture in a slide. It shows the character Hermione Granger in one of the Harry Potter films opening a door by saying the spell “Alohomora”. Hacking, I explain, is the search for the spell that will open the door. Not a physical door, generally, but the “door” into the target computer so that you can make it do what you want.

I think that the resemblances go deeper, though. The wizards in the Harry Potter novels are all hackers, in one way or another: they’re using their skills to make something that doesn’t ordinarily happen (levitating feathers, say) occur.

Like hackers, they range in ability, from the most basic “script kiddies” following instructions handed down by their seniors – basically, the classrooms where the first-years learn to incant “wingardium leviosa!” – to the people working at the limits of what’s known, good or bad: think Voldemort and his groundbreaking approach to not dying, or Dumbledore and his research (pre-Hogwarts, I think?) into various types of magic.

Mother and father of invention (and wizards)

This might seem like an overcooked metaphor to you, but there’s an important question in the Harry Potter universe which isn’t directly answered in the books.

It’s this: where do spells come from? And the related question: can you invent new ones? This relates to hackers, because if wizards can invent new spells, then they’re exactly like hackers, who are always searching for new ways to break into stuff – think Heartbleed, Meltdown, Spectre, Shellshock – even as they rely on older tried and trusted methods, such as SQLi and buffer overflows, the “Alohomora” and “Accio!” of the hacking world.

JK Rowling never deals with the question of where spells come from in the books. But this doesn’t mean that she hasn’t left clues or that we can’t tease out the truth about it. Rowling famously plotted everything in great detail, but just as she doesn’t deal with where spells come from, she doesn’t deal with what makes a wizard, well, wizardy.

When it comes to wizardry, it’s evident from the way the capability passes through families, and sometimes drops out of families (as in the case of the Hogwarts caretaker Filch, a non-wizard born to wizarding parents who describes himself as a “squib”), or pops up in non-wizarding families (as with Hermione, born to non-wizarding parents) that it is genetic. Inevitably, there’s been a paper written about this, suggesting it’s autosomal dominant; squibs are from double recessives, and wizards born to Muggles from spontaneous mutations. (Autosomal dominant characteristics are usually described for their bad characteristics – Huntington’s disease, for example. Wizards might differ.)

Cast a spell

So let’s move on to spells. We know that there are lots and lots of spells; the children are taught them, at tedious length. It’s clear too that some adults have access to levels of skill in applying spells that the children can’t perceive; think of the fight (best shown in the film) between Voldemort and Dumbledore in the Ministry of Magic, which for my money is the best sequence of all the films.

But crucially, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, we learn that spells can be improved upon. Harry comes across an old textbook for his Potions class which has handwritten notes about how to make various potions; they improve on what’s in the book, demonstrating that you can do better than what past wizards do. Harry then discovers a spell in it that he’s never seen before: a fighting curse, “sectumsempra” (which, if it were Latin, would mean “always cut”), which he later employs to almost lethal effect. When he subsequently tries to use it on a fleeing adult, his attempt is deflected – and the adult sneers at him: “you dare use my own spells against me?”

There’s your proof: in the Harry Potter universe, wizards can indeed invent their own spells. The potential is literally unlimited, bounded only by what they can imagine and find to do. That is, spells are not the same as, say, laws of physics or chemical elements. Spells are human – well, wizard – creations rather than natural phenomena.

In this way, Harry Potter wizarding is exactly like hacking. There, people try to find new ways to get computers to do stuff that nobody had expected. You mean that when you demand more data from the input buffer of a TLS server, it gets read and sent back? Sure – that’s Heartbleed, which seems to have been discovered at least three and possibly four times, if you include the two final times that led to its public disclosure. (One of those pre-discoverers is thought to be the US National Security Agency.) Who would have thought to ask that? Who would have thought to try “sectumsempra” as a fighting curse? (In the book, it says that different versions of the word have been written and crossed out before the final one is left. Which leaves you wondering how the previous versions were tested.) Trial and error plays a huge part in hacking too: trying combinations, trying different things, guessing, intuiting. And if you’re lucky or talented or both, you’ll get results.


(image from Wikipedia)

Butterbeer and layer cake

We can also see that the Potter world is striated rather like the hacking world. At the base level, you have the script kiddies (OK, spell kiddies): carrying out commands without really knowing quite how they work, but pleased with the effect.

Then there are the professionals: people who are using these techniques to get things done, and will occasionally invent their own methods to get around limitations that block them. For the most part, though, it’s the careful refinement of existing processes – think of all those people in the Ministry of Magic doing magic gruntwork. Think too of the commercial hackers rewriting a piece of ransomware to take account of the new defences put up against them.

At a higher level still you have those who are using more sophisticated versions of these skills for personal and political ends. Of course we’re back with Dumbledore and Voldemort. What doesn’t vary, though, is the general requirement to explore the capabilities of the systems involved, and in that you’re talking about the same sort of approach. Creating a Horcrux to defeat your enemies? Developing a virus that will wipe every computer on your target’s network once you’ve exfiltrated all their email, spreadsheets and a number of unreleased films? Pretty much the same process: a certain amount of education, knowledge, research, non-live testing, and then implementation.

One point about this metaphor is that we’re used to thinking of Harry Potter and his ilk as the good guys, the white hats, the nice ones. This is true enough if you think that most wannabe hackers go on to be “white hat” players, defending systems from attack from the Hogwarts first-years. (It’s also disconcerting if you take this approach, because a significant number of systems are hacked by people whose hacking skills are comparable with Neville Longbottom rather than Hermione’s.) When you think of Potter creating “Dumbledore’s Army” in “Order of the Phoenix”, just recast it as a password-protected online hacker forum where a bunch of script kiddies are trading methods to break into commercial systems.

When thinking about real-world hackers, it’s useful to consider that some people are very highly skilled – wizards, almost – and that their ability to use the hacker equivalent of the Imperius spell to subvert systems you thought you could rely on means you might not even realise that they’re inside. Certainly that was the experience recently of Dixons Carphone, which in June said that it had discovered that hackers had been inside its systems since the previous July. Eleven months? That’s pretty dramatic, and embarrassing for those who were meant to be guarding the perimeter, and the inside.

One could go on extending this metaphor: Azkaban prison is like any old prison. The Dementors are the plain old law enforcement, taking away your soul – well, computer – and leaving you as good as dead. House-elves are perhaps Internet of Things devices (which would explain why they occasionally cease obeying us altogether when a hacker comes along and gives them different instructions). Other suggestions of metaphor extensions – for dragons, goblins, and other members of that universe – are welcome.

And meanwhile, although there isn’t any discussion of Harry Potter and hacking in my book, there is plenty about hacking topics. See the links at the top.

The axes of HomePod evolution: don’t judge what you can’t yet see


The MacBook Air, in an envelope just like it came in. Photo by yasuhisa yanagi on Flickr.

There’s been a lot of discussion about Apple’s HomePod, and the claim from Mark Gurman writing at Bloomberg that it “hasn’t lived up to expectations” in sales terms. Though if you ask analysts in the field, such as Ben Wood of CCS, they thought that 5 million in a year would be impressive. “Clearly my expectations were way lower than others,” commented Ben, which to me has echoes of the vastly inflated numbers that people expected smartwatches, and especially the Apple Watch, to sell, in the first year.

More relevant, I think, is the question of how the HomePod (or just “HomePod” – Apple never uses the definitive for its products, just as a parent wouldn’t for a child) is going to evolve.

And for that, it’s important to bear in mind how every single Apple product tends to evolve: from MVP, aka minimal viable product, to thing that people buy by the million.

Let’s go all the way back to the Bondi Blue iMac, from 1998, since that’s where the story of the modern Apple really begins. This was Apple trying to compete again in the PC market, and choosing to do so in an orthogonal way to pretty much everything else out there. It was all-in-one, it used USB (a new connector at the time), had no floppy drive (this alone was reckoned to spell its doom), and upgrading the RAM and hard drive was difficult.

But the next update showed the trajectory that Apple was on. The Bondi iMac gained colours, and it got more powerful, and added a DVD burner drive if you wanted. It didn’t revert to old connectors, but did add better sound.

iPod, youPod

Next, iPod.

Some of the iPod family – though there were more models and colours than this. Photo by Zengame on Flickr.

The first one was “expensive”, had a black and white and very pixel-y display, used a proprietary connector, had an unusual yet intuitive method for scrolling through songs, held 1,000 songs. As it evolved through the years, it generated variants that were smaller, had bigger and better screens, more memory, flash memory, but broadly the same controller and interface. (The iPod shuffle is like the Galapagos of iPods, but anyway.)

The MacBook Air (as at the top of the post). The first version had a very limited SSD drive, and underpowered processor. But it had those qualities of being thin and light and offering lots of battery power that people who could afford it really loved – especially when you compared to the average Windows laptop, which weighed tons more, had a DVD drive and floppy drive that road warriors in coffee shops didn’t need, and lasted much less long. You’d still recognise the first model today.

A calling for the iPhone


The iPhone X doesn’t look that different from the 6S, which doesn’t look that different from the original. Photo by Lucy Takakura on Flickr.

The iPhone is probably the poster child for MVP-ness. The first version’s software was limited (no MMS; no 3G; no text forwarding; no copy/paste), it was really expensive, its battery lasted a day when rival phones could last a week. But it could do so many things that others couldn’t, because of that touch screen and the concept of being a computer for your pocket, not a phone for your email. Subsequent versions have improved along pretty much every axis possible, apart from that battery life stuff (though the iPhone X is a big advance here).

The iPad. Look at these varieties.

iPad sizes have changed, but you’d still recognise the original if you’d only seen the newest, eight years on. Photo by MakeUseOf on Flickr.

The first version arrived in early 2010 and didn’t have a Retina screen (the iPhone 4, to be released later that year, would; but Retina screens at the size of an iPad were too expensive to contemplate for some time. What it did offer was something that wasn’t a PC trying to be squashed into a tablet form (which Dell and many others had been trying since 2001) and an approach to a big touch-driven screen that harked back to Jeff Haan’s remarkable TED demo of 2005. Since then, its screen has improved (hugely), it has gained an optional keyboard and pencil, and processor power has risen exponentially. But eight years on, the old and new look completely like siblings.

The Apple Watch. The first version could just about take you through a day if you didn’t exercise for too long. There has been plenty of tinkering with how the interface between apps works, but none with the basic concept of how you interact: lift-to-wake, or touches. The addition of GPS and phone data/calling has been welcomed, but if you hold the original Series 0 beside the latest Series 3, it’s essentially still the same thing: a device which hands off tasks from your phone to your wrist.

Bearing all this in mind, what should we expect from the HomePod’s evolution?

Again, look backward first. Look at the axes on which the previous devices evolved.
iMac:
Evolution: colour, extras, price, screen resolution, interfaces.
No evolution: size, shape.

iPod:
Evolution: colour, size, shape, control system, price, screen (colour-capable, video display-capable), output (to TV), interface (from proprietary Firewire, to 30-pin-Firewire and 30-pin USB, to Lightning; and Wi-Fi/Bluetooth in the iPod Touch), processor power.
No evolution: actually, pretty much everything about the iPod changed. (You could however argue that the iPod Touch is actually a cut-down iPhone, not an iPod, and that iPod evolution ended with the iPod shuffle of 2010 and iPod nano of 2012 – the latter being what some thought could be a precursor of an Apple wearable.)

MacBook Air:
Evolution: processor speed, screen size (smaller, never bigger than 13in), weight (reduced), disk size, price.
No evolution: screen quality (after all these years still isn’t Retina), shape, colour (there’s never been a black or rose gold MacBook Air; you want one, it’s aluminium).

iPhone:
Evolution: processor speed (duh), thickness, price, weight, colour, screen size, screen quality, login interface (from passcode to TouchID to FaceID), location capability (GPS, added in 2009’s iPhone 3GS), cameras (front-facing camera arrived on 2010’s iPhone 4).
No evolution: number of buttons (until the iPhone X, which removed the Home button), general interface, general portability, battery life

iPad:
Evolution: size, colour, processor speed, screen resolution, screen capability (Tru-Tone etc), price, functional accessories (Smart Keyboard, Pencil), interface (USB/30-pin to USB/Lightning).
No evolution: screen size ratio, battery life

Apple Watch:
Evolution: battery life, straps, GPS, 4G connectivity, price (by selling older models at lower prices, rather than having differently priced new models, as happened with the iPhone)
No evolution: screen size

All right. Bearing in mind all the above, how should we expect the HomePod hardware to evolve, and not to evolve?

An evolution before your eyes


A “HomePod evolution” concept. Photo by Martin Hajek on Flickr.

Softly spoken, software

Given the way that everything gains software capability, I expect it will gain the capability to play more services than just Apple Music. The ability to play Spotify (which is, don’t forget, the world’s biggest streaming music service) is an obvious piece of low-hanging fruit if you’re looking to tempt people to buy a better-sounding device. Remember, Apple is into hardware sales; Services may be the thing that it talks up, but hardware is the motor that drives the engine.

In which case, why sell HomePod v1 without Spotify capability? Because the v1 is always the MVP – the minimum viable product. Look at the iPhone. Look at the iPad. Look at the MacBook Air. Look at the Apple Watch. They all started out lacking capabilities that seemed obvious (the first iPad didn’t even have alarms, which the iPhone did) and then gained them. Apple has been circling around what the HomePod should do for years – it’s been in development since Siri came on board – and the fact that it took this long to get out of the design labs suggests the usual cautious approach. The people who have bought the first model are obviously, self-definingly, going to be people who like Apple stuff; it can’t, therefore, do any harm to only offer Apple Music as a music service. But putting Spotify on? That’s just a question of an API to Spotify, and an instruction set for Siri so it recognises “play X on Spotify” or “play the X playlist from Spotify”. It can probably be done through a software update.

Other software? Besides playing music, smart speakers’ utility seems to lie in (1) checking the weather forecast (2) setting kitchen timers (3) streaming music (4) setting alarms. Below that, the proportion of people who say they’ve ever done this stuff falls below 50% of smart speaker owners (per Comscore) and it’s hard to know how often people do it.

So – weather, timers, music, alarms. Dig down to the 30% level and there’s also home automation, product ordering (that’s going to be Amazon), calendars, and games/jokes/general questions. (The HomePod can also do iMessage sending and receiving, and FaceTime alls; those don’t come up in the “things people do” listing above 13%, but it’s not something you imagine people wanting to do a great deal.)

These are all things that you can do now. So when people complain about the HomePod’s capability, they’re really complaining that it doesn’t have other music services, and about Siri. The first is a software update, and the second is – well, Apple seems to be working on it.

Hard wearing, but what hardware?

What about hardware? What can we expect there? Is the HomePod more like the portable iPod, which had multiple axes of evolution, or the deskbound iMac? In truth, it might be even closer to a device which I didn’t mention in the list above: the Apple TV.

Like the ATV, the HomePod has a limited interface (via a remote, or by voice), and in general once put somewhere it stays there essentially forever. The ATV has hardly evolved at all – there are a couple of varieties (4K/not 4K) and storage variants, but its onscreen interface is unlike anything else that Apple does. That’s been forced by the limitations of interactions with a TV screen, which one typically views from across a room, and that seems to have limited what it can do.

There has been no evolution of size or colour, and little on price (aside from selling the older model at lower cost). The competition from lower-priced rivals such as Roku, Google’s Chromecast and Amazon’s Fire Stick seems to have kept Apple stuck upmarket, and guarding its content (TV and movies bought on iTunes) jealously: you can’t get them on any of those three rivals without some DRM-fighting shenanigans.

There are signs of the HomePod taking up the same position. You can’t stream Apple Music on the Echo (though Amazon says it’s “open” to it) or Google Home. It’s possible Apple is going to treat the smart speaker market as being like the TV set-top box market – one to be fought over rigidly. Possibly that’s what caused the delay in its initial release: big internal fights over its future trajectory, for these things are all mapped out a couple of years ahead before the first product gets out of the door. (For example, iPhones are designed at least two years ahead.)

But I think that to make the HomePod as “closed” as the Apple TV would be a mistake, and given the way that other successful Apple products have evolved – different shapes and sizes and price points (to fit in with the way that people live their lives), greater software capability (to make the product indispensable, not just nice to have) – I’d expect to see more colours of HomePod, and lower-priced ones too.

It took Sonos years to diverge from its high-end music amps down to the Sonos One, but it’s the latter that was the hit because it found the sweet spot on price. The HomePod is more versatile than the Apple TV because it has more functions than just displaying content on a screen. It’s a voice-driven speaker, and that has lots of implications.

Conclusion

So that’s my thinking: adding Spotify is an open goal, HomePod 2 is a certainty, and we could see smaller HomePods in time if Apple decides that this is a market which is worth winning, rather than just taking part in (the latter being its approach with the Apple TV).

But the early sales numbers? They don’t tell us a lot. Because to lean on those as telling the story means to ignore the ironclad rule of Apple products: the first is the MVP. It’s the ones after that which tell you the trajectory of the device.

Beware taking your Mac running High Sierra to the Genius Bar: APFS might surprise them


“Your Mac. On top”, according to the caption. But it might also be a source of confusion at the Genius Bar. Photo by tua ulamac on Flickr.

I wrote a while back about the problems I had with my 2012 retina MacBook Pro, and its strange shutdowns – which I suspected, but couldn’t absolutely prove, were due to the graphics card problem that these models have been known to suffer from: when the discrete graphics card was activated, there was a chance it would go completely off the rails.

Finally it shut down and didn’t seem to want to start. At that point, I turned over to using the iPad Pro full-time, which is another story. You might find it entertaining.

The only way to absolutely prove that the problem with the computer was the graphics card, of course, was to take it to a Genius Bar. After eventually getting an appointment (the Mac Geniuses are rare, compared to the iPhone/iPad Geniuses), I turned up with the rMBP which I’d left for dead.

“It was dead, honest”

Of course the first thing it did when the guy plugged it in was to start up and happily proceed to the login screen. Talk about embarrassing. I logged in. All seemed OK. But we were there for a Genius appointment, so we were going to do that. He restarted, booted from a network drive which has Apple’s Mac OS9-style hardware test, and gave it a once-over.


Mac OS 9: if you take your Mac to get Geniused, you’ll probably see a screen that looks something like this. Photo by Rodrigo Vera on Flickr.

(That’s OS9. It’s not what my machine looked like, except for how the progress bar looked.)

The checks all looked OK, except for the VST – video system test. That didn’t work – it said it couldn’t find the relevant drivers (which it looked for on the hard drive). So he ran Disk Utility off the network drive to see whether there was something wrong with the hard drive. (rMBPs from that time all have SSDs.).

At this point things got very confusing. Disk Utility showed that there were two drives – an SSD with 500GB capacity, and another also with 500GB capacity. One of them seemed to be called Macintosh HD, and the other seemed to have partitions such as “private” and “mem”.

Except that the rMBP only had a 500GB SSD. How had it got two? “Have you got a Fusion drive in here?” the Genius asked.

Me (cooperative citizen pulled over by policeman): “Er.. no.”

At this point the Genius said he suspected there was something wrong with my SSD. So he restarted the machine, held down the key to boot from a network drive, whizzed over to the one marked 10.12 and started up. Could Disk Utility read my drive now? No, it couldn’t.

“Do you have this backed up?” he asked, indicating the computer. I sure did – SuperDuper clones, and a Time Machine backup. “I think we might need to reinstall the operating system.”

(This is the point at which the smart readers are saying “ohhhh” because they’ve spotted the mistake that both he and I made.)

“You backed it up, of course?”

So yes, it was time to wipe the drive and reinstall everything. Thankfully the Wi-Fi in Apple Stores is really fast, so you can get your OS reinstalled quickly. Everything seemed to be going fine. I hung around, knowing that all the important stuff was backed up either in the cloud or on the backup disk. For fun, because I knew that it would take forever on our super-slow broadband, I decided to re-download my iCloud Photo library. All 16,800 or so of them. Look, the Wi-Fi’s free.

The photo download was fast. Everything seemed to be fine. The machine wasn’t crashing. I was now starting to question myself: was it really just something scuzzy on the hard drive?

Then, fatefully, I tried to look at a photo that had downloaded at full resolution. Click on the photo, it begins to fill the screen, and––

BAM. The machine shut down, just like that. It had been nothing to do with the hard drive or the OS. As I thought, whenever the discrete graphics card was called on to do something, it knocked the machine out.

Some more consultation, and another Genius. More network booting, and this time the video test seemed to indicate that, ehhhh, the video card might not be in good shape.

At this point I suddenly realised why the network-booted versions hadn’t been able to run the video card drivers from my hard drive, and now they could. The network drives were formatted with HFS+, which is the file system Apple has been using on Mac OSX (and MacOS) for a couple of decades. That’s why the version number on the network drive was 10.12 – the file format for Sierra.

13 is the magic number (it makes stuff disappear)

High Sierra! It was staring us in the face. Sorta.

But I had brought the machine in running 10.13 – High Sierra – which uses the APFS filesystem. APFS brings a number of benefits, such as “instant” file copying, disk space saving, better encryption performance, inherent SSD trim, and faster boot times, but it isn’t back-compatible with HFS+; if you boot from an HFS+ drive, it won’t be able to read a file encoded in APFS. (APFS can work read HFS+, of course.)

That, of course, is why the Genius’s HFS+-encoded 10.12 network drive couldn’t understand my APFS-encoded SSD. So I’d wiped the hard drive for nothing. If there had been an APFS-encoded network drive, it could have booted up the machine and run the video test and found the problem. (Well, probably.)

Anyhow – they took the machine in and replaced the entire logic board, and they did it under the guarantee (even though that had run out a little while earlier). In my case, the problem had gotten much worse after I got the battery replaced in November 2017; possibly doing that disturbed the logic board and the card’s connections, and led to a cascade of trouble.

When I got home, there was an email waiting for me from Apple – the standard “how did we do?” questionnaire. I had by then realised what had happened, and so I filled it in, explaining that they needed to update their procedures to take High Sierra/APFS users into account. I got a followup phone call from the Apple Store where I’d taken my machine, and they sounded interested and honestly grateful for the feedback. So this has possibly already been implemented. (I mean, you’d hope, right?)

Problem mostly solved

So what’s the solution? Apple obviously needs to implement some network drives formatted with APFS. Which might mean an overhaul of how it does some stuff in-store; but it should expect that there are going to be more and more people coming in with machines that are APFS-encoded.

As for me – I came home with a machine that was fixed; it’s got a new battery (since November) and now a totally new logic board. What’s really nice is how clean the machine is. All the dust and crumbs and fingermarks are blown and cleaned off. It’s like getting a brand-new machine. (I think they may even have replaced my letter “A”, which had taken a lot of punishment over the past five and a bit years.)

Getting the hard drive back to status quo ante took an afternoon or so. The one thing that’s not working? Can’t get my old Time Machine drive (which is of course HFS+ because Time Machine hasn’t moved forward to APFS yet) to believe that the new machine is essentially the same one. If I try to run a backup, it thinks for 12 hours or so (it’s not an SSD backup drive) and then declares that it’s going to need vast tracts of storage. I’ve tried command-line invocations (yes, I’ve read the manual for tmutil) without success. Strangely, I am apparently able to restore files from the drive; I just can’t put fresh ones onto it.

But that’s not a huge problem, because I have hardly any files that live exclusively on my Mac – doing so seems like a liability, and a self-inflicted handicap in these days of cloud synchronisation via iCloud and Dropbox – and the very few that there are can be handled by SuperDuper!, which does bootable backups (yes, even of APFS).

Back to my Mac

Oh sure, you’re wondering: what’s it like being back on the Mac after weeks exclusively on the iPad? Three key things: it’s damn heavy; I can type a bit faster; the screen (15in) is really big, which makes it feel like all the fonts are gigantic and yet can fit stuff onto the screen.

More generally, I find it easier to get distracted on the Mac. There are pings from emails, there’s the time spent waiting for the newsreader to load articles or web pages to load, during which one may decide to go and look at another app (email, Twitter) and get lost in that, breaking the flow of whatever I was doing before. I’m much more focussed when working on the iPad – I can go most of a day without looking at email, which is how I like things to be, unless it’s VIP email, in which case I get pinged. Also, I don’t get spinning beachballs on the iPad. Sure, it’s newer and it’s doing less simultaneous processing, but even so, as a user interface experience, Beachballs Are Bad, and one notices them even more when returning from a platform where you never, ever see them.

But anyhow, if your Mac does break down, and you’re on High Sierra, make sure to tell them if you’re on APFS when they come to the diagnostics. And if they tell you that you need to wipe your drive and start again, just make sure to ask them: “are you certain it’s that, or could it be your network drive can’t read the APFS file system on my machine?” It can’t hurt to ask.

Life on an iPad

IPad Pro with Smart Keyboard, and devil

The Mac went to the day of the dead, so the iPad had to step in

A couple of weeks ago, I opened my Macbook Pro as usual. The keyboard lit up, as usual. I waited – there’s that pause while the display gathers itself (it’s a 2012 model) and the processor pulls everything together and presents the login window.

Except this time, nothing. The display didn’t light. There was the quiet sound of the fans going, but nothing. Oh dear. Closed the display, opened it to catch it unawares – no, that wasn’t going to fool it. After a bit more futzing around, I concluded that it was not in the mood to work. But I had work to do, and so I turned to my iPad Pro.

That was, as I say, a couple of weeks ago. Since then I’ve been doing everything I’ve done on this iPad – a 12in iPad Pro, with Smart Keyboard. That means email, writing articles for papers, editing chapters for my book, composing The Overspill’s daily Start Up post, and so on.

A few years ago, this would probably have been impossible. I wouldn’t have contemplated it. Now? Getting along fine. In a number of ways, the iPad is preferable – particularly weight and connectivity. In only a couple of ways is it worse (the most notable being “lappability”).

The big advantage these days is that if you trust your documents to iCloud, then moving between Mac and iPad isn’t a problem. (OK, for the chapters in the book that has been a mixture of iCloud – for the Pages edits of Word documents – and Dropbox, which is where Scrivener, which I used to write it originally, stores documents.) I was able to go straight to my iPad and have all the tools I needed.

Let’s run through a few of those things.

• writing my book: wait, you didn’t know I had a book coming out? Yes, in May – Cyber Wars, looking in detail at seven big hacking incidents: how and why they happened. You can order it on Amazon. (US, UK.) I wrote it in Scrivener, which is wonderful, and has an iOS as well as MacOS version. Documents and “projects” are synced via Dropbox, and it detects if you’ve done something in one place or the other and offers to sync them up.

• editing book chapters: the publishers sent back chapters as Word documents with Track Changes. Import those to Pages (on the iPad), run through the Track Changes, export to Word documents (also in iCloud Drive) and send back. All lives in iCloud Drive, so will be available when (if?) the Mac revives.

• writing articles for papers: this is generally easiest in Google Docs (because a lot of papers are on Google Apps). Weirdly, although Google will let you write things in Google Docs in Safari on MacOS, it absolutely won’t let you do that on Safari on the iPad, even if you request the desktop site. You have to use the app. This is the only case I’ve come across where you can’t do it on the site and have to use the app.

• making and recording Skype calls for work.

• curating The Overspill. This involves spotting links, selecting content from them, perhaps adding a comment and an image from that link, and then collating all the links together in a specific format (using particular HTML formatting), and putting those into a timed WordPress post with a Flickr CC-BY licensed picture at the top. (The CC-BY has to include a link back to the original photo and the photographer’s name or username.)

The most complex part of those is composing The Overspill, where I use a mixture of Instapaper, Pinboard and WordPress for the raw content. On the Mac, I collect the links and content and comment using the Javascript supplied by Pinboard. But that’s not available (or wasn’t) on the iPad, so I used Workflow to write an Action Extension: when I’m on a page, I select the text, hit the Share button and choose “Run Workflow”, and I can put the selected text – with a comment – into Pinboard. It’s actually better than on MacOS, because Workflow has options so you can grab the author name from the page meta-content.

Workflow script for iOS

Workflow (now owned by Apple) means you can script across applications on iOS

On the Mac, I compose the daily Overspill post using a custom Applescript I wrote (it queries Pinboard and posts to MarsEdit). Fortunately, well before the Mac went into a coma I’d translated the script into Python for iOS, using Pythonista – which is a damn useful program that lets you write and run Python programs which will interact with web pages, web APIs, and the OS itself. I wish there was something like it on MacOS; it makes writing Python programs to do tasks so much easier than doing them in the Terminal and other interfaces. (Pythonista apparently can also sync files between devices, as Workflow does, if you enable a setting – I wasn’t aware of it.)

Python script, in Pythonista, with console output

Pythonista on iOS means you can run Python scripts – it’s even more convenient than on the Mac

(Please don’t laugh at my coding. It just has to get the job done, not be pretty.)

I don’t do any podcast recording (which I understand is still a problem on iPads, as Garageband fights with Skype), nor any video editing. But what I’m trying to do is “real work”, at least for me. It’s work that earns money, and isn’t that what we’re after?

So a couple of weeks in, here’s what I find to be the good and the bad points of working full-time on an iPad to do things I used to do on a Mac laptop.

The good

the weight. It’s so much lighter (even with the Smart Keyboard) than a laptop. Put it in a bag and go and you hardly know it; that’s a big difference compared to toting around the MacBook Pro (5.6lb, v 1.6lb for the iPad plus 0.75lb for the Smart Keyboard – so half the weight).

• battery life. If it doesn’t last a couple of full days, then I’m disappointed and slightly surprised. Compare that with the laptop, where you’d expect to get a morning and an afternoon, and then be hunting for a power outlet.

• connectivity. I’ve got a PAYG sim from Three, with 1GB of credit, and I use that if I find myself somewhere without Wi-Fi: just hook into the mobile network. Yes, I know you can do this by setting up a hotspot from your phone to your laptop, but being able to have the device do it on its own is far more satisfying.

• focus. The iPad lets you work on two – max three – apps at once on the screen. If you tailor notifications correctly, you can get a lot done. So if I don’t want to be disturbed by email, then I don’t let it notify me, and I can go literally hours without being interrupted. (I don’t use email in the browser.) Then you go to your email and deal with it. Remember, you might think of it as “my inbox” but it’s actually composed of messages sent out of your control by other people. In general, “your” inbox is not under your control at all; it’s other peoples’ ideas of what you should do – a task manager compiled by other people. Not looking at email is good.

• aptitude. By which I mean that some of the scripts I write (with Workflow, with Pythonista) can do more than equivalents on MacOS. My Workflow one can get the name of the author of a page/article, which the standard Pinboard bookmarklet doesn’t. (Possibly a little bit of Javascript hacking could sort that, but when you roll your own you see the gaps in what you’re provided with.) On the Mac I use Viewfinder to get details of Flickr CC-BY photos, but the Pythonista script I’ve written gets the photographer name too, which Viewfinder doesn’t offer.

• the keyboard. I really like the keyboard. The odd thing is that I don’t much like the keyboard on the new MacBooks/MacBook Pros, but the Smart Keyboard uses the exact same key design. The crucial difference is that the Smart Keyboard covers them in a layer of fabric, which has two huge advantages: it makes them much quieter (because oh my lord the bare keys are CLACKY), and it proofs them against the specks of dust which have been the downfall of recent designs. Double win. If they could make a MacBook with these keys covered in fabric they’d have solved their problems, but I’m guessing that there would be thermal dissipation problems with that – most laptops vent plenty of heat out of the gaps around the keys.

The bad

• ‘lappability’. Laptops have the huge advantage that they’re designed to work in your lap: the big flat base sits on your lap and the screen can be adjusted to your taste, and then the keyboard has a solid base too. With the iPad and Smart Keyboard, it’s difficult to get the same effect, because it’s so light and the screen angle is fixed. (That wouldn’t be improved by the Microsoft Surface’s adjustable leg, because I can’t adjust the length of my femur to cope with where the slide must rest for a specific screen angle.) With the iPad Pro, you really want a table to rest it on – or else something that can go on your lap. (I’m writing this sitting in a car, so it’s not impossible.)

• lack of keyboard shortcuts for one’s own scripts. On MacOS, I can use Keyboard Maestro (and some of Apple’s custom keyboard shortcut offerings) to create a keyboard shortcut to invoke scripts which do tasks such as adding text or HTML to a clipping. On iOS, there’s no such option. So I invoke the Share menu and Workflow a lot.

• grab problems. Sometimes it’s difficult to select a chunk of text, especially if it goes past a photo on a page.

• can’t grab inline image URLs. There isn’t a way that I can see on the iPad to find the URL to an image on a Safari page and directly copy that. It might be possible with a bit of scripting (input some text before and after the picture; script grabs the source, looks for image links between those words). Solution: presses on the image and choose “open in new tab” and grab the link from that tab. But it’s an extra step, and isn’t always available – take the example below from Techcrunch.

Confusing choices on an image menu on Safari on the iPad

An image on Techcrunch (though it happens on many sites). It’s not obvious that “copy” means “copy the image URL to the clipboard” rather than “copy the whole image to the clipboard”.

(OK, so people on Twitter have pointed out that the “copy” there is “copy the image URL”. I have to say that isn’t self-evident, and I didn’t try it because I didn’t want to destroy what was already on the clipboard. Anyway, there you have it: the solution is to “copy”.)

• information density. If you compare the number of pixels on an iPad with those on a laptop, it doesn’t seem like that many more. But the action targets (the things you have to hit with the mouse) are way smaller on the laptop than on the iPad, where they’re larger because it must expect that people will only use their fingers to operate it – even if the Pencil is an option. Smaller targets and more pixels means a lot more space can be used for information.

• you’re using a tablet? Some sites still don’t expect that. Yes, I’m looking at you, Flickr, and your impossible-to-copy text in the “embed” link. On a Safari page, this comes up as it does on the desktop – a floating window with some HTML. But trying to tap-to-select the necessary part of that code – which begins “https://farm…” and ends “.jpg” is a fight, and copying precisely what you want a truly vexing process. (I haven’t found a way to script the grabbing of the necessary code, and the Flickr app is unbelievably useless: can’t restrict a search to a specific licence, can’t do a view by date/relevance, and so on. It’s mindless crap meant for the most passive user imaginable.)

• missing web page functions. I use Instapaper to collect links through the day/week; in Safari on Mac you get icons to delete links after you’ve used them. Not on Safari on iPad. (The Instapaper app does, though.)

• easier to miss stuff. The Overspill Start Up daily email requires a specific set of things to be correct about the WordPress blogpost (correct category, launch before a certain time). I’ve made more mistakes with the WordPress interface in Safari on the iPad in three weeks than I did on the laptop in three years, which has led to missed blogpost launches and missed email deliveries (sometimes both, sometimes just one). It’s very annoying; partly it’s that some of the work was done before by Marsedit (see below) and that the web interface for WordPress is appalling when it comes to the scheduling/category stuff. (Ought to be at the top of the page; instead is relegated to the side, sometimes well down the side.)

• miss having a newsreader. I use NetNewsWire on the Mac, which I’ve been using for about 15 years now. (It’s not as good as it was.) I know it’s available for iOS; I just hadn’t set up the synchronisation, so it would have been a big slog.

Room for improvement

• Mail needs work. Quite a bit to bring it up to speed. Though you can filter your inbox(es) by all/unread/flagged/has attachment/to me/cc me, there are no Smart Mailboxes (I can’t create a virtual inbox of messages with particular characteristics, or from a particular sender or domain or set of domains). I also want to be able to see more emails on the left-hand pane – if you get any appreciable number of emails per day, they’re going to overwhelm those you were previously dealing with, which screws up your workflow.

• I’d really like a good blogpost editor, ideally scriptable – basically, MarsEdit for iPad. MarsEdit is a wonderful blogpost writing/editing program which can deal with multiple blogs, and is also scriptable so that you can fire up a script and get things done. The WordPress app (in which I’m writing this) is OK, but not very intuitive. Although – as soon as I made this complaint to myself, I realised there might be a solution. And so there was, via Workflow (which can control WordPress – you can do pretty much everything up to scheduling the post) plus Python(ista). With a bit of finagling, I had a solution which did slightly more than the version I run on my Mac.

In many ways, this post is like the real-life experience that I wrote about more as a theory in Benjamin Button moves from an iPad Pro to a MacBook Pro. But it’s reality. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but sometimes it’s just the mother of getting on and discovering what tools are actually available.

I eventually got a Genius Bar appointment for the Mac. After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing (including a disk wipe that turned out to be unnecessary, but that’s for another post) the diagnosis was a problem with the NVidia video card – a known fault on my model. Weird that it took over five years to become calamitous, but that’s computers.

In the meantime, I’ve got the iPad, and over the weekend wrote a combination Workflow/Pythonista script which automates almost the whole process of compiling and scheduling The Overspill. Of course, rather as we redefine artificial intelligence to be “anything that computers can’t yet do” (where the goalposts move from “beat humans at chess” to “beat humans at Go” to “be better than us at Where’s Waldo”), the definition of “real work” has probably moved so that, because everyone knows you can’t do “real work” on an iPad, it’s now all the things that I don’t or didn’t try to do – the podcasts and video editing.

But you know what? It works for me. Plus it’s improved my Python.

TL;DR: want to do pretty much everything you do on a Mac, but on an iPad? Get Workflow and Pythonista.

The Apple Watch Series 3 ripoff: how carriers want to charge for zero data use


The Apple Watch Series 3 can take phone calls. But you’ll pay for that. Photo by portalgda on Flickr.

On first trying the Apple Watch, in 2015, my reaction was that it did a lot of things pretty well. I still wished that it had an always-on screen. But earlier this year I started taking exercise more seriously. At that point, it suddenly comes into its own: the workout apps, the heart monitoring, the calorie estimator. Add AirPods – I was quick enough to snag a pair when they went on sale in the UK last Christmas – and you have a terrific combo for running: store some music on your watch, connect AirPods, go running. No wires, no phones, and no, they don’t fall out.

When I’m out I see other runners with phones strapped to their wrists, with headphone wires all over the place. They give me odd looks. I give them an odd look right back. Exercising without wires is how it’s meant to be. (If you’ve got a Watch then I recommend the HeartWatch app, which gives you the granular detail of your heart rate, especially during workouts.)

Since you can add Apple Pay, the Watch becomes a device that can do everything while you’re out and about, even without a phone. Except.. if you don’t have a phone you can’t take phone calls, or receive and respond to text and other forms of messages, or get new data for Maps, or activate Siri, etc, etc.

Adding mobile (“cellular”) capability makes perfect sense there. Now you really can leave the phone at home, because you can receive calls anywhere you get coverage – with good LTE this means plenty of places, such as the middle of a lake, as in the Apple demo – and make them, because your contacts list is in the phone, and failing that there’s a Big Buttoned Virtual Keypad.

And generally in technology, if someone can, someone will. Samsung had already gone there, but its device was big and bulky, and it didn’t have the same phone number as your phone. Apple has solved that.

Zero data, zero incentive

What doesn’t make sense is the price that carriers are looking to charge for hooking your Watch to their network. In the US, the price is put at $10/month; in the UK, at £5 per month, on EE.

These are outrageous prices, on a par with the ludicrous data charges that carriers used to apply before the iPhone. In those days, up to mid-2007, to want data on the move marked you out as someone with money to burn, or else a raging desire for debt.

Why outrageous? Because Watch cellular data use is not additive; it’s substitutive. If you’re pulling in data on your cellular Watch, you must have left your phone behind. Ergo, you’re doing nothing with the phone, so it’s consuming (next to) no data. The data consumption has shifted to your Watch.

(Just to be clear: Apple says that your Watch uses the best available connection with your phone. If you’re in Bluetooth range, it uses that. If you’re on the same Wi-Fi network (or even, magically, a Wi-Fi network that your phone knows how to connect to, even somewhere distant) then it’ll use Wi-Fi. Now, if you’re not in range of either of those, the Watch will connect to the data network when it has to. But most of the time, and especially when you have your phone with you, it won’t be connecting to the mobile network.)

If anything, you’ll be consuming less data while you’re Watching solo – you won’t be loading Facebook pages, or giant email attachments, or scrolling through Twitter, or watching YouTube. Sure, you might be listening to music streamed from Apple Music. But you might well have been doing that anyway; if you like streaming music while you run, you’ve probably been doing that already, but with a phone around your arm. (And you can get music onto the Watch just by downloading it from the phone, rather like one used to with iPods. This is probably the biggest use case of music on the Watch even if you can stream, because runner like to create their own playlists, not rely on stuff in the cloud.)

Nor do the carriers have to send you a physical SIM; it’s done in software, in the Watch. Nor do they have to open a new account; you’re already a customer. There might be a mild bit of back-end administration to inform the cell network that two different IMEIs (mobile device IDs) have the same phone number. (Side note: the fact this can be done implies that spying on your phone calls may be easier than it seems?)

But there’s nothing in there which justifies $10/month or £5/month. And think of what that adds to the cost of the device: $120 or £60 per year. That’s a substantial chunk of the upfront price, and it never stops. On Twitter, Marine Engelvuori points out that EE ties you to a 24-month contract if you buy the watch from them, and that you have to add VAT; suddenly that device which costs £399 on its own has added £200-odd of costs over the contract lifetime.

If the cost were $1 or £1 per month, that would be tolerable; one can concede that carriers could charge for the tiny bit of administration cost that might be involved, and maybe eke a profit on the fact of this device’s new qualities. But more than that is just absurd, and it will stifle purchases by anyone who might be a marginal buyer of the service.

This is a real pity. The Series 3 is a remarkable piece of engineering: turning the screen into the aerial (I don’t even know how they do this) and maintaining the thin profile is just amazing. All the software functionality, such as heart rate monitoring and so on, is top class. People could benefit from cell-connected smartwatches, and not only the ones made by Apple. (It might encourage people to spend less time staring at screens, weirdly enough.)

But the price that the carriers are trying to charge is stupid.

Third-party like it’s 2006

It really is 2006 in wearable land; the time before carriers woke up to the broader benefit of offering services at prices which encourage people to use them. Wearables are, arguably, still at the same stage in their evolution as the smartphone was in 2006. This doesn’t mean though that the carriers couldn’t act as the midwives to help things along a little.

Remember, they’re trying to charge this amount for something which will use no extra data over you using your phone, and for which they don’t have to provide a physical item.

There is a precedent for doing this well: Amazon and the Kindle. The deal it cut for “Whispernet” meant you could download books anywhere and all you paid for was the extra 3G functionality in the upfront price. No ongoing fees. I can imagine that Apple’s board gulped a bit at the potential cost of doing that for the Watch, when people would no doubt eagerly take the chance to stream music all day and all night long forever for the extra £70. Kindle files are pretty small compared with music files, and Amazon had a monopoly on that market. So it was probably a non-starter for Apple to shoulder the cost. (This doesn’t mean there’s a cost to the carriers – as I said above, it’s substitutive. But it would be all new costs for Apple to pay for Watch data.)

Maybe the first carriers are just hoping to rake it in before competition opens up and drives prices down. Here’s hoping.

It took the iPhone, and Steve Jobs’s negotiating genius, to get carriers to adopt a flat rate model for data. It’s a disappointment that Apple hasn’t managed to push the future of connectivity forward in the other place where it matters – not on your wrist, because they’ve solved that; but in your wallet.

Fining Google: a slow train coming


“Slow Train Coming”, the artwork from the cover of Bob Dylan’s album. Photo by Logos: the Art of Photography on Flickr.

The cover of Bob Dylan’s album “Slow Train Coming” shows people literally laying a railway just ahead of a train which is, in theory, a-comin’. Just very slowly. The European Commission’s antitrust decision against Google is just such a train. A €2.42bn train. Big, but deathly slow.

(If you need any background about the EC and Google and why this all matters, I wrote about it in 2015. Slow train.)


TL;DR:
• Google has been squashing rival shopping sites since mid-2006;
• the EC was alerted in summer 2009 after many efforts by sites to get responses from Google failed;
• do we seriously think Google’s going to change its behaviour?
• why isn’t Foundem getting a slice of the fine?
• antitrust moves too slowly in the modern era


The European Commission’s fine of €2.42bn on Google has been just like that train: a damn long time coming. The original complainant, the “vertical search” site Foundem, first noticed something funny happening to its position in search results back in 2006: it was being penalised for no apparent reason.

The penalty (search) box

Foundem was the brainchild of Shivaun and Adam Raff (it really is like their child, and they are brainy; I’ve met them on several occasions as this antitrust case has inched its way through the system). By this time the site was only six months old, focussed on what it saw as a gap – or at least growing niche – in the market: “vertical search”, comparing one specific product, rather than “horizontal search” as practised by Google and Bing (and many also-rans). You can probably think of other “vertical search” sites: Kelkoo was very big at one point. There’s also one called Amazon, though at that time it did a lot of the fulfilment as well; Foundem would find results from other shopping sites, so that it was like a meta-search engine. Amazon, at the time, wasn’t, though as it has become more of a marketplace rather than a fulfilment company that description is increasingly accurate.

But for Foundem in June 2006, this was remote. It had been hit by an algorithmic search penalty which hit lots of vertical search companies. It filed “reconsideration requests” to Google, which it says the company ignored.

(See the timeline for yourself at Foundem’s site.)

In August 2006 it was hit by an “AdWords Penalty”: this suggested that “landing pages” people arrived at were such low quality that it would have to pay much more to be able to buy an AdWord (Google advertising position). How much more? It was raised, they say, from about 5p/click to £5/click.

It’s summer 2006, and as the Raffs put it in their timeline, “Foundem was excluded from Google’s natural and paid search results, both of which are essential channels to market for any internet-based business.” That would be near enough a death penalty for any consumer-facing business; fortunately they found other outlets, such as powering shopping searches on magazine websites for IPC, Bauer and others.

The Raffs kept lobbying Google for reconsideration, and kept being brushed off; meanwhile Google launched Universal Search (integrating Google Maps and Google News and YouTube results into a box at the top which favoured Google products and pushed rival services further down the search rankings).

In December 2008 a TV show named Foundem the UK’s best price comparison site. Google meanwhile didn’t relent on its penalty against Foundem’s position in search results.

Finally, in July 2009 Foundem had its first meeting with the EC’s DGComp – the arm of the European Commission which investigates antitrust cases.

Eight years and more of hurt

That’s almost exactly eight years ago. It’s taken absolutely ages for the EC to act on this, giving Google plenty of time to tighten its grip on the business, and even for the whole search landscape to shift – from one where the desktop has primacy to one where many searches begin on mobile, inside apps.

There’s lots of applause today from Europeans about the fact that Margethe Vestager didn’t give up on this case, and that a record fine has been imposed (and that if Google doesn’t alter its behaviour in 90 days, the daily fine will be eye-watering). “Better later than never, but seven years have been still an eternity for some market players, in particular European SMEs [small and medium enterprises],” to quote the MEPs Ramon Tremosa I Balcells and Andreas Schwab.

There’s the usual eye-rolling from a number of American observers, who say “which AMERICAN company will be next?”, and ignore the fact that the Federal Trade Commission’s investigation in 2011/12 discovered that Google’s own user testing found that people preferred seeing other vertical search engine results in the organic search results; and also ignore the fact that DGComp fines all sorts of European companies for antitrust and cartel actions of all flavours. (The decision before Google was fining three car lighting system producers over cartel behaviour.)

Also, for those eye-rolling American (and other) readers: European antitrust doctrine differs in one very significant way from the American flavour. In the US, if you use a monopoly in one space to take over another but consumers benefit overall, there’s no case to answer. This was why the FTC dropped its case (on a 4-0-1, ie one abstention, no opposition) decision. Scroll down in that FTC release to “search bias” where it says the introduction of Universal Search “could be plausibly justified as innovations that improved Google’s product and the experience of its users.” A bit milquetoast, that recommendation.

In the EU, however, the question is whether antitrust stifles competition, not what happens to consumers. This refusal to consider “consumer surplus” infuriates and astonishes a significant number of American observers, but it’s how it’s done here.

But, but, but. I very much expect that Google will appeal this before the 90-day deadline, and that this will mean it doesn’t yet have to change its behaviour, nor pay the fine. Do you think that this might be a long-drawn-out process which will grind interminably through the courts, during which Google won’t change how it displays results? I do.

Meanwhile Foundem and all the other vertical search companies which the EC is ostensibly protecting have been almost crushed. If there were any justice, they’d be getting a slice of the fine. After all, companies which report cartel action either get some payment, or (if they’re part of the cartel) let off some of the fine.

Slow train, now arriving

This is the reality of antitrust: in technology especially, the dominance of these companies and the power of their networks means that the decision comes too late to help those who were originally affected. It was certainly the case with Microsoft and Netscape; it’s clearly the case here. Who knows how big Foundem and Kelkoo and all the others might have been if Google hadn’t been able to use its dominance in straight search to annexe the vertical search space?

Some would really like the fine to have teeth. Tremosa i Ballcells commented: “When it comes down to the fine, I always said: first, you pay the fine and, then, you restore competition and the level playing field like it was the case with Microsoft. I believe that the fine should be retroactive for each year since the beginning of the wrongdoing by Google. This fine is far from the theoretical fine of 10% of Google annual revenues. The fine should be multiplied by the number of years since the start of the damage to competitors. Moreover, the behaviour of Google since the SO [Statement of Objections] and from today should be taken into account as well. Time helps monopolies, not SMEs.”

The argument of course is that antitrust actions serve to make the dominant company change its future behaviour: a fine of that size, and the threat of continuing fines, and particularly the tedious legality of it all, burdens the company’s decision-making process so that its executives all act as though someone suggested they play on the electrified railway when the idea of moving into “adjacent” business comes up. (It certainly worked with Microsoft.)

This will be the real acid test of the EC’s action: will it make Google’s internal culture change? We won’t know the answer to that for some time. Slow train coming.

In search of the early adopter (HomePod edition)


An Apple HomePod. If your home is this nice, wouldn’t it already have a Sonos Play:1 or similar there? Photo by portalgda (via Apple) on Flickr.

Ahead of Apple’s WWDC, research companies were falling over themselves to offer their forecasts about how the “smart speaker” market would grow over time.

Here, for example, is what Strategy Analytics reckoned the world would look like – note that it’s using installed base, not sales – over time:

Smart speaker market - Strategy Analytics forecast to 2022

The way they see it, Amazon’s early lead with the Alexa is going to be eroded by Google, while Apple, “others” and Baidu (in China) will take the rest.

What I wonder about is: who’s left who wants to buy a HomePod? Who are the early adopters?

If you want a “smart speaker”, you’ve been served for quite some time in the US by Amazon’s Echo and Dot products, which are passably cheap. For Amazon, they’re the peace dividend of losing badly in the smartphone wars when the Fire Phone turned out to be a clunker.

More recently you’ve been able to buy Google Home – which managed to get a passing mention in a Modern Family episode in a recent series, so that is clearly reckoned to have reached far enough into the public consciousness not to merit special highlighting. (Sure, it could have been product placement, but there’s no point placing a product nobody’s heard of. Modern Family likes to play with modern tech obsessions: in 2010 one of the episodes was about Phil Dunphy’s mad desire to get an iPad on first-day release.)

And there’s even a (Microsoft) Cortana speaker from Harmon Kardon.

A recent survey of 1,000 people found that “smart speakers” are the most popular category of “smart home” device: about a quarter of US households have some smart home gizmo, and of those 56% reported that they “own and use” a smart speaker. And they really use it regularly. Half of respondents (we’re at about 12% of households) use it at least daily; another 39% use it several times per week.

Top five uses, in order: play music, ask for the weather, get news, get basic facts and trivia, get or set calendar and/or scheduling info.

Not mentioned in this, because it doesn’t do “smart” (so far, and probably not ever) is Sonos, which most people are probably familiar with: it provides single- or multi-room music and speech streaming for pretty much any service, with a range of high-quality audio speakers, as well as TV soundbars. It has been going since 2002, focussing just on multi-room music; I’ve liked the Sonos idea ever since I saw it in 2005, and I think that when it released the Play:1 speaker it found the sweet spot of price and audio quality. (I own a number of Sonos devices.)

Sonos, one should note, has hit some rough times, laying people off in March 2016. It isn’t clear how big its installed base is – it only talks about serving “millions of rooms” – but it’s very likely that it has users in multiple millions of homes. Update: this person says Sonos has annual sales of about $1bn, equating to 5m speakers per year. “Not mainstream,” they say. Though I’d say that 5m per year – more than a million a quarter – isn’t too bad.

And how does the install base look at present? According to CIRP, about 11m Amazon customers have an Echo, of which 52% (6.6m or so) have the cheap Dot. Amazon has about 70% of the market, says eMarketer – though others put the figure higher.

All this leaves one wondering: hasn’t the early adopter market, who might have been keen to buy a comparatively expensive smart speaker (and even slightly more expensive than Sonos) been tapped already? There are millions of those things out there already, playing music and telling people what they could figure out themselves by gazing out of the window.

After all, if you have a product which does something comparably new, then the general thesis is that you have to tap the innovator market (about 2.5% of the total who will buy it) and then the early adopter market (13.5%), and then spread the news to the “early majority” and “late majority” who each comprise 34%. Then finally you mop up the 16% of laggards. Note that even when your market is saturated, you don’t necessarily reach 100% of the population. Not everyone will want your gadget.

So at what stage are “smart speakers” – and multi-room speakers, since the HomePod does both?

We can probably be confident that multi-room speakers have breezed into their late majority by now. If Sonos is having trouble finding fresh buyers, that’s a sign of market resistance.

And if smart speakers are already in 12% of US households, then those are nudging well into the early adopter market.

This is different from the situation when Apple has launched previous products. The Macintosh, all those years ago, was entirely new in sporting a graphical user interface. The iPod came early in the MP3 player revolution – though many people had portable CD players, most people didn’t have an MP3 player, nor an MP3 library. The iPhone was out on its own in the smartphone category through its all-touch interface. The iPad defined an entire all-touch “slate” tablet market. (There had been tablets before, which had poor interfaces for touch.) Even the most recent new device, the Apple Watch, came when smartwatches had very small user penetration.

So in that sense the HomePod is coming at a very different time: three years (and some months) after the original Echo, and what’s more it’s coming in December, giving everyone else a chance to get their marketing in first.

How then is Apple intending to sell it? Apple is framing it as a really music speaker with a bit of intelligence thrown in. Here’s the quote:

“Apple reinvented portable music with iPod and now HomePod will reinvent how we enjoy music wirelessly throughout our homes,” said Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing. “HomePod packs powerful speaker technology, Siri intelligence and wireless access to the entire Apple Music library into a beautiful speaker that is less than 7 inches tall, can rock most any room with distortion free music and be a helpful assistant around your home.”

This makes it sound like Sonos with benefits. It’s also saying: those things that Amazon and Google can do? We can do that, but sound better. It’s looking for the things that those can’t (yet?) do, and aiming for them. Early user tests (in very controlled environments) suggest that the HomePod sounds better than the Sonos Play:3 (which is comparably priced). Could be, though I’m not sure why a Sonos owner would give up the latter for the former. And we know from the triumph of MP3 over CD that in music, people prefer convenience over sound quality. Update: two points made to me after first publishing this post. First, Apple could find a market in China, where Amazon and Google are effectively excluded. Second, the privacy angle could be attractive; some people just don’t like the idea that Amazon and Google are going to try to sell them stuff. (Google Home has already started doing this, and will carry on; Amazon’s Echo/Dot/etc are intended to be mainlining for shopping lists.)

Overall, it feels as though Apple decided – as usual – that there was only one place it could thrive in this market: at the premium end. But again, if someone has the sort of money needed to buy a HomePod, why haven’t they already bought some Sonos kit? Or if they want a smart speaker, wouldn’t they just get an Echo/Dot/Home?

That’s what I’m puzzled by: how Apple is going to scoop up enough of the early majority market to make this work. Early majority buyers can be more price-sensitive than innovators and early adopters. Apple’s pitch seems to be for those who haven’t bought a Sonos, saying: look, you can control this with your voice. There’s surely a market there – Strategy Analytics thinks it’s tolerably big – but it’s noticeable that even there it’s a comparatively small slice of a sizeable market. Sometimes it’s good to let the early players sort the market out for you. But I think this might be one case where it isn’t.

The (fixable) problem with Steve Ballmer’s USAFacts site: its lack of transparency

Those of us who have been in or around the technology space since the 1990s when Microsoft used to bulldozer all in front of it (for those younger than that: like Google in the 00s, and Facebook now) are completely unused to Steve Ballmer doing things that we can uncomplicatedly see as good.

But his new site, USAFacts, is one of those things. Like Bill Gates pouring money into vaccinations for developing countries, it’s a good thing to have done.

USAFacts, in case you haven’t read the New York Times piece about it (where the site is described as a “fascinating data trove”), the precis is that Ballmer has spent $10m hiring economists and others to put all the spending and other data that the US government products – particularly its budget, where it spends $5.4 trillion and gets $5.2trn (it’s left as an exercise to the reader to figure out how one bridges that $0.2trn gap) – into a site which you can query, to find out just where your money goes, if you’re an American.

Neatly, it divides expenditure into the four “missions” of the US government, which apparently are “establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility; provide for the common defence; promote the general welfare; secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity”.

There may be trouble ahead

The problem starts once you begin wandering into it and wondering: ok, how does that number come together? Take the “Crime and police” tab under the first mission: click through and you get some data showing how arrests, violent crime, and “public safety officer” numbers are moving. The prisoner data actually has a link to a set of slides – 291 PDFs – drawn from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and reproduced as PDFs by USAFacts, which sticks its own copyright onto them (down in the bottom right).

Screenshot 2017 04 19 17 54 04

(Come on. That’s crazy. Repurposing open-licensed data as PDFs and sticking your own copyright note on them? Is this the 1990s?) In general, you’re left having to trust the site to have got it right. Plus: in almost every situation, we don’t know where the data has actually come from. The prison data is an exception. There’s no transparency in a site which is trying to make government transparent.

Unless I’ve missed something staringly obvious, there are no places where you click on a link and it says “we got this from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and this from the Treasury, and this from the Department of Defense”. The methodologies (here’s one – PDF) will give you a number of the methods and sources from which all the numbers are collated, but not how they’re balanced out against each other.

This is a huge omission. I can understand that $10m only goes so far, but if you compare it to a site like Our World In Data, which has been built on a budget probably comparable to one day of USAFacts’s, you see the contrast. Not only are the datasets open and downloadable, you get pointers back to the originals.

Coins: adding up to something

Nor is it as though trying to analyse government spending is a new thing. In the UK, HM Treasury made its COINS database into open data after pressure from newspapers – well, particularly the Guardian, where we championed free data.

From COINS you could generate visualisations like these:

And you could do all sorts of visualisations of what was going on.

This was back in 2010; it’s not as though this is some groundbreaking piece of work that has only just been released to the public and might not have crossed the radar of, say, a multibillionaire who has enlisted a lot of economists and statisticians and programmers to do some work analysing a country’s budget.

Action points

In conclusion: Steve Ballmer has made a start. It’s an adequate start, and given the size of what he’s trying to contend with, it’s laudable that he’s got this far. But there are many more things that remain to be done.

Just in case he’s vanity-searching, here is my list of suggestions for how to turn USAFacts into a truly useful site that will let people explore what the US government and its states are doing with their money:

• link back to the original data. People need to be able to trust it.
• offer inflation-adjusted views of the data. It’s not hard to find inflation figures for past years.
• add trade figures. Imports and exports are relevant data for understanding your country’s performance, and some part of government definitely collects them.
• add comparative figures with other countries. It means nothing to tell people how much they’re spending on health care if they don’t know how that compares to other countries.
• find ways to let people drill down to their state, country and district, and compare them with other states, counties and districts. It’s just data and databases, after all.
• let people see how employment and other elements have changed. Show them how racial factors have changed. Show them how things have changed with different politicians. Everyone wants to apply these prisms to these data, and while you might not want this data to become partisan, the reality is that these numbers will be used anyway by people of whatever tinge to prove whatever they want. You’re already in that battle, so give people more weapons to fight it.

It’s a good start, Steve. Please don’t make us wait for version 3 for it to become a must-use. (Yes, kids, that was a Microsoft joke. Ask your parents.)