Google’s Native Advertising Problem

I’ve noticed that Google’s search results are full of a lot more spam recently. When I scroll past the page of ads that Google itself places at the top of the results page and jump straight to the so called ‘organic’ search results, I find more than more that these links turn out to be nothing more than thinly veiled advertisements themselves.

In one example, after finding out my new router supports connecting my entire network to a VPN, I searched Google for the model name and the word ‘VPN“. The second result was an article that was quick point out that my router doesn’t support Express VPN, but I should probably just use it anyway. There was of course a big fat button linking to Express VPN. Using the excellent wheregoes.com I was quickly able to verify that yes, this was a referral link. This article exists for no other reason than to make money from confused users.

Minutes later I searched for how to synchronise to Macs without using iCloud. The 2nd result was this page by MacPaw.

The article has runs through some rudimentary waffle about how cloud synchronisation works, and then about halfway down the pages suddenly breaks into an advert for their product “CleanMyMac X”. An app that is completely unrelated to file synchronisation.

While I’ve nothing against so called “inbound marketing” articles, they can often have genuine value (Digital Ocean’s vast array of tutorials for configuring Linux servers are some of the best on the web), it’s clear that Google has a big problem on its hand in distinguishing the cruft from the genuinely useful content.

How to Remove Clickbait Headlines From Apple News

Apple News can be a nice way to catch up on the day’s events, however it can also be a source of clickbait headlines and celebrity gossip that I couldn’t care less about. I’m sure it’s the inverse for others too, perhaps you want to read celebrity gossip but keep getting exaggerated political controversies.

Thankfully, there is an option hidden away in the iOS Settings app called “Restrict Stories in Today”. Turning it on will cause News to limit articles to those from publishers you actively follow.

I definitely recommend following a wide variety of outlets to avoid a filter bubble, but I’ve found this option to be a great quality filter so far.

Fancier MacBooks Are on the Way, but You Probably Don’t Need One

Rumours are abundant, and so it must be true that in the coming months Apple will release updated versions its high-end computers. But for the majority of users, even us “professionals”, the current crop of M1 Macs will probably do just fine.

I’ve been using an M1 MacBook Pro as my own personal laptop now for 3 and a half months and I have to admit, the hype is real. It’s a beast. Day to day it’s exceedingly fast at nearly everything I throw at it. Anything you could possibly consider “day to day” use doesn’t even warrant a mention – it’s blindingly fast. It breezed through more advanced photo editing, compiling apps using Xcode, editing video in the Photos app, and pretty much every other task I’ve thrown at it. Contrary to many reports however is the fan. It does get extremely loud when performing intense tasks. In my case, when transcoding video that wasn’t natively supported by the M1’s instruction set.

In comparison to my other laptop, a work-provided 15″ Dell XPS 9500 running Intel’s 2020 i7 which has a bigger screen and costs £400 more but is far is hotter, slower and less reliable (frequently overheating while charging to a point it shuts itself off, and unable to stay in sleep mode without draining the battery completely over night) the latest MacBook Air and MacBook Pro are no-brainers for anyone who doesn’t need Windows to do their job.

Unless you are playing (or making) AAA games, working with video at a professional level, or training large machine learning models, the current crop of M1 Macs will likely far exceed your needs. Even Marco Arment can get by with the latest MacBook Air for software development. As with any processor transition, it’s not all plain sailing – I struggled to get an older version of TensorFlow working on the M1 Mac because Apple have forked the project for M1 at a later version – but these kind of teething issues will resolve themselves over time. As with anything like this, if you have specific software needs, check compatibility first.

So while the latest, shiniest, fastest laptop might seem temping, the mid-range is where the value is right now.

WWDC 2021: Quick Thoughts

Lots and lots of goodies in Apple’s 2021 keynote. Some quick thoughts:

  • FaceTime on the web – I guess just as I was last pondering this May, someone at Apple was also wondering why Zoom took off and not FaceTime. Thankfully they reached the same conclusion.
  • Digital ID – The ability to add ID to our digital wallets will finally end the need for a physical wallet. I wrote about this at the end of 2019 and so was pleased when the presenter almost quoted the title of my post The card missing from our digital wallets. At the moment it’s US only, but at least it’s a start.
  • The Mail app will now proxy images to protect privacy. Has Hey.com just been Sherlocked? All along I’ve said this kind of functionality should be something a mail client offers, not the email service itself.
  • On-device speech to text will dramatically help Siri’s performance. The current cloud-based STT is often so slow I manually deduct 30 seconds from the time I actually want to set a timer for. I didn’t notice any mention of intent recognition, and so I assume it is still likely cloud-based, which means an Internet connection will still be required for many Siri tasks.
  • Apple will allow developers to A/B test App Store listings. While I understand this kind of testing can be effective, I’m coming round to the view that perhaps asking users is more polite than bypassing their consciousness.
  • Being able to edit dictated text on the Apple Watch is fantastic and solves a major problem: most ML based STT systems still struggle with unexpected, out of context words. It looks like Apple are moving watchOS towards where early iPhone models were when it comes to content creation with the ability to share photos as well.
  • Built in VPN for iCloud+ users. Did I understand this right, that anyone paying for storage currently will now be an ‘iCloud+’ user? Surly that can’t be right? Apple don’t give features like this away for free!
  • iPad multitasking – Looks good. We now have the Shelf, a nice reference to NeXTSTEP which of course had its very own shelf that would become the Dock in macOS.
  • On the presentation itself, I find myself missing the days of one or two presenters simply levelling with an audience to explain what’s new. For the past for years, and even pre-pandemic, there have been dozens of presenters, high-production videos, and special effects that seem more at home in a Hollywood blockbuster than a developer talk. It makes one of the largest and most profitable companies in the world seem even less relatable.
  • Quick Note. Great name, but where have I heard it before? Hmm…
  • A menu bar on the iPad, which was pretty much the conclusion of my recent post The Tablet Dilemma.

All News Is Breaking News

Having set up a new phone recently, I started receiving “Breaking News” alerts from the BBC. I must have accidentally granted permission when installing the app. I left them turned on, thinking perhaps this time I might find it useful, especially given the precarious worldwide situation right now. Within hours though, I remembered why I’d turned them off years ago – not just from the BBC – from all news apps.

In my mind, I had “breaking news” as meaning “important news worthy of interrupting your day”. The would obviously include kind of thing the BBC may have traditionally interrupted television programming for; the death of a monarch, war breaking out, or the announcement of a lockdown due to a global pandemic. Of course an alert on your phone isn’t the same cancelling the nation’s favourite weekly medical drama, and so I expected alerts with slightly less gravity but still serious and impactful all the same.

This is not what “breaking news” means. In the news business, breaking news is news that is “new news”. This is why we get alerts about a press conference that is due to start on time, as scheduled. While I have no direct knowledge of the media business, it seems to me that there is a race between various news broadcasters to be the first to “break” news. I’m sure that by adding “breaking news” to a story it feeds the audience’s desire to read the latest gossip, and this generates clicks, which looks good for the reporter in question. It’s similar how in the early days of the pandemic when we had daily briefings, rather than insightful questions from health or science correspondents, we had political correspondents trying to outdo each other in trying to ask the most original and intricate question, hoping to trip up the politician at the podium.

While there is no doubt an audience of avid news junkies who enjoy receiving notifications about mundane events as they happen, I think there’s a larger need for alerts about serious and important events only. Please, news broadcasters, give us the choice!

The Tablet Dilemma: Powerful Laptop Replacement or Casual Consumption Device?

Earlier this week Apple announced a new version of the iPad Pro, a £749 tablet that includes pretty much the same internals as the other recent Macs including the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, iMac and Mac Mini. Once you up the storage to a more acceptable (but still bare minimum) 256GB and add in the optional Magic Keyboard, the cost ends up being £1,178, slightly more than a similar spec’d MacBook Air, which starts at £999.

The iPad and Mac having comparable specifications is nothing new. For many years it has been apparent that Apple’s top end tablets could outperform even some of the higher end laptops on single core tasks. Now, with both products using the same chip, and with Apple giving the iPad Pro a the same M1 processor they’ve used in Macs, many people are starting to wonder why the iPad is still so limited by its operating system. Harry McCracken, a longtime proponent of using iPads as a primary computing device wrote “The iPad Pro just got way more pro. Now it needs pro software”.  Over at The Verge, Monica Chin wrote “Put macOS on the iPad, you cowards”, a headline that seems sure to fire up camaraderie on Twitter.  Jason Snell, one of my favourite writers about all things Mac, wrote “The iPad Pro is a killer machine but its software is killing me”. It seems there is a consensus. 

For a long time this has been my view too. I’ve written many times before that what holds back the iPad is its software not its hardware. The touch screen revolution didn’t quite happen as planned. 11 years after the iPad was first introduced, most people still turn to a desktop or laptop with a mouse and keyboard when they really want to get work done. But with tablet hardware so powerful, and with the software that feels ‘almost there’ it’s reasonable to ask why can’t we do more with our expensive iPads. The solution however, is not simple. Allowing users to reboot their iPad into macOS as Chin seems to suggest would be one answer, but it would require either macOS to be redesigned to accommodate touch input, or that Apple require users connect a trackpad and keypad to their iPad when using it in “Mac Mode”. This doesn’t seem very elegant to me – though technically probably not difficult, and Apple is all about elegance. Adding touch to macOS would beg the question of why Mac laptops don’t have touch screens and risk destroying what makes macOS such a great operating system. (Windows 8 anyone?) In 2019 the ability to run iPad apps on the Mac was added to macOS, but with a mouse and keyboard of course. Requiring a mouse and keyboard on the iPad would be more preferable approach and would keep the line between  ‘desktop’ and ‘mobile’, but it just doesn’t seem like something the Apple we all know would ever do. It’s too clunky having two versions of the same app.

Another option is to build upon iPad OS and address all the little things that make it difficult to use a full-time computing device. It has come a long way in the past 5 years since I wrote my original article, and many of the features I said were needed are now present in iPad OS. The difficulty now is that many of the things that make PC operating systems so powerful run counter to what makes the iPad so secure and simple to use. As we’ve seen from the iPad’s horrendous attempt to support multitasking, adding complexity to something that wasn’t originally designed for it is also difficult to pull off. Not forgetting, iPad OS also needs to run on the cheapest £329 iPad which has far less compute power than the iPad Air or iPad Pro. Anything that add adds more power for Pro users risks alienating the majority of casual users who just want a large smartphone for watching video browsing social media.  

What really leaves a sour taste in the mouth is the fact that Apple now is now seemly selling the same computer in many different form-factors but is artificially limiting which software can run on them based on imaginary product categories.  There is no law of nature that says what a ‘tablet’ is any more than there one that defines a number of grains of sand required before they can be called a mound. Yet it is in Apple’s best interests to make sure customers have a reason to buy a Mac, an iPad and an iPhone. For a company that likes to boast how good it is by making sure we all know how much they support good causes, have they not thought of the environmental impact of millions of people deciding to buy both an iPad and a Mac when there is no reason other than Apple’s business model requiring they do so?

But Apple must have known that by naming the iPad’s processor ‘M1’ parallels would be drawn with the Mac, and questions would be asked. They could quite easily have called the CPU A14X, or A15, it’s just a marketing name after all. The fact they choose to draw a direct parallel with the Mac makes me think that Apple do have something up their sleeves to further bridge the gap between the iPad and Mac, and ensuring all that power does not go go waste. I don’t think the iPad will ever run macOS, but I can see a situation similar to how the Mac can currently run iPad apps, but in reverse. Imagine if when a keyboard and pointing device are plugged into the iPad, iPad apps that have been updated to support the Mac are able to run in full ‘Mac Mode’ on the iPad. Apps would be scaled down to simulate a higher resolution allowing more content to be shown with the assumption that a pointer, not a finger will be used for input. A menu bar would show across the top of the screen. It wouldn’t be “macOS” (it’s not the menu bar), but it would provide a way for Mac-optimised apps to run in in a desktop-like mode. Additionally, if iPad OS could also provide a “Developer Mode” similar to how Macs let users turn off secure boot that allowed software be side-loaded (bypassing the App Store restrictions) and a way to use developer centric tools such as the Terminal and Homebrew, the iPad would suddenly become substantially more powerful. It still wouldn’t be able to run the full version of Photoshop as many have asked for, but it would be a compromise that would offer a more powerful user experience while also seeking to encourage the likes of Adobe to port their ancient applications to Apple’s more modern UIKit frameworks, becoming iPad apps at the same time.

Is it a stretch? Yes. But giving the iPad the same processor as a Mac is a bold move, and that makes me hopeful that we can expect similarly bold moves from the software team over the coming year.

Apple, Please Make It Easier To Report Scam Apps

I was searching Apple’s App Store for something and came across a bunch of apps from a developer who offers a suite of apps that seem designed to confuse customers into paying for in-app purchases and subscriptions under false pretences.

First there is a “Find My AirPods” type app which costs $4.99 a month and claims to be able to find Fitbit devices as well. Obviously this is a scam since this functionality is built into iOS and the APIs are not exposed to allow developers to even do this.

Next there is a Among Us wallpaper app with a £2.99 in-app purchase – questionable as it seems to be using intellectual property owned by the creators of Among Us, Innersloth. This app is however nothing to do with them.

Finally, there is an app named “Audacity” that uses the same icon as the popular open source audio editor Audacity. Only judging from the screenshots, it offers none of the functionality you would expect from its open source namesake and its privacy policy is hosted by Google Sites, not on audacityteam.org as one might expect. Unsurprisingly, this fake Audacity app costs £4.49 a month.

There is also a “count down to a day” app which on the face of it doesn’t seem like a scam, this is a useful piece of functionality and I use such an app myself. This countdown app costs a whopping £9.99 per month.

When responding to the case of a man who lost $600, 000 worth of bitcoin by using a scam app, Apple claimed that “In the limited instances when criminals defraud our users, we take swift action against these actors as well as to prevent similar violations in the future.”.

I am surprised that this developer has managed to get apps that use the names AirPods, Among Us, and Audacity through Apple’s review process since they are all well known brand names. While not directly comparable, when developing an Android app for a well-known global bank that was to be published in the Google Play Store, I had to have someone from the bank contact the Google Play review team to confirm I was authorised to publish an app that uses the bank’s name and logo. While the stakes here aren’t as high as a fake banking app, I would expect Apple to do something similar for apps related to popular games and open source software, not to mention apps using Apple’s own trademarks.

So how to report these seemingly dodgy apps to Apple? The only way I can find so far is to install an app first.

Yes that’s right – it’s only possible to report a problem with an app by going to your App Store purchase history page after purchasing or downloading it. There is no “Report Suspicious App” button on the App Store listing itself.

But who in their right mind would install software they suspect is dodgy? I understand that some people might inadvertently pay for scam apps and need a refund, but waiting until after the fact seems lazy of Apple.

The Little Things: View Current Headphone Decibel Level on iOS

A quick tip for iOS users. It’s possible to view the dB level that is currently being produced by your headphones at any time on iOS. This is useful if you want to make sure that your headphones don’t get too loud.

To view the decibel level, you’ll first need to add the “Hearing” widget to Control Centre. You can do this by going to the Control Centre menu within the Settings app. Once you’ve added Hearing, the next time you swipe open Control Centre and select the newly added widget, you will see live a dB meter beneath the name of your headphones.

Online Advertising Might Be One Giant Scam

If you listen to only one podcast this week then it should be the latest episode of Talking Politics featuring the great documentary film-maker Adam Curtis. I recommend listening to the entire episode, the bit at the 29 minutes was of particular interest as he explores the modern Internet, whether online advertising can possibly work, and how peculiar it is that advertising is no longer an add-on to the economy but central to it. Curtis also likens mining ‘Big Data’ for hidden patterns and inferring causality to the way in which conspiracy theories work. This seems obvious in hindsight. Mind blown. If 48 minutes isn’t enough, he also delves deeper into a lot of the material covered in the podcast in his new BBC documentary series Can’t Get You Out of My Head, which I also thoroughly recommend.

20 Years of macOS

It is 2021 and would you believe it, macOS is 20 years old. Like someone who found out about band before they became famous, I used Mac OS X back when it was a strangely futuristic operating system that most people had never heard of. 

I left school in the summer of 2001 and to help jumpstart my journey into further education, I used some money gifted to me by my grandparents to buy a G3 Snow iMac. Already a bit of a geek, I knew enough about Macs to know that they were now capable of running OS X, which was Unix based. This meant I could use it do geeky things like running Apache and PHP, and also write up college homework in Microsoft Office. Buying an G3 iMac in the summer of 2001 was also exceptionally poor timing because weeks later Apple would release an updated G4 model, which ran Mac OS X much more smoothly.

My early memories of Mac OS X were mainly of disappointment. Here was an exceedingly beautiful and stable operating system, but it was frustratingly slow. It would take many minutes to boot up, and simple tasks like opening a pulldown menu or resizing a window would cause it to chug. Until I received my free 10.1 upgrade from John Lewis, it was unusable, and so I stuck with MacOS 9.

After installing 10.1 I did however start using Mac OS X as my main system. I recently found some old screenshots from that era, and so I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the applications I was using 20 years ago. I’m not sure of the exact dates but I believe they are all from either 10.0 or 10.1. The screenshots were taken by 16 year old me, so please forgive the embarrassing MSN Messenger friend lists and poorly written homework assignments. 

Scouting around the screenshots, here’s what I was running in 2001:

Activity Monitor – Still something I use often to see how my system is performing. Thankfully now it looks a lot nicer. 

Adobe Reader – An awful piece of software, which is thankfully no longer needed on the Mac these days. In 2001, I must have thought it necessary, despite the Preview app being bundled with the OS.

AOL – It was ugly, but it was one of the best unmetered dialup services in the UK at the time.

Clock – Early versions of OS X included a clock ‘widget’. This wasn’t an official widget like we have now, nor was it the HTML based widgets we would later see in Dashboard. It was simply an application with a non-rectangular window. Best of all, it was possible to customise how translucent the clock was – a novelty in 2001. 

Fire – Before iChat, Fire was the app to use for accessing instant messaging platforms. ICQ, AIM, Yahoo – I was on all of them. The idea of instant messaging that emphasises online presence feels exceptionally dated now, since we are now always online. 

iCab – Back in 2001 decent web browsers were difficult to come by. There was no Safari yet. Internet Explorer was pretty good, and had the ability to customise its colour scheme to match the iMac being used.  There was also Mozilla, which was starting to become a usable alternative to IE, but was still extremely slow. iCab was the third option and the only one that really felt “OS X native”.  Astonishingly iCab is still available for download in 2021. 

iTunes – The first of Apple consumer high quality consumer oriented software that later included the likes of iPhoto and GarageBand. iTunes was in of itself a reason to own a Mac. It made the process of ripping and burning CDs painless. I remember the novel feeling of being able to browse the web while iTunes was burning a CD, thanks to Mac OS X’s ability to multitask. On Windows ME and 98 (XP had not been released yet) this wasn’t possible. Burning a CD would make the entire computer unresponsive. iTunes came in to its own with the release of the iPod, which I was lucky enough to own early on too. 

MSN Messenger – More commonly known as simply ‘MSN’, it was the centre of my social life from the age of 13. I would use it to chat to friends after school or to random people I’d added who I’d met on forums. I wonder if today we would be concerned if a 16 year old was talking to random people they’ve met online, but for me it was fine. At 16, I felt like I was an adult!

Microsoft Office – I purchased the full version of ‘Office X’ which included Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Entourage. It was clearly a straight port from the classic MacOS version, and was using some kind of translation layer to translate Windows code to Mac code. I remember writing Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) code to make full on Windows windows appear. The headline feature for Word was non-contiguous selection.

Palm Desktop – This one really sums up 2001. Back then we had PDAs. My phone was a Motorola T191. If you wanted to have more than just a handful of phone numbers in your pocket, you needed a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). I would later upgrade my Palm IIIe to a Microsoft Pocket PC.

Stickies – The venerable Post-it note app. Enough said. 

Terminal – I used to use this for learning basic Linux commands, and configuring the likes of PHP, Apache and MySQL. Oh, and browsing the web in Lynx, apparently. 

Windows Media Player – Steaming audio or video on the web was a horrible experience in 2001. Partly due to limited bandwidth, but also because there were multiple competing formats. Apple would push QuickTime. Microsoft would insist on you installing Windows Media Player, and everyone else would use RealPlayer. Windows Media Player for the Mac wasn’t the full-on media management solution it was on Windows, but merely a way to playback files encrypted using Microsoft’s DRM.

After 20 years, I really think Apple deserve enormous credit for not screwing up macOS. Despite some missteps, on the whole they’ve keep modernising it without any major regressions. If you were to sit someone from 2001 down in front of the latest version of the operating system in 2021, they would find their way around just fine. Yet it doesn’t feel old. Contrast this to Windows, which has had multiple makeovers and seems to be less of a priority for Microsoft these days, doesn’t support non-modal dialogs, and still has screens that date back to Windows XP. Not many operating systems can claim to be referenced in a U2 song either. After all these years, macOS is still the only desktop operating system that feels like it’s made for users, rather than IT administrators or developers. Little things like being able to drag a project folder to the dock for the duration of that project in order to have easy access to all the related files, the ability to operate a background window without bringing it to the foreground, and best of all, the varied ecosystem of indie software.

Happy Birthday Mac OS X, here’s to 20 more years!