Monster Loss

There’s something in me that can’t resist poking fun at Monster Cable every time the opportunity presents itself. I’ll grant you that “Monster” is a great name if you’re starting a cable business but I don’t feel like it’s enough to justify their cost or filing lawsuits. 

Monster had a piece of Beats before Apple bought them. They sold their interest and now probably regret it. So they brought a lawsuit that Billboard reports was dismissed on summary judgment.

Apparently, Monster litigates a lot. According to Wikipedia, by 2009, Monster made 190 US Patent and Trademark Office filings and filed 30 lawsuits. Examples include disputes with Discovery Channel for making a show called Monster Garage and a claim against Disney for making a movie called Monsters, Inc.

By far, however, my favorite was the Monster dispute with Blue Jeans Cable. Blue Jeans Cable is an outstanding small supplier of cables. (I’ve purchased several of their HDMI cables over the years.) In 2008, Monster sent a patent infringement letter to Blue Jeans and the CEO (a former litigation attorney) wrote back with the best response to a cease and desist letter I’ve seen in my 23 years of practicing law. I know I’ve linked this before but given today’s news, how could I resist?

You should really read the whole thing but here’s just a taste:

I am “uncompromising” in the most literal sense of the word. If Monster Cable proceeds with litigation against me I will pursue the same merits-driven approach; I do not compromise with bullies and I would rather spend fifty thousand dollars on defense than give you a dollar of unmerited settlement funds. As for signing a licensing agreement for intellectual property which I have not infringed: that will not happen, under any circumstances, whether it makes economic sense or not.
— Kurt Denke for Blue Jeans Cable

Apple and Machine Learning

Last week Stephen Levy published an extended article on Backchannel about what’s going on at Apple with machine learning. A lot of us, myself included, have been wondering openly how Apple can compete with companies like Google at making our devices smarter when Apple’s privacy stand prevents them from reading user data. I wrote about this just a few weeks ago and I questioned whether Apple’s respect for user privacy and making the best possible consumer products can coexist.

The Levy article strikes me as Apple's response to these questions. Apple’s position is that it can deliver excellent services and privacy by processing data on our devices rather than in the cloud. If that’s true, it would be spectacular. It would be like having a private assistant with no memory of actually working for you.

The trouble is that a lot of the artificial intelligence smarts you see from services like Google comes from having the ability to compare all of the users data. I’ve been testing the artificial intelligence and iOS 10’s Photos app and it’s pretty impressive. You can search for faces and objects in photos and the app does the hard work of finding them for you. However, it only learns to the extent Apple allows it to. Apple has pre-populated the application with a series of search terms including things like “mountains”, “dog”, and “baseball”. This has been working since the early betas and I’ll write more about this when I was 10 releases.

The trouble is it will only search terms that Apple has deemed worthy of a search term. As an example while I can find mountains by searching my Photos library, I cannot find “stormtroopers” or “Yoda”.

Google Images, on the other hand can search both terms. My guess is that Google was keeping track of the searches done on its cloud-based photo storage site and doing some back-end magic to add popular terms and find the appropriate photos. (As an aside, Google thinks the search term “Yoda” should turn up pictures of the Star Wars character and Buddha statues. Maybe they know something.)

In theory, Apple could update its own list of search terms as it perfects the use of Differential Privacy that would anonymize the data as it goes into the Apple servers but I can’t help but feel Apple will never update as aggressively as Google’s server farms will.

I’m not sure exactly how this all plays out. Part of me feels like Apple is getting ready to enter the ring with one hand tied behind its back. Nevertheless, I would prefer slightly less robust machine learning if it allowed me to continue to protect my privacy rights. The real question becomes what consumers do if there’s a significant difference between server-based services with little privacy and device-based services with better privacy. 

Either way, the Stephen Levy article demonstrates that Apple is fully engaged with this question and taking what they believe to be the best course of action. I recommend reading the whole thing if this topic is at all interesting to you. Apple is clearly (and publicly) taking a different path with respect to machine learning and privacy. I’m fascinated to see how this all plays out.

MPU 337 - Workflows with Father Gabriel

This week Catholic priest and geek, Gabriel Mosher, joins us to explain how he uses technology to get his work done. Topics include time and attention, research and writing, presentations, and project management.

Sponsors include:

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MPU 336 – iPhone Productivity

This week on Mac Power Users, Katie and I cover the workflows and apps we use to get work done on our iPhones. There’s some great little tips in this one.

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Vesper as the Canary in a Coal Mine

A few years ago John Gruber, Brent Simmons, and Dave Wiskus joined forces to create a notes app called Vesper. If I was setting up a developer shop, these three guys would be on my dream team. They made a great app with a lot of taste and it never really took off. John wrote a post explaining why Vesper is shutting down.

What went wrong was very simple. We never made enough money.

If the dream team couldn’t make it work, who can? John goes on to speculate about other ways they could have rolled the app out in order to make it more profitable including developing for the Mac first, where productivity apps still sell for more than the price of a cup of coffee. In the case of Vesper, the lack of a Mac app certainly kept me from fully adopting it. The resurrection of Apple Notes didn’t help either.

I think John’s post should be required reading for anyone thinking about getting into the productivity app business. For years now I’ve been talking to app developer friends and they are nearly universally wondering how long they will be able to survive in a business where consumers expect to pay less than $5 for an app and expect that app to be maintained for years at a time with no further revenue to the developer.

This problem is holding back productivity software on the iPhone and–even more dramatically–on iPad. The iPad Pro hardware is, performance-wise, competitive with a laptop. The difference, however, is that people are simply not willing to pay the same for iPad productivity software as they are willing to pay for Mac productivity software. Developers understand this and, as a result, are not putting the time and effort in on iPad and iPhone. I realize I'm stating the obvious but if developers could earn more from quality iOS development, we’d have a lot more quality iOS productivity software. 

Towards the end of his post John gets to the subject of subscription pricing.

Ultimately, what we should have done once we had versions of the app for both Mac and iOS is switch to a subscription model. Make the apps free downloads on all platforms, and charge somewhere around $15/year for sync accounts. That’s where the industry is going.

Subscription pricing feels like a third rail to me. Every time I write anything remotely positive about it, I get tweets and emails telling me how terrible an idea it is. Nonetheless, I'm not sure how we continue to get quality productivity software without it.

About that Leaked Blue iPhone

A few days ago, iFeng leaked some images of a blue iPhone. The images look real but these days who really knows. I'd argue that this year, more than any before, it makes sense for the iPhone to get some more interesting colors. This will be the third year with the iPhone at basically the same design. People who buy the new phone will want bragging rights about having the latest and greatest. If you can’t show it’s new by the new design, then it needs to be a different color. I know people that bought a rose gold iPhone last year simply because it was a new color. If Apple doesn't provide any way to distinguish the new iPhone, there are some people who simply won’t buy it. I fully expect Apple to have at least one new iPhone color this year.

Dragon for Mac Version 6 Coming Soon

This week Nuance announced the imminent release of Dragon for Mac, Version 6. I spoke with Nuance and this new version takes advantage of several improved dictation technologies.

Deep Learning

Nuance has always been able to server-based algorithms to improve dictation accuracy but this new version will be the first time they can embed learning on a user's computer, allowing them to improve their own language and acoustic model. This, and other improvements, adds up to less required training and a reported 24% improvement in accuracy. (I'm looking forward to putting that to the test.)

Improved Transcription

The demonstration I saw showed significant improvement in transcription of existing audio. Not only is the transcription better, it's also much easier to train and operate. I particularly like the new batch mode, that lets you transcribe batches of audio files in one go.

Improved Text Control

Mixing typing and transcription has always been rough going on the Mac. With Dragon 6 for Mac, you'll be able to dictate in supporting apps and type at the same time without the wheels falling off. They are still working on the list of supporting apps for launch but Scrivener is already one of them.

The new version ships (digitally) on September 1 and there will be physical product shipments by mid-September.

Competing Interests

I enjoyed reading the Washington Post Tim Cook interview. The interview was wide in scope and really gives you a window into the mind of Apple's CEO. I recommend it. One section that raised my eyebrows was the discussion of security and privacy. This issue is a fascinating one to me because Apple has taken such a leading role in advocating privacy rights for consumers. As Tim explaned in the interview, "Customers should have an expectation that they shouldn’t need a PhD in computer science to protect themselves."

Elsewhere in the interview, Tim talks about Apple's mission.

The DNA of the company is really what I was talking about there. The North Star has always been the same, which for us, is about making insanely great products that really change the world in some way — enrich people’s lives. And so our reason for being hasn’t changed.

I absolutely believe the folks at Apple get out of bed in the morning to make great products. However, it really isn't that simple. If you don't believe me, perhaps I could interest you in a 16GB iPhone. Making insanely great products has always required compromises. Apple has to make a profit if they want to stay in business and every Apple product (just like any other company's product) that comes to market requires thousands of small compromises. That's always come with the territory but until recently, I've never really thought of Apple having a competing North Star. Now I wonder.

Privacy is a big deal to Apple. Tim explained:

Privacy, in my point of view, is a civil liberty that our Founding Fathers thought of a long time ago and concluded it was an essential part of what it was to be an American. Sort of on the level, if you will, with freedom of speech, freedom of the press.

I think this is more than CEO puffing. I think Tim, and the rest of Apple leadership, feels this in their bones and they are absolutely willing to go to bat for consumers on the issue of privacy. They took a drubbing over the San Bernardino case and I suspect they'd do it all over again. The question, however, becomes what happens when protecting consumer privacy gets in the way of making insanely great products? If Apple's unstoppable force hits its own immovable object, who wins?

There are plenty of consumers already getting off the Apple services bandwagon in favor of Google precisely because the way Google does everything on its servers results in some insanely great user experiences. Apple is responding by trying to get those types of services on-device as opposed to the less private cloud storage as Google does. We're early days on this but it seems, at least for the immediate future, that the cloud service solution is better, faster, and more adaptable than on-device.

If Tim Cook were sitting here right now, I suspect he'd argue that the 2016 version of an insanely great product is one that (in addition to many other features) protects user privacy and going back to the issue of compromises, it's probably better that you not let somebody else index all of your photos, even if that would make it easier to search out pictures of canteloupes. I agree with that particular compromise but as we move into the next few years, I think the goals of great products and protecting user privacy aren't always going to align.

Twitter's New Filters

Twitter took some positive steps today to help get the jackasses out of your Twitter feed. The Twitter for iOS app now has a some new filters and notification settings.

Limited Notifications

You can now tell Twitter to only show you notifications from people you follow. The problem with this is that it treats everyone you don't follow as a jackass. That's no fun.

Quality Filter

I've heard about this rumored quality filter for some time. This is promissing. The idea is that Twitter can look at their own data and sort the good from the bad and then only show you the good stuff. (It doesn't filter content from people you follow or have recently interacted with.) Now anyone can turn this filter on. This could be awesome or a mess, depending on how the filter is tuned. I sure hope it's good.

Why I'm in Favor of Verified Accounts

I personally believe that this problem gets a lot more solvable with verified accounts. Anonymity brings out the worst in some people. If users could press a button that mutes people not willing to verify their identity with Twitter, things would get better. However, Twitter is, for the time being, treated verified accounts as precious. I tried to verify my Twitter account (that I started in 2007 and has ~18,000 followers) and was turned down. (Of course, writing this at the same time I applied probably wasn't my smartest move.) 

Intel to Build ARM-Based Chips

For years now, Apple nerds have pined away at the idea of Intel building ARM chips for Apple. Intel has always been at the front end of technology in terms of die shrinks and chip manufacturing. Unfortunately Intel has also always insisted on only building its own designs. That makes sense. I suspect being a chip designer/manufacturer is much more lucrative than being just a chip manufacturer.

Yesterday we received news that Intel has changed its mind and is now planning on building chips based on the ARM design. This seems like good news for Apple. It allows Apple to distance itself from Samsung (that same company that Apple sued for design theft) currently produces a lot of the chips found in iPhones and iPads. I'd also speculate that an Intel manufactured Apple ARM chip is smaller and more power efficient.

Without any inside knowledge, I’m guessing that Intel did not want to get into the chip-manufacturing-for-others business. Nonetheless, here we are. Let’s hope the iPhone and iPad can benefit.

Sponsor: HoudahGeo with Discount Code

This week MacSparky is sponsored by HoudahGeo. HoudahGeo is a Mac app that makes attaching locations to your photos ridiculously simple. The case for adding geo-location data to your photos is easy. Looking at your photos on a map gives you all sorts of options for sorting, viewing, and sharing your pictures. Want to see all the pictures from that beach trip? With HoudahGeo it's a snap. Because of the way our human brains work, years in the future we may not remember when we took a certain trip but we will remember where we went and with HoudahGeo on your side that's all you need.

The trouble is that a lot of cameras have no ability to geocode your photos for you. That's where HoudahGeo comes in. HoudahGeo actually geocodes photos. It writes industry standard EXIF/XMP tags to the original image files, which makes the geocode information permanent. (Not all geocode apps do that.)

HoudahGeo also works with multiple geocode workflows. You can automatically geocode photos form a GPS track log. You can also manually geocode photos using the map in HoudahGeo. It's easier than you think. You can even drag-and-drop geocoding data. HoudahGeo also allows for viewing (and showing) photos in Google Earth.

If your camera doesn't save geo-location data to your photos, you can solve that problem today with HoudahGeo. For a limited time, get 20% off with discount code “MACSPARKY”.

MPU 335: Workflows with John Voorhees

This week app developer, writer, and attorney John Voorhees joins us to share some of his geekiest workflows. 

This episode of Mac Power Users is sponsored by:

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Chip-on-Card vs. Apple Pay

I enjoyed reading Joanna Stern’s Wall Street Journal piece comparing chip-on-card versus mobile payment technologies (like Apple Pay). She timed over 50 transactions and figured out that on average, an Apple pay transaction takes six seconds and a chip on card transaction takes 13. If you do two transactions a day, that adds up to 85 extra minutes a year at the register. I already hate chip-on-card transactions. They take too long and when the transaction completes, the terminal rings an alarm klaxon that always makes me feel like I’ve just been caught shoplifting. Moreover, Apple Pay transactions require a separate PIN and are more secure.

It seems to me we’re moving in the right direction but not fast enough. I, for one, cannot wait for the day that I can get rid of all these bits of plastic I am carrying around.

Microsoft Illustrates Why a Golden Software Keys is a Bad Idea

Ben Lovejoy at 9to5 Mac explains how Microsoft accidentally released its golden key "and it appears impossible for Microsoft to fully patch it."

While talk of a government-mandated magic back-door into the iPhone has subsided, I'm sure we'll hear about it more after the elections. Tim Cook was right. Such a tool is dangerous by its mere existence and, as Microsoft discovered, such a thing will inevitably land in the hands of hackers, criminals, foreign governments, and other bad actors.

While an iPhone back-door would help law enforcement with criminals not smart-enough to use alternative encryption, the massive privacy intrusion combined with its inevitable release make it a terrible idea.

The Trouble with Twitter

There has been a lot of rumbling lately about Twitter. While there’s a lot to like about the service (it remains my favorite and nearly exclusive social media outlet), Twitter has also become a playground for some pretty abusive and vile people. Charlie Warzel at BuzzFeed did a an impressive bit of reporting tracking the history of abuse of Twitter users and the company’s general failure to address the problem since the beginning. While I had known about some of the recent problems, I didn’t realize that this stems back to 2008. I recommend reading the entire article. It’s quite informative but also a bit disheartening.

Twitter responded that portions of the story are untrue but they don’t explain what those portion are or provide any further clarification. Having watched friends (primarily female) go through the Twitter meat grinder, I think the BuzzFeed story gets things generally right.

My one bit of feedback is that I don’t buy Twitter’s claim that they’re worried about lawsuits. Most people on the Internet have the ability to kick somebody off their website or service if they feel like they are behaving badly. If you don’t believe me, read the terms of service of every website on the Internet.

I think the reason why Twitter has been ignoring this problem is because they want everyone to use Twitter, even the jackasses. Maybe it’s time they grew up and started cracking down on this. If not, the rest of us will start voting with our feet.