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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By John Moltz

This Week in Apple: Money doesn’t solve everything

John Moltz and his conspiracy board. Art by Shafer Brown.

Three situations that money seemingly has failed to fix: the Apple Card, Elon Musk and Apple’s modem project.

Credit declined

They say that breaking up is hard to do, but when you’ve lost $3 billion because of the relationship, you tend to be motivated to find a way to make it happen, even if it means dividing up your streaming service plans.

According to The Wall Street Journal, it’s splitsville for the richest company in the world and the company that looks out for the richest people in the world.

“Apple Pulls Plug on Goldman Credit-Card Partnership”

The tech giant recently sent a proposal to Goldman to exit from the contract in the next roughly 12-to-15 months, according to people briefed on the matter.

Apple is currently shopping for new partners for the Apple Card—American Express and Synchrony Financial are said to be two potential companies—but when Goldman Sachs has been so vocal about what a bad deal it was for them, one wonders who’d be lining up for some of that.…

This is a post limited to Six Colors members.

The holiday season is peak streaming season, too! We discuss the seasonal opportunities for streamers, plus: your letters. [Downstream+ subscribers also get: Amazon’s Black Friday NFL experiment, YouTube & Sunday Ticket, and the coming sports/RSN implosion.]

By Dan Moren

The Back Page: The Apple features you should be worried about

Dan writes the Back Page. Art by Shafer Brown.

It wouldn’t be Apple software update season without a bizarre fixation on an otherwise innocuous feature. Yes, everybody’s up in arms about NameDrop, because if there’s one thing you never want to share with anyone, it’s your contact details. Especially to people who you want to…uh…contact you.

But allow me to peel back the curtain and reveal the real truth of the matter: this is all a smokescreen. A cleverly planted story intended to distract attention from the real Apple features that you need to be worried about. The ones that you don’t even know exist, because if you did, you’d never pick up a technological gadget ever again.

Say Cheese: Buried deep within the Health app, amongst all the stats for blood oxygen and heart rate, you might be mistaken for overlooking a little entry for a peculiar figure: Cheese Intake. That’s right, Apple is tracking just how much cheese you eat.…

This is a post limited to Six Colors members.

A French company is building an alternative e-reader ecosystem

Speaking of e-readers, here’s an interesting profile of the small French e-reader company Vivlio by Romain Dillet at TechCrunch:

While Amazon’s Kindle is the clear leader and Rakuten’s Kobo the obvious challenger, Vivlio has been building an open European alternative to these two tech giants. And it proves that you can compete with tech giants with a team of 35 as long as you have a distinct strategy with different goals…

“The idea was to create a European coalition — well, French at first, but we’re trying to make it European now — a coalition of companies with similar interests, booksellers and retailers of cultural goods, around a French and then European solution,” Vivlio CEO David Dupré told me.

Vivlio’s got a partner for hardware and has built on the open-source Readium LCP copy protection scheme. As a fan of e-readers in general and weird e-readers in particular, it’s great to see a company other than Amazon’s Kindle and Rakuten’s Kobo trying to build a digital reading ecosystem.

—Linked by Jason Snell

By Dan Moren for Macworld

How Apple can take on Amazon in books—and win

Upon seeing this week’s announcement from Apple promoting the top titles of the year from Apple Books, along with a new Year in Review feature, I had likely the same thought as many: “Apple still cares about selling ebooks?”

To be fair, you can’t blame the company for being gun shy. Ten years ago, Apple found itself in the crosshairs of a Department of Justice investigation over price-fixing ebooks, and the fallout of that case not only impacted Apple’s existing foray into ebooks, but also likely cooled any fervor it had for competing in the market in the future.

Unfortunately, that case also ended up only solidifying the dominance of the market’s biggest player, Amazon. So, a decade on, could Apple still mount an effective challenge to that behemoth? Maybe. But not only would the will have to be present, but the company would have to take some pretty bold steps.

Continue reading on Macworld ↦

by Shelly Brisbin

Apple releases Taika Waititi-directed film promoting speech accessibility tools

A still from Apple’s lost voice film.

Apple’s latest short film focusing on accessibility, released on Thursday and directed by Oscar-winner Taika Waititi, tells the story of a character’s search for his lost voice. The film promotes the Personal Voice and Live Speech features included in the latest versions of iOS and macOS.

The film is a children’s story narrated by Dr. Tristram Ingham, a New Zealand-based physician and disability advocate. Ingham lives with facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD), a disease which causes progressive muscle degeneration, and leads to an inability to speak. His narration was created using Personal Voice on an iPhone. The film is also audio-described for those with visual impairments.

The film tells the story of a furry little character searching everywhere for his lost voice, with the aid of his friend, a young girl. There’s also an ebook, where the story appears in words and illustrations. Both are available now.

The film’s effectiveness and emotional impact does not come from the centering of disability, but from the lithe writing, imaginative visual vocabulary and trippy score, which is made up mostly of human voice samples. Like the best Apple promotional films, it is about what it’s about, far more than the products it inevitably promotes.

The film release coincides with the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which is December 3. It was produced with the participation of organizations supporting people with speech disabilities.

Personal Voice debuted in iOS/iPadOS 17. It is intended for use by those who are at risk of losing the ability to speak. Many Personal Voice users have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which eventually causes loss of the ability to speak. After recording some 150 phrases to an iPhone or iPad, a synthetic version of the recorded voice is generated on-device. Once that’s done, the user can instruct Personal Voice to speak in the version of your voice that’s been created.

Live Speech, Apple’s other new speech accessibility feature, allows the user to type a phrase or sentence and have it spoken by the device. Think coffee orders or other quick interactions.

—Linked by Shelly Brisbin

The cops think iOS 17’s NameDrop is dangerous

Turns out police departments are like some of my relatives: They see things on Facebook and uncritically pass them on without considering for one moment if what they’re posting is actually true.

Shira Ovide of the Washington Post covered the issue quite well in a recent newsletter, and Juli Clover of MacRumors wrote a nice summary of how an innocuous iOS 17 feature has been the latest target of unjustified panic:

There have been warnings about NameDrop popping up on Facebook. Police departments in Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Ohio, and other states have been suggesting that contact information can be shared “just by bringing your phones close together.” From the City of Chester Police Department in Ohio:

“IMPORTANT PRIVACY UPDATE: If you have an iPhone and have done the recent iOS 17 update, they have set a new feature called NameDrop defaulted to ON. This feature allows the sharing of your contact info just by bringing your phones close together. To shut this off go to Settings, General, AirDrop, Bringing Devices Together. Change to OFF.”

This is so bizarre. NameDrop is a feature that lets you AirDrop your contact information to someone else. For the feature to work, both phones need to be unlocked and one has to be placed directly over the other. The entire new tap-to-connect system is built to use physical proximity to confirm consent to sending or receiving data, replacing the old system in which you could leave your device open to AirDrop from all users—and receive all sorts of nasty unwanted stuff from nearby randos.1

Once the physical act of tapping is done—it takes a few seconds, there’s a prominent animation, it’s nothing that is going to happen accidentally—you are given the option to share your contact information with the other person, and get to choose which information is shared! If you only want to share a phone number and not your home address, you can do that! It’s entirely in the user’s control. (If someone nefarious approached you and wanted to steal your information, they’d be better off just grabbing your unlocked phone and running away with it.)

As Ovide wrote:

We spend too much time worrying about the wrong things in technology. And that is partly the fault of public officials and news organizations that can make anything sound scarier than it really is.

You also can’t die from touching fentanyl and nobody is poisoning or sticking razor blades in Halloween candy. But people believe this stuff, especially when it comes from an “authority” like the local police department.

I’m glad that so many sources are rushing to correct the original police department posts, but if you really want to get depressed, visit one and read the comments from all the people who are grateful for the misinformation. You’ll have to laugh to keep from crying.

  1. At Oracle Park in San Francisco, I was once AirDropped a photo of Dick Van Dyke, with the text, “You just got an unsolicited Dick pic.” 
—Linked by Jason Snell

By Jason Snell

In a sign of the times, podcast app Castro may be dying

Castro has been a popular iOS podcast app for many years, but right now things look grim.

The cloud database that backs the service is broken and needs to be replaced. As a result, the app has broken. (You can’t even export subscriptions out of it, because even that function apparently relies on the cloud database.) “The team is in the progress of setting up a database replacement, which might take some time. We aim to have this completed ASAP,” said an Xtweet from @CastroPodcasts.

What’s worse, according to former Castro team member Mohit Mamoria, “Castro is being shut down over the next two months.”

Castro owner Tiny and the Castro team aren’t addressing Mamoria’s comments or responding to my emails. When I asked around, a couple of knowledgeable people told me that they’d heard Castro had been put on life support a few months ago and was unlikely to get any technical attention going forward. I can’t independently verify those secondhand comments, but they don’t contradict Mamoria’s statement. Podnews on Wednesday provided a bagful of evidence pointing to Castro’s imminent demise. (Update: Castro owner Tiny says they’re trying to find a new home for the app.)

The truth is, between Apple’s solid upgrades to the Podcast app and the rise of Spotify as a podcast-playing competitor, the squeeze has really been put on most podcast apps. Original Castro developers Supertop sold the app in 2018. Pocket Casts got acquired in 2018 and again in 2021. Stitcher shut down entirely.

It’s not that users don’t want better podcast apps. Clearly, the users of Castro and Pocket Casts and Overcast get features out of those apps that the two big apps just can’t match. But it can take a lot to drive users out of the arms of a default and into a quest to replace that default. The default app doesn’t have to be best in class—it just has to be good enough.

There’s power in being one of the incumbents, too. If you’re a Spotify customer, you don’t even need to change apps. If you’re in Apple’s ecosystem, using Podcasts adds integration with HomePods and Apple TV that other apps just can’t match.

I’m still an Overcast user, and it would take a lot for Apple’s Podcasts app to get me back. But I once had a list of must-have podcast app features that Apple failed to support that was as long as my arm; these days, I can probably count it on my fingers, and I might not need the second hand.

Which is to say, if Castro really is not long for this world, I fully expect that most of its users won’t go to Overcast or Pocket Casts, but will retreat to Apple or Spotify, companies that are unlikely to fail them, even if the cost is a little less customization or functionality. And a little more of the unique, open podcast ecosystem will be lost forever.

Our book-reading habits, what we do with our health data, how tech helps us around the house, and old software that we still have a crush on.

By Jason Snell

It’s end-of-year list season for Apple

“I’ll say this for him, he’s consistent.”

In the surest sign that the end of the year is nearing and that whatever happens in December stays in December, Apple dropped a bunch of its annual 2023 lists on Tuesday.

One of Books’s in-app reader types.

In one of those weird new “Quick Read” pop-up posts on Apple Newsroom, Apple announced its top podcasts of 2023. (Please note that Apple only measures listening in its own Podcasts app, so Spotify and indie podcast apps aren’t counted.) The top podcasts are what you’d expect if you’ve ever looked at Apple’s podcast charts. Crime Junkie was the top show for the second year in a row and another crime show, Scamanda, was the top new show.

Apple Music Replay 2023 highlights also launched on Tuesday, and it is still weirdly a website and not something you can just see in the Music app. Replay actually exists all year round, but Apple expands it right at the end of the year. From the site, you can add a playlist with your top songs of 2023, which will actually update right through the end of the year and then live on with you in perpetuity.

(My Replay lists are never interesting, because I tend to find a few albums and songs from a few artists and play them endlessly. This is probably the fifth straight year that The 1975 reigns as my top artist, with nobody else close. My only surprise this year was that something called Dog Music was among my top selections. I have no idea what that is—it’s apparently a streaming radio station?—and while I do have a dog and I think I tried to play music for her once to reduce her separation anxiety, it’s not something I did long enough for it to make Apple’s charts. Apple’s ways are truly mysterious.)

Also also on Tuesday, Apple put out a proper press release but its new top books of 2023 list. Once again, this is a list entirely about people buying and reading in the Apple Books app.

Perhaps most notably, there’s now an Apple Music-style Year in Review feature that shows you about what you read during the year, including a profile about which one of six “reader types” you most conform to. Unlike Apple Music, the Books Year in Review feature is presented directly inside the Books app itself.

James Thomson joins Jason to celebrate Cyber Monday, generate an Apple Buying Guide, grapple with subscription (and human) burnout, and explore spatial videos and the current state of visionOS development.

By John Moltz

This Week in Apple: That math doesn’t check out

John Moltz and his conspiracy board. Art by Shafer Brown.

Tim Cook gets put in the cold seat while 13 remains a popular number in Japan. And will Apple get coal in its stocking? If the NLRB has anything to say about it, yes.

A friendly game of softball

In a somewhat unexpected turn of events, Tim Cook appeared on Dua Lipa’s “At Your Service” podcast, forcing many an aging observer of Apple corporate maneuvering to say aloud “Whose what now?”

Cook started out by asserting that everyone at Apple believes 1 plus 1 equals 3 because, uh, something about teamwork. While cute, bad math is not exactly a thing you want to hear from the company making the A-Fib detector in your smartwatch.

It’s an at times interesting interview in which Lipa questions Cook on how Apple measures its carbon output, but it’s not exactly hard-hitting. And that’s fine: not every interview has to be straight out of Marathon Man.…

This is a post limited to Six Colors members.

By Andy Ihnatko

Ihnatko: Deconstructing Apple’s weirdly empathetic “Fuzzy Feelings”

Apple released its annual holidaytime videofun thingy! Hooray!

Don’t read this until after you’ve watched it. (Note to Apple Watch users: if your device starts lighting up with emergency medical alerts while you’re watching, just ignore them. Your grinchy heart is just growing three sizes in response to holiday sentiment and the sensors are misinterpreting that data as atrial fibrillation.)

OK. Pretty cool short, eh? The lady is shooting stop-motion animation with her iPhone, apparently using an app on her MacBook that takes advantage of the iPhone 15 Pro’s ability to shoot pictures in tethered mode. Over the course of four minutes, warm fuzzies are had. Almost literally. It’s all neat stuff and I sincerely applaud everybody involved in its creation.

A couple of things bothered me about the short, though.

First: I wish someone at Apple would explain to me on the record why the lady’s boss wasn’t played by Paul Giamatti. It’s such a total Paul Giamatti role that if Apple had produced this short inside the EU, some regulatory agency or another would have required Apple to hire Giamatti for the gig, no substitutes. In 2008, when Samsung cloned the iPhone with so much fidelity that it lit the fuse for years of vicious lawsuits, Samsung didn’t do that job nearly as well as how well Apple cloned Paul Giamatti when they booked this other actor.

Second: Something about the lady’s behavior nagged at me. The feeling lingered all afternoon and it took me a while to figure out what the issue was.

The story is short and simple. A lady suffers under an abrasive, if not fully abusive, boss. She exorcises her workplace anger through the ancient Klingon blood rite known as “stop-motion needle-felt animation.”

If you think about it, that’s absolutely stone-cold. Imagine if, instead, she took out her frustrations about her boss by drawing single-panel comics on her iPad. Each of her fantasy scenarios of her boss being injured, and humiliated, and, overall, deliberately made to feel as if God has turned His gaze of love far away from him, would have taken her twenty minutes to draw, max.

But stop-motion animation? With needle-felted figures?

How many weeks did it take her to complete just one of those humiliating scenes? She designed and constructed dolls, props, and sets; she invested lots of money and ingenuity in doing the lighting and rigging; she animated each shot one painstaking frame at a time; and then did all of the editing.

You must agree with me that this is an utterly psychopathic amount of work. It’s very correct to witness this behavior and then fear for that man’s safety out in the real world.

I’ll also point out that one of the little things the boss did that annoyed and angered her was that he noticed that she was very late for work. He communicated his disappointment in a quick, low-key way that drew no attention from the rest of the office. Close examination of the previous scene reveals why she was late that morning: she’d gotten so wrapped up in her whole Torture My Boss By Wooly Proxy project that she’d lost all track of time. She didn’t even leave her house for the office until five minutes before nine.

This speaks poorly of her. But it’s not the thing about the short that nagged at me all afternoon. It was the weird and fitful role of empathy in the story.

Scene: the boss makes the rounds of the office. In a manner that could be described either as “self-conscious and awkward” or “exactly how Paul Giamatti would have played that scene,” he hands out personal holiday gifts to the entire staff. The lady unwraps an utterly charming Christmas stocking that her boss clearly knitted himself.

Next, she happens to spot him dining alone, in a restaurant otherwise filled with groups and couples celebrating the holiday.

These two experiences help to humanize the boss in the lady’s eyes. She softens. The short ends with her starting to regard the man with fresh empathy and understanding.

OK. That’s sweet. Really. For the purposes of a four-minute short, it’s an efficient and effective story arc.

But the story dismisses something of critical importance: why didn’t she humanize her boss before the she learned that he was a fellow fan of the fiber arts? The boss was deserving of empathy and understanding from birth, because he’s a felllow human being. And yet the lady began extending that dignity to him just recently, and only because she chanced to see him eating alone and then she pitied him.

She got there in the end, which we should celebrate, but if not for the fact that only the ineffable forces of the universe have the right to judge, I’d be giving her, like, a B. Plus a fun sticker, because it keeps everything positive.

The messaging here is weird. On a side note, I also wonder: is the root of the problem between these two a simple generational difference in emotional user interfaces?

The boss isn’t mean to her. OK: not holding the elevator for her is a jerk move. But overall, he just seems like one of those people who are closed-off with his feelings overall. That sort of thing can easily come across as gruff. But is there anything to the trope of Millennials and Gen-Z requiring consistent emotional affirmations in the workplace, forms of reassurance that their Boomer bosses aren’t equipped to dispense?

Well, whatever. Empathy is the point of today’s sermon. Empathy requires each of us to never ever forget that we should treat fellow humans like human beings and not human-shaped objects. No exceptions and no excuses.

Simple? Oh, sure. But holy cats, it’s hard to get a consistent grip on the thing, isn’t it? It’s easier to know that we’ve misplaced our empathy than it is to be sure of what we should do with it.

The struggle’s worth it, though. Empathy is hands-down our most significant and important function. God or whatever put us here to practice empathy, and also because He or whatever couldn’t figure out how to make a huge awesome island made out of fun colorful plastic show up in the middle of the ocean all on its own.

So when the lady in the “Fuzzy Feelings” video exercises her empathy only conditionally, after she comes to pity her boss (itself a form of dehumanization), it comes across as… well, not wrong, but definitely odd.

Empathy from the machine

I’ve given “Fuzzy Feelings” another close examination and I might have an explanation for all of this. The computers in the short are big clues. Obviously, the lady uses a sweet setup of Apple computers at home. At work, her desk seems to have a Windows machine. Whatever it is, it definitely isn’t anything manufactured by Apple. The keyboard and mouse are ergonomic, for a start.

Apple has a famous and somewhat silly policy about using its products as props in film: Macs and iPhones and iPads can never be in the hands of any of the bad guys. I’m not kidding. Apple is so fussy about this that one of my favorite recent movies had to resort to a downright comical piece of editing when the story required a bad guy to hand an iPad to a good guy.

So maybe the lady’s capacity for empathy is intact… but her ability to access it is influenced by her environments. When she’s in the office and her boss gives her a gentle rebuke for a legit HR infraction, her proximity to a Microsoft operating system influences her to choose a path of (needle-felted stop-motion) violence. When she’s at home, her heart is warmed by the benedictive greenhouse of Apple screens, and empathy blossoms. She performs a penance: the Needle-Felted Boss, which throughout its life had been a sinner in the eyes of a vengeful God and made to suffer daily judgments more fearful than he could comprehend, receives a new blessing from his Lord, in the form of a felty little dog.

Also a pair of replacement pants. That puppet was animated without his trousers for way more scenes than the need for shot-to-shot continuity would require.

Can we just agree that “Fuzzy Feelings” is a little bit weird?

[Andy Ihnatko is a contributor to WGBH Radio and co-host of MacBreak Weekly. He's written about technology for numerous publications, including the Chicago Sun-Times, Macworld, and MacUser.]

By Jason Snell for Macworld

How Apple learns (or doesn’t) from its failures

Nobody’s perfect. We all make mistakes, from the littlest kindergarteners to the world’s most valuable and powerful corporations. What’s most important is how we respond to our mistakes, of course. Do we learn and grow? Do we deny and deflect? Or do we just give up?

What I’m saying is, Apple sometimes takes its failures and learns important lessons that inform its future attempts… but sometimes, it seems to just give up.

Continue reading on Macworld ↦

Choosing between noise cancellation and excellent audio quality in headphones, the impact of an unlimited supply of one thing on the world or your life, the significance of Apple’s adoption of RCS, and recommendations for Black Friday deals.

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