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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By John Moltz

This Week in Apple: Congrats, Russian kids!

What have we learned? This week, it’s that Russia is not happy with iPhones, the iPhone 15 will not be the same as the iPhone 14, and that Apple has reported to Spring Training in the best shape of its life and is ready to play ball.

Jokes that date to the Cold War

The word from the Kremlin this week is that Apple can’t quit Russia, it’s fired! Due to the upcoming Russian elections (gosh, I wonder what the results will be!), the government has banned officials from using iPhones. Their suggestion for what officials should do with them? ”Either throw it away or give it to the children.”

And, if you don’t wipe them, the kids will get their very first lesson in collecting kompromat! Training the next generation for a future in politics: it’s a win-win.

What exactly is Russia’s problem with iPhones, you may ask? Well, the official line is that the ban is “because of concerns that the devices are vulnerable to Western intelligence agencies.”…

This is a post limited to Six Colors members.

‘The RIAA v. Steve Jobs’

A remarkable blog post by Rogue Amoeba’s Paul Kafasis uncovers a key moment in the history of Apple and the recording industry:

At that time, our sales were slow enough that we often skimmed incoming orders to learn about who was buying. On September 30, 2003, exactly one year after we opened our virtual doors, an order with an RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America] email address came through. That put a damper on our first anniversary celebrations, as we had full knowledge of the organization’s litigious history. We were naturally concerned that they were aware of our product. Unfortunately, there was nothing for us to do but feel uneasy and await their next move.

The late 90s and early 2000s were an interesting period when it came to Apple and the music industry. The rise of MP3s, CD burning, and peer-to-peer file sharing meant that piracy had gone digital—but many of those technologies could also be used for legal purposes, enabling iTunes and the iPod and creating mix CDs from your own music collection.

As is traditional, industries reacted to the new technologies with fear and tried to stamp them out. Which is why foundational podcast creator and former MTV VJ Adam Curry’s recent podcast interview, quoted by Kafasis, is so fascinating. Curry:

Steve asked: “How do you do your recording?” We didn’t really have any tools to record, there was not much going on at the time. But the Mac had an application called Audio Hijack Pro, and it was great because we could create audio chains with compressors, and replicate a bit of studio work.

Eddy Cue said: “The RIAA wants us to disable Audio Hijack Pro, because with it you could record any sound off of your Mac, any song, anything.” Steve then turned to me and said: “Do you need this to create these podcasts?” I said: “Currently, yes!”. So Steve Jobs told them to get lost.

This worldview was pretty much Apple’s take at the time when it was accused of encouraging piracy: While people might use its technology to violate licenses and break the law, the technology itself had valid, legitimate uses, and therefore Apple wouldn’t limit the utility of its products just because some people would do things with them that groups like the RIAA didn’t like.

Was Steve Jobs well aware that they were enabling piracy when they started the “Rip, Mix, Burn” ad campaign? Of course. Did the iPod make it easy to take songs downloaded from Napster on the go? It sure did. (So much so that at the iPod launch event, it literally gave journalists CDs along with their review iPods so that they wouldn’t be accused of pirating music.)

But Jobs and Apple also saw the bigger picture, and the world is better for it.

—Linked by Jason Snell

by Jason Snell

When bank runs run faster than banks

Hannah Miao, Gregory Zuckerman and Ben Eisen reporting for the Wall Street Journal (Apple News) about the last-ditch attempts to save Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) from running out of money:

The Fed needed a test trade to be run before the actual transfer could occur. That took time and the Fed didn’t extend its own daily deadline of 4 p.m. PT for collateral transfers to help SVB. Time ran out on the bankers and SVB couldn’t get the money that day…

The next day, the BNY transfer to the Fed went through, potentially allowing SVB to borrow from the central bank. According to people familiar with the matter, the San Francisco FHLB was still working on its transfer when executives saw an announcement from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.: The regulator had taken over SVB. 

As usual, I can’t recommend Bloomberg Money Stuff columnist Matt Levine’s take highly enough:

[Miao, Zuckerman and Eisen] have the actual, horrifying explanation, which is that the Fed’s computers go to bed at 4 p.m. and you can’t wake them up until the next morning….

I do not actually think that the banking crisis of the last two weeks… all could have been avoided if the Fed had said “hmm, normally we do a test transaction first, but you seem to be in a rush and it’s getting toward closing time so we’ll just skip that and go straight to lending you the money.” SVB’s problems were bigger than the Fed’s 4 p.m. transfer cutoff.

And yet! Man! What the heck! A lot has been written about how SVB was a bank run for a speedier, modern age. Instead of hearing a rumor at the coffee shop and running down to the bank branch to wait on line to withdraw your money, now you can hear a rumor on Twitter or the group chat and use an app to withdraw money instantly. A tech-friendly bank with a highly digitally connected set of depositors can lose 25% of its deposits in hours, which did not seem conceivable in previous eras of bank runs.

Or as Byrne Hobart of The Diff (quoted by Levine) put it, “when the user interface improves faster than the core system, it means customers can act faster than the bank can react.”

Back to Levine:

There will be all sorts of proposals for changes in bank regulation and supervision and deposit insurance and Fed facilities that come out of this crisis. [This] is probably not going to be top of the list: Again, I doubt it would have saved SVB, and I do not have any great technical insights into how it should be improved. But, I don’t know, wouldn’t it be a good idea? Wouldn’t you have more confidence in the banking system, if banks that had lots of assets could get money when they needed it?

It’s disturbing to think that the systems to save banks just don’t run as fast as the systems that have been built to streamline transactions that can lead to bank runs. More disturbing, perhaps, is to realize that this incident might not actually change anything.

—Linked by Jason Snell

The generative AI we’ve found the most compelling, our thoughts on Spatial Audio and surround sound systems, whether we think the game console is dying out, and our social media habits in the wake of the relaunch of Gowalla.

By Jason Snell

Boox Leaf 2: Hitting the limits of e-reader multitasking

boox leaf 2
Boox Leaf 2 running EinkBro (left) and Substack (right).

I love e-readers. The high-contrast black-and-white E-Ink displays, the long battery life, and the software that’s focused on reading all made me a fan of the Kindle and, in recent years, the Kobo series of ebook readers.

Back in 2021 I reviewed the Boox Nova Air, a $389 Android tablet with an E-Ink screen. The idea: what if you could run all sorts of different apps on a single E-Ink device the size of a Kindle or Kobo? Ultimately, I found the Boox Nova Air to be an impressive piece of hardware that was let down by its software.

Spurred on by a rave review by The Verge’s Alex Cranz, I’ve been using a $200 Boox Leaf 2 e-reader on and off for the past few months. It’s a 7-inch reader that’s sized and priced more like a standard Kindle or Kobo. I’m happy to report that in the intervening months, the Boox software experience has improved—but a device like this is still probably not a good idea unless you are comfortable tinkering with Android apps and utilities.

By adding physical page-turn buttons to the Leaf 2, the device is much more usable as an e-reader than the Nova Air was. Many Android apps that understand the concept of turning pages of content support using the volume up and down buttons (which is what those page-turn buttons really are) to go forward and backward through content. Boox has added some clever software to let you set how the buttons are detected in different apps, and you can assign some very E-Ink-specific functions—like forcing a refresh of the screen!—to specific button gestures.

Page turning is a big deal, because E-Ink screens still don’t refresh fast enough to be usable with smartphone-style scrolling interfaces. Everything gets smeary and unreadable and generally is just… bad. Scrolling a webpage on an iPad is fine, but doing it on an E-Ink browser is really unpleasant.

Fortunately, there has also been some progress on the browser front. There’s a new Android browser called EinkBro that is specifically designed to be used on E-Ink devices, and it makes it easy to page through stories rather than scrolling through them. Though EinkBro would occasionally lose the plot and misrender pages a bit too wide, in general it was a huge boost to the usability of the device, since a lot of what I read is on the web.

As a result, my experience was much better than it was in 2021. Unfortunately, I ran into a lot of apps that still didn’t support page-turn buttons (Substack, I’m disappointed in you), and while Boox has a workaround for that (a utility called Navigation Ball lets you put up floating page up/page down buttons on screen), it’s an inconsistent and fiddly experience.

The other thing I realized is that a lot of Android apps are just bad. Okay, I’m not being entirely fair there—some Android apps are bad on the Leaf 2 because (for obvious reasons!) they were designed to be used with fast-refresh screens on Android phones, not slow-refresh E-Ink on a tablet. Other Android apps are just bad, or at least worse than the dedicated software you’d find on a fine-tuned, purpose-built e-reader by Amazon or Kobo.

The Kindle app on Android is actually pretty good, and works well with the Leaf 2 once you get it up and running. But if you use the page turn buttons too soon after you launch it, the Boox software won’t have kicked in yet and you’ll get a volume prompt instead of a page turn. And don’t swipe or tap to turn the page, or you’ll get a page-turn animation that can’t be turned off or properly rendered by the E-Ink screen.

The Kobo app is worse. It’s got a lot fewer options than the dedicated Kobo reading experience does, which is a shame since Kobo’s dedicated reading experience beats Kindle’s.

Boox also supplies its own e-reader app, but it didn’t let me turn off forced justification, which is a dealbreaker for me. But at least that app felt like it was specifically built for E-Ink, which is what’s missing from most of the Android apps I tried.

After this latest experiment, I’m left with two overriding thoughts about the future of e-readers. First, I wish Amazon and Kobo and the rest would finally embrace their hidden-away, “experimental” web browsers and just integrate them into the device experience. EinkBro shows that it can be done. More broadly, I wish those e-ink readers would consider adding basic support for other kinds of apps, especially given that Amazon just killed its digital newsstand program.

Amazon’s browser has been experimental for more than a decade now, so I’m not holding my breath. The other option—and this one has a far greater chance of happening—is that E-Ink refresh rates could keep getting faster. Right now some E-Ink displays are capable of 15 frames per second in black-and-white mode, which is pretty good! The more the screen can respond in the way that Android apps expect, the less a user will feel like they’re stuck in the mud when they’re using one of these devices.

The truth is, the e-reader market is so small—and so dominated by Amazon—that small companies like Boox are about the only ones trying to compete here. The products still aren’t good enough, in my opinion, but they’re getting closer all the time. Maybe someday I’ll fulfill my dream of reading everything, not just books, on a single E-Ink device. But we’re not there yet.

by Jason Snell

Apple’s “Friday Night Baseball” adds local radio

Baseball season is almost upon us, and that means the return of Apple’s Friday Night Baseball doubleheader. As was the case last year, it’ll be a broadcast with recurring national announcers and a bunch of extra Apple flair, including drone shots and spatial audio. As was not the case last year, when Apple gave it away for free, this year’s programming will be limited to Apple TV+ subscribers. As detailed by Apple Newsroom:

“Friday Night Baseball” will be produced by MLB Network’s Emmy Award-winning production team in partnership with Apple, bringing viewers an unparalleled viewing experience. Each game will feature state-of-the-art cameras to present vivid live-action shots, and offer immersive sound in 5.1 with Spatial Audio enabled. “Friday Night Baseball” will again utilize drone cameras for beautiful aerial stadium shots, as well as player mics and field-level mics to immerse fans in the gameplay and stadium atmosphere. Fans in the U.S. and Canada will also have the option to listen to the audio of the home and away teams’ local radio broadcasts during “Friday Night Baseball” games.

That last line is big news. One of the biggest complaints people had last year about Friday Night Baseball—and let’s be honest, it’s a complaint about any sport with a strong local announcer base that’s then broadcast to a single national audience using a neutral set of announcers—is that people couldn’t hear the voices they knew and loved while watching the game. Apple has addressed this issue by letting users switch over to audio from home or away radio broadcasts. (This is also a feature of Apple’s MLS streaming package, though right now I believe it’s home radio only.)

There are a few minor catches—aren’t there always? According to Apple, “Radio broadcasts for the Texas Rangers are available only for the team’s home games. In Canada, radio broadcasts are available only for Toronto Blue Jays games.” Tough break for Canadian fans who want to listen to non-Blue Jays broadcasters of non-Blue Jays games, and I don’t even want to know about the contractual issues that preclude the Rangers radio voices from being used on away games.

But for everyone else, this is a great step forward for Friday Night Baseball, one that uses the multi-stream, multi-layer potential of streaming media to improve the product and improve audience choice.

Friday Night Baseball returns April 7 with Rangers-Cubs followed by Padres-Braves.

—Linked by Jason Snell

HBO has another hit, Jason Kilar has some advice for Bob Iger about the future of Hulu, and Sports Corner returns to discuss the ongoing saga of regional sports networks bankruptcies and the future of streaming sports.

Is the iPad still the future of computing, or is it the Mac (again)? This week we’re pondering Apple’s dividing lines between the iPad Pro and the Mac, and wonder if each product is limiting the potential of the other. Also, is Apple planning on raising iPad Pro prices to new heights? We also consider Apple’s moves to show fiscal responsibility without laying off a lot of people like the rest of the tech industry.

By Dan Moren for Macworld

How Apple’s AI project could bring a long-overdue Siri breakthrough

Artificial intelligence continues to be the latest of buzzworthy buzzwords floating around the tech industry. (Sorry, blockchain and NFTs—your fifteen minutes are up.) And though Apple has plenty of ways that it already leverages machine learning to power up its technologies, it’s hard to deny that there are some places where the company could still benefit from jumping on this latest bandwagon.

Which is why it’s interesting to hear a report out of the New York Times that Apple engineers are actively looking into language-generating AI, similar to the systems that underlie chatbots like ChatGPT, for a number of applications.

How could this technology be used in Apple’s products? Well, as it happens, I can think of a few ways that it might be deployed, not all of which are simply about just creating a chatbot.

Continue reading on Macworld ↦

By John Moltz

This Week in Apple: The Lasso Cinematic Universe

AI continues to be a lot more A than I this week as Apple expands its manufacturing outside of China, and we enjoy the return of everyone’s favorite mustachioed man, Ted Lasso.

An AI walks into a bar…

AI is all the rage these days, despite it kinda not working all that great.

For my money, none of these technologies will be ready to ship until they pass the Friedman/Fridman test. You may be familiar with Lex Friedman, the co-host of The Rebound, host of Your Daily Lex, former writer for Macworld, and, most importantly, author of The Snuggie Sutra. He’s quite famous, very handsome, and has not one but two custom-made suits. Lex Fridman is some other guy.

But every AI in the world insists Lex is Lex, probably because enough people on the internet have misspelled “Fridman” as “Friedman,” and this is “artificial” intelligence, after all.…

This is a post limited to Six Colors members.

By Dan Moren

A (not so) brief review of Apple Maps’s Boston landmarks

Over the past couple years, Apple’s been rolling out its “Detailed City Experience” in Maps to cities across the world and finally, at long last, those improved maps and better landmarks have come to my hometown of Boston, as first noted by Frank McShan on Twitter.

As a lifelong resident of this fair city,1 I thought it my responsibility—nay, my duty—to take a spin through all these new landmarks and judge them on their fidelity to the reality (and the spirit)

Without further ado, let’s take a look.

Fenway Park

Perhaps most recognizable to non-Bostonians, the nation’s oldest active ballpark. A thumbs up on the seat colors (green in the bleachers, red elsewhere—and yes, they even got the Ted Williams seat), and the Green Monster is present, but would it have killed them to put in the scoreboard? (Extra points if it features the Red Sox beating the Yankees.)

Continue reading “A (not so) brief review of Apple Maps’s Boston landmarks”…

By Jason Snell

Camo Studio 2 supports any webcam, including Continuity Camera

I love Continuity Camera, the feature introduced in macOS Ventura that lets you use an iPhone as a Mac webcam. Unfortunately, the creation of a systemwide feature often results in a third-party app being trampled, and that was the fate of Reincubate’s Camo Studio, which lets you… use your iPhone as a Mac webcam.

But as is often the case with a “Sherlocking“, Apple didn’t build a solution with all the features of Camo Studio. It kept it minimal—both Continuity Camera and the camera in the Apple Studio Display, use handful of toggles in Control Center to turn off basic modes like Center Stage, Portrait Mode, and Studio Light.

Camo Studio, on the other hand, offered all sorts of plenty of brightness, color, and zoom settings. And as of Wednesday, with the release of Camo Studio 2, the app also fully supports Continuity Camera, the Studio Display camera, and pretty much any other third-party webcam. (If you’ve been using lousy software to control your webcam, it might be time to replace it with Camo Studio.)

I’ve been using Camo Studio 2 for a few weeks and I’ve been relieved, frankly, to finally have proper control over my Continuity Camera and Studio Display cameras. The lighting in my office is weird, so I often need to adjust the color balance, and I’m never happy with the default zoom and options that Apple offers. With Camo Studio, I can drop an iPhone into a MagSafe mount and use it immediately without attaching a cable or launching an app on the iPhone.

Camo Studio has also picked up a bunch of new tricks. In addition to its classic zoom and image-adjustment settings, it’s got its own versions of Center Stage, Portrait Mode, and Studio Light. Reincubate claims its features are better and less processor intensive than Apple’s versions. (I did notice a few cases where Camo’s software seemed to better detect the difference between me and my background.) There’s also a really nice auto-pan mode that’s similar to Center Stage, but allows you to lock the zoom.

Other new features include a privacy blur, virtual green screen, support for 4K output, a bunch of LUT filters and presets, and a built-in overlay editor. And Camo Studio is still compatible with Zoom, Microsoft Teams, OBS, Chrome, Discord, Safari, FaceTime, and other video apps. (The output of Camo Studio appears as its own “virtual” camera.)

And for even more customizability, you can still download and run the Camo Studio app on your iPhone, which allows Camo to have access to settings that Continuity Camera doesn’t provide. With the app running, you can choose which lens to use, control focus, and more.

Camo Studio isn’t cheap—it’s $40/year or $80 for a lifetime unlock—but if you rely on a webcam for any part of your job and you want more control than what’s offered out of the box, it really delivers. If you’re interested, you can try it for free.

How we display and enjoy our digital photographs, celebrating Digital Cleanup Day by revealing the messiest areas of our digital lives, software we don’t like but have to use, and our thoughts on replacing aging tech.

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