"Japan's antitrust watchdog considers action against Apple, carriers"

Reuters: “Exclusive: Japan’s antitrust watchdog considers action against Apple, carriers - sources

Both the headline and the lede are greatly misleading. The second and third paragraphs contradict the promised premise:

In a report published last month, Japan’s Fair Trade Commission (FTC) said that NTT Docomo, KDDI Corp and Softbank Group were refusing to sell older surplus iPhone models to third party retailers, thereby hobbling smaller competitors.

Apple was not named in that report, but two senior government sources told Reuters that regulators were also focusing on Apple’s supply agreements with all three carriers.

The carriers are almost certainly responsible for any shadiness in the deals because this only benefits them, not Apple. We’ll probably never actually find out, but I’m pretty sure the reason iPhones are not still exclusive to SoftBank is probably because Apple finally gave in to carrier demands for special concessions.

KDDI and DoCoMo are late-comers to the party. In 2008, SoftBank was the exclusive carrier for the iPhone, and it benefitted greatly. Three years later, SoftBank was still experiencing incredible growth, which was credited in large part to its still-exclusive deal with Apple. KDDI started offering iPhones in 2012, with DoCoMo finally deigning in 2013 to offer iPhones after years of steadily bleeding away customers, primarily to SoftBank.

SoftBank went from a distant third-place player in the market with about 18% share, to near-parity with second-place major carrier KDDI between 2008 and 2013, when all major players, including DoCoMo, finally offered iPhones on their networks. Without SoftBank’s runaway success, KDDI and DoCoMo might still be resisting Apple’s entry into the Japanese market even now.

The existence of business practices that shut out secondary players are an open secret. There is a very limited secondary market for unlocked phones because the vast majority are sold SIM-locked to a carrier. There are only three major players in the market, all of whom lock their handsets and in practice never unlock iPhones even after the handset is paid for and the typical 2-year contract is up. Discount carriers never even have a chance due both to carrier collusion and Japanese market rules.

The carrier that set the lock is the only entity legally allowed to unlock handsets. SoftBank has never offered SIM-unlocking. There have been persistent rumors of the other carriers offering SIM-free (i.e. unlocked handsets) for years, but reportedly neither KDDI nor DoCoMo will unlock iPhones still. Despite being required as of May 1, 2015 to offer SIM-unlocking, the carriers have been allowed to set their own timeline, and apparently their estimate on when they’ll do that for iPhones is somewhere between “#^¢* you!” and “We’ll get around to it … someday”.

Blaming Apple for customer-hostile business practices on the part of the carriers, and laggardly-enacted toothless laws that do virtually nothing to open the Japanese market is absurd. That the present situation favors Japanese incumbents is no coincidence, and past protectionistic behavior is the only element that lends credence to this report that Apple might be investigated in the future. The chance of Apple being found of wrongdoing in anything resembling a fair hearing is extremely slim, in my opinion.

What is the Internet?

Leo Mirani for Quartz: Millions of Facebook users have no idea they’re using the internet

Remember this, from earlier this year?

AOL still makes most of its money off millions of dial-up subscribers

In light of the number of people who are still using dial-up access through AOL, even though there are almost certainly better alternatives available1, the lack of awareness many people worldwide show about what constitutes “the internet” should probably not be surprising.

For millions of Americans in the 90s, AOL was the internet, and considering the subscription numbers reported in that article from early 2015, it is almost certainly still considered the internet by those users. And this is in a first-world country with relatively affordable access to data and at least some formal education about technology. In parts of the world with less access to data, where Facebook actively subsidizes internet access through their portal, it should not be shocking that many people don’t draw a distinction, because for them there may not be one.

Facebook’s strategy is surprisingly similar to AOL’s, but much larger in scope. AOL sent CDs with free software and trial codes to everyone in the US. Facebook is doing the contemporary equivalent by subsidizing data on mobile in developing countries. Facebook stands to gain a huge audience worldwide for generations of user adoptions. It’s a very smart strategic use of resources, and seems to be beneficial for everyone involved.

At least for right now. Unlike Google, Facebook has never adopted an aspirational mantra, and we see how well that whole “don’t be evil” thing has been working for Google. Even the best of intentions erode over time.

  1. Maybe not surprising at all, considering how hard it seems to be to cancel an account

Three takeaways for web developers after two weeks of painfully slow internet access

This writeup on Medium is a great article for app and website developers. Like designing for accessibility, considering and designing for slow data access can vastly improve user experience.

I had to use tethering to get work done over the last month due to a very flaky wi-fi access point at a work location. Because of that, I managed to hit my data cap before the end of the month, and spent over a week with horribly throttled access that rendered anything without an offline mode or a robust low-data mode basically useless. Most syncing worked — slowly; most browsing or even non-text Twitter didn’t.

Third-party apps fared the worst. I could get pages to load in Safari on my iPhone that Tweetbot was unable to display. This experience, not long after the announcement of Safari View Controller across apps in iOS 9, made me fully appreciate just how big of a change more open developer access to Safari will be. Developers won’t have to write their own browsers, and users will get access to all of the caching and performance tweaks implemented in the system browser. When you’re running at 0.12 Mb/s up and down, you really, really appreciate optimizations and performance fallback modes.

Facebook Instant Articles

From a NY Times article published in May:

Facebook’s long-rumored plan to directly host articles from news organizations will start on Wednesday, concluding months of delicate negotiations between the Internet giant and publishers that covet its huge audience but fear its growing power …

… Most important for impatient smartphone users, the company says, the so-called instant articles will load up to 10 times faster than they normally would since readers stay on Facebook rather than follow a link to another site.

The last thing I wanted in my Facebook feed was more news articles, so the technical improvement of faster load times does not benefit me in the slightest. The only reason I ever go to Facebook is to see what’s going on with family members. I already have to sort through the listicles, quizzes, and “surveys” that are shared on Facebook to get to their posts. Anything that makes it harder for me to see actual activity from the people I know is just more clutter.

Granted, given the quality of what is usually shared, it will probably be more interesting, higher-brow clutter, but still clutter. I had already started skipping over the regular timeline to exclusively check messages and alerts on the infrequent occasions I visited Facebook. Increasing clutter will make me less likely to bother looking through my timeline since I know it will be about as rewarding as looking though an email inbox with spam filtering disabled.

I can see the appeal for publishers, since most of the public is not as discerning jaded and cantankerous as me, and there are 1.25 billion active users on Facebook.

Let that sink in; that’s active users, as in people who actually log in and use Facebook on a monthly or more frequent basis. There must be many more registered users than 1.25 billion, since active use is typically much, much lower than registration.

That’s a metric asstonne[1] of people. The active users alone represent 17% of the current world population of 7.3 billion, so by the numbers, theoretically nearly 1 in 5 of people on the entire planet use Facebook right now. And it’s still growing.

The problem for publishers is that joining any social network is hazardous in the long term. Letting someone else publish your content means that you both relinquish control and eventually become a commodity on that platform. When you are one of several sources for a similar service, it becomes simple and easy to replace you if you decide not to participate anymore. Should Facebook later decide to play hardball, and The Times opt-out of publishing on Facebook’s platform, even they — with their strong reputation and mind-share in news — probably wouldn’t be particularly missed.

News publishing is in flux, and it’s increasingly clear that the older publishers are facing very difficult circumstances. Ironically, this consolidation approach was already tried on the internet in the past, and was generally resisted by the public.

Remember the buzz around web portals in the early days of the public internet? It’s one of the reasons AOL became infamous online, when their membership campaigns[2] resulted in floods of clueless “newbies” who knew naught of online etiquette honed on usenet in countless flamewars.

Becoming the latest implementation of a webportal is probably a good long-term strategy for Facebook, but it places it about a half-step in stodginess from “You’ve got mail!” territory. Hell, the only reason I got a Facebook account was due to social pressure from older family members. It was already losing enough social cachet a few years ago, when I finally caved, that a dude in his mid–30s didn’t think it was the cool new tech thing.

  1. Equal to 1.102 Imperial asstons, but substantially smaller than a Goatse.  ↩

  2. Kids: ask your parents to tell about the “free” frisbees and drink coasters AOL used to send to to everyone’s houses.  ↩

Accessibility and iOS

I’m way late in linking and sharing these:

Global Accessibility Awareness Day and why it matters

Why making your apps accessible is just the right thing to do

If you want to find out what it’s like for a blind or partially-sighted person to use an iPhone, set it to Accessibility Mode: Settings -> General -> Accessibility -> VoiceOver On. There are options in that menu for Braille output devices and other assistive settings. You can set VoiceOver to toggle on and off with a triple click on the home button in Settings -> General -> Accessibility -> Accessibility Shortcut; which can be found at the bottom of the Accessibility page.

It’s interesting to experiment with alternative UI (User Interfaces) like this. Those settings are semi-hidden since most people will never need them, but they are essential for some. Since iOS 3 introduced VoiceOver APIs, Apple has steadily added all kinds of features for disabled users.

In addition to literally making the difference between independence and dependence for the people who use their software, some programmers have said that designing an app with usability in mind makes them concentrate on the details. That focus may actually result in better apps for people with unimpaired sight and mobility as well.

Social Media

Social networks are designed around who you are and who you know. They’re for 24/7 contact with your family, classmates, friends, bosses, coworkers, ex-classmates, ex-bosses, ex-coworkers, ex-friends, ex-family, and exes, in a medium that doesn’t leave much room for humanity, filtering, subtlety, and nuance. Some people love it; I only see the irrelevance, drama, and baggage that comes with it, and being politically impossible to un-“friend” many of them.

As a teenager, I escaped from these real-life people, problems, and social statuses to the internet — the last thing I wanted was to be surrounded by them there, too.

Marco Arment, referring to “A Teenager’s View on Social Media”. Unlike Marco, I didn’t see using the internet (or in my case, pre-internet BBSs) as an escape, but a way to connect with people I had more in common with. I completely agree with his assessment of social networks, though.

The good points about the major social networks in Andrew Watts’ article are far too numerous to quote. Just go read it, and then take a look at his follow up on a grab-bag of other social media.

Though I’m far away from being a teenager, I agree with nearly everything he said about why Facebook is ubiquitous, but painful to use. I have a Facebook account only because social obligations virtually force me to have it. I check my feed about once or twice a week, at most. I rarely post anything. The exception here is that I do sometimes post family pictures, which I restrict to family members and very few select friends in my privacy settings.

No one in my family or ex-whatevers cares about anything I care about. I have virtually none of the same interests as anyone I knew in my past. I don’t want to share anything that has any meaning in my life with most of my “friends” on Facebook. I’ve ignored quite a few friend requests, and have blocked a couple of people whose feeds were unexpectedly filled with unfiltered nastiness or stupidity. I quickly found that if I have lost contact with the people in my past, it’s usually for a really good reason.

I could maintain contact with my family through other channels, including “meatspace” ones, but they apparently would rather use (and thereby pressure me to use) a shitty invasive service with constantly varying privacy rules and a proprietary interest in personal lives. (Oh, did I mention that, while I love my family, I don’t get along particularly well with most of them?)

Instead of exchanging email or phone numbers, new people I meet lately seem to prefer using Facebook[1]. Why? Probably because:

  1. It’s easy and nearly ubiquitous.
  2. It maintains some social distance in case you turn out to be a nutter.
  3. It’s not that hard for you to unfriend someone you don’t have significant social ties to already (see: 2, above).
  4. It’s a good way to see what kind of things a new person is interested in, assuming their feed isn’t completely based on a bullshit public persona (see: 2, above).
  5. It consolidates contacts into a single service.

My experience with the major social services seems to correlate pretty well with this:

LinkedIn is for people you know. Facebook is for people you used to know. Twitter is for people you want to know — (possibly originated with João Sanches)

… except that very few of the people I know in Japan have any idea that LinkedIn even exists.

  1. Mixi used to be the predominant social service — see Mobile Internet in Japan for some discussion about how Japanese mobile practices made using many Japanese social services cumbersome or impossible for people with non-Japanese handsets. Facebook surpassed Mixi a couple of years after I wrote that article and, surprise-surprise, part of the reason for that change was attributed to foreign-hostile design.  ↩

"Reddit Users Band Together to Boycott Retailers who Disable NFC Readers"

Android and Apple users are joined in solidarity against a common enemy. In other news: mass hysteria in the streets, lions are cuddling with lambs, a tech site has started a print division, Jihadists are having an Ecstasy-and-alcohol-fueled love-in with fundamentalist Christians, and local coffee shops have called a détente with Starbucks.

Apple’s Game

Sean Haber:

Apple also announced that AirPlay will now support direct peer-to-peer connections. This means that latency will be much lower and connections should be more reliable. It also means that your iPhone (for example) will not need to be on the same wifi network as your AppleTV in order to use AirPlay …

Apple announced this week that their game controller API will now transparently forward controller events from one device to another. What this means is that if you already have a shell-style controller for your iPhone, you can now use your iPhone as a dedicated standalone controller to play games that are running on your iPad or Mac and the game itself doesn’t need to know any different. It just works …

Metal is an extremely thin layer of software that interfaces between apps and the underlying GPUs. It does the same job that OpenGL ES has been doing for us for years, but Metal is optimized for Apple’s own hardware and software needs while also cutting out a bunch of legacy cruft in the process. This means games that use Metal will use less CPU time communicating with the GPU, which leaves more CPU time left over for running the actual game itself.

As I wrote last year, the smoke around the Apple TV as a console has been getting pretty thick. iOS 8 betas show that some of the technical barriers I mentioned earlier, like latency, have been significantly reduced, and the introduction of a lower-level API like Metal makes programming for performance much better for developers.

I disagree with Haber on one point; I still think that the Apple TV will be primarily an extension of iPhone/iPad gaming rather than being a stand-alone system. If Apple actually makes a game controller, and if the new Apple TV runs “real” iOS instead of the fork that it’s currently on, then that might change. Given Apple’s secrecy, it’s possible that they’re preparing launch games in cooperation with gaming studios, but right now, with the information at hand, I think it’s unlikely.

Alamo Drafthouse Texting Policy

Above is a YouTube link for a pre-movie announcement the Alamo Drafthouse made when an angry former patron was ejected for persisting in violating their no texting, no talking policy. (Contains NSFW language; earphones suggested if the tender shell-like ears of colleagues need to be protected). Apparently, even fame doesn’t protect you from the Wrath of League, as no less a personage than Madonna has been “banned” for texting during a movie premiere.

I’ve only had the privilege of viewing one movie at the Drafthouse, but I thought it was a fantastic setup. Draft craft beer, great food you can order from your seat, and a demonstrated commitment to preserving a good movie-going experience creates some serious positive feelings (and made a 3+ hour running time feel much shorter). Just once, and my reaction was: “Every [expletive deleted] movie theater on the [multiple expletives deleted] planet should be like this!”