Archive for June 11, 2021

Friday, June 11, 2021

Removing the Manual Boost

Keith Collins, in 2019:

But as Apple has become one of the largest competitors on a platform that it controls, suspicions that the company has been tipping the scales in its own favor are at the heart of antitrust complaints in the United States, Europe and Russia.

Apple’s apps have ranked first recently for at least 700 search terms in the store, according to a New York Times analysis of six years of search results compiled by Sensor Tower, an app analytics firm. Some searches produced as many as 14 Apple apps before showing results from rivals, the analysis showed. (Though competitors could pay Apple to place ads above the Apple results.)


Spotify complained to European regulators in March that Apple was abusing its role as the gatekeeper of the App Store. By April, all but two of Apple’s apps disappeared from the top results for “music.”

An Apple spokeswoman said the company could not verify the data because it did not keep a record of historical search results.

Just like it has never tried to calculate whether the App Store is profitable. Phil Schiller and Eddy Cue said that Apple wasn’t putting its thumb on the scale. Rather, “the algorithm had been working properly. They simply decided to handicap themselves to help other developers.”

However, the Epic trial has revealed an e-mail from Tim Sweeney reporting that Apple’s then-new Files app was ranking ahead of Dropbox when searching for “Dropbox.” In the replies from Apple employees, we learn from Debankur Naskar, the lead for “SEO experiences in the App Store”:

I think the Files app was manually boosted on the top for the query “Dropbox” during last WWDC. We are removing the manual boost and the search results should be more relevant now[…]

It would be nice if we could chalk this up to one rogue employee, but the e-mails show that Naskar’s boss, VP Matt Fischer, didn’t admonish him for gaming the search results, but rather for doing so without first getting his approval to do so. It sure doesn’t sound like Apple has ruled out such manipulation.

Somewhere there’s probably a similar e-mail explaining Bing’s recent accidental human error.

Sean Hollister (Slashdot):

Apple tells The Verge that what we think we’re seeing in these emails isn’t quite accurate. While Apple didn’t challenge the idea that Files was unfairly ranked over Dropbox, the company says the reality was a simple mistake: the Files app had a Dropbox integration, so Apple put “Dropbox” into the app’s metadata, and it was automatically ranked higher for “Dropbox” searches as a result.

I’m slightly skeptical of that explanation — partially because it doesn’t line up with what Naskar suggests in the email, partially because Apple also told me it immediately fixed the error (despite it apparently continuing to exist for 11 months, hardly immediate), and partially because the company repeatedly ignored my questions about whether this has ever happened with other apps before.


Besides, the distinction between a “manual” boost and any other kind of boost may be purely academic. Algorithms are written by people, after all. If Apple can build a 42-factor algorithm that gives its own apps favorable results, why would it need to override that algorithm and risk its emails getting caught up in a lawsuit years from now?

It could just tweak that algorithm at will — which is exactly what it did to resolve the WSJ and NYT’s scrutiny two years ago.


Update (2021-06-13): See also: Hacker News.

Fanhouse vs. Apple

Jasmine (via Hacker News):

I cofounded @fanhouseapp 8 months ago to empower creators to monetize their content. We pay creators 90% of earnings. Now, Apple is threatening to remove Fanhouse from the app store unless we give them 30% of creator earnings.


In writing and over the phone, we explained to Apple that we could pay them 30% of our revenues (from our 10% take rate). It’ll be harder to cover costs and build features as a startup, but at least it’d be coming from us. Apple insisted on taking 30% of creators’ total earnings.


If you want to unlock features or functionality within your app, (by way of example: subscriptions, in-game currencies, game levels, access to premium content, or unlocking a full version), you must use in-app purchase. Apps may not use their own mechanisms to unlock content or functionality, such as license keys, augmented reality markers, QR codes, etc. Apps and their metadata may not include buttons, external links, or other calls to action that direct customers to purchasing mechanisms other than in-app purchase.

I don’t like this rule for many reasons, including that it makes certain business models, like selling e-books, impossible because Apple’s 30% would mean losing money on each sale. And it doesn’t seem fair for the hardware platform vendor to get a larger cut than the site/app/content platform that connected the creator and fan and delivered the content.

That said, reading the rule, it seems very clear, and I wondered why Funhouse would go to the effort of developing an app that tries to get away without using In-App Purchase when they’d only be forced to remove it.

That is, I wondered until I saw that Fanhouse’s presumably largest competitor, Patreon, gets to do it.

Jacob Kastrenakes:

Apple allows Patreon to offer third-party payment solutions for creators rather than use in-app purchases, avoiding the fee. Other apps aren’t afforded that privilege. Apple and Patreon did not respond to a request for comment on the arrangement.

Nick Heer:

I tried upgrading one of my subscriptions to a level that had entirely digital perks, and Patreon threw up its own payment form. I tried subscribing to a creator account and once again saw Patreon’s own form, not an in-app purchase dialog.

I don’t understand the distinction between Patreon and other apps that sell content. But, whatever it is, Apple seems to have agreed last year when it approved Fanhouse that it fell into the same category. Now, it’s changing its mind about Fanhouse, but presumably not about Patreon, so it’s even less clear what the rules are:

Why do big corporations that can afford to pay get the biggest breaks?

There’s also the famous rule created for WeChat:


(vii) Apps may enable individual users to give a monetary gift to another individual without using in-app purchase, provided that (a) the gift is a completely optional choice by the giver, and (b) 100% of the funds go to the receiver of the gift. However, a gift that is connected to or associated at any point in time with receiving digital content or services must use in-app purchase.

Does the 100% mean they lose money on credit card transactions? And why can you give money to other users and buy them physical goods, or buy ads from the developer of an app, but you aren’t allowed to tip the developer of the app?


Update (2021-07-02): Nilay Patel:

Patreon’s Jack Conte tell us that the company doesn’t have a special deal with Apple to avoid App Store fees… but it’s still unclear why Patreon doesn’t have to pay, while others do.

Settlement for AppleCare Privacy Invasion

spencerdailey (via Hacker News):

Back in 2018, I encountered what I’d consider the cardinal sin of opsec by an Apple store employee. He asked me to disable my Mac’s password before I turned it in for a multi-day off-site repair. The casual manner in which he asked me led me to assume this was not the first time he had pushed this question, and that it was a common practice at this store (Barton Creek Mall in south Austin, for those who care).

Apple customers already place a great deal of trust in repair technicians who have the user’s password, but disabling it for logging in means everyone who handles or has physical access to the device could trivially steal data from it or install malware on it. A Mac going offsite gets handled by several intermediaries, not just the technicians.

The only safe option is to make several backups and then erase the device before getting it repaired.

Benjamin Mayo (Hacker News, also: MacRumors):

Apple has settled a case with a 21-year-old student after she sent her iPhone to a repair facility in 2016 only to find that employees had uploaded personal explicit images and videos to her Facebook account from the phone during the repair process.

The student had sent in her iPhone to Apple to get repaired. The invasion of privacy ultimately took place at a repair center in California, run by Pegatron, an Apple contractor. The Telegraph reports Apple paid out millions in settlement compensation.

2016, meaning that this lawsuit was already well underway when Apple’s lobbyist recently argued against independent repair shops on the grounds that its own repair service offered better privacy.

Kevin Purdy:

This kind of arrangement isn’t unusual. In fact, large companies almost always outsource repair and servicing to third parties. But it is also not something they readily acknowledge when they’re arguing against right to repair laws. And for good reason. As it turns out: the incidence of misdeeds by employees at authorized service providers are actually pretty common – and certainly no less common than independent repair shops. In 2019, for example, an Apple Genius Bar employee was caught texting intimate photos of a customer to himself under the guise of helping her with a repair. The same thing happened in 2016 at an Apple Store in Brisbane, Australia.

Also, there is lots of evidence that, far from emphasizing quality of service, OEMs work to spend as little as possible on authorized repair. Note the 2019 ICE raid on a Texas-based Samsung authorized repair provider CVE Technology that discovered undocumented workers performing authorized repair on Samsung devices.

In fact, when asked directly at the 2019 FTC Nix the Fix symposium whether there was any data to support industry’s contention that authorized repair is either higher quality or more secure than independent repair, Walter Alcorn of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) admitted straight out that there was none.


iOS 15 Weather App

Tim Hardwick:

Apple today at WWDC revealed a new iOS weather app with additional features, like full-screen maps and live weather notifications. The new app includes many features similar to Dark Sky, which Apple acquired last year.


There’s also new animated backgrounds that more accurately reflect the sun’s position and precipitation, and notifications highlight when rain or snow starts and stops.

This looks much improved, though I’m not sure yet whether it will win me over.

Chance Miller:

One of the headlining changes in the iOS 15 Weather app is the interface. It features an all-new design that changes based on the current conditions in your area. For example, if it’s raining outside or there is rain coming soon, the app will adjust its layout to show the hourly forecast, next-hour precipitation, and the radar at the top.

On the other hand, if there’s no rain in your area, the app focuses on the 10-day forecast and current conditions at the top, and pushes other things such as the radar towards the bottom.

I hope it’s not like the Mac Weather widget, where the 5-day forecast—yes, Macs only get half as many days—completely disappears when it’s currently raining.

Sadly, despite the new Weather app being written using the cross-platform SwiftUI, it won’t be coming to iPadOS or macOS this year. The Translate app, introduced in iOS 14, still isn’t available for Mac, either.


Update (2021-10-21): Federico Viticci:

The daily forecast at the top of the screen now features a contextual summary of what you should expect for the rest of the day; the 10-day forecast below it is more spaced out and features redesigned weather symbols along with colored bars to indicate low and high temperatures for each day, both of which I like.


If you’re seeing a bar next to today’s weather colored in yellow, red, blue, or green lines, it essentially tells you the temperature range for the day.


In case you’re wondering what is the temperature range for a particular day in your region, you need to first understand what range each of the colors indicated inside the Weather app corresponds to.


An overview of these color codes will also appear when you open a location’s Temperature Index.


For days where the temperature range is shorter than the range expected for the next 10 days, their bars will be shorter.

This is cute, but I find it less usable than simply showing the temperatures throughout the day, as in Weather Line, Weather Strip, and Yahoo Weather. Also, unlike those apps, Apple’s Weather doesn’t show preciptation times more than a day ahead.

Live Text

Tim Hardwick:

In iOS 15, Apple is introducing a new feature called Live Text that can recognize text when it appears in your camera’s viewfinder or in a photo you’ve taken and let you perform several actions with it.

For example, Live Text allows you to capture a phone number from a storefront with the option to place a call, or look up a location name in Maps to get directions. It also incorporates optical character recognition, so you can search for a picture of a handwritten note in your photos and save it as text.

This looks really cool. I find it hard to believe that Intel Macs aren’t fast enough to support it, though. And why doesn’t it work in Preview?


Update (2021-06-18): Kawaljit Singh Bedi:

macOS Monterey OCR works on captchas also.

Update (2021-07-27): Sami Fathi:

The latest beta update of macOS Monterey, released to developers today, has brought Live Text functionality to Intel-based Mac computers, removing the requirement for users to use an M1 Apple silicon Mac to utilize the feature, according to Rene Ritchie.