iPhone X and the Apple “access economy”

Yesterday, Apple introduced a new wrinkle to its annual iPhone release strategy. A select handful of YouTube vloggers were invited to an undisclosed New York location, where they received exclusive hands-on time with the iPhone X. The embargo for posting their impressions dropped yesterday morning—a full day before the wider press was permitted to post their prerelease reviews.

On the one hand, it’s tempting to celebrate this approach as an elevation of the “little guys” over the tech press juggernauts. It’s fun to see YouTube personalities, with their minimal budgets and one-person productions, outscoop media institutions with million-dollar studios and conglomerate-backed financial resources. And for the YouTubers themselves, getting this exclusive was undoubtedly a huge (and valuable) thrill.

“Why these outlets?”

But the “pre-embargo embargo” left many Apple watchers scratching their heads. What is Apple’s underlying strategy here? Do these vloggers have more influence over key demographics than the mainstream press? Do their voices better align with Apple’s target customer base of young creatives?

A more cynical take crossed my mind. Apple may have selected these YouTube channels in part because of their relative obscurity. For a little-known vlogger, an exclusive iPhone X hands-on represents a huge opportunity—a chance to grow their audience exponentially. In other words, there’s a serious power differential here, with the advantage lying entirely on Apple’s side. In the week before an iPhone’s release, Apple is the kingmaker.

Even if Apple didn’t specify editorial conditions in exchange for access, wouldn’t the YouTubers feel pressured to hew to the provided talking points? Wouldn’t airing iPhone X grievances feel like biting the hand that feeds you? Might you be hesitant to level pointed criticism at the X, for fear of not getting similar access next time?

Insidious incentives

These concerns don’t just apply to Youtubers. The “Apple access economy” incentivizes problematic journalism throughout the entire tech press. Let’s break it down:

On the one side, we have Apple, shrouded in secrecy, strategically distributing (or withholding) invitations to its product marketing events and its prerelease review units. These baubles go to an exclusive, hand-selected subset of journalists (or, in this case, enthusiastic YouTube influencers).[1]

For these reviewers—whether writers, podcasters, or vloggers—such access is insanely valuable. Apple content drives more traffic than any other tech topic, and exclusive Apple content generates exponentially more clicks for creators’ channels and sites.

It seems natural that a reviewer blessed with access would want to receive the same privilege the next time Apple announces a similar device. Here’s the key question, then: do some Apple reviewers soften their reviews in an attempt to retain their level of access? Do those “inside the circle” tamp down their criticism in order to stay in the circle? Does the mere existence of this perverse incentive threaten to undermine journalistic integrity in the tech sphere?

It’s hard to discuss this topic without sounding accusatory. To be fair, many tech press members espouse and hold to strict journalistic principles. And the vloggers who posted their “first looks” yesterday don’t deserve to have their integrity questioned; their impressions were largely positive–even exuberant–but that may result more from stylistic decisions than from any sort of nefarious bias.

Still, the “Apple access economy” deserves more scrutiny. The insidious incentive exists, even if reviewers manage to keep it from dampening their criticism. ■

  1. Apple’s not unique in this practice—except in that access to Apple is disproportionately valuable (compared to Samsung, Amazon, Google, or Microsoft).  ↩

Apple Culture

iPhone X and hidden fiddly bits

Steven Levy of Wired published his initial thoughts on the iPhone X this morning. Most interesting to me were his brief reflections on what the device means:

After a few days with the iPhone X, I can begin to make out its themes. It’s a step towards fading the actual physical manifestation of technology into a mist where it’s just there — a phone that’s “all screen,” one that turns on simply by seeing you, one that removes the mechanics of buttons and charging cables.

In this way, the X continues an ongoing transition—from a world where tech is exposed and obvious (think about the rat’s nest of cables behind your average PC workstation) to a world where technology is more like plumbing—essential and life-changing, yes, but invisible to the average consumer.

Everywhere you look, the tech industry is killing off its “fiddly bits.” Our mobile devices—and most of our laptops—now routinely trade user serviceability for thinness and simplicity. Wireless display standards (e.g. Miracast and AirPlay) have gone mainstream. Even die-hard CAT–5 apologists have accepted wifi’s ubiquity.

Given this trajectory, some future iPhone will inevitably ditch all ports, buttons, and visible sensors, leaving behind only the screen and the surrounding chassis. It will be beautiful, glossy—and permanently sealed.

We’re not there yet, of course. Even in the bleeding-edge iPhone X, the tech hasn’t yet receded beyond our view. Consider: Apple’s flagship isn’t actually “all screen,” thanks to its controversial sensor unibrow. Its “wireless” charging isn’t “wireless” at all (unless you ignore the cable snaking its way from power outlet to inductive mat). And based on Levy’s account, FaceID doesn’t work quite as automatically as one might hope.

Still, even these faltering baby steps are pointed in a clear direction. Tinkering with our tech hardware is a hobby whose days may be numbered. ■


iPhone X, ordered.

Note: I’m flying across the country today, but I wanted to jot down a few quick thoughts:

For weeks now, Apple enthusiasts have fretted about the limited availability of the iPhone X on blogs, podcasts, and Twitter. Based on their warnings–and based on leaks to mainstream publications about poor parts yield rates, I had expected it would be difficult, if not impossible, to order phones online tonight.

Happily, both of our orders–64GB models in white and space gray for my wife and me–went through smoothly. The Apple Store portal (accessed via the app on my current iPhone) sprung to life around 12:02 PT, and I was done with both orders three minutes later. I even, somehow, ended up with an extra “hold my place in line” reservation number, even though my two orders went through cleanly. I plan to release that reservation as soon as Apple chat support comes back online; somebody out there will be happy when that reserved phone gets reallocated.

Anecdotally, buying the X felt no different than previous iPhone preorder nights. In fact, it might have been the easiest preorder purchase I’ve ever made.

That’s not to say I enjoyed the process, though. Buying the iPhone X ruined a full night of sleep; between the mad dash, the time pressure, and the uncertainty, the preorder flooded my body with adrenaline. There was zero possibility of getting any rest after that point. It’s going to be a long day.

There’s another downside to preordering: the post-purchase, puritanical guilt. While I’ve posted again and again and again and again about justifying frequent iPhone upgrades, spending that much money still makes my palms sweat. In fact, I even returned my first iPhone purchase—the iPhone 4—soon after buying, because I felt so torn about dropping that much cash on a phone. The iPhone X’s sky-high sticker price only amplifies that feeling. Hopefully, the device retains its resale value, so that we can recoup at least some of its price premium when we upgrade next time.

Speaking of resale, there’s one last anxiety-provoking stage to the preorder process: reselling our current phones. It takes time to do it right: both iPhones need a thorough, detailed cleaning (a toothbrush is a helpful tool), there are glamour photos to snap, and I’ll likely list both devices on multiple online resale portals. If we’re lucky, we’ll clear $400+ for both phones–a significant saving step towards next year’s inevitable (?) upgrade. ■


Trailers for trailers

I’ve loved movie trailers since my earliest days on the web. As a teenager, I would wait impatiently for postage-stamp-sized previews to download over dial-up. In college, Apple’s trailers site was a daily visit, despite its reliance on the clunky QuickTime player.

Now, decades later, I still adore trailers, but the medium and its surrounding tech have matured. Full HD trailers download almost instantly—even over my DSL connection. The average trailer’s quality has improved, too—it’s less a sloppy afterthought and more a carefully-planned salvo in a months-long marketing campaign.

One recent change to the medium sticks out. Many action-heavy trailers now begin with a stinger—a 4–5 second preview of the trailer’s most exciting scenes, stitched together with fast cuts and scored with a cacophony of rising sound effects. It’s literally a “trailer for the trailer”:

I don’t really understand this trend. “Nano-trailers” make sense on social media; quick cuts catch a user’s eye as she scrolls through Instagram. But why do studios tack nano-trailers onto the trailers themselves? Are viewers more likely to watch the entire preview if the pre-trailer piques their interest? Are we so attention-poor that we can’t wait for a two-minute trailer to slow-boil?

And what’s next? Where does this trend lead? Will we eventually see trailers for trailers for trailers? A half-second megaclip with 12 single-frame smash cuts, scored with a single BWWWWAAAAAP?

My head hurts. ■

  1. Film strip artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.


Hotel wifi is the worst

I’m traveling for work this week, which means I have a cheery room at a generally pleasant extended-stay suite hotel. The accommodations are clean, the breakfast is reasonably tasty, and the amenities are generous—with one exception: the hotel wifi.

Speed tests on my internet connection peg at 5Mbps downstream or so—embarrasingly slow for this tech-centric city. The network also forces me to reauthenticate multiple times each day—an unwelcome reminder that the connection is locked down. Yes, as I’m repeatedly nagged, I can upgrade to “premium” internet service for $5 a day, but I refuse to pay three times more for a connection that’s noticeably slower and flakier than what I enjoy at home—in the mountains of rural Appalachia.

Why do hotels still nickel and dime their guests when it comes to connectivity? Don’t they know that every guest has an LTE modem in her pocket, and that we’ll fall back to it at the slightest sign of trouble?

Funnily enough, the internet service seems to get worse as the hotels get nicer. This past weekend, I crashed at a $75-per-night hotel in a sketchy neighborhood. Overall, the experience wasn’t great: a breakfast overloaded with processed carbs, pungent whiffs of weed in the halls, and a cigarette-burned bedspread were among the highlights. But the internet at that dive easily beat the pants off what I have at this business-class hotel. Speeds were snappy, and authentication was easy.

I’m not sure why cheap hotels offer better connections. It’s as if hotels have resigned themselves to the fact that value-conscious clientele won’t pay extra for things that ought to be complimentary. By contrast, those customers for whom the experience is paramount might surrender five bucks for convenience’s sake.

But as someone in the middle—a value-conscious and picky guest—I resent the “freemium” hotel internet model. ■

  1. Suitcase and wifi artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.


The maddening glitch in the “Breathe” app on Apple Watch

Last year, Apple added ‘Breathe’ to watchOS 3. This simple app invites the user to pause for mindful meditation, bringing attention to the breath for a few minutes at a time. The exercise is accompanied by a slick little animation: translucent teal circles that expand and contract along with your breathing’s steady rhythm.

Animation start and end frames
The first and last frames of the Breathe app’s animation. I’ve bumped up the contrast here to make the difference easier to see.

I like Breathe, but the animation has an annoying little hiccup. At the very end of every breath, the graphic resets to prep for the next inhale/exhale cycle. Watch the contracted circles at that point, and you’ll notice the glitch: a jarring ‘jump cut’ from one gradient fill to another.

Yes, it’s a subtle niggle. But once you see it, you can’t unsee it. After all, we’re talking about an app that requires you to focus intently; any distraction, no matter how small, is magnified by close attention. I notice the cut with every breath. It’s a distraction that undermines the very focus the app is designed to foster. It as if the air catches in my lungs.

It wouldn’t take much to fix this; even a linear fade between the last frame and the first would ease the animated transition. But, so far, there’s been no sign that Apple has even noticed the problem; the choppy cut’s still there in watchOS 4. ■

Culture Tech

I’m a bad Uber rider

I’m traveling for work this week, and yesterday, I needed a ride from the airport to a hotel near a client campus. Enter Uber, a service I hadn’t used since January.

I’d like to claim that I deleted the app after Uber’s misogynistic “bro” culture was exposed earlier this year. But my long hiatus was really just due to the fact that I can’t use it where I live (in rural West Virginia). And when I found myself needing a lift yesterday, Uber was the path of least resistance. I didn’t have Lyft installed, and I didn’t want to bother tracking down a reputable taxi service.

So, although I felt a twinge of guilt, I requested an Uber ride. Less than two minutes after tapping the button, a silver Prius rolled up. I heaved my suitcase into its trunk and slid into the backseat. Off we went.

After a few minutes of small talk, the driver asked a question that took me by surprise. “Man, why’s your Uber rating so low? You seem fine.”

I was confused. “‘So low’?” I repeated. “What do you mean?” This was only my tenth Uber trip—ever. How could my rating be low? The driver explained that my score was 4.33 (out of a possible 5). That didn’t seem too bad; wasn’t that a solid B? I said as much, and the driver shook his head ruefully. “Nah, man. That’s a really bad rating.”

Doubt and cynicism set in. Was this some headgame that drivers play to pry tips out of their passengers? As we continued to chat, I whipped out my phone and checked Google: “What is a low Uber passenger rating?” It turns out, my driver was spot on. Any passenger score below 4.5 is a red flag in the Uber world.

My skepticism was replaced with anxiety. Why did past Uber drivers rate me so low? I had thought I was a model Uber citizen; I had never forced a driver to wait. I don’t drink, so riding while hammered wasn’t a worry. I had never slammed a door or tracked in mud. Why didn’t they like me? Was I oblivious to my own obnoxiousness? Did I have a subpar personality?

Maybe. But, after more Googling and reflection, I think my low score reflects my fundamental misunderstanding of the service. I didn’t even realize I had a passenger rating. I thought that Uber was a one-way street, like any customer-to-merchant business. I had failed to grasp that Uber is a network, not a service. It’s not a company that I pay to deliver me across town. It’s a connection concierge; I pay Uber to connect me to drivers. That’s a subtle distinction, but failure to grasp it led to some embarrassing mistakes:

For example, before yesterday, I had never tipped an Uber driver. That may make me sound like cheap jerk; forgive my n00b status. I didn’t even know that Uber tipping was a thing. When I last used the service, tips hadn’t been added to the app. I assumed that one major appeal of the ride-sharing revolution was that Uber discouraged gratuities, instead bundling my tip into its fare. This cashless economy is great, I thought. Who wants to carry a wad of small bills in his pocket, anyways?

I was wrong. Uber drivers expect tips. It seems likely that I earned a one-star review or two by walking away without slipping my driver a fiver.

A second mistake I made as an Uber rookie? I underrated my drivers. On several past trips, I rated the ride like a restaurant on Yelp—i.e., honestly. If the car smelled gross or the driver was too chatty, I withheld a star or two. In fact, most of the ratings I had given before yesterday were less than five stars. That seemed fair; I mean, 4/5 is still pretty good, right?

Wrong. Drivers prize their Uber rating, and scores under five are reserved for disastrous service. Like it or not, grade inflation has spilled over into the gig economy; everybody wants an A.

It’s at least possible that my past drivers noticed when I gave them less than five stars; they might have marked me down in revenge.

Whatever the reason for my subpar rating, I’m now uber-conscious of how drivers see me, and I’m determined to do everything I can to earn a perfect score on each drive. My new philosophy is simple: drivers get five stars if I don’t die en route. And I plan to tip everyone, regardless of the level of service I receive.

Yes, this effectively makes Uber’s review system meaningless. The Prius yesterday reeked of cheap cologne and boasted mysterious stains (what causes an inch-wide white blotch on a headrest? Do I want to know?). But I’m too terrified of getting down-rated to make my displeasure known.

On yesterday’s trip, at least, my newly-enlightened dishonesty worked. A few minutes after checking into my hotel, I checked Uber again; my score had ticked up to a more-respectable 4.4. I’m officially a little less of a jerk. ■

Culture Tech

Inflight entertainment and technophobia

Inflight entertainment was once a lifeline on commercial jets. Drop-down TVs made all the difference between a bearable multihour flight and an absolute hellslog. Even Will & Grace reruns, played back on a tiny, faded CRT three rows away, were a welcome distraction from the cramped discomfort of the average domestic flight.

The rise of mobile personal devices has changed things. Once, a personal LCD viewscreen with live satellite TV would have seemed like an unimaginable luxury. These days, I switch off that headrest screen without a second thought; I’d rather watch content I like, downloaded onto my own devices.

The airlines have noticed this change—more and more passengers ignoring the cabin-wide entertainment—and they’re updating their planes in response. Why bother with expensive entertainment hardware if people won’t use it. Some jets have even ditched the screens altogether, moving to onboard wifi as a means of distributing movies to customers’ personal devices.

That’s all well and good for digital natives, who can jump through the requisite hoops. I love having a library of recent releases to stream. But the move away from shared entertainment on flights isn’t as welcome for those who struggle with tech—or who don’t have their own smartphone or tablet.

My mother is a good example. As the airlines have shifted away from built-in screens, she’s left without anything to watch. She’s not familiar enough with her cheap Android smartphone to connect to the inflight streaming library. Consider the dance required: download the airline’s app before boarding, enable airplane mode, re-enable wifi, open the settings app, connect to the network, etc., etc. That’s a familiar dance for the young and nerdy; for her, it’s an insurmountable wall. She resigns herself to boredom, sitting quietly through interminable transcontinental flights.

The airlines ought to accommodate edge cases like my mom’s. A little tech support could go a long way on planes without in-cabin screens. Why not invite tech-averse passengers to press the call button to receive help navigating their devices? The steward staff would receive baseline training for Android and iOS—just enough to help get customers connected.

Maybe that’s an unreasonable added burden for an already-overworked inflight staff. And maybe there are too many technophobes onboard the average flight to offer that sort of concierge-level hand-holding.

If so, the airlines probably shouldn’t have removed the shared screens in the first place. ■


Should I feel bad about blocking ads?

As Internet ad-blockers have grown more popular, online publishers have gotten aggressive—even passive-aggressive—about fighting back.

Frequently, after following a Twitter link, I’m greeted by a pre-content pop-up, explaining how the publication’s ad-funded business model works. “Please whitelist us,” the message begs, “so that we can continue delivering great content for you.” Sometimes, this plea can be dismissed; too often, it prevents viewing the content until I manually disable my ad-blocking extension.

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to journalism’s plight. As the newspaper business has collapsed, online revenue hasn’t closed the gap. Ad blockers represent a real threat, since a blocked ad will never get clicked. Fewer clicks leads to lower ad rates—and fewer well-paid creatives.

But despite the publishers’ predicament, and despite their interstitial pleas, I don’t feel guilty enough to voluntarily view ads. I’ll keep running ad blockers as long as they work, for two reasons:

  • I never click on ads, anyways. As far as I know, I have literally never clicked on a web ad—at least not intentionally. If these sites and advertisers are using clicks as their metric, my ad-blocker shouldn’t affect them (right?).
  • If web marketers are measuring views (instead of clicks), my ad blocker could have an impact. But I don’t feel obligated to surrender my attention just because I clicked a link. Ads undermine my focus and squat in my imagination long after I navigate away from a page. As I’ve written before, I consider that headspace to be sacred. Whatever responsibility I have to “pay” for articles with my attention is outweighed by my obligation to be present for those around me.

Of course, somebody’s got to pay for good content. As the ad-blocking arms race continues, I may eventually be forced to either a) buy premium, paywall-bypassing memberships or b) accept the degraded attention caused by overexposure to advertising.

Given these two options, I know which I’d choose. Heck, I’d pay anything to never see this on the web:

  1. Eyeball artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.


Only monsters speed up podcasts

Most modern podcast clients let listeners speed up playback, and the resulting audio is surprisingly decent. The pitch doesn’t shift (remember the “Chipmunks effect”?), and the average podcaster is still intelligible.

Faster playback gives listeners time for more podcasts—a welcome perk, since the library of available shows continues to grow exponentially. As the market explodes, faster playback seems like a no-brainer: more great conversations, no additional time commitment. What’s not to like?

My advice? Don’t do it. Keep that playback speed locked at 1x. While you’re at it, turn off clever features like Overcast’s “Smart Speed”, which saves time by cropping out silence.

Yes, enabling these options saves you time, but they have nasty side effects better left avoided. Consider:

  • Fast playback discourages thoughtful listening. Artful speakers use long pauses and measured cadences very intentionally. By slowing down, they give the audience time to sit with an intriguing idea, to chew on a tough concept, or to ask introspective questions. You lose all that by artificially rushing past the quiet.
  • Fast playback makes you a worse speaker. Because we spend so much time with them, podcasters have become our models for normal human speech. If your favorite podcast’s hosts are chattering away at 2x, your own speaking cadence will likely speed up, too. You might not notice the difference, but others will. “Why is Matt talking like a crazy person?”
  • Fast playback accommodates overconsumption and busyness. Podcast accleration treats the symptom without addressing the underlying cause. Solve the real problem: you’re too busy. If you can’t get through your podcast queue at 1x, consider paring down your list instead of rushing through it.

Of course, as a podcaster, I’m conflicted here. On the one hand, I want my listeners to hear my normal speaking cadence. On the other, if fast playback gives them time to catch today’s episode of Careful Tech? Who am I to judge? Accelerate away. ■

  1. Bunny and headphones artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.